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´╗┐Title: The Buttoned Sky
Author: Reynard, Geoff St.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Buttoned Sky" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                           THE BUTTONED SKY

                         By Geoff St. Reynard

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Imagination Stories of
Science and Fantasy August 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


     Legends spoke of Earth's glorious past, of freedom and greatness.
     But this was the future, ruled by god-globes, as men gazed
     fearfully at--THE BUTTONED SKY



CHAPTER I

    The squire he sat in Dolfya Town,
      He swilled the blood-dark wine:
    "O who can blight my happiness,

    Then up there spoke his daughter fair:
      "The priest can end your joy;
    The globe can sap your might away,
      And the Mink can you destroy!"

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


The day that Revel killed a god, he woke early. There was a bitter taste
in his mouth, and a pain in his ear where somebody'd hit him during a
shebeen brawl the night before. He rolled over on his back. The bed was
a hollowed place in the earth floor, filled with leaves and dried grass
and spread with yellow-brown mink skins sewn into a big blanket; he'd
slept on it every night of his twenty-eight years, but this morning it
felt hard and uncomfortable.

The water gourd was empty. In the cold gray mists of dawn he groped his
way sleepily to the well behind the hut, and drew up the bucket.

"Damn the gentry!" he burst out. The bucket, an ancient thing made of
oak slats pegged together with wooden dowels, was half filled with dirt
and rotten brush. "Curse their lousy carcasses to hell!" he yelled, and,
suddenly scared, looked around to see if perhaps a god was floating
somewhere near him. But no yellow glimmering showed in the mists.

Laboriously he cleaned out the well, dropping the bucket time after time
and dragging up loads of trash. Some roving band of gentry had fouled
the water for sport. Anything that hurt the ruck, made them more work or
injured them in any way, was sport for the squirarchy.

At last he got a bucket of cold and almost clean water, filled the big
gourd and carried it back to the one-room hut. The morning that had
begun badly was getting worse; his mother's limp was painful to see; she
must have had a hard night. Bent and gray and as juiceless as the grass
of their beds, she slept more lightly and fretfully with every passing
month. Many years before a squire had ridden her down in the lanes of
Dolfya Town, as she scurried out of the path of his great stallion, and
her broken leg had mended crookedly. A few hours on the mink-covered bed
crippled her up so that moving was an agony.

With the impious brain at the center of his skull--Revel had long before
decided that he had a number of brains, one obedient, one rebellious,
one dull, one keen and inquisitive, and so on--with the impious brain he
now cursed the gods and the gentry and the priests, and everyone above
the ruck who preyed on them and made their lives so stinking awful. If
he had thought then of killing a god, the idea would have seemed
pleasant indeed. But quite impossible, of course, for a man of the ruck
did not touch a god, much less slay one.

He did not think of such a thing, but cursed the gods briefly and then
turned off his impious brain and began to wolf down his food. He paid no
attention to what he ate--it was the same old bread of wild barley
seeds, the same old boiled rabbit.

When he finished, he glanced at his mother, feeling sorry for her,
wishing that she would go to the shebeens with him and have at least a
little happiness before she died. He wondered if she had ever known any
joy, any hope such as he had in drunken flashes now and then of belief
that life might some day be better for the ruck. He shook his head,
grabbed his miner's pick, booted his brother in the ribs to waken him,
and left the miserable hut to walk to the mine for his day's work.

The day was brightening, and above him in concentric circles to the
horizon and beyond hovered the eternal red and blue buttons. He looked
up grimly. Always there, in all the spoken history of man, stretched
above the world to keep watch on every action of the ruck. The buttons
were full of gods, omnipotent, omnipresent.

The mine was a mile from his hut, which lay on the outskirts of Dolfya.
It was halfway down a long valley, a gut between hills pitted with many
other mines. There coal was dug for the gentry and the priests. He
walked up to the entrance, gave his name telepathically to the god-guard
at the top of the shaft, and went down the ladders until he'd reached
his level. Another god passed him there, its aura of energy just
touching his skin and tingling it into small bumps.

       *       *       *       *       *

Shutting off the thoughts of his various brains from any probing mind
that might be eavesdropping, he said to himself, Always, always they're
near a man! You go out of your hut and there's a god, a big golden globe
hanging in the air shoving its tentacles at you and reading your mind.
You come down the mine shaft and every hundred feet or so you see the
yellow luminosity. Why can't they leave us alone! Why can't they stick
to their temples, and exact their worship on Orbsday, instead of all
week long, all day long, every day in the year!

He came to his work place, a dead-end tunnel. Jerran was there before
him, as usual. Revel grinned at him. Jerran was a runty wisp of a man,
with a face the color of old straw, and he had been Revel's friend since
the day he came to the mine from distant Hakes Town by the sea. A
wonderful drinking companion, Jerran, but he wouldn't brawl ... strange!
He was forever pulling Revel out of fights and trying to teach him
serenity.

As Revel greeted him, he involuntarily glanced at the end of the tunnel.
There, behind a carefully casual erection of boulders, lay their secret
cave. They'd broken into it the morning before, and after no more than a
hasty glimpse of unknown wonders, and a check to see that no globes were
in sight, they'd walled up the opening and begun to dig along the
shaft's sides. Revel wasn't quite sure why he had followed Jerran's lead
in keeping it secret, but the brain which had decided to do it must be
the rebellious one. All secrets were taboo to the ruck, who were
required to report all finds to the gentry or the god-guards.

Now a globe came drifting down the corridor, and Revel got quickly to
work, prying coal from a vein with his pick. The thing passed him,
flicking his mind lightly with its own, and went on to the end of the
tunnel. He watched it from the tail of his eye. Its glow brightened with
interest; it shifted back and forth before the rampart of rocks.

They hadn't kept a tight enough check on their excitement yesterday! The
globes could sense emotions long after the man who'd had them left a
spot, and if the emotion were anger or grief or strong excitement, the
globes could detect their residue as much as forty-eight hours later.

The thing floated back to them, briskly now, and ordered Revel
telepathically to pull down some of the rocks at the end.

He eyed it coolly, his various brains walled with the protective screen
that he had learned to erect between his thoughts and the outside world.
This screen was made of shallow ideas, humdrum speculations on prosaic
things--the last woman he'd had, the good feeling he got from working
this rich vein of coal after some days of poor luck, even (to make the
god think it was hearing secret desires) a wish that he might taste the
wine that the gentry drank. He could throw up the screen and forget it,
using his core of brains for serious plans.

A dozen rocks displaced, he thought, and we're doomed. For not telling
the gods about the cave, he and Jerran would be given to the squires for
the next big hunt.

So, without much hope of living through the next minute, but believing
it was the only thing he could do now, he shoved Jerran to one side,
raised his pick and slammed it with all his might into the center of the
small, gold, eight-tentacled sphere.

And Revel had killed a god!

The feel of the pick slashing through it told him that: it was like
hitting an overripe melon. The globe recoiled, dragged itself off the
pick, and sank toward the floor, wobbling and dripping yellow ooze, with
its aura of energy fading quickly into air. Jerran said quietly, "No
others in sight. We're lucky!" and began to make a hole in a pile of
discarded rocks. "Help me hide it, Revel."

"You can't hide it," he said dully. "They're telepathic, after all. It
must have signaled its consorts."

"They can't hear or send messages through rock," said Jerran, working
away. Revel automatically started to help him.

"How do you know?"

"We've proved it."

Revel heard the phrase, wondered who "we" might be; but so much had
happened in the last seconds that he did not question Jerran. He
couldn't absorb all the shattering facts. A man could not only touch a
god, he could murder it! The gods were not all-powerful, for they could
not perform telepathy if rock were in the way. Truly it was a morning of
wonders. The world was falling around him.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stared at the limp corpse of the globe. The tentacles were already
shriveling up, the emanation of energy that surrounded the living orbs
was gone. He bent, sniffed; no odor. He peered at it keenly, in the soft
blue light of the mine's lanterns, then straightened.

A hand fell on his shoulder.

He spun on one heel, the pick arcing round to gut whoever was behind
him. He had a glimpse of a short red beard and a popping walleye, and
stopped his whirl by an instantaneous checking of his whole muscular
system. The pick's point, still splattered with god's gore, was nudging
his brother's belly.

"Nobody could have halted such a swing but you, Revel," said Rack
absently. His good eye, ice blue and sharp as a bone needle, was fixed
on the dead globe. "What happened?"

"An accident," said Jerran. "The god interposed itself between your
brother's pick and the coal."

"That's right," said Revel. He had been lying to his brother for years,
but he never grew reconciled to it; still, Rack was a man with but one
brain, and that one servile and obedient to every whim of the gentry,
the priests, the gods. So he had to be lied to.

Rack brought his gaze to Revel's tense face. "I got in the way of your
pick," he said heavily. "You have the keenest nerves, the strongest body
in the mines. This was no accident."

Revel began to grow cold in the head and the bowels. If Rack was
convinced that he'd slain the god on purpose, then he'd report him. The
religion that held the world so tightly was greater than any family
bonds. He looked up at Rack. The man was a giant towering four inches
over Revel's six feet one, and sixty pounds heavier. Rack's eyes were
blue and white, Revel's lustrous brown; the elder's hair and beard were
flame-colored, the younger had a sleek chocolate-brown thatch with a
hint of rich black in its sheen, and was clean-shaven.

I'd hate to kill you, big man, thought Revel, but if I must, to save my
neck, I will.

Jerran thrust his pick under the flaccid corpse and tossed it with one
quick motion into the hole. He piled rocks on it, as Revel stamped the
yellow ichor out thin and stringy, spread rock dust and jetty coal
fragments over it till no sign of the murder remained.

"I'll report it," said Rack, apparently making up his mind.

"Then I'll say you did it," snapped Jerran, turning on him like a mouse
baiting a bear. "What chance would you stand in the temple against me,
whose cousin serves in the mansion of Ewyo of Dolfya?"

It was true, Jerran was slightly higher in the ruck than the brothers,
being related to a servant of the gentry. Revel hoped Rack would be
scared off by the threat. He had become perfectly cold now and could in
the blinking of an eyelash bury his pick in Rack's head, but he didn't
want to do it.

When Rack said nothing, Revel spoke. "Brother, agree to hold your
tongue, or by Orb, I'll cut you down where you stand!"

Rack glanced at his own pick. "You could do it," he acknowledged.
"You're fast enough. All right. I promise." He turned to his work
stolidly; only Revel could see that he was blazing with anger.

The three began to dig coal from the wall. Revel kept glancing at the
small Jerran. What was there to the man that he had never suspected? How
did he know that globes were stymied by rock? Why had he taken the death
of the god so lightly?

_What was Jerran, anyhow?_



CHAPTER II

    The squire has gathered all his kin,
      To hunt the fox so sly;
    'Tis not a beast with paws and brush,
      But a man like you or I!

    They hunt him down the thorny glen,
      And up the hillside dark;
    "O hear him gasp and hear him sob,
      Whenas our hounds do bark!"

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


When Revel was due for a rest space, he went through the blue-tinged
dusk of the mine, cleaned his arms and face at the washers, scrubbing
the coal dust from his big hands, and climbed the ladders, up and up,
till day shone in his face.

He stood beneath the cross-beam of the entrance, sucking in clean air.
The red and blue buttons shone in the sun; far down the valley a globe
passed between trees, bent on some private business. Another floated by
him into the mine; under it trotted a zanph, one of the ugly beasts,
six-legged and furry with the head of a great snake, that followed the
globes and sometimes attacked men on orders from the hovering gods.

Would the deities discover that one was missing? If they found the
corpse, he and Jerran would be foxes for the gentry....

Revel was a man of the ruck. The ruck was millions and millions of
souls, faceless, without rights; Revel had some little protection, more
than most others, being a miner and therefore important to the gentry.
The gentry numbered thousands, and they had many rights--owning great
estates, lighting their homes with candles, drinking wine legally,
keeping fierce dogs and going where they pleased on big wild horses. No
man of the ruck could touch one of the gentry and live. The gentry, the
squires who owned guns and hunted men three times a week, men called
"foxes"--it was whispered in the illegal drinking huts, the shebeens,
that the squires had once been members of the ruck. Above there were the
priests, who had always from the dawn of time been of the priestcraft,
being born a notch lower than the gods themselves, who were the golden
globes.

"Our Orbs who dwell in the buttoned sky," said Revel aloud, and spat.
Before that day he wouldn't have dared to think of such an action.

He walked out on the shelf of rock before the mine. Something moved at
the far end of the valley, a brown and silver speck that swiftly became
a horse and rider, rocketing toward him.

It was a girl, her silver gown pulled up to the tops of her thighs so
she could sit astride; she appeared to be having trouble with her mount.
Passing beneath Revel, swearing loudly at the plunging horse, she
continued for a hundred feet, then fell in a swirl of silver cloth as
the brute reared.

Revel leaped down the rock shelf as the horse cantered away. He ran to
the girl, who lay flat on her back, long white legs bared below the
disordered gown. She was blonde, tall, beautifully slicked. No rucker
wore such clothing, or rode a bay stallion, much less looked so groomed
and cleanly; she was a squire's daughter.

As he bent down she opened eyes the shade of sunlight on gray slate.

"Lie still," he said, "you may have broken something, Lady."

Her face was scornful. "Stand back, miner," she said, recognizing his
trade from the distinctive clothing he wore "Death to you if you touch
me."

       *       *       *       *       *

A confusion of emotions was rioting in him. So much had happened
today--too much for sanity. He surrendered to madness gladly. This was
the most perfect wench he had ever seen. "Shut up," he said, and ran his
fingers over her body. "We of the ruck are expert at mending things,
Lady: bones, pots, and lives. Orbs know, you gentry have busted enough
of 'em for us. That hurt?"

She sat up, brushing her gown to her ankles as Revel took a last wistful
look at her legs. Evidently she was quite unhurt. "You'll play fox for
my father's hunt," she said coldly. "What made you do it?"

"You took a bad fall," he said lightly, wondering at his lack of fear.
Never before had he touched a squire's woman. She felt as all women
feel, her high caste couldn't be sensed in her body. "I'd sit still a
moment, if I were you." It must be the killing of the globe, he thought;
after that, any crime is possible.

"Who are you?"

"A miner," he mocked, standing. His pick was in his hand, as ever. He
thought, Should I kill her too? No sense to that, when I was only trying
to help. Or was it her body I wanted to touch? "Who's your father?"

"Ewyo of Dolfya, and his hounds will eat you for breakfast tomorrow."

Ewyo was one of the richest squires in this part of the world, and
Jerran's cousin served him. "You're Lady Nirea, then. A fine-looking
wench."

"My Orbs," she gasped, her scorn rattled by his incredible insolence.
"My Orbs above, who are you?"

"A dirty miner, who puts coal into your father's hearth but must warm
himself over smoldering peat. Why would you report me?"

"You _scum_," she said, the snarling hiss of a zanph in her voice. "Do
you remember when a brewer fell over a dog in Dolfya last year and
bumped my sister Jann? He was hunted over twelve miles before the pack
tore him to blood and rags! What do you think _you_ deserve, who dares
address me in that way, and--and fondle me?"

"Lady Nirea, if I fondled you, you'd know it," Revel said. Then, seeing
the hint of a smile on her sensuous lips, he looked up, for she seemed
to be staring over his shoulder.

From the button above them a line of globes dropped, golden globules
radiating bright energy.

_Whom the gods destroy, they first madden._ That was part of the Globate
Credo, wasn't it? Well, Revel had been gradually made mad that day, and
now, by Orbs, he'd show them something before he was destroyed!

As the first descended past him, and wrapped two tentacles under the
girl's armpits to lift her, he lifted his pick to smack it as he had the
supervising deity in the mine. He felt a tug; another globe had a
whiplash arm around his pick. Gritting teeth, he threw his tremendous
brawn into a swing, and the pick tore loose from the tentacle and
sprayed the guts out of the sphere before him. It fell on the grass
beside Nirea, an emptying sack. He slashed a second and a third,
laughing between set lips. What a way to go down--killing gods!

Then he felt a searing pain, a sudden spasm of the flesh, as though a
sword had been heated in a bonfire and laid alongside his ear.
Reflectively he ducked to earth, sprang two steps forward and spun,
rising to his full height again. One of the bulbous brutes had touched
the side of his head, its energy aura so strong at that close contact
that the hair was burned to a char and the flesh scorched.

So they could really hurt a man! He grinned with pain and defiance. If
his pick wasn't as fast as any damned floating ball, let them kill him!
He waited, crouched, keeping his eyes on them; and then they were rising
again, leaving him there in the valley with a screaming girl in a silver
gown.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerran, who had just started his own rest space, evidently, appeared on
the rock shelf and came down, walking faster than Revel had ever seen
him go. The little man came to him and, hardly glancing at Lady Nirea,
said, "Were you attacked, lad?"

"I did the attacking, when they objected to my touching this wench."

Jerran gazed up. "They're spreading out. The gentry will soon be on you,
Revel. You've got to hide."

"Where can you hide from a god?" It wasn't a hopeless tone he used, but
a kind of laughing, bantering acceptance of his doom.

"Come off it," said Jerran urgently. "You're still thinking like a
rucker."

"I am of the ruck."

"You're a rebel now, you fool! Think like one! Listen: _a man cannot
kill a god_."

"The Globate Credo," grunted Revel. "_Our Orbs are everlasting,
untouchable._ Crud! I've killed four today."

"Right. So stop fearing them and thinking they're omnipotent. _Our Orbs
see all we do._ More crud, lad! They're telepathic, adept at hypnosis,
but rock stops 'em. Get rock above you and you are safe for a while,
till I can think this over and get you some help."

"The mine!" Revel barked; to his madness, his exhilaration, was added
hope. "The secret cave, Jerran!"

"And of course," said Jerran wryly, "you have to take the woman."

Revel's jaw dropped. "Why?"

"You idiot, she just heard you say about six words too many. She'd lead
her father's pack straight to us!" Jerran evidently knew the Lady Nirea
by sight. "She knows our names, too. It's either take her or kill her."
His flinty eyes creased up. "Better kill her, at that. Less danger."

Revel looked at her. The talk of murder didn't turn a hair of that
flawlessly-wrought coiffure: she was either too sure of the gentry's
power, or too stunned by the gods' death, to be consciously frightened.

She was not stunned, for now she said, "You rabbit-brains, you filthy
grubbers, you must have lost whatever wits a rucker has. My father will
really think up something f--"

"Damn your father," said Jerran. "He eats dandelions."

"He doesn't!"

"My cousin gathers them for the old hellion," nodded Jerran. "I ought to
know. Revel, have any of those bulbous bubbles gone into the mine, that
you noticed?"

"Not yet, I've been watching."

"Good. Then get going. I'll take care of the wench."

Revel saw her lips curl slightly; she didn't believe she could be hurt,
even though she had a moment before been screaming at the death of her
gods. She was brave, or stupid, or very confident of her untouchability.
He glanced down over her body, squeezed tight by the silver gown. Her
breasts were fuller and higher than a ruck girl's, her limbs unbunched
with muscles, smooth and lovely.

"No, she doesn't die," he said. "Not unless I do." He bent and picked
her up and ran with her toward the entrance of the mine.



CHAPTER III

    The Mink he couches underground,
      Beneath the earth he lies;
    He hears the fox's mournful yell,
      And knows he must arise.

    "Too many lads have hunted been,
      Too many women slain!"
    The Mink he takes his pick in hand
      To end the gentry's reign.

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


The Lady Nirea thought a moment--she never attacked any new problem
without thinking beforehand--and then she began to struggle. This rucker
who had her over his shoulder, with a death-grip on her legs and her
head hanging down his back, was plainly insane. No man of his low
position was _ever_ insane enough to actually harm a squire's daughter;
so if she kicked and bit, he would either drop her or--

Well, it was the "or." He reached up and slapped her on the rear. Hard.
She opened her eyes wide. No one had ever before dared to touch her
there. She thought again, and bit him on the side.

He was carrying her up the rocks toward the mine now. Surely there would
be a god-guard on duty there? She had often seen one in place at the
entrance, as she rode through the valley. Yes, peering upside-down under
his arm, she saw the golden glow. Then he was shifting her a little,
setting his muscles, and--great Orbs! He struck the god full in the
middle with his miner's pick. This man, this astounding brute with
chocolate-colored hair and a body like a wild woods lion, had dared kill
four gods in as many minutes. Perhaps she shouldn't be as certain of her
inviolability as she'd been till now.

"You triple-damn fool," she said, making her voice husky so it wouldn't
squeak, "the globes are watching."

"They always are." What a strong voice the beast had.

"They see you going into the mine. D'you think you're safe here?"

"Where I'm going, there's a chance," he said. His body moved lithely
beneath her. She clutched him around the ribs as they began to descend a
ladder. Blackness, tinged with blue, lay below. She felt her scalp
prickle with terror.

The little man, Jerran, said from somewhere above, "Kill all the gods we
meet, lad; I'll hide or bring the bodies. And keep your emotions
controlled, or they'll follow our scent like zanphs on the trail of a
runaway."

"Did the globes follow us?" asked the big man, whose name was Rebel or
something like it.

"They were coming down again as I ducked in. Hurry it up."

The swift plunge into the mine speeded. She deliberately worked herself
up to silent panic, giving the gods a spoor to chase.

Now they were traveling on the level, and from the reflection of yellow,
the brisk jerk of his arm, and the pulpy squish, she knew he had met and
slain another globe. Was he inhuman, a visitor from beyond the world,
such as were told of in the ancient ballads? Certainly no man was ever
this bold!

"Here's the end," said Jerran. "Set the wench down, she can't get away.
Hurry!"

She was rudely plumped onto a pile of coal. She looked at her silver
gown and shuddered. Her flailing legs had ripped it from hem to
midthigh; the coal was staining it irrevocably.

"When I catch that horse," she thought, half aloud, "I'll beat him.
Tossing me into all this!"

       *       *       *       *       *

They were pulling down rocks from the wall; now a black hole appeared.
The small man jumped up to a boulder and snatched down a blue mine
lantern. "Take this, Revel." That was it, Revel. An odd name, a rather
nice one. The ruck ordinarily had such awful names, Jark and Dack and
Orp. Revel. Not bad. It fitted the big lusty-looking brute.

He came over. "Never mind picking me up," she said icily. "I can walk."
She peered into the hole, winced, and clambering over the rocks, losing
a heel from one of her slippers, she entered their secret cavern.

Revel climbed in after her. Jerran was already piling rocks back into
the breach. The lantern looked faint and incapable of lighting a chimney
corner, but its blue radiance was deceptive, for the farthest reaches of
the place were cast into a moonlight sort of glow. She gazed around,
unable to take it in, seeing nothing at first but giant shapes of
mystery, unknown things in stacks and in tumbled heaps, figures like
grotesque statues, all lined in rows the length and breadth of the giant
cavern.

The cave itself was square, perhaps a hundred feet to a side. It must
have taken scores of miners months of work to hew it out of the rock.
Unwilling to show interest, she still had to ask, "When did you make
this?"

"We didn't make it, Lady. We found it. No man alive made this place."

"How do you know?"

"The miners would know it. We broke through the wall only yesterday."

"What are these things?"

"You know as much as I do." He was looking at her in the way her father
sometimes looked at rucker serving women, as though she had no clothes
on at all. She had little modesty, society was lax when it came to such
things as clothing, and frequently she had ridden the streets of Dolfya
Town in a suit of transparent silk that made the ruck gape and blush;
but this very personal scrutiny made her shield her breasts with one arm
as she stared back at him.

"I've changed my mind about you," she said pleasantly.

"Yes?" Did the swine look eager?

"I have ... you won't be hunted by the pack. You'll be flayed alive,
inch by inch, with white-hot needles of iron, starting with your feet
and working upward. And I'll watch."

He laughed. "You _are_ a wench," he said admiringly. Then he turned and
appeared to forget her as he began to inspect the contents of the
cavern. After a moment she wandered off to look at them herself.

Nearest lay a long wooden chest, on which were arranged certain
contrivances that looked like guns, except that they were short, no more
than a foot long; they had triggers and barrels and small curved stocks,
so they must be guns! No one had ever seen a gun under four feet long.
She looked for the ramrods, but there were none on the chest. Possibly
they were cached inside it.

Over the chest in an arch that covered the entire top was a sheet of
almost invisible stuff that she touched fearfully. She had never seen
anything like it--like frozen water! Hard and cold ... She thought of
the oiled paper in her father's windows. A sheet of this substance in a
window would be a magnificent possession, the envy of every squire in
Dolfya. Oiled paper was semi-transparent, while this stuff was like a
piece of air.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a white square lying beside the tiny guns, with black printing
on it. She was deciphering it, painfully, for not only did she read very
slowly, even in the priceless old books of her father's library, but
this print was in a language slightly different from Orbish, when she
felt two hard hands on her waist.

"Get your stinking paws off me," she said, without moving.

She was picked up and set down gently on one side. Revel bent over the
chest.

"What are they?"

She thought fast. She had deciphered enough of the card to know they
_were_ guns: _American handguns of 1940-1975 period_, it said. She
couldn't let him know it. The rucker must not get hold of a gun, or he'd
attack the gentry themselves, for hadn't he slain innumerable gods
already?

"They are children's toys," she said. "I don't know what sort of
children would be interested in such weird-looking things."

"Did you ever hear of the Ancient Kingdom?"

She shook her head; the term was new to her.

"The ruck knows of it; the ballad-singers have many sagas of the Ancient
Kingdom, but I imagine the gentry have forgotten. It was the world and
people of a long time ago. I think these things were walled up here
then." His face, really a handsome face if you forgot he was a rucker,
screwed up in thought. Then he started to chant something.

    "The people of that far-off time,
      They carried little guns;
    They had so much more freedom
      Than we who are their sons."

He stared at the weapons. She thought fast. "These are toy guns, yes.
The writing says they are guns for children."

"Maybe the toys of those children worked," he said looking at her.

"You talk nonsense."

He felt the transparent stuff over the chest, pushed on it hard, then
raised his pick and struck the stuff a heavy blow. It shattered into
bright daggers and fell on the guns and on the floor. Picking one of the
small things from its place, he examined it closely.

"No toy, Lady Nirea," he grunted. "You lied to me."

"I didn't! Can _you_ read the writing?" she asked sourly.

"No rucker reads, as you know. But this is no toy, and you knew it." He
tucked it into the waistband of his trousers, took three more. "You can
show me how to use them later."

She laughed in his face and was given a rough slap on the cheek. Skin
tingling, she said, "Play the squire, miner, you don't have long to do
it!"

"They won't find this hole."

"I left a trail of emotion that a globe could follow after a week!" she
told him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly his brown face turned pale. Then he struck her again, but very
hard, so that she staggered back and fell. Without a word he grasped her
wrist and hauled her after him on a swift tour of the cavern.

A huge intricate mechanism sat like a grotesque idol on the floor. "What
is it?" he said. "Read for me."

She looked at the printing on the front. _Dynamo_ she spelt out, and
shrugged. "A name I don't know."

"If you lie to me again, I'll rip that gown off and strangle you with
it." He obviously meant it. She said sullenly, "I'm not lying."

"I know you aren't, now. I have an instinct for lies." He dragged her
on. "What's this?"

The language was very like Orbish, yet subtly different, and the words
were mostly strange. She said aloud, in syllables, "_Man of the 21st
century: John R. Klapham, atomic physicist and--_"

"Never mind." He left the big shining case, which was oblong and
featureless and seemed made of metal, to pass to something else. Her
gaze caught another line on the card as she was pulled away: _Held in
suspended animation._ What could the words mean?

They covered the big cave, finding almost nothing they could understand.
Here and there were ordinary objects--plates, hides of animals under the
near-invisible arches of wondrous material, arrows such as the ruck
vagabonds used for shooting birds, candles--but in the main it was a
place of mystery.

"The people of the Ancient Kingdom," he said, rubbing his square chin,
"put these things into the earth for a purpose. I don't know what it
could have been, but I want Jerran to look at them. He's got any number
of keen brains."

"Nobody has more than one brain," she snapped.

He grinned. "I have six or eight myself," he said. The creature was
totally crazy. He was staring at her again in that lewd way. Now he put
a hand on her shoulder. The touch sent hot tingling sensations through
her body. The fact that he was of the ruck and no higher than an animal,
that he was a god-killer, paled before the desire his great body roused
in her. She moved a step toward him, all-but-voluntarily.

His brown eyes lit up. His arm was around her waist, and his lips came
near her own. Deep-bred habit made her draw back, but she could not
fight the instinct that racked her.

It's a strange place for passion, she thought dazedly; an unknown
cavern, full of antique wonders never heard of on earth, filled with a
blue haze, and only she and the tall fierce rucker....



CHAPTER IV

    The Mink has come to the bright sun's light,
      His pick is lifted high;
    He hears the gentry's whooping yell,
      And sees them gallop by.

    "Now all too long we've felt the yoke,
      And cringed and fawned and died!
    'Tis time we turned upon the squire,
      To skin his rotten hide!"

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


Revel was sitting beside the hole in the wall, now filled with rocks, of
course; he had replaced the four small guns in his belt and found, by
breaking open the chest they'd lain on, a number of boxes of ammunition,
with which he'd stuffed his pockets. Experiment had shown him how to
load, and tradition of the ruck told him that to shoot, one pointed the
end at something (or someone, he told himself grimly) and pulled the
small curved projection. The woman should have helped him, but she was
sulking in a corner, weeping. She had not wept an hour before!

He wondered if he were the first rucker to hold a gun. Surely the first
to have four such tiny weapons, at least.

He heard voices from beyond the wall, filtering in, oddly distorted,
through the air spaces between rocks. That was Jerran.

"Yes, he came down here, and threatened me with his pick all dripping
yellow, said he'd killed a lot of gods. Crazy, that's what he was!"
Jerran's voice broke, a neat bit of acting. "Sure there's an emotion
trail! You think I wasn't scared of that maniac? Wasn't he excited? He
stayed here a minute and then left again."

That was clever. Jerran had explained away the psychic scent left by the
Lady Nirea. He must be talking to a god. But another voice spoke now,
and Revel sat up, thinking, The gods don't make sounds!

"Was there a girl with him, a girl of the gentry in a silver gown?"

"No, Lord Ewyo--" it was her father, then!--"he was alone."

"He may have hidden her body somewhere," said a heavy voice. Rack, by
the Orbs, Revel's brother Rack! "He's turned violent today."

"I understand he's your brother?" said Ewyo.

"Aye. A strong violent man, but worse today than ever he's been."

"No rucker would dare harm Lady Nirea," whined Jerran.

"No rucker should dared have touched her," barked the squire. Then, his
voice respectful, he asked, "Can you tell me if she's dead, priest?"

There was a croak like a bull-frog's, a chugarum with words in it. "She
lives."

"Where?"

Revel sucked in his breath. If the priest could see all, as they'd been
taught, he was doomed. Then, before any other voices beyond the wall
could speak, Nirea--he had been a muddleheaded and drooling fool not to
seal her mouth--Nirea screamed. "In here, father! Tear down the
barricades!"

Revel was on her in two bounds and hit her a crack on the jaw, a vicious
blow that sprawled her into a pile of clay tablets (inscribed with
writing she had refused to read to him), dead to the world. Then Revel
was at the hole, waiting tensely with a gun in his hand.

"What can lie in the rocks?" he heard Jerran say. "The voice was a
ghost's."

"Hold your tongue," roared Ewyo. "You'll make a fox for the hunt, small
yellow man!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A gap appeared. "Look in there," said Ewyo, and a head came thrusting
in, the head of a squire's servant topped with the distinctive peaked
cap and green ear flaps. Revel could not shoot a rucker. He hit the man
full in the mouth, and the head disappeared with a howl.

"Tear them down, he's in there. We'll let the zanphs harry him a bit,"
said Ewyo. "Hear that, rebel?"

"Send in your zanphs," yelled Revel, grinning. "Let 'em come in,
squire!"

The gap grew. Up over the rocks charged a zanph, its six legs scrabbling
frantically, its snake's head darting back and forth to search him out.
He let it see him and utter its war cry, a hiss that became a growl.
Then he pointed the gun's muzzle at its face and calmly pulled the
curved metal below the barrel. There was a crash as of a mountain
falling; dust rained on him from the roof, echoes raged together; and
the zanph, its skull fragmented all over four yards of floor, sank to
the furred belly and slowly rolled over.

[Illustration]

"Send me a globe!" roared Revel, delirious with glee. "Send me a god,
Ewyo!"

There was silence beyond the wall; then the priest croaked, "He has a
gun. Certainly this is more than a matter of a kidnapped daughter,
Ewyo!"

Jerran's voice rose in a laugh. "It is, Lord Ewyo, it is!"

What the hell did the old fellow mean? Revel shrugged. He'd learn later.
Now was the time for action.

Going to the prostrate girl, he slung her over his shoulder, a limp
light weight. The tattered silver gown flapped as he walked to the hole.

"Stand back," he cried. "I'm bringing your daughter to you, Squire!"

Another zanph showed its horrible reptilian head; he blasted it out of
existence with another shot. There were outcries from the squire and his
servants, and the priest rumbled, "Sacrilege!"

Rack's head showed between the rocks. "Calm down, boy," he said, his
staring walleye gleaming in the lantern light. "You've been living too
fast--"

"Not fast enough, Redbeard. Out of the way!"

Rack slowly withdrew, and after kicking a few more boulders from his
path, Revel stooped and went out into the tunnel.

"At him!" croaked the priest, a thin man in a radiant blue-green robe,
the double scalp lock waving like twin plumes on his shaven head. "Pull
him down!"

"Ewyo dies if I'm touched," said Revel coolly, pointing the handgun at
the squire's belly.

"Kill him--with that little thing?" said the priest. His voice seemed to
come out of the ground, not from such a gaunt frame as his. "You bluff,
rucker."

"Look at your zanphs if you think so." He glared at them. There was
Ewyo, burly in peach satin and white silk, his long-skirted coat pushed
back from a lace shirt, skin-tight pants held by knee-high black boots,
a cabbage rose thrust into his cocked hat. There was the priest, lean
and savage beneath two hovering globes. Three servants of the squire,
Jerran and Rack made up the rest.

"Come here, Jerran," he ordered. Smiling lazily, the little man ambled
over. "Take a couple of these miniature guns from my belt. They're
loaded. You point them--"

"I can use a gun," said Jerran, "though I never had my hands on one this
size."

"They came to us from the Ancient Kingdom," Revel told him.

"Ah," said Jerran, nodding as he pulled two guns from the big man's
waistband. "I thought they might have. The ballads say they used such
weapons. Everyone carried 'em." He faced the squire, and his small body
appeared to swell and toughen as he went on. "Lord Ewyo, please to
precede us with your servants and that feather-brained priest. We'll go
to the ladders."

       *       *       *       *       *

Ewyo grunted. Orders from a rucker, to him, _him_, the greatest
landholder in Dolfya! But after another glance at the mutilated zanph,
he turned and walked down the tunnel.

"Wait a minute," said Revel, but Jerran turned to him with a face as
hard and ruthless as a woods lion's. "Shut up, lad," he said. "I'll
handle 'em. You just tend to the wench. She's awake, in case you didn't
know."

He knew now, for she had just bitten him on the rump. He hoisted her a
little higher and absently smacked her buttocks. "Lie quiet, damn you."
She lay quiet. He went on marveling at Jerran's commanding new presence,
but said nothing. He was behind a born leader now.

Jerran said, "Priest, tell your gods to stop trying to get at my mind.
I've shut it off from 'em. You follow Ewyo."

The priest turned on his heel. The servants scuttled after their lord,
and Rack sat down on a rock and pulled at his beard, looking thoughtful.

"I don't think it'd be overstating it," he said mildly, "to tell you two
you're in trouble."

"So are the gentry, brother," Revel answered.

"That'll be seen. Well," Rack said, squinting his good eye, "I'll be
seeing you. Or not, as the case may be."

"Come along," said Jerran, and walked off, followed by Revel with the
Lady Nirea.

Ewyo had vanished. His servants, uncertain, were grouped under the
ladder, and the priest was mounting up, his radiant robe billowing to
show scrawny, hairless legs. The two gods lifted through the murk.

"Ewyo," said Revel, and Jerran interrupted. "Is gone. Did you expect to
hold him captive, lad?" He shook his yellow skull. "Too much trouble for
two men. Up you go."

Revel sprang at the ladder and was soon crowding the heels of the
priest. That worshipful man reached the top of the ladder, turned and
knelt and thrust his face into Revel's. It was a vicious face,
hawk-nosed and mean. Now it barred his way, gloating openly.

"You're dog-meat, rebel. A shame to kill the Lady Nirea with you, but
the gods order it." He reached out a hand and planted it firmly on
Revel's face.

Hanging to the rung with his left hand, balancing the girl on the left
shoulder, Revel shot up his right and gripped the priest's wrist and
heaved up and back, ducking his head at the same time.

The robed man flew into space with a screech.

"Look out below!" roared Revel, and, chuckling, he finished his climb
and gave a hand to Jerran. "Where now?" From far below came the crunch
of a carcass landing at the foot of the ladders, on the lowest level of
the mine shaft. "One less priest!"

"Follow me, lad," said Jerran, and dashed for the entrance. There was no
god on duty there, but the two that had accompanied the priest were
mounting into the buttoned sky.

The girl was light on his shoulder, a delicious burden, he thought. He
hoped he could keep her. Just how, or where, he did not bother to
consider. Things were moving too fast for plans, at least plans about
women.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerran led him up over the crest of the hill above the mine. Beyond lay
the uncharted forests of Kamden. He had hunted mink and set rabbit
snares on the edges of it since boyhood, but had never seen its depths.
So far as he knew, no man had.

As they started toward the wood, the beat of hoofs became audible in the
quiet countryside. Revel couldn't see the horses, but he began to run,
easily and fast, with Lady Nirea bobbing and swearing on his shoulder.
Jerran kept pace.

Then they came up over the rim of the hill behind him, a pack of the
gentry on their huge fierce stallions, with a couple of hundred-pound
hunting dogs in advance, baying and yapping. The old terrifying viewing
call rose: "Va-yoo hallo! Va-yoo hallo allo-allo!" Thousands of the ruck
had heard the whooping cry moments before their grisly deaths. Revel
tightened his grip on the perfect legs of Nirea, and pounded on. He'd
ditch her if need be, but as long as he could hang on to her, by
Orbs....

The forest was closer. He could pick out individual trees, oak and
silver birch and poplar, standing thick in the matted carpet of thicket
and trash. A broad trail opened to the left.

"That way," gasped Jerran, pointing.

"The horses can follow down that road!"

"Don't argue--damn you--lad--just run!"

The gentry came yelling in their wake. A gun banged. Were they shooting
at him? Not with the woman slung down his back. The priests might
sacrifice a squire's daughter without a murmur, but no gentryman ever
harmed a gentrywoman under any circumstances. It was likely a warning.
That was why they kept whistling the dogs back, too, for the enormous
brutes could rip a human to scarlet rags in twenty seconds, and not even
a squire's command stopped them once they'd tasted blood.

He had reached the trees and the wide path. He plunged into it, Jerran
beside him; the older man was panting heavily now, but running as
strongly as ever. "A little behind me, Revel," he husked out. "See you
follow me close."

Jerran knew where he was headed ... Revel surrendered all initiative to
him. The ground thundered beneath him to the pounding of the horses. He
looked back as he ran. They were almost upon him, gay and gaudy in their
scarlet, green, fawn and purple hunting clothes; their faces were
bloodless, malevolent, and entirely without pity. Several of them
carried guns, the long clumsy weapons handed down to them by their
grandfathers from the time, a hundred years past, when gun-making was
still a known art. Ramrods were fitted below the barrels and the muzzles
flared like lilies. He'd back his new-found little guns of the Ancient
Kingdom against any such heavy instrument.

Jerran dived into what seemed a solid mass of brambles. Revel shifted
the girl and bent to follow; at that instant she grabbed the back of his
thigh and wrenched with all her might. He had been carrying her too low
again. The tug was just enough to throw him off balance, and rucker and
lady sprawled on the forest pathway, entangled together, struggling
frantically to rise, as the giant stallions of the gentry bore down upon
them.



CHAPTER V

    The pretty daughter of the squire,
      She came a-riding by;
    Of sunlight was her fine long hair,
      Of gray flint was her eye.

    The Mink he takes her by the arm:
      "Now you must come with me!
    We'll dwell a space in the wild wild woods
      Beneath the great oak tree!"

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


Revel saw the lead horse, a piebald brute with hoofs like mallets,
coming at him. The squire atop it was leaning down with the mane
whipping his cheeks, smirking at Revel as he drove his steed forward.

He made the fastest decision of his life. He could roll and save
himself, for he was quick as a lightning bolt; or he could keep hold of
the wench and try to preserve them both.

He could never have told what prompted him to decide to save the Lady
Nirea.

At any rate, he threw himself atop her, clamped his arms tight to her
sides, and rolled, not toward the brambles, for it was too late for
that, but to the center of the path. The piebald crashed by, swerving
too late to clip him; the other horses came at him in a solid phalanx.
He yanked her up, gaining his own feet by an animal contraction of body.
As the heads of the nearest stallions reached him he slipped between
them, holding her steady behind him, and praying to the Orbs (from force
of lifetime habit) to preserve them for the next minute.

Without Nirea it would have been simple; holding her safe behind him
while two lurching horses passed, that made it the trickiest thing he'd
ever done. As the squires' legs came abreast, one blink later, he took
hold of one of them which was clad in tight blue breeches, and hauled
down. Then he leaped forward between the horses' tails, twitching the
woman after him with a jerk that almost tore the arm from her body.

The squire in the blue breeches toppled over, howling, and fell on the
path. Revel yanked the Lady Nirea to one side as the mass of them swept
by, and saw with satisfaction a stallion, trying not to step on the
fallen squire, take a nasty tumble itself, flinging its rider ten feet
ahead, where he was trampled by a couple of less cautious nags.

Other horses fell over the first one, and the gentry milled about,
roaring bloody hell and death on everybody. The two hounds smelled blood
and attacked the fallen squires, and Blue Breeches raced off into the
woods, one of the ravening dogs at his heels.

Revel made for the other side, the brambles where Jerran had
disappeared. He was hauling the girl behind him. A beef-faced squire on
a pirouetting horse loosed off his gun at Revel, who snatched a handgun
from his belt and fired back. Both of them missed. A gentryman in tan
and gold long-skirted coat leaped in front of the miner, the flared
muzzle of his gun coming up toward Revel's breast.

Revel shot by instinct, without aiming. The man's face turned into a
mess that looked like squashed raspberries. Revel stepped over his body
and tried to plunge into the brambles, but he had lost the exact spot,
and thorns barred the way.

Then, four feet down the road, Jerran's yellow face popped into view.
"Here, lad!"

       *       *       *       *       *

At that instant Lady Nirea gave a wrench and freed herself from Revel's
grip. He whirled and leaped and snatched down, catching the collar of
the silver gown. Her momentum carried her forward, but the dress stayed
in his hand ripped completely off. He went after her--she was falling
now--and caught her, though the atmosphere seemed to be composed equally
of gentry and rearing stallions.

Then he turned, carrying her slung over one arm, and managing to reach
Jerran's anxious-looking head by knocking down one squire and kicking
another in the groin, he dived into the bushes. The Lady Nirea squalled
shrilly as the thorns gashed at her soft skin. But Revel blundered on
into the bramble patch.

Jerran led him through what seemed impenetrable thickets, following a
route that must have been marked, though Revel could not see how. Behind
them, the gentry howled and loosed off their guns, but the brambles
defeated them, for Revel caught no sounds of pursuit. A scream that
thrilled up and choked off must have been the unfortunate Blue Breeches.

Revel looked up, thinking of the globes; he could see the sky in many
places through the tangle, but realized that it was probably a thick
green solid floor to a watcher from above. A god would have to come very
low to see anything moving beneath it.

The woman said bitterly, "For Orbs' sake, at least carry me in some
fashion that won't expose _quite_ so much of me to the thorns!" She
paused and added as an after-thought, "You mudhead!"

He hitched her around and held her curled to his chest, faintly
conscious of the smooth body, but concentrating on protecting her from
harm; he thought suddenly that he was treating her as if she'd been a
ruck woman, instead of one of the gentry, the loathed and feared
squirarchy. Was he putting too much importance on the physical
attractions that had made him take her?

Jerran was leading him now along a tunnel-like passage of twined, arched
shrubbery that made them stoop low. "It'd help if you walked, Lady," he
said.

"You may not have noticed it, miner, but I have on just one slipper, and
it doesn't have a heel." She scowled up at him. "And when I say one
slipper, I mean that's _all_."

"You look fine," he grinned. "No silk and satin looks as attractive as
your own pelt, my lady."

They traveled for upwards of half an hour, sometimes down forest lanes
that allowed free passage, other times through thickets that ripped
their flesh and slowed them to a swearing, sweating crawl. Always there
was a screen above them of natural growth, shielding them from the
buttoned sky.

At last before them there opened a huge amphitheater of the forest, a
hollow with gently sloping sides, covered by a gigantic roof of twined
willow wands and twigs. Jerran said, gesturing upward, "That's the
biggest piece of camouflage we ever did! The top of it is planted with
grass and scrub, rooted in square sods of earth cut from the woods'
floor in many places. From above it looks like a round hill rising out
of the trees. Took us a year to perfect it."

"Jerran, who is 'us' and--"

"Why, lad, the rebels."

Revel stared at the little man. Could Jerran, the straw-colored stringy
fellow he'd worked beside all these years, the quiet one who'd preached
serenity and dragged him out of a hundred brawls, could he be a rebel?
Fantastic....

The rebels were the anonymous elite of the ruck. They were the
malcontents of their society, men whose intellects could not swallow the
dreary bromides of the priests, who felt savage indignation against the
cruel gentry and the bright, all-mighty globes. It was said that they
formed an organization in Dolfya and other cities, these rebels, and
that to them could be laid the sabotaging of the coal and diamond mines,
the gentry slain in accidents that looked too pat, and the constant aura
of uneasy discontent that pervaded the shebeens and all such illegal
gathering places of the ruck.

The rebels were highly romantic figures, but Revel had always considered
them mythical, for who could think of resisting the condition of Things
As They Are? Songs were sung about them over the turf fires, in the
squat little huts of the people, and by vagabonds who roamed the
countryside by night. The rebels went by fanciful names, as rebels of
the people always do; and the one most sung of, most whispered about, in
Dolfya at least, was the Mink, who seemed to be a kind of promised
savior who would come (soon, always soon) with punishments for the
gentry and liberation for the ruck.

       *       *       *       *       *

So Revel stared at Jerran, mouth agape, and repeated stupidly, "The
rebels?"

"Aye, lad! Didn't you ever guess?"

"Orbs, no!"

"Why'd you think I kept stopping your fights in the shebeen?"

"Because you were a pacifist."

The small man shook with laughter. "One, there's nothing I love so much
as a good brawl. Two, a brawl might bring the orbs or the gentry to our
hidden drink-house, and that'd be bad. Three, a man who's a rebel must
appear _not_ to be one, even to men he believes he can trust. Four, I've
had my eye on you ever since I came from Hakes Town, and didn't want you
murdered in a drunken scrimmage. So five, though I hated to do it, I had
to preserve you from raging and quarreling until all that brute force
and honest fury could be turned to real account for us."

"I can't take it in," Revel said helplessly. "It's as though the heroes
of the Ancient Kingdom that we sing about, Rob-'em-Good and Jonenry and
Lynka, had met me here. I never believed in rebels, truly, Jerran."

"Why should you? We haven't done anything big yet. We've been searching
and waiting for a leader."

Revel snapped his fingers. "The Mink!"

"Yes, the Mink." Jerran looked at him oddly, head cocked like a small
yellow bird. "He hasn't come yet, but he will."

Revel looked around him. The amphitheater was dim, lit only by the
sunlight that managed to creep in from the forest around it; for no
illumination fell from the sodded roof. It must be capable of holding
hundreds of men. "How many are you?" he asked.

"Some four thousand and three hundred." There was pride in the man's
voice. "After today, Revel, we shall be uncountable thousands. Now the
gods have been torn down."

"Not torn down."

"Torn down," repeated Jerran firmly, "from their false 'untouchable'
eminence. You've shown the world that the globes can be slain as easily
as hares."

"They can still rise into the buttoned sky, and rule from there."

"We'll find ways," grunted Jerran impatiently. "False gods that can die
can be lured down by trickery--or we can find a way to go up to the
buttons."

"That's insane," said Revel, and would have amplified it, but at that
moment the girl spoke.

"When you are quite ready, _Squire_ Revel, I wonder if you'd kindly set
me down?"

He had forgotten her, slung over his shoulder like a slain doe. Hastily
he slipped her off and set her on her feet. She was like a forest nymph,
one of those legendary wild women who haunted the trees near towns and
lured men to their death; tall and whitely lovely, her stark naked body
shone against the greensward with a perfection that made Revel's throat
constrict.

Then she doubled up a fist and hit him in the eye.

"You lout!" said the gorgeous creature. "Can't you at least get me
something to wear?"

"I can have clothes for you in two minutes, Lady Nirea," said Jerran.
"Man's clothes, I'm afraid. No woman has ever seen the meeting place
before you."

"Man's clothes--rucker's clothes," she said caustically. "If I'd known
what--"

Then her words were muffled by a terrible sound, a noise as of the earth
exploding beneath them. Nothing moved, yet they had the sensation of
being shaken intolerably by a giant blast of wind. The roar dwindled
away, reluctant to cease, and Revel said, "What is it?"

"Come on," said Jerran urgently, "we'll go to the dome and see."

"The dome?"

"The roof of the sanctuary," barked Jerran impatiently. "It holds the
weight of a score of men without quivering. We build slowly, but well."
He sprinted away.

"The girl!" yelled Revel.

Jerran called over his shoulder, "If she's fool enough to risk woods
lions and the bears, let her go!"

Revel stared at Nirea. Then he chuckled. "No gentrywoman could find her
way home from this maze-center. You'll wait." He followed his friend.

They shinned up a tree on the edge of the clearing, and jumped to the
rim of the dome, which never even swayed beneath their impact. Revel saw
it stretch up before him like a grassy hill, and marveled at the rebels'
artistry. Shortly they were standing on the crest, and he was clutching
at Jerran's arm.

"Orbs above! Look there!"

On the horizon lay a tremendous cloud of gray-black smoke, like the
reeking smudge of a forest fire; above it rose another and more ominous
cloud, this tinged with red and of mushroom shape.

Revel was speechless, but Jerran ripped out a curse that would have
curled the hair of a squire's neck.

"The Globate Credo," he said. "You've proved it wrong in one respect,
but there's terrible proof of its truth in another." He spat. "If I
figure right, that cloud's hanging over the eastern quarter of Dolfya
Town, where none but the ruck lives; and every soul that lived there is
dead as last week's dinner."

"The Credo?" said Revel haltingly.

"Sure. _Vengeance of the gods comes swift and without warning, below the
twin clouds, with a sound of volcanoes._ Nobody ever knew what that
meant ... till now."



CHAPTER VI

    The pretty daughter of the squire,
      She mourned and would not eat;
    The Mink he tried to tempt her
      With barley bread and meat.

   "O no, O no, you rebel cur,
      I'll never eat nor drink,
    Till father's hall I see again!
      Till death has trapped the Mink!"

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


There were seven hundred silent men in the amphitheater of the forest,
and more came in each minute, slipping from the trees without a sound,
taking seats on the sloping grass. Miner's lanterns, the marvelous
contraptions that hung in the shafts beside the veins of coal or pockets
of diamonds, glowing with a dull penetrating radiance, had been filched
from the mines one by one over years, and now illumined the strange hall
like blue glowworms spaced around a pit.

Revel sat, uneasy, on the sward in the center, at the bottom of the
bowl; beside him were Jerran and Dawvys, the small rebel's cousin who
served in the house of Ewyo the squire. There also was the Lady Nirea,
dressed in a miner's plain short-sleeved shirt and unornamented pants,
but looking as delectable to Revel as she had in the silver gown. She
had not spoken to him since the great bang and the twin clouds, but his
mind was so full that he didn't care.

He had killed gods. This had brought his whole world down in ruins,
shaken his belief in all he had ever been taught by the priests.

He had killed gentrymen, squires whom no breath of trouble from the ruck
had ever disturbed. This had made the myths of rebellion very real to
him, very possible; and then Jerran had admitted to being a rebel
himself.

The east quarter of Dolfya had been wiped out, as Jerran had guessed;
men from the town, coming in after dusk, had confirmed it. The place for
a square mile was level, featureless, without sign that thousands of
people, women and shopkeepers, brewers and doctors, shebeen hosts and
small craftsmen and thieves and vegetable-growers, had lived there just
this morning. They were all gone into the smoke of the double cloud.

His own mother was dead, then, and perhaps Rack, if the big red man had
gone home.

He had taken a squire's daughter and made love to her, love that was
returned if only for a brief time; and afterwards he had shot down
zanphs with his new-found guns and plummeted a priest to destruction.

So now where was he? Among rebels, certainly, but mentally, where did he
stand? Did he espouse the cause of the rebels? He nodded to himself. Of
course. Their cause was the ruck's, and Revel was a man of the ruck. He
had given the rebels a terrific boost with his god-killing, too. As word
went round of it, he could see faces turn toward him, marveling,
awe-struck, respectful.

And what was he to do? Become a vagabond, probably, living by night,
skulking in the forest edges, passing from town to town hoping he could
find a place where the gods had not heard of him, so he might settle
down and eventually become a miner again. Mining was all he knew.

He felt for his pick, tucked into his trousers at the back. For all the
new handguns, with their ammunition that made hash of a head or a belly,
he still preferred his pick. It was the weapon of a man.

He took out a gun from his belt and stared at it. Then he asked Nirea,
"What is this called, the curved metal you pull to shoot?"

She glanced over haughtily. "The trigger. Any dolt knows that."

"I wish you'd be nicer. I don't mean to harm you."

"You touched me, and more. I'm dreaming of your torture. Leave me
alone."

Jerran stood up. The rebels, who had been buzzing and talking in low
tones, quieted until Revel could hear the rabbits hopping in the
underbrush beyond the amphitheater.

Jerran began to speak. He told them the whole story of the day, of the
gods' death and all. Murmurs and exclamations arose, and he hushed them
with a gesture.

"Many of us," he said, "though rebels, have owed allegiance to the gods.
Our quarrel has been only with the gentry, whose useless existence and
awful power over us are a constant irritation. They who hunt us as
'foxes'--who kill us if we touch them--we have seen are only men like
ourselves, women like our women." He pointed to Nirea. "There's a
gentrywoman; is she different in body from our wives? Not by so much as
a mole!"

"I didn't see any moles," whispered Revel to the girl. She turned red in
the face and clamped her teeth together.

"Is her mind different, superior? It's eviller, cruder, more ferocious,
maybe, but no whit better than our own! Why then should her kind have
power over us?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The amphitheater roared to the angry yells of rebels. Jerran waved his
hand again. "That's been our quarrel with the established way of things
in the world. We've hoped for weapons to fight the gentry, and prayed
for guidance from the gods. Now we know that the gods are mortal too!
They can die! Then they aren't gods, not if gods are the supreme beings
we've all been taught! They flee from a miner's pick? Then, by Orbs,
they're craven cowards, not fit to be worshipped!"

A hush, then another roar.

"I said we'd waited. The biggest need was a leader, a man of brains and
guts and power. We've sung of him for centuries, made up stories of him,
songs about him." Jerran paused dramatically. He flung out a finger at
the mob. "Who will he be?"

The answer almost broke Revel's eardrums.

_The Mink! The Mink! The Mink! The Mink!_

"He's here! He's come, from the bowels of the ruck, from the mines, from
the people, as he was to come! Already he's done some of the acts the
saga-makers put into the Ballad of the Mink!"

Revel frowned. Jerran hadn't told him that the Mink had come at last.
The small yellow-faced man went on.

"He's the greatest trapper of mink in Dolfya--his family sleeps under
blankets of the little beasts' hides. His own hair is the shade of a
mink's pelt, as was foretold. He's as swift and deadly and cunning as
the oldest mink alive. He's slain gods and priests, and taken toll of
the gentry. I've worked beside him for years, and know his mind and
heart have always been ours, though he lived in ignorance of us."

The light, a lurid incredible light, began to dawn on Revel.

Jerran's voice rose to a shriek as the rebels muttered stupefaction. "I
tell you I know this is the man we've waited for, us and our fathers and
their father's fathers before them! Rebels of Dolfya, I show
you--_Revel, the Mink!_"

The shouts that had come before were murmurs to the chorus of stentorian
bellows which assaulted Revel's ears now. The woman turned and said
something to him, her fine face disdainful, but the words were lost in
the tumult. A dozen men surged down and lifted him to their shoulders
and paraded him round, while hands reached up to touch him and wave
greeting to him.

It was the beginning of a celebration he had never seen the like of, a
festival occasion that included a great dinner of boar and deer meat and
stolen gentry's wine, over which much vague planning was done; and it
ended only when the last rebel had left to sneak homeward, and he and
the girl were left alone with Jerran.

"Sleep now, lad," Jerran said, grinning. "You're exhausted. It isn't
every day a man finds himself a savior."

"But the Mink--I, the Mink?" He still had not entirely accepted it.

"I think so ... and if I care to call you the Mink, no one can
contradict me."

"All the while I was doing those things this morning," muttered Revel,
"I had the feeling I'd done them before. I must have been remembering
the old ballad, for by Orbs, the acts do fit!"

"That minor blasphemy begins to annoy me," said Jerran seriously. "It's
like saying 'by the man I killed yesterday.' We've got to revise our
swearing habits."

"Why not substitute _Revel_ or _Mink_ for _Orb_?" asked the girl
harshly. "Our Revel who dwells in the buttoned sky," she added, with a
malevolent sneer.

"Ah, go to sleep, both of you," said Jerran. "Tomorrow we start to
plan--really plan--to overthrow the gentry."

"And the priests," said Revel fiercely, "and the gods!" He almost
believed that somehow they could climb into the air and destroy the gods
in their red and blue buttons. He lay down, one hand vised on the
woman's wrist, and though he felt he should never sleep that night,
being far too excited, in three minutes he was snoring mightily.

       *       *       *       *       *

He woke some time later with the prickling feeling of danger on his
skin. He opened his eyes and saw red, literally a red mist that obscured
the world. Then his head began to open and shut, open and shut, and he
knew he had been hit a hell of a blow on the forehead, and there was
blood in his eyes.

Groping for his pick, that had lain next his left hand, he missed it;
then he recalled the girl, reached out for her, found she was gone too.
He drew the back of his arm over his eyes and cleared the gore a trifle.
"Jerran?" he said quietly. No answer.

Blinking, he saw the vast meeting place empty, lit by the blue lanterns.
He rolled his head and there, its point buried deep in the sward an inch
from his right ear, was his pick. He sat up. Jerran lay a dozen feet
off, looking very dead indeed, with his thin hair matted with blackening
blood.

Instinctively he tore the pick out of the ground. It was buried so deep
that only a very strong hand could have sent it in; not the girl, he
thought, somehow relieved that she hadn't done it. No, a miner's blow
alone might have done it, for the earth was packed solid as oak's wood
by untold multitudes of rebels' feet.

Wait a minute, he said to himself: this is all wrong. That blow should
have opened my skull like a walnut. It missed me by a fraction--either
the aim was poor, or else damned good. I could have struck such a blow,
sure to miss where I wished to, but not even many miners could duplicate
it.

Had the enemy missed, then walloped him with another weapon and left him
for dead? Gingerly he felt the wound on his head. It was healing
already, a tap that might have laid him out for a few hours, but would
never have slain him.

He glared at the pick in his hand. Then he brought it up and in the
combined light of the blue lanterns and the dawn filtering in from the
woods, he squinted at the handle.

Where his own pick bore the crude carving of a mink (he had taken the
beast as his symbol a long time ago, another sign of his identity), this
one had a jumble of grooves meant to represent a woods lion.

This wasn't Revel's pick--it was his brother Rack's!

Caught in an appalling dream that was the hardest reality he'd ever
faced, he pored over the pickax, scanned the motionless form of his
friend Jerran, then goggled foolishly at nothing in particular as he
thought of his situation, stranded in a place he could not escape from
alone, with many half-formed plots in his head but no way to carry them
out. Between him and Dolfya, and the other rebels, lay miles of tangled
forest no man, be he ever so skillful at woodscraft, could penetrate
without the knowledge of a route; thousands of the ruck were depending
on him to lead them, and he couldn't even lead himself home.

"If you're the Mink, Revel m'lad," he said aloud, "it's time you came up
with a brilliant idea!"

And there wasn't a scheme in his head.



CHAPTER VII

    The haughty maid has left the Mink,
      She finds her father's place;
    The squire has looked her in the eye:
      "Now what a fox to chase!"

    He's called in all his friends and kin,
      And dealt out guns and shells;
    He's sworn an oath to catch the Mink
      By all the seven hells!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


Lady Nirea was puffing and blowing and clawing her way through endless
miles of creepers, thorns, and brushwood. She wished Revel were carrying
her now, even if it meant the loss of her clothing again. Now she
appreciated what a job he'd done, for naked though she'd been, not half
as many scratches had marred her skin on their first journey.

Ahead of her, the giant called Rack was doing his best to break trail
for her; and in front of him, with a rope under his arms which the
red-bearded man held tightly, went Dawvys, her father's servant.

As she understood the tale from Rack's few sentences, growled out in a
voice that reeked with hatred of somebody, whether herself or Revel or
whom she couldn't tell, he had caught Dawvys just emerging from the
forest and made him lead the way back to the domed glade. Ewyo the
squire had sent Rack out for her, and Rack was evidently all a rucker
should be--faithful, reverent, and obedient to the least command of the
gentry.

She remembered waking, Revel's strong hand still clamped on her wrist,
and seeing this walleyed brute just aiming a swing of a pick at his
brother's head. She had screamed, and Rack had missed. She wondered
whether he had meant to hit at all. There was already a bloody gash on
Revel's scalp, and the little yellow man, Jerran, lay quite still with
red trickling out of his head.

Then Rack had picked up Revel's pick and disengaged the grip of his hand
(was it as cold and lifeless as she'd thought? could the Mink be dead?)
from her wrist, and booted Dawvys out on the trail.

That had been hours ago. They were still bumbling through the forest,
although the sun was high.

"He's leading us wrong," she panted. "Don't trust him. He's an important
rebel."

"He wants to live as badly as we do, Lady. He'll take us home."

And sure enough, they had come shortly to the rim of the woodland. She
swayed and nearly collapsed. "Give me your arm, rucker," she said. "I
give you permission to touch me."

His arm was like stone, supporting her along the road to Dolfya's
outskirts where her father's mansion lay. After a few minutes he dropped
the rope that held Dawvys. "Damn," he said loudly, "he will get away!"
and bent to retrieve it. Dawvys leaped off like a pinched frog, and Rack
said grimly, "No use to chase that one, he can sprint faster than a
dozen hulks like me."

"You let him go," said Nirea.

He turned his blue eye on her. "That is as you see fit to believe,
Lady."

She would turn him over to her father's huntsman, she thought. Or would
she? He'd saved her ... was this gratitude in her mind? It was a foreign
emotion. Wait and see, she told herself; don't fret now. She was very
tired.

They came to the house of Ewyo, a sprawling erection of field stone and
ancient brick dug from distant ruins of another time. No one could make
bricks like that now. She touched the gate in the wall and instantly a
dozen hounds, gaunt and savage, came leaping from the lawns. Recognizing
her, they fawned, and she opened the gate. "Come in," she said. He
grunted and obeyed, eyeing the dogs.

In the library of the house, which contained more than twenty priceless
books allowed her ancestors by the gods, she met her father, the squire
Ewyo. He scowled up at Rack.

"You bring this rucker, this miner, into the library, Nirea?"

Not a word of greeting, she thought, not a single expression of relief
at her safety. For the first time she began to contrast the manners of
the gentry with those of Revel. He was rough, true, and crude and
inclined to glory in his animal strength, and he had made love to her,
to boot; but if he had found her after thinking her dead, by the Orbs!
he wouldn't have snarled out something about an unimportant convention!

"The man saved me at great risk, and killed his own brother doing it,"
she said coldly. She would not mention Dawvys at all. Not now! "He
deserves a reward, Ewyo, and not harsh words from you."

       *       *       *       *       *

He slapped his high sleek boots with a hunting crop. He was a burly,
beefy-looking man, nothing like the lean tough Mink. She felt a sense of
revulsion. She turned to Rack and stared at the big face, scarred by
whipping branches, firm and fearless, as hard as the heart of a
mountain. "Go home and get some sleep, Rack," she said kindly. "You'll
hear from me later."

"I have no home, Lady," he answered. "The gods destroyed our part of the
town yesterday."

Ewyo snorted, "Dawvys can give him a bed for now in the servants' huts.
Dawvys!"

It was on her tongue to say that Dawvys wouldn't be likely to answer his
bawl, but the man appeared in the doorway, spruce and clean, with only a
few scratches to tell of his activities. "Yes, Lord Ewyo?"

"Take this rucker and find a bed for him. Jump!"

"Yessir." Dawvys, a plump fellow with no hint of his enormous endurance
in his look, motioned Rack out of the library.

Ewyo said, "Well! How are you, Nirea? Your sister Jann and I have been
worrying."

"I'm all right."

"Did you suffer indignities at the hands of that crazy miner?"

He looked like a damned red-faced bear, she thought, and surprised
herself by saying, "Revel treated me with--with much consideration."

"Huh! Wouldn't have thought it. You want to sleep?"

"Don't bother about me," she said, turning. "Get on with your pressing
business, father." She went to her room and lay down on the
satin-sheeted bed without even removing the tattered rucker's clothes.
For a long while she lay there, thinking. Then she did a thing that no
one could ever have convinced her she'd do till that day. She changed
into a sheer black gown, after bathing of course, and slipped downstairs
to her father's private room.

She had never been in it, no one but Ewyo had; she had no clear notion
of what she was looking for. But an army of questions warred in her
mind, and it seemed to her that there were secrets she must discover:
answers which she had never looked for, explanations for things she had
always taken for granted.

For instance, she thought, turning the handle slowly and without noise,
why were the gentry the gentry? Why did the gods allow almost anything
to her kind, when the ruck had no rights? She shook her head. All her
breeding said she was mad, yet she opened the door of the private room
and walked in.

Dawvys whirled from where he had been bending over a huge leather-bound
book on a table. His face was white, but it cleared of panic when he saw
her.

"The Lady Nirea moves silently."

"What are you doing here?" she asked sharply.

"The same thing you mean to do, Lady. I'm seeking the answers to certain
problems."

"Can a rucker read minds like a globe?"

He laughed. "It was an obvious guess, Lady."

"And have you found answers, Dawvys?"

He sighed. "I cannot read, as the Lady knows. No rucker reads."

She watched his face a moment. "Stay here," she said. "_I_ can read."

"The Lady of the Mink is kind," he said, bowing. The title did not shock
her. Strangeness on strangeness!

       *       *       *       *       *

The book was full of queer writing, like none she had ever seen. Instead
of letters that each stood alone, the letters were joined, each word
being a unit without a break; and they seemed to stand up a little from
the page, not being sunken into the paper as all printing was that she
had seen.

With difficulty she read a few sentences.

"This day the third in the month of Orbuary I did feed the gods, more
than forty of them in the morning and twenty after eating. I am so weak
I can hardly hold this pen."

"What does it mean?" asked Dawvys.

"I don't know." She flipped a page. "This day did hunt the fox, he being
a strong untiring trapper who was found with forbidden ale cached in his
house, and chased him over eight mile before he went to earth in a
spinney, where the dogs found him and tore him to bits. Afterwards did
feed nine gods, who have drained me so I cannot see but in a fog," she
read aloud.

"That's your father speaking," whispered Dawvys, "He hunted a trapper
last month."

"But how is it down here, if it was Ewyo? The books were made many years
before my grandfather was born. No one makes books now. The art is
lost."

"Nevertheless, I think Ewyo made this one himself. Unless it's a
prophecy of the gods." He turned the book over. "What does it say on the
outside?"

She read it with cold grue inching up her back. "Ewyo of Dolfya, His
Ledger and Record Book."

"Then he did make it."

"How? How could he? The art is lost!"

"Many things the ruck believed have been proved false in these last
hours," Dawvys said. "Perhaps the gentry's beliefs are equally wrong."

She left the book and went to a desk by the oiled-paper window. A drawer
was partly open. Inside was a big heap of dandelions, thick grasses, and
wild parsley. She remembered Jerran's taunt, "Your father eats
dandelions!"

"Dawvys, why are these here?"

"I don't know, Lady. I gather them and the squire eats them, but why, I
can't say."

There was a sound at the door. Dawvys sprang toward the brocaded
hangings, too late; Ewyo thrust in his head, black rage on his features.

"What in the seven hells are you doing here, Nirea?"

The habits of a lifetime couldn't be overcome by a day in the presence
of the Mink. She said quickly, "I saw Dawvys come in, father, and
followed him."

"Oh. Good for you. Dawvys, report yourself to the huntsman for a fox!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Dawvys bowed and went out. She breathed freely; he would escape, and
still she'd saved herself. What Ewyo might have done to her, she didn't
know, but she feared him when he was roused.

She yearned to ask him about the book and the weeds, but didn't dare.
She passed him and went to the resting room, where she occupied a chair
for an hour, blankly pondering the tottering of her universe.

At last she stood up. She was a gentrywoman, she had guts in her belly.
Why shouldn't she ask her father questions? Before she could think about
it and grow scared, she went searching, and ran across her sister Jann.

Jann was twenty-four, a tall ash-blonde woman with snaky amber eyes and
pointed ears who lorded it over the household.

"Have you seen Ewyo?"

"He's in the private room."

She headed for it, and Jann ran to catch at her arm. "You can't disturb
him there!"

"I've been in it before."

Jann clawed at her. "You haven't! Even I was only there once...."

"Even you. My, my." Nirea walked on, Jann tugging at her futilely. "I
have to talk to him."

"Stop! Damn you, you whelp, you can't--"

With precision and force, Nirea socked her sister in the left eye. Then
she strode down the hall and knocked on the door of the private room and
immediately went in.

The sight that greeted her, completely incomprehensible, was still as
revolting and horrifying a thing as she had ever seen. Her father lay
back in a big armchair, relaxed and half-asleep to judge from his
hanging arms and barely open eyes. A curious sound, a kind of brrm-brrm,
came from his chest.

Resting on his throat was a golden globe. Two of its tentacles were
pushed almost out of sight into his nostrils, two more dipped into his
gaping mouth. The remaining four waved slowly above the squire's face.

Nirea screamed.

The globe floated upward, slowly, grudgingly. Its tentacles withdrew
from the squire. Ewyo stirred and opened his pale eyes to glare at her.
A flush of hideous fury spread up his cheeks. He struggled to his feet
and lurched over and slapped her face, so that she ceased to scream and
fell against the wall, moaning. The squire stood over her.

"You meddlesome bitch, I ought to have you cut up for the hounds!"

"In the name of the Orbs," she said, whimpering, "what were you doing?"

He grimaced at her like a madman. "You're not supposed to be told till
you're twenty, and you don't do it yourself till you reach
twenty-eight."

"_Do it myself._"

"Certainly." He gave a humorless snort of laughter. "D'you think we
don't pay for the privilege of being gentry, you fool? Now leave me
alone!" He lifted her and flung her at the door. The golden sphere
hovered motionless in the air. "Never speak of what you saw, and never
ask another question of me till your twentieth birthday ... if you live
to reach it!"

She fumbled the door open and staggered into the hall, and wept there
with awful tearing sobs, while her sister Jann looked at her and giggled
hysterically.



CHAPTER VIII

    The Mink he seeks the gentrylass;
      He eyes the gods above;
    He laughs their might to scorn, the while
      He hunts his highborn love.

    A fearsome lion bars the way,
      The Mink he cannot pass;
    He lifts his pick with fearful rage,
      And blood besmears the grass!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


Revel was plowing through the brush like a wound-crazed bear. Jerran
came behind, shouting directions, for Revel's impatience would not be
stilled enough for him to follow anyone, especially the small Jerran,
whose head rang, he said, from the skull-cracking blow he'd been given
by Rack, and who was slowed as a consequence.

Revel got farther and farther in advance, tearing with his pick at vines
and creepers, trampling small trees, making enough noise for seven men.
Dimly he remembered much of the trail hereabouts, and at last he was so
far ahead of Jerran that he couldn't hear him.

He came into a tiny glade, ceilinged with branches of the oaks. Across
its width, some twenty feet from him, a huge woods lion lay above the
torn corpse of a man. One of the rebels from the meeting, thought Revel,
who wasn't so lucky as most. The lion looked up and growled.

Its mane was long and bur-tangled, black as sin; its body seven hundred
pounds of muscle and bone, was longer than Revel was tall. He greeted it
joyously, a foe to grapple with at last!

It came to its feet, challenge on challenge rumbling in its massive
chest. He drew a gun, then stuck it back. His hands ached for work, more
work than the pulling of a trigger. He ported his pickax. "Come along,
old monster," he said. "We'll see how a mink and a lion can mix it!"

It stalked two steps, gathered itself for a leap; he didn't wait, but
sprang forward to meet it. The lion rose, checking its pounce with
surprise, for surely no man had ever charged _it_ before. The pick swung
down as it struck sideways at Revel, catching it in one shoulder,
tearing the flesh like dough. It screeched, clawing for him.

One of the scimitar claws caught his side, gashing shirt and skin. Revel
whirled, yelling, flung himself on the animal's back, grabbed a handful
of mane with his left hand, and buried the pick in the center of the
woods lion's skull. The carcass lost its stiffness, sagged and fell, leg
bones cracking like gun shots as the tremendous body came down upon
them. Revel sprang to one side, lighting on his feet.

"Not bad," said Jerran drily, coming into the glade. "If you're quite
through, Revel, we might be going along?"

"I had to find out if I'm really the Mink," explained Revel, retrieving
his pick from the splintered bone of the lion's head. "The Mink could
slay a woods lion with one blow, it says in the ballads. This fellow
took me two blows."

Jerran said, his face twisted, "Damn you, don't get cocky on me! You're
important now, no dirty miner, but a leader! If you haven't got the
brains to lead, at least keep still, follow my orders, and be a
figurehead. But don't take chances for the fun of it, because your lousy
hulk may be the salvation of man, despite yourself!"

Revel hung his head. Jerran looked at him a moment. "Nerves, that's it,
and excitement, and eagerness to do something with your big hands.
You're young, and I shouldn't expect strict attention to duty of you.
But I _do_, blast it! Now march!"

When they had traversed the forest, they emerged a little west of
Dolfya, on a stretch of dirt road bordered by maples. The lane seemed
deserted. Here and there in the buttoned sky were the bright dots of
gods passing back and forth between their abodes. Jerran led him
purposefully down the road.

       *       *       *       *       *

Suddenly a man came bursting out from the maples and ran headlong into
them, knocking the small man back into Revel's arms. It was Dawvys,
clothing disheveled, mouth agape with running. "They are after me!" he
panted. "Ewyo sentenced me to the hounds. I ran, but they're after me!"

Revel hauled out his pick. "Look there," he said, jerking his head
upward. "Concentration of orbs above us."

"They point the way for the squires," grunted Jerran. "I don't hear the
dogs, though."

"Ewyo wants me alive."

"He won't get you!"

"Will I not?" Ewyo himself had stepped quietly out from the trees,
directly in their path. In puce velvet, a great trumpet-mouthed gun in
his hands, he stood beefy and menacing before them. "Do you tell me I
won't, Revel the Mink?" He chuckled icily at the looks of amazement.
"D'you think I wouldn't have rucker spies? D'you think we don't know
about your foolish hideaway in the forest, and couldn't clap our hands
down on all of you in an hour if we wished to?" Two more squires, tall
and red-faced and prominently armed, came out behind him, "Gentles,"
said Ewyo with mock politeness, "I give you Revel, the Mink, and two
minor henchmen."

Revel lifted his pick and came forward, roaring defiance. Ewyo's gun
thrust out at his belly. "Don't die now," said the big squire
pleadingly. "I want you for a fox, Revel."

Jerran snatched a handgun from his belt. One of the squires loosed off
at him instantly, the slug striking the handgun more by accident than
design, sending it spinning as Jerran howled and gripped his numbed
fingers.

"Nice shooting, Rosk," said Ewyo. Revel still stood with his pick
raised, wondering what his chances of a swipe at Ewyo would be. "Put it
down," said the squire. "Drop it!"

"Drop it, Revel," said Jerran. The Mink did so, and Rosk picked it up.

"Come along," said Ewyo then. "I have some excellent torture rooms I'd
like you to inspect. Personally!" With a grin like a weasel's, he
motioned them through the maples. Several others of the gentry came up,
and the three rebels were surrounded and marched off to the great house
of Ewyo of Dolfya.

       *       *       *       *       *

The room was large, of field stone, set below the house like a mole's
den; portions of the walls were black with age-old soot, from what
hellish fires Revel did not like to guess, and the rafters were grimed
and looked like axe-blades, darkened with dry blood, ready to fall upon
him. One wall had thongs hanging from it, beside a nine-lashed whip
hanging on a post. Candles illumined other instruments, the purpose of
all of which was torture.

"Strap him to the wall," said Ewyo. Two of his servants did so; they
were evil-faced ruckers, fat with good living in the squire's huts.
Rosk, the lean-jawed, red-cheeked squire who was Ewyo's closest friend,
said, "Shall I flay a part of him? The left hand, say, or one foot so
he'll be slow in the hunt?"

"No. I want him hale and hearty." Revel breathed easier. "The gods want
to do something, though. I'm not sure what. I have my orders." Ewyo took
a seat by the wall, gestured his servants out. As the door closed behind
them, a hideous yell echoed in the vault.

Ewyo said comfortably, "They are taking the hide off the back of Dawvys,
in the next chamber. They'll split his fingernails, too, and perhaps
take off an ear. He's the least important of you upstarts, and I don't
care if he's as slow as a slug tomorrow."

Revel thrashed impotently in the leather straps.

Rosk studied the face of the Mink. He opened his gash of a mouth to say
something, and Revel spat accurately into it. "I wish it were my pick,"
he said, as the squire sputtered and backed off.

"Let be, Rosk," said Ewyo, smiling a little. "He'll pay for it
tomorrow." Rosk wiped his lips as the burly squire cocked his head,
listening to an unseen command. Then he walked over, opened the door,
and let in another yelp of agony, followed by a pair of golden orbs,
with their attendant zanphs.

The globes floated down to the level of the Mink's face, and his skin
prickled at the nearness of the energy aura. What now? The long feelers
came darting out, touching his eyelids, his cheeks, and Revel winced,
expecting a searing burn. There was only the tingle. They could regulate
the energy, then, burning an opponent only when necessary. But how
loathsome their nearness was, to a sane and enlightened man who had
discarded the creed of their god-hood!

       *       *       *       *       *

Now their minds came probing into his. Automatically he erected the
rampart of innocuous thoughts. Yet the probing continued; he could feel
it as a tangible finger of force, needling here, thrusting in there,
pressing aside the thoughts that meant nothing, feeling out not only his
true thoughts, but his memories, his unconscious hopes, the very traits
of character which made him what he was and of which he was scarcely
aware.

[Illustration]

This was no casually suspicious probing, such as an orb might give a man
as it passed him in the mine. This was a brutal wrenching of brain-stuff
that would not be denied. He felt it go into his rebellious brain, poke
and pry, ferret out all he remembered and believed. All the conceit
washed out of Revel the Mink. All the scorn he had felt for these
creatures turned to fear, and the bitter hatred increased a
thousandfold. And he knew that they felt it as it happened.

At last the feelers drew back, and the orbs lifted toward the rafters.
Their zanphs lay watching them, and the two squires stood up
uncertainly. Then Rosk said in a hollow, unreal voice, "This man is to
be guarded closely. He must not be allowed to escape. It would be better
if he were killed now, rather than kept for the hunt. He is the most
dangerous rebel we have ever found."

The Mink realized that the gods were using Rosk as a dummy, speaking
through his lips.

Ewyo said, looking at the globes, that burnt with a dull golden radiance
in the upper gloom, "It would be better if he were hunted down. He is
the 'Savior' the ruck has been waiting for all these years, they think,
and if we slew him in this chamber, his death would never be believed.
He should be hunted before the whole town, and torn to pieces by the
dogs."

The globes, through Rosk's lips, said, "That is so. Hunt him, then; but
if he escapes, you die and your family's status is reduced to that of
the lowest rucker's." They floated toward the door, which Ewyo hastened
to open for them. The sound of Dawvys' groans came in, and Revel
strained again at his bonds.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ewyo's pale eyes darted toward him. "What a fox you'll make," he
gloated. "We'll run you in my own lands, which are the best for the game
in all this country. We'll run you naked, I think, and allow the ruck to
gather on the hills and watch you scuttle from afar. Their precious
savior! A naked, frightened, harried rabbit, instead of a bold fighting
mink! How'll they like _that_? How much talk of treason will there be
for the next ten years, after _that_? Precious little, Revel of the
Ruck!"

He called his servants. "Take him and bind him with two dozen thick
thongs, and have twenty men sit in a circle round him all night. Give
him plenty of food and water--by Orbs, give him a beaker of my wine!
We'll have a fox tomorrow to remember for a lifetime!"



CHAPTER IX

    And now the squire has trapped the Mink,
      And now he sets him free,
    And now the Mink is hunted down
      On hill and vale and lea.

    He pants and gasps, his legs grow weak,
      His eyes with sweat are blind;
    In squire's halloo and hound's mad bark
      He hears his death behind!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mind


They took Revel to the top of a hill just behind Ewyo's mansion. He was
stripped to the buff, but on his feet were stout sandals of horsehide in
triple thickness, so that he could run well and give them a good hunt.
On the crest they untied him, and he stood naked in a ring of the horsed
gentry, rubbing his wrists and glaring at them. Beside him were Jerran
and the mutilated Dawvys, who both wore their customary shirts and
trousers.

Running his eyes over the squirachy, Revel saw with a strange thrill of
horror the Lady Nirea, on a deep-chested roan stallion, as cool and
distant as the moon ... and as beautiful, he thought bitterly. Well, but
hadn't he had her? He, a rucker born had loved this woman of the gentry!
Let her watch him die--small compensation that would be!

He bowed to her. "May you be in at the death," he said clearly, and had
the satisfaction of seeing her face go white.

"Give the Mink his fangs," said Ewyo. The burly squire was all in
scarlet silk and purple velvet, with white calfskin boots on his thick
legs. At his command, Rosk threw the tall rebel a belt with two
holsters, in which were thrust two short iron daggers. "By rights you
should go without, Mink," said Ewyo, "but it's more sport to chivvy a
fox with a bite in him. Now, you have till the count of three hundred."

"Five hundred is customary," interrupted Nirea.

"Three is plenty for the savior of the ruck. Hold your tongue, Lady." He
leaned over his steed's head. "Three hundred, Mink, and then we come
after you. Your course is down this hill and straight away toward the
sea. Don't try to escape the straight, either, because the hills are
rimmed with guards who'll blow your guts out if you cross the line; and
some thousands of your slimy kin are clustered on those hills to watch
their hero die." He nodded to the woman beside him, a blonde wench with
vicious amber eyes. "Begin the count, Jann."

The blonde said loudly, "One, two, three--" and at the third word Revel
was off, running like a slim brown stag down the slope of the hill.
Behind him came Dawvys and Jerran. The little man cried, "Don't wait,
Revel lad. Save yourself if you can. Remember you're the Mink!"

"I wish to Orbs I wasn't," he growled, and hit the bottom, skimmed over
a patch of raw rocks and struck the green beyond. As he ran he buckled
the belt around his waist, with a knife hanging on each hip. He had not
expected these, and though Ewyo thought he'd lose only a hound or two,
Revel intended to take at least a pair of squires with him into the
unknown....

He was a fine runner. By the time Lady Jann had counted two hundred and
fifty, he was half a mile down the straight, which was a belt of land
some quarter of a mile wide and twenty long, ending above the sea on a
cliff's edge. As the squire had said, he would not be able to break off
the straight, for guards and packed mobs lined it and a naked man would
be far too conspicuous heading toward them.

Now he thought of his two comrades in ill fortune. Neither of them was a
runner of any caliber. Should he wait and help them?

Selfishness said _no_--and unselfishness said _no_, for wasn't his first
duty to the ruck, not to his friends? Didn't he owe it to humanity to
save himself? And besides, he was a lusty young buck, and didn't want to
die.

But he glanced back, slowed, waited till the two had come panting up to
him, and thrusting an arm around each waist, ran them forward with him,
ignoring their protests.

       *       *       *       *       *

They came to a coppice of elms, grown thick with brambles and cluttered
with deadwood. It covered perhaps an acre. Revel ploughed into it,
cursing as the thorns stabbed his naked hide. Too late he realized he
should have skirted it. In the rare quarter-seconds when the branches
were not snapping or the brush whipping noisily aside from their
progress, he could hear the faint barking of the great hounds; even, he
thought, the whoops of the excited gentry as they started down the hill
on their fiery stallions. He pictured Nirea, her slate-hued eyes
gleaming, her creamy skin aflush as she leaned forward eagerly for the
first sight of the Mink. Damn her!

Abruptly the earth slanted off to the right, so that Revel, who was
still pushing Dawvys and Jerran, went headlong into a patch of nettles,
losing his balance at the unexpected dip and shoving both companions
down on their faces. Dawvys rolled, yelping at the pain of scratches on
fresh wounds, then vanished with a howl. Revel crouched, staring,
unbelieving. In a moment the head of the plump rucker came up out of the
earth.

"What in Orbs' names--"

"It's a pit," said Dawvys. "It was covered with trash." His eyes were
wide and frightened. "Go on, Revel. I can't run another step."

The Mink thought swiftly. Dawvys was right, he could run no longer.
Quickly Revel shoved the man's head down, threw several branches and
bushes across the mouth of the pit, began to disguise it, talking as he
worked.

"Lie down and be very still, old fellow. Jerran and I will make enough
of a trail for the hounds to follow, and only bad luck will discover you
to them. If we escape, we'll come back tonight for you." The pit was
camouflaged, looked like a mound of trash beside the trail. Revel
murmured a good-bye, and went plunging on through the coppice to the
other side, Jerran following him nimbly with the strength of second
wind.

Now they could truly run, for Jerran, though forty-two, was no antique;
and Revel had the thews of a woods lion. The way before them was smooth,
grass cropped close by the sheep of Ewyo, gently rolling mounds one
after another so that skimming down one slope gave them impetus to dash
up the next. A faint cheer came to them from the left. The ruck was on
their side.

Perhaps if I die well enough, thought Revel, my death may spark a
revolt, and so count for something. He felt at the hilt of the iron
daggers. Just give me Ewyo, he prayed to whatever higher powers there
might be; just let me have one thrust at Ewyo the Squire!

From the crest of the highest hill he looked back, as Jerran sucked for
breath. The gentry were just topping a rise some half mile behind. Not
bad! But the dogs were much closer. They had gone through the coppice
without discovering Dawvys; now, with any luck, they never would.

Revel ran on. His feet thudded on rock, slithered on grass, shuffled
through the mire of a narrow swampland. Here trees slashed at him, there
a woodchuck sprang out of his path and made him stumble with sudden
panic. His chest labored, drawing in air; his legs pumped and ached.
Then he came to a river.

It was some ten yards broad, with a swift current. He said to Jerran,
"If we can make headway against that current, land up-stream on the
other side, we may have a chance."

The runty yellow man shook his head. "Look up," he gasped. Above them
soared a score of globes, plainly marking their position for the gentry.

"The filthy schemers," growled Revel. "The foul cheats! They call this a
game, yet 'tis as easy for them as it would be to shoot at us in a small
sealed room!" He bent down. "Get on my back, little one." Jerran climbed
on, and Revel grasped his legs, told him to hang tight around his neck,
and leaped into the river.

Only thirty feet across, it was yet quite deep, and Revel sank like a
dropped rock. When the water above his head was so opaque that he could
not distinguish anything save a dull mirky lightness, he struck out
downstream. For a full minute he swam with the current, then began to
rise, Jerran clinging weakly to his neck. The Mink thanked his Orbs--no,
not them, but whatever brought him luck--that he was one of the few
ruckers who had taught himself to swim....

       *       *       *       *       *

He had gone farther by swimming than he might have running, for the
current was like a demon with a thousand legs, all speeding it on and
carrying him with it. His head lifted clear of the waters in the center
of the stream, and Jerran behind him broke into coughs and gurgles.
Revel looked for globes, and saw them upriver, lifting and falling
uncertainly. He said, "Take a breath!" did so himself, and sank again.
This time he stayed under for the space he could have counted fifty,
then rose again near the far bank.

He was among trees, birch and poplar and evergreen, that grew to the
water's brink. He struggled ashore, carrying a limp Jerran, and fell
with his burden beneath a single giant oak, which sheltered him from the
buttoned, all-seeing sky.

"Rest a while, Jerran. We've put plenty of distance behind us."

Yet when he stood up and gave his friend a hand, five minutes later, he
could already hear the baying of hounds.

A touch of panic threaded down his spine--not the panic that flared and
died when a woodchuck startled him, but the panic of any hunted creature
who, do what he may, still hears the pursuers close behind him. The
sound of the howls told him the dogs had crossed the river. He looked
up, but saw no orbs. No dog scents a man two miles off. Who had betrayed
them? Or were the gentry presuming that they must have crossed?

He broke trail for Jerran through a section that a great bear would have
found hard going, all vines and tough saplings and snake holes that sunk
beneath his sandaled feet. His body was by this time a hatched network
of pain and scarlet stripes, oozing blood.

He had expected the mass of impeding vegetation to be a thin patch at
best, but it went on and on, and the trees thinned so that the sky was
open above them. It was a matter of time only till the globes spotted
him. The hounds were louder. Once he heard the shout of a man, thin and
high in the distance.

At last he was on solid, uncluttered ground again. He looked down at his
skin, wondering if it would ever be smooth and whole again. His body had
been gouged, gashed, torn, disfigured.

"Va-yoo hallo! Va-yoo hallo-lo-lo-lo-lo!" The terrible cry rang behind
him, and turning, he saw two horsemen cresting a hill to the side of the
patch of bad ground.

Then it dawned on him how they had been followed; for behind the
stallioned squires rose the hills, which bordered the straight hunting
course, and on them showed small dots of color, the keen-eyed watchers
of the gentry. No matter where he ran on this long narrow coursing
ground, there would be eyes upon him.

At least the ravening dogs were not nearby. He picked up Jerran, tucked
him under one arm, and dashed for the shelter of the evergreen woods
before him. The hoofs of the horses pounded behind. He dodged in among
the pines, and the mournful call lifted--"Gone to earth! Go-ho-hon to
earth!"

"Damn you, put me down!" rasped Jerran. "Am I a child, to be carted like
this?" Revel dropped him. They skittered from tree to tree, and then a
charging horse was on them, and Jerran was rolling aside, bleating with
fear of the hoofs, while Revel turned and stood foursquare in the path.
As the stallion all but touched him, he jumped aside, jumped back, so
that the head of the beast passed him but the rider was struck and
clutched and hurled from his saddle, losing his trumpet-gun as he fell.
The Mink was sitting astride him before he could bounce up, and two
ruthless hands took him by the throat and tore out his jugular. The
second rider at that instant drew rein behind them, and lifted his own
gun for a quick shot.

Jerran hurled a rock. It took the squire on the head, spilled him out of
his saddle, and the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

"Two guns, by Orbs!" crowed Revel, gathering them up. "And two horses!"
He put a foot into the stirrup of the second one, but it shied madly at
the touch of a bloody, naked man; dashed forward, startling the other,
and together they vanished among the trees. "Hell!" said Jerran, taking
one of the guns; "nothing gained but two bullets, Mink."

"Two bullets is two more slain squires. Come on!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The evergreens gave out shortly, and they were in a valley channeled by
sluggish rivulets and grown with noxious weeds and clumps of coarse
grass. Some distance away, a priest walked slowly, head bent, his double
scalp lock flopping down over the radiant blue-green robe. Above him,
apparently in communion with him, hung a golden globe.

Revel shifted his gun up and took aim at the orb. He must risk a shot,
rather than a god's exposure of his whereabouts. The priest looked up,
saw him, yipped in surprise, and the orb shot up ten feet just as Revel
fired.

One bullet wasted. Jerran fired as the echoes of the Mink's shot
racketed away, and the priest crumpled in on himself, a glittering sack
of dead meat.

"You fool!" said Revel, with a brief, pithy anger. "The man I could have
stabbed or broken in two. The sphere is beyond us now." It was slanting
up an invisible incline, faster than he had ever seen one travel before.
"Come on," he snarled. "We've got to travel!" He threw away the useless
gun and ran for his life.

Behind him, to left and then to right, rose the calls. Hoofs thundered,
dogs baying out afresh as they sighted their quarry, and the valley
filled with sound and horses, dogs and men. Over and over the calls
rang, and the air above the fugitives was filled with watching gods.
Revel ran as he had never believed he could run, and the calls, the
calls, the calls beat upon his eardrums....



CHAPTER X

    The pretty daughter of the squire,
      She gallops down the hill;
    The blood of gentry pounds so fierce,
      'Tis like to make her ill!

    Thinks she, I've come to see his death,
      The man who did me shame!
    And then she spies him limping there,
      All stripped and torn and lame....

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


The squire was clad in a sky-blue velvet coat, long and loose with a row
of big silver buttons down the front, a cabbage rose on each flared
lapel, a thick fall of silver lace over an olive-green weskit, lime
breeches in white calf boots. His blunderbuss was tilted carelessly up
over one crooked elbow, for he trusted to the iron-shod hoofs of his
hunting stallion to smash the rebel into the muck of the valley. He was
a portly, floridly handsome man of some thirty summers, and he would not
live to see the sun rise again.

Revel turned at bay. He was just under the overhang of a short cliff, on
his right hand a swamp, on his left a pack of approaching hounds, and
before him the squire on his upreared horse. He had just boosted Jerran
up to the cliff's edge, and the little man was scrambling away, calling
to him to follow; but there was no purchase for his fingers, and the
thing was too high to jump, at least in the brief moment he had. So he
was brought to bay.

The Mink drew his daggers, his fangs of Ewyo's more or less generous
bestowal. The horse poised an instant before bringing its mallet-hoofs
down on his head, and Revel leaped in and thrust--hands together,
knuckles pressed tight, so that the blades drove deep into the flesh
just below the rib cage of the stallion, their points not two inches
apart. Revel jerked them apart and out, and the horse contorted and
writhed together in a thrashing heap and came down, its blood hissing
out from a foot-long gash. The squire, unable to realize what was
happening, fell sideways on top of the Mink, who stabbed upward blindly
as he rolled away from the dying horse. The squire took one dagger in
the groin of his spotless lime breeches, the other just under a silver
button above his heart. The world shut out for him in pain and terror
and a loud, broken screech.

Revel fought out of the tangle of limbs and crumpled corpse, shot to his
feet in time to meet the charge of a pair of slavering hounds. He knew
he was done now, there was no more running for the Mink, and he cursed
his fate even as he blessed whatever power had sent him so many gentry
to be pulled down with him. The dogs leaped, one died in mid-air and the
other carried him down once more, its lean teeth snapping off a patch of
hide and muscle from his shoulder as its guts poured free of its body
through a frantically-given wound. Revel was up again, shaking himself,
grappling with a third hound whose knowledge of men made it wary of his
blades. It hauled away as he slashed at it, lunged for his throat,
caught an ear instead, and coughed out its life as it was flung over his
shoulder in time for him to run the next dog through the skull as it
sailed at him.

He was bleeding like a punctured sack of wine, though the wounds were
far from mortal. One ear lobe was gone, his left shoulder felt as though
it had been scalded by boiling pitch, and his whole frame was stiffening
somewhat from the myriad tiny cuts it had received. Revel was in his
glory, although he counted his life in seconds now. The whole pack was
not in the valley, these four dogs had not run with it, and only men
remained. Yet above were the orbs, to take a hand if he should prove too
mighty for the gentry's handling.

A squire galloped up, jumped from his saddle and came at the Mink. Revel
blinked blood from his eyes.

"Rosk!" he said, grinning. Now the gods were kind!

The lean-jawed squire halted twenty feet away, presenting his gun to the
Mink's breast. "A fine fox," he said admiringly, "a damned fine fox, but
too vicious for the hounds. Die, Mink!"

"Damned if I will," said Revel, flinging himself forward and down. The
gun roared harmlessly as Rosk, startled, tugged on the trigger. Revel
went up to stab for the man's belly, but a warning tremor of the ground
gave him pause; a stallion was thundering down on him from the left. He
flicked a glance at it. A great roan, with the Lady Nirea up, and coming
straight for him.

She would run him down? He bared angry teeth--but she was going to miss
him! She was galloping between him and Rosk! She was....

_She was stretching down a hand to him, her face twisted with hope and
fear and--friendship!_

       *       *       *       *       *

Instinctively he slapped her wrist with his palm as she hurtled past,
jerked his legs up and was carried off by the rocketing roan. As he
writhed into the saddle behind her, she screamed.

"Help, oh help! He has attacked me!"

The bi--no, the clever girl, by Orbs! Helping him, she was yet saving
her own reputation and life, making it seem that he had leaped astride
her mount as she was carried by him. No squire could have seen that
helping hand, for they were all on the opposite side of her. A vast
hullabaloo went up from their ranks.

"Throw me off, you fool," she hissed at him, twisting round and
pretending to strike him. "Throw me off!"

He reached past her, hauled on the reins, brought the animal back on its
heels, pitched her off unceremoniously, winked broadly at her and found
time for a leer as her riding skirt hoisted unladylike as she sat up;
then he rammed heels to the brute and was off on a run for his life.
Guns banged behind him, slugs tore the air inches from his bowed back.
Let 'em shoot, curse them, he had a chance now!

The cliff of reed-laced muck dwindled, and he turned the roan and leaped
him up to the higher level of ground. Then he turned and went charging
back the way he had come, quick eyes searching for his comrade.

"Jerran! Jerran, you scuttling mouse, where are you?"

_Bang_ went a musket.

"Here, Revel!" The little straw-colored man popped out of a bush in his
path. He bent as Nirea had, gave the rebel a hand up behind him. Then he
swerved the horse and went off through the oaks, while the gentry cursed
and raved and came after as best they could.

"Discomfortable riding, this, without pants. Ouch! Where shall we head,
ancient one?" Revel asked grimly.

"The way we're going. There, see that hill? Up and over that, and we're
on a straight path for the forests of Kamden."

Revel was jolted nearly out of his battered hide by the unfamiliar
jounce and rock of the steed; but he knew he could stick on it till
night if he had to. The only enemies that fretted him now were the
golden spheres. You could not distance a god simply by mounting a horse.

"Look up," he said, watching the path. "Are there gods?"

"Yes, but high, following us. They mark our way."

"Let them! Jerran, at nightfall we head for the mine. Our mine, and our
cavern."

"You can't go there, you drooling baby, you'd find an army of globes,
priests, gentry, and zanphs. They'll be crawling all over the things in
that cave, especially after you took guns from it! What is it that draws
you there?"

"A metal chest--ouch--I've been thinking of for a long time. Jerran,
what's 'suspended animation'?"

"Why?"

"Nirea kept muttering it to herself in the cave. I think she read it on
the chest."

"Suspended," mused Jerran. "Temporarily halted. Animation, life. Life
held in check? Movement stopped for a time?"

"That's it."

"Love of freedom, lad, what's it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Revel, glancing up at the soaring spheres, said half to himself, "Man of
the 21st century. Century's a hundred years. Twenty-first? John R.
Klapham, atomic something ... suspended animation. John sounds like a
name. Rest of it, enigmas, but...."

"Watch out!" yelled Jerran, turning against his back. "A god comes at
us."

"How good are you at throwing knives?"

"As good as the next rebel. Damned good."

"Take one from my belt, and see if you can spit it in the air. If it
touches you, you'll be a frizzled-up cinder in a wink."

He felt the knife leave his holster, there was a pause, then Jerran said
under her breath, "Blast this horse--ugh--got it!"

They were almost at the crest of the hill now. None of the ruck watched
the chase from here, for it was far from Ewyo's house and none had
expected Revel and Company to come so far. There were guards, though:
three squires sitting their quiet horses on the brow of the hills, a
hundred yards apart. They watched the roan with its double burden beat
up toward them, then blinked and peered as they saw that the foremost
rider was naked.

"Va-yoo," said one uncertainly, then, realization hitting him, "va-yoo
hallo! Here he comes!"

He came, and the squires bunched to meet him; he aimed his horse's head
for their center, they split off wildly at the last instant, and he was
through them before they could draw guns from the saddle boots. A crack
behind him was the first one speaking tardily, and the roan leaped
forward, touched into fury by the slug's creasing its withers. Jerran
said calmly, "I'm hit in the leg. Let me see. A flesh wound, no matter.
Ride, lad!"

"The globes are our only worries now," said Revel exultantly.

"And they're some worries, for they descend even now at us."

He looked up, and saw that it was true. A multitude of the radiant gods
were dropping from their buttons, and the forest of Kamden with its
sprawling borders and its secret, protective darknesses lay half a mile
before the Mink.

Almost he would rather have died by a squire's bullet than a
pseudo-god's fierce energy blast. He recalled the feelers that had
touched his face yesterday, the searing heat of the aura that before
that had crisped off the hair above his ear. It was a filthy way to die.

The roan, strongest of all the gentry's horses, was easily distancing
them all. But it could not distance a down-slanting globe.

Revel the Mink committed his soul to whatever might receive it, and dug
in his heels for a last desperate gallop.



CHAPTER XI

    The ruckers all have heard the call
      The Mink has sounded clear;
    They come from near, they come from far,
      To fight the squire and sphere.

    He arms them all with stolen guns,
      With horses, pikes, and fire;
    He sends them all abroad to hunt
      The savage-stallioned squire!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


As night fell, Lady Nirea left her father's house by the servants' door.
She was dressed in the miner's clothes she had worn the previous day,
and carried a gigantic portmanteau, so heavy she could scarcely lift it.

In the bag were her favorite gowns, numbering sixteen; two coats she
especially loved; some bracelets set with diamonds--the rarest gem of
any, for though they were mined extensively throughout the country, the
globes took all but a very few for their own mysterious purposes--and an
antique golden chain she'd inherited from her grandmother; some personal
effects, paint for her lips and such frivolities; a trumpet-mouthed gun
with the stock unmounted, together with as much ammunition as she could
find; and lastly, four books from her father's secret chamber.

These last were all in the curious run-together printing, three of them
labelled "Ledger and Record Book" and the fourth with "God-Feeding" on
its cover. The fourth was far older than the others, indeed, the oldest
book Nirea had ever seen.

Ewyo lay drunk in a deep chair in his library; he would sleep now till
nearly the middle of the night, when he'd wake up and howl for another
bottle. Jann she had not seen for hours. The servants, being ruckers,
did not count. Her escape from the mansion was going to be simple.

In the stables, Lady Nirea ordered her second best horse, another roan
stallion, saddled and laden with the portmanteau on a special rack
attached to the rear of the cantle. The usual trappings, the fancy reins
and broidered saddlecloths, she had the stableman leave off; she didn't
want to call attention to the fact that she was Ewyo's daughter.

When the roan was ready, she mounted, and turning to the stableman, a
young rucker with shifty eyes and a shy, retiring chin, she asked
steadily, "Are you a rebel?"

"Me? No, Lady! Do I look crazy?"

"You look sneaky, but smart enough." She leaned over the saddlebow
toward him. "Tell me the truth. Don't be afraid, you fool. I am the
Lady of the Mink." It was a title she uttered proudly now. Nirea of
Dolfya had been forced to think this day, and it had changed her
greatly.

The stableman backed off a little, his pasty face writhing with tics.
"My Orb, Lady, I don't know what you're thinking of! You, Ewyo's girl,
calling yourself such a name--"

Her roan was trained to the work she now put him to; a number of times
she'd used him for it in the streets of Dolfya, just for sport, out of
boredom. Now she pricked his ribs with the point of her sharp-toed
shoes, just behind the foreleg joints, and said, "At 'em, boy!" The tall
beast reared up and danced forward, hoofs thrashing the air. The
stableman shrieked, took a step back, and threw up his arms as one
iron-shod hoof smashed into his face. Then the roan was doing a kind of
quick little hop on his body, and red blood ran out over the
packed-earth floor.

"If you were a rebel, you were too craven about it to be much good to
your people," Nirea said, looking at the body. "If you weren't, then
your mouth is shut concerning me." She wheeled the roan and trotted out
of the stable.

By the gate in the wall a tall figure waited, white in the early moon's
light.

"Jann!" said Nirea, with surprise and fear. Her older sister had always
bullied her; Nirea was unable to wholly conquer the dread of this
amber-eyed, sharp-eared woman. Jann stood with one hand on the gate, her
high breasts and lean aristocrat's profile outlined against the dark
black-green of the woods behind her. Now she turned her head to look up
at Nirea.

"What in the seven hells are you doing in that rucker's outfit? Where
are you going?"

"None of your business. Get out of my way."

Jann stepped forward and grasped the bridle at the roan's mouth. "Get
down here, you young whelp. I'm going to beat you--and then hand you
over to Ewyo to see what's to be done with you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Nirea never knew, though afterwards she thought of it often, whether she
touched her horse's ribs deliberately or by accident. All she knew was
that suddenly he had thrown his forequarters up into the air, that Jann
was screaming, twisting aside, that the roan was smashing down....

[Illustration]

Jann lay on the grass, and her profile was no longer aristocratic; nor
were her breasts smooth and sleek and inviolate.

Nirea sobbed, dry-eyed, turned the roan away, leaned over to push open
the gate, and cantered off down the silent road, numb with horror, yet
conscious of a small thrill of gratification, somewhere deep in her
feral gentrywoman's soul. Nineteen years of knuckling under to Jann, of
taking insults and cuffs and belittling, were wiped out under the
flashing hoofs of her roan stallion.

Now where should she ride? She was a rebel herself, molded into one by
her father's actions and her memories of the Mink. If he were dead, that
great chocolate-haired brute, then she would simply ride straight away
from Dolfya until she found a place to live, and there plan at leisure.
But if he were alive, then she would be his woman.

She touched the horse to a gallop, and sped toward the only place she
could think of where she might get news of him: the mines.

Someone scuttled off the road before her; she reined in, peered
unsuccessfully into the darkness, and called softly, insistently, "If
you're a rucker, please come out! Please come here!"

A rustle in dry brush was her answer. She tried a bolder tack. "It's the
Lady of the Mink who commands it!"

After a moment a man stepped onto the road from a clump of bracken. Red
were his hair and beard in the moon, and the white walleye stared
blindly. Fate, chance, the gods--no, not the false, horrible globes, but
whatever gods there might be elsewhere--had crossed her path with Rack,
the giant whom she trusted more than any other rucker.

"Rack!" she called quietly. "Come here, man."

He was at her stirrup. "What are you doing, Lady?" His voice was
anxious:

"I'm joining the rebels, big man. Where can I find the Mink?"

"I don't know. Lady, are you mad? The rebels are saying that the gods
are overthrown and there will be gentry blood running all over Dolfya by
noon tomorrow. They're out of their heads."

"No, Rack, they're honest men fighting a hideous corruption." She told
him rapidly what she'd seen in her father's room. "I don't know exactly
what it means, 'but it's bad--degrading, horrible! I don't want to be a
gentrywoman any longer. I--I'm the Mink's girl. Listen," she said,
leaning over to him, "he took me two days ago, and Revel is my man, hell
or orbs notwithstanding. Now where is he?"

"I've heard he's alive," said Rack slowly. "I thought he would be; he's
too tough to kill. Where he is, no one knows."

"Do the rebels trust you?"

"No." His face turned up to hers, honest and bewildered. "I'm of two
minds.... I serve the gods, as any sane man must, but I have seen
things...."

"So have I. Rack, come with me. We must find the Mink."

He bit his lip. Then he took hold of her stirrup. She thought he was
going to pull her off, and edged her toes forward toward the signal
points of her roan; but he merely said, "I'll hang on to this and run.
Go ahead, Lady."

She tapped the horse to a canter, feeling better than she had in hours.
Rack was a servant (say rather an ally) worth four other men.

"Head for the mines," grunted Rack. Her own idea. Surely it must be
worth something. Soon they were coming into the coal valley. God-guards
shone with an eerie and now-abominable golden light at the various
entrances. "Which is Revel's?" she asked.

"Up there. He wouldn't be there, but if I can get past the guard, and
there's no reason I should be stopped, there are men on our level, the
fourth down, who might know about him. There's no other place to check.
I don't know the meeting places. I have never been a rebel." He seemed
to brood darkly for a minute, then added, "Before!"

       *       *       *       *       *

They hobbled the horse in a nook of upended rocks, and she hid the
portmanteau under some brush. They walked to the mine, she now
remembering the location by certain landmarks, and Rack said, "There's
no god showing. That's strange."

"I'll go with you as far as I can. If we do meet a god, I can explain
myself mentally; after all, I'm of the gentry. I'm not in danger."

"I hope not." He helped her up the shelf, and they walked furtively into
the tunnel. No sign of anything--till Rack stumbled over the corpse of a
zanph. Bending, Nirea saw beyond it the sack and draining ichor of a
globe.

"The rebels have been here!"

"Aye." He straightened, his white eye shining in the light of a distant
lantern. "How can a god die?" he asked, in a child's puzzled tone.
"Lady, no god ever died before. They don't die--'tis in the Credo. How
can these rebels slay them?"

"Maybe no one ever tried before. Come on." She hurried to the ladders.
Blue-tinged, mouth agape and eyes upturned without sight, there lay a
priest, half over the lip of the shaft. He had been de-throated by a
pickax.

"This looks like Revel's ferocious work," said Rack. "I hope he's alive.
Yes, I do hope so."

"When I last saw him, riding off hell-for-leather on my nag, he was
extremely alive, mother-naked and covered with blood but as alive as I
am this instant." She went down the ladder hand under hand past three
levels, swung off at the fourth. Another dead man lay at her feet; this
was a squire, a youngish man in plum and scarlet, very brutally slain by
a pick-slash in the brain. It was a man she knew, and momentarily she
felt herself a traitor to her kind; then she thought of Ewyo's vices,
corruptions, and she snorted defiantly. His gun, its stock remounted and
a shell rammed home, was in her hand. She went forward, striding like a
man ... and a man who knew what he meant to do.

The end of the tunnel was illuminated vividly by many blue lanterns, and
presented to their startled eyes an horrific scene of carnage. The dead
lay in piles, in one and twos and fours, their brains splashed on the
walls, their guts smeared across the floor, their skulls cloven and
their bodies rent. Ruckers lay here, miners and gentry-servants. Squires
wallowed lifeless in pools of their highborn blood. Snake-headed zanphs
clawed in their rigor at the dead flesh of priests, of rebels, of
squires. Here and there lay the vacant sacks that had been gods. At
Nirea's feet stretched a man built like Revel, who might _be_ Revel, for
his face was gone, burnt away by the touch of the terrible orb-aura at
full strength. No, she realized even as she swayed back, it was not he,
for this man's body was unscarred, and Revel must be looking like a
skinned hare if he yet lived.

What a brawl this must have been! She was about to speak to Rack when
she heard a familiar voice, booming brazenly out in the silence of the
mine. It came from the black hole at the end of the tunnel.

"Then a whole line of them came down at us, faster than a squire can put
a horse over a hurdle, and the forest yet a good half mile away! I had
one dagger left, and my trusty small Jerran up behind me. The squires
were ashooting, but ineffectively, and the roan was carrying us well and
truly; but here came the gods, may they boil in my mother's cook-pot in
Hell!

"I looked wildly for something to beat 'em off with, for as you've seen,
a touch of their radiance burns your flesh from your bones if they wish
it so. Well! The only thing on the whole cursed nag is the scabbard in
which a squire keeps his long gun. It's a thing some three feet long or
over, of light metal, covered with satin and velvet and silk. I tore it
from its moorings, and as the globes came at me, I stood up in the
stirrups, naked as your hand, and started to swat 'em. Jerran leaning
forward past me, guiding the stallion, for his reach is not half mine."

"Brag and bounce!" said a voice that was surely Jerran's. Lady Nirea
grinned and walked toward the cavern.

"So I swatted, I beat at them, I swiped and almost fell, I did the work
of twenty men--don't shake your head, Jerran, you know 'tis not
brag!--for half a mile, and not one globe touched a hair of our heads!
They came at the last from all sides, like a swarm of angered bees, and
one burnt the horse so that he streaked even faster; which saved our
necks, for my arm was nearly dead by then.

"I tell you, there is one protection only against these things, and that
is quickness: for let one come within a few inches of you, and you are a
dead man."

Nirea stepped into the cave.

"I thought you were a dead man, Revel the Mink," she said quietly, still
with the ghost of her grin.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stared at her, while the men in the place turned and sprang up and
stood uncertainly, looking from her to their leader. He was dressed in
miner's clothing again, and his skin was a perfect fright of scars and
scabs and half-closed wounds. But he was whole, barring part of an ear,
and he was smiling as only he could smile. "Here, men of the ruck, is
the woman you owe my life to. Here is--" he cocked an eyebrow
quizzically--"here is, I think I can say, the Lady of the Mink."

"Here she is," said Nirea, and was stifled and crushed in a great
bear-hug. "And here's Rack, your brother, who I think may be rebel
material."

"I think so," said Rack heavily, staring at Revel with his good eye. "If
you want me, brother."

"Gods, yes! We need every man we can get this night. Did you note the
slaughter beyond?"

"We did see a corpse or two."

"I think we kept that secret, for two of my fellows stood on the ladders
and slew the gods who tried to pass. But it will soon be discovered, and
the gods will do to this place what they did to eastern Dolfya, unless
we can fight them some way. I think I have a clue to help us. What that
is I'll show you now."

"Revel, dearest," she said, "are you all right?"

"Of course, thanks to you. Now to business."

"Rack must go to my horse above for things I brought."

"Go then, Rack. Wait--first give me that pick you've got there. I think
it's mine." Rack handed it over, a little shamefacedly, and Revel gave
him the one tucked in his own belt. "I've missed this girl.... The chest
I want to search is still here, though the gentry have carried off a
great deal from the cavern."

"Wait a minute," said Nirea fiercely. "You'd better do a few things
before you start experimenting and searching. You'd better have a plan,
and send men out to spread word of it among your people! There are
thousands of them out there, ready to pounce at your word, to rise
against the squires and priests, and take their chances of gods'
vengeance. You'd better send out the word that the Mink is leading them
to war. Otherwise, you'll have an army that's ineffectual and headless,
that can be cut to pieces in twenty-four hours. For most of them think
you're dead--the gentry spread the word."

Jerran said, quietly so that only the girl and Revel heard him, "I think
I named the wrong person. I think Lady Nirea is the Mink!"

Revel laughed grimly, "Haven't I been busy? Haven't I sent a troop for
Dawvys in his hole in the coppice, and another to say in the lanes and
shebeens that I'm alive? Here, Vorl, Sesker, and you three, get out!
Steal horses from the mansions' stables, and spread the news. We rise
tonight! Whether or not I find what I seek, we rise! If we all perish in
a god-blast, still we rise! When you've enough men, attack the gentry's
homes, beginning at Dolfya's center and spreading out. Put every horse
available on the road to Korla and Hakes Town and every village within
knowledge. If they look scared, show 'em a dead god! Take those out
there--stick 'em on the ends of pikes, carry 'em through the streets
with torches to show 'em off! Kill every globe you can reach, send the
corpses out for the ruck to see! There's our banner, our fiery cross--a
dead god on a pike!"



CHAPTER XII

    The gods have looked upon the Mink,
      And felt his mighty hand;
    They've sought him through the mines and towns,
      And in the forest land.

    All-wise, all-powerful though they be,
      The Mink they cannot find;
    Afar he's wandering o'er the earth,
      At war for all mankind.

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


"Read it again," said Revel, bending his scarred face beside the girl's
sleek one, staring hard at the printing as if by concentration on it he
could learn to read right there, and drag the hidden meaning from the
words. "Read slowly. Rack, you're no slouch at thought, even though you
have been in the toils of the false gods. Give this your best brainwork.
Jerran, concentrate! You three men, try to cull the sense from these
words. Begin!"

In the light of half a dozen lanterns she began to read. The Mink
strained all his brains.

"_Man of the 21st century: John R. Klapham, atomic physicist and leader
of the Ninth Expedition against the Tartarian Forces in the year 2054.
Held in suspended animation._"

"Ha! I thought that's where you got the phrase," said Revel. "I believe
it means that in this chest, and thank Orbs it was too heavy for the
gentry to move today, in this very chest lies a man of the Ancient
Kingdom, who still lives, though he sleeps!"

The woman looked up excitedly, then began to read again. Most of the
words were strange. "Placed here 10-5-2084, aged 64 years; this done
voluntarily and as a public service to the men of the future, as part of
the program of living interments inaugurated in 2067."

"Living interments," repeated Rack heavily. "Buried alive. But you think
he still lives?"

"I think so. Don't ask me why I simply do. The words burn my brain."

"What are the numbers?" asked a miner. "2067, the year 2054--what are
they?"

"I don't know. Go on, Nirea."

"Instructions for opening the casket: spring back the locks along each
bottom edge." She felt the chest where it rested on six legs on the
floor. "Here are odd-shaped things--ooh!" She jerked her hand away.
"They leap at me!"

Revel felt impatiently, said, "Those are the locks." He unsnapped
fourteen altogether. "What next?"

"Run a knife along the seal two inches below the top."

"Here's the seal," said Rack. He took his pick, and thrusting the point
of it into a soft metal strip that ran around the chest, tore it away
with one long hard tug. The Mink finished the job on sides and back;
"Read!" he said.

"Lift off the top." She glanced at Revel. "This is almost exactly like
Orbish," she said. "Only those queer words--"

"Philosophize in the corner," he said, pushing her aside. "Rack, lend me
your brawn." Together they lifted the top, which was about the weight of
a woods lion, and with much groaning and puffing, hurled it clear.

       *       *       *       *       *

Below them, within the chest and under a sheet of the transparent stuff
they had seen in other parts of the cave, lay a man. He was
young-looking, though if Revel understood the words on the chest, he had
been sixty-four when he was hidden away here. His skin was brown,
smooth, and his closed eyes were unwrinkled. A short oddly-cut beard of
brindled gray and black fringed his chin. His hands, folded on the
chest, were big and sinewy, fighter's hands.

"What now?" panted Revel.

"Provided that the atmosphere is still a mixture of 21 parts oxygen to
78 parts nitrogen, with 1% made of small amounts of the gases neon,
helium, krypton--none of these words make sense."

"Skip them, then. Find something that does."

"Let's see ... swing the front of the casket up, and unhinge it so that
it comes off." They figured out what was meant, and did it. The front of
the metal case, very light compared with the top, fell with a clang.
"Insert a crowbar under the glass that covers the man and lift it
carefully away."

"Crowbar? Glass?"

"This almost invisible stuff covers him, it must be the 'glass'," said
Jerran. "Let's try to lift it off."

It took Revel and Rack and two miners, but in a matter of five minutes,
they had removed the plate of glass, the thin curved sheet that had
protected this man of the Ancient Kingdom. "Next?"

"Provided that it is no later than the year 3284, Doctor Klapham should
revive within an hour. If not, take the hypodermic from the white case
below him and inject 2cc.... Do you understand this at all?" she asked.

"Only that the man, whose name is evidently Doctor Klapham, ought to
wake up shortly." The Mink shook his great brown head. "If only we'd
found this cave in a quiet time! If only the gods and the gentry weren't
to be dealt with! Have we the time?"

"Your work is going on above-ground," said Jerran, rubbing his chin. "We
can't be of more use anywhere else, it seems to me, than we may be right
here."

They sat and watched the inert form of Doctorklapham, while two of their
rebels went out into the mine to round up anyone who would join them. In
something over half an hour they were back. "The mine's been cleared;
nothing anywhere except this man, who was on the lowest level and hasn't
heard a thing."

"They missed me, I guess," said the newcomer. "I was off in an abandoned
tunnel sleeping."

"We're eight, then." The Mink scratched his head reflectively. "Not a
bad fighting force. Provided they don't smear this whole valley, I think
we can win clear--after we see what this fellow is going to do."

"I think I see him breathing," said the girl breathlessly. She was
sitting with a book on her lap, trying to decipher the meaning of its
words. "Look at his throat."

       *       *       *       *       *

Doctorklapham made a strange sound in his chest, a clicking, quite
audible noise, and unfolding his strong hands, sat up.

"Well," he said clearly, "didn't it work?" Then he took a closer look at
the eight people standing beside him. "Oh, my Lord," he said, "it _did_
work!"

"He speaks Orbish," said Rack, "but with a different accent. Could he be
from the far towns?"

"No, you idiot, from the Ancient Kingdom," said Revel. "Your name is
Doctorklapham, isn't it?"

"Roughly, yes." The sleeper worked his jaws and massaged his hands.
"Wonderful stuff, that preservative ... what year is this, my friend?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"What's the date?"

"Date?"

"God, this I wasn't prepared for." He hoisted himself over and jumped
down with boyish energy. "Tell me about the world," he said. "I guess
I've been asleep a long time."

"Yes, if you were put here in the time of the Ancient Kingdom." Revel
was trembling with excitement. "Why are you still alive?"

"Friend, judging from your clothes and those picks, and the primitive
look of those lanterns, which must date from about 2015, I'd say it'd be
pretty useless to tell you how come I'm alive. Just call it science."

"What's that?"

"Science? Electronics, atomic research, mechanics, what have you--mean
anything?"

"I'm sorry," said the Mink, "no."

"You speak quite decent English, you know. It's funny it hasn't changed
much, unless I've been asleep a lot shorter a period than I figure."

"My language is Orbish."

"It's English to me. What's the name of your country, son?"

"It has no name. Towns are named, not countries."

"Who are you, then?"

"I am Revel, the Mink," he said proudly. "I am the leader of the rebels,
who are even now spreading through the land sending the word that the
gods can die, and that the gentry's day is done. I am the Mink."

He half-expected the man to know the old ballads, but Doctorklapham
said, "Mink? That was an animal when I was around last.... Call me
John."

"John. That sounds like a name." Rack nodded. "Yes, this is better than
Doctorklapham."

"Anybody have a cigarette?" asked John.

"What's that?"

"A fag, boy--tobacco, something to smoke. You drag it in and puff it
out."

"Your words make no sense," said Revel. "Drag in smoke?"

"This is going to be worse than I anticipated," said John. "Look, can't
we go somewhere and get comfortable? I have a lot to find out before I
can start getting across to you what I was sent into the future for."

"We are besieged by the gods. We dare not leave this place."

"By the gods. Hmm. Let's sit down, boy. I want to know all about things
here. Miss, after you." He waited till Nirea had squatted on the floor,
then folded himself down. "Okay," he said, whatever that meant. "Shoot.
Begin. What are the gods, first?"

Lady Nirea listened with half an ear to Revel's speeches, but with all
her intellect she tried to follow John's remarks. They were sometimes
fragmentary, sometimes short explanations of things that puzzled Revel,
and sometimes merely grunts and slappings of his thighs. Many words she
did not know....

       *       *       *       *       *

_My God, that sounds like extraterrestrial beings ... globes,
golden aura of energy or force, sure, that's possible; and
tentacles ... zanphs? describe 'em ... they aren't from Earth either;
I'll bet you these god-globes of yours, which must be Martian or
Venusian or Lord-knows-what, brought along those pretty pets when they
hit for Earth...._

_Listen, Mink, those are not gods! They're things from the stars, from
out there beyond the world! You understand that? They came here in those
"buttons" of yours--what we used to call flying saucers--and took over
after ... after whatever happened. Your civilization must have been in a
hell of a decline to accept 'em as gods, because in my day ... oh, well,
go ahead._

_Priests, sure, there'd be a class of sycophants, bastards who'd sell
out to the extraterrestrials for glory and profit ... yeah, your gentry
sound like another type of sell-out, traitors to their race and their
world ... describe those squires' costumes again, will you?... Holy
cats, eighteenth century to a T! Not a thread changed, from the sound of
it! And a lower class, you call it the ruck, which is downtrodden and
lives in what might as well be hell...._

_Yep, it sure sounds like hell and ashes. The globes; then, as is
natural to a conquered country, the top dogs, priests in your case, who
run things but are run by the globes; then the privileged gentry--I'll
have a look at those books of yours in a minute, honey--who pay some
kind of tax, in money or sweat or produce or_ something, _for being what
they are; then the ruck (I know the word, son, you've just enlarged its
meaning) who have been serfs and peasants and vassals and thralls and
churls and hoi polloi and slaves since the Egyptians crawled out of the
Nile. The great unwashed, the people. Let 'em eat cake. I'm sorry, Mink,
go on._

_Your gentry sound about as lousy a pack of hellions as the eighteenth
century squires! Too bad you don't know about tobacco, they could carry
snuffboxes and_ really _act the part...._

_My God! Even the fox hunts--with people hunted. Anyone but miners? Open
days, eh? Ho-oly...._

_Glad to know you, Rack. Don't know as I'd care to have you on the other
side, you look like Goliath. So you just saw the light when the gods
started to die? You are lucky you saw it, big man; brother against
brother is the nastiest form of war, especially if mankind's fighting an
alien power...._

_Your rebels sound familiar, Mink. They had 'em about like you in
Ireland, a hundred or so years ago--I mean before I went bye-bye....
Always romantic, unbelievable, unfindable, foxes with fangs...._

_I wonder what your globes wanted? Power, sure, if they're that humanoid
in concept, but it must have been more. Maybe their own planet blew up.
Maybe they ran out of something. Tell me, do you have to give them
anything? Any metal, say?_

_Diamonds? Are those small hard chunks of--yes, I guess diamond still
means what it did. By gravy, I'll bet I know! They were just starting to
discover the terrific potential of energy of the diamond when I went to
sleep in 2084. I_ wonder _how long ago that was? Anyway, I'll wager these
globes of yours run their damned saucers--buttons--on diamond energy.
Maybe their planet ran out of diamonds. By god! what a yarn!_

_You'll have your hands full, but maybe I can help. There's a way to
bring those saucers down out of the sky in a hurry.... They won't give
up easily. They obviously have atomic bombs, and the lush intoxication
of power won't be a cinch to give up, not for anything that sounds as
egotistic as the globes...._

_Dolfya? We called it Philadelphia. Kamden, Camden, yeah.... Woods
lions, wow! They must be mutants from zoo or circus lions that escaped
during the atom wars; or maybe someone brought 'em to the U.S. The
Tartarians had tame lions, I remember._

_Six or eight brains? Well, Mink, I wouldn't argue, but I think you are
confusing certain functions of one brain with--oh, do go on!_

_Let me see that gun. My Lord, what a concoction! Blunderbuss muzzle,
shells, yet no breech-loading; ramrods to shove in shells! My sainted
aunt! A fantastic combination...._

_He eats dandelions, parsley, grass, eh ... chlorophyll, obviously. And
the globe rests on his chest and puts tentacles into his mouth and
nostrils. It's feeding, sure; look at the title of this book you've got
here. This is a bastard English but close enough. Certainly your father
wrote it, Miss. Some of your gentry must have preserved the art as a
secret._

_Look here: I'll make it as plain as I can. The globes are from another
world. They came here for diamonds to run their buttons with. Got that?_

_Now here's what I deduce from the little I've read here. Talk about
Pepy's Diary! Hadn't anything on this chronicle. Your father and the
other gentry have to feed the globes periodically. Evidently they draw
nourishment out of the human bodies--all that chlorophyll makes me think
it's a definitely physical nourishment, rather than a psychic one.
That's what your people pay for being privileged powers in the land.
They stand the disgrace and the pain, if there is any, the draining of
their energies, in return for plain old magnetic_ power.

_So that's the source of life, strength, what-have-you, of the aliens!
They must have gotten pretty frantic out in the space wastes, looking
for a planet that could afford them a life form that was tap-able._

_Evidently it has to be voluntary, from these books. I guess the
ancestors of the ruck had their crack at the honor and declined, thus
dooming themselves and their offspring to servitude; while those that
assented became the gentry. What a--Judas Priest! What a sordid state of
affairs for poor old Earth!_

_Let me have that line from the Globate Credo again:_ They came from the
sky before our grandfathers were born, to a world torn by war; they
settled our differences and raised us from the slime_--there's a bitter
laugh, gentlemen_--giving us freedom. All we have we owe to the globes.
_There's the whole tale in a nutshell. God!_

_Orbish language, Orbuary, Orbsday--nice job they did of infiltrating. I
wonder what books they left you. I'd like a look at your father's
library. Alice in Wonderland, I suppose, or Black Beauty, or something
equally advanced._

_Now listen, lads, and you, Lady Nirea. I came from a world that may
have had its rugged spots, but it was heaven and Utopia compared with
this one. You disinterred me at the damndest most vital moment of your
history, and probably of Earth's as well--we've had conquerors aplenty,
but always of this world, not from out of it. It seems to me that if
your rebellion fails, you're due for worse treatment than ever. You've
got to win, and win fast. Any entity that has atomic weapons is going to
be no easy mark, and the gentry have guns. How about you people? Ten?
Ten guns altogether? Oohh...._

_See here. That big machine over there is a--well, that's hopeless. I'll
try to break this down in one-syllable words. Orbish words, I hope._

_That big thing sends up rays like beams of sunlight but of different
intensity, color, wave length, et cetera--it sends up beams that
counteract, I mean work against, destroy, other beams. Now the buttons
are held up there by forces in diamonds, taken out by these globes of
yours and used to hold up their homes, ships, saucers, buttons. The
beams from that big thing will destroy the diamond beams and make the
buttons fall._

_There's just one thing. We have to get the machine, the thing, out of
this cave and onto the surface of the earth. You catch my meaning? It
has to have sky above it before it can work against the button-beams.
Yes, much like your globes' telepathy (what a word to survive, when
"glass" and "electricity" didn't) and hypnosis fails when rock gets in
the way._

_Can you get it to the surface? Talk it over, Mink. It can give you
plenty of help ... if you can get it up there. I'll just sit here, if
it's okay with you, and let my imagination boggle at what you've told
me._

_I have the most confounded urgent feeling that this is a visit I'm
making in a time machine, and that tomorrow I'll go back to good old
2084. Johnnie, Johnnie, wake up! You're here!_

_God!_



CHAPTER XIII

    The Mink he takes his pick and gun,
      He ranges through the towns;
    His force is miners, trappers, thieves--
      And a girl in gentry-gown.

    The rebels ride on stolen nags,
      They travel on shanks' mare;
    The gore's awash, the heads they roll,
      All in the torches' glare.

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


Revel the Mink and his eight troops crouched in the dark entrance of the
mine. The night was black, clouds had obscured the moon, and only the
occasional pinpoints of globes drifting between the buttons above them
broke the gloom.

"What are they doing?" hissed Nirea. "Why haven't we been attacked long
since?"

"The globes move in a mysterious way their wonders to perform," muttered
John Klapham. "I'll wager there's something like that in the Globate
Credo."

"Almost those words." Revel glanced at him respectfully. This man of the
Ancient Kingdom had great mental powers.

"Sure. Every time somebody has the upper hand over somebody else,
there's got to be an aura of mystery; and any half-brained action is put
down to 'mysterious ways.'" He spat. "They're so damn confused, son,
that they're probably holding forty conferences up there, because they
don't dare wipe out this valley--coal keeps the gentry warm and happy
for 'em--and they want to inspect the cave down below. So they're tryin'
to think of the best way to squelch you without losing too many priests
and zanphs and gentry."

"True, they mustn't lose too many servants, or their prestige is hurt,"
said Lady Nirea. Now that she'd found her Revel, she had discarded the
rucker's clothing and was dressed in a thigh-hugging sapphire gown. Even
in the dark she was beautiful, he thought.

The Mink stood. Up and down the valley glowed the lights of god-guards
at the mines, double and treble now, since with the Mink loose not even
a god was safe alone. Plenty of zanphs there too, he thought. Yet he had
a few gentryman's guns, and his old pick slung at his back. Zanphs,
gods, gentry, priests? Let them beware!

His thinking was done; he would retire his brains--despite the clever
John, Revel knew he had more than one brain--and let his brawn take
over. Only the brawn of the Mink could win through the next hours.
Half-consciously he tensed his whole frame, curled his fingers and toes,
thrust out his great chest. The skin on all parts of his body creaked,
split back from the worse wounds, achily stretched; blood sprang from
shoulder and from other hurt places. Yet he was not only whole, but full
of eager vitality. The small pains of his hide were only incentives to
act violently and forget them. He relaxed and turned to his friends.

"You two, find the nags of the gentry we slew. I hear stamping nearby.
Nirea, go to your own beast and wait for me. You two, with Rack, Jerran,
John and me, we'll search the mines for men. We need plenty of
them--it's miners' guts and muscles it'll take to move that
beam-throwing thing from the cavern. Let's begin."

He drew the Lady Nirea up to him, slapped her face lightly, kissed her
open mouth. "Quick, wench, hop when I speak!" A touch of starshine
glistened on his grin-bared teeth. Then he turned and leaped off the
rock shelf.

       *       *       *       *       *

The nearest mine was guarded by three gods, nervously jiggling up and
down in grotesque little air-dances; below them sat half a dozen
hideous-headed zanphs. Revel crawled up toward the entrance. At the
first touch of an alien mind on his own, he shot forward, pick flailing.
Two gods he caught with one stroke, the third began to rise and his
backswing took it on the underside and tore a gash as if the pick had
struck a rubber bag: yellow gore dropped in a flood. He had no time to
wonder if the third globe had telepathed a distress signal, for the
zanphs were on him.

Their snake-like heads were fitted with only two teeth in each jaw, yet
those were four inches long and thick as a man's thumb at the base,
tapering to needle points. One zanph, propelled by all the vigor of its
six legs, rose like a rocketing pheasant and clamped its jaws across his
left arm. It overshot, and two teeth missed; but the others dug down
into the flesh and grated on the ulna bone.

He gave it a jab of the handle of his pickax between its cold pupilless
eyes, and it swung limp, losing consciousness but anchored to his arm by
the frightful teeth. He cracked the neck of another zanph with his foot,
spitted a third, and then Rack and Jerran were slaying the others. John
appeared and lifted the first one's body so that Revel could disengage
the teeth from his bloody arm.

"What a beastie," marveled the Ancient Kingdom man. "How I'd love to
dissect one!" Revel, puzzling over the word "dissect," went into the
mine.

"Jerran, come along. You others remain, and keep off any intruders."

There were but three levels in this mine, and he covered them rapidly,
Jerran at his heels. He slew seven more spheres, with four zanphs. His
blood was up and his tongue lolled with excitement.

To his banner, which was a dead god on Jerran's pick, there came
forty-three miners. Four others declined, and were allowed to stay at
their posts, true to their false gods and the service of the gentry.

Coming out of this mine, he led a small army, and felt like a conquering
general already. In two hours he had invaded every shaft in the valley,
and six hundred men less a score or so were at his back.

"How's this for a start?" he asked Nirea, meeting her walking her roan
on the grass. She glanced at the mass of men, all those in the van
carrying dead globes. "Not bad ... but have you seen the sky, Mink?"

He looked upward. From horizon to horizon the sky was ablaze with
circles of light, red and green and violet, pure terrible white and
flickering yellow. _The buttons_, murmured his men behind him. _The
buttons are awake!_

[Illustration]

"You couldn't expect to do it in secret, Revel," said John. The old man
was as spry and eager as a boy, thought the Mink. "Now let's not waste
time. I'm banking that the invaders, I mean the globes, won't blast this
valley except as a last resort; if they read my mind, or if their
science has gone far enough for 'em to recognize an anti-force-screen
thrower when they see one, then we're practically atom soup now."

Revel, having understood at least one portion of the speech--"Let's not
waste time"--waved his miners forward.

They filled the shaft and the tunnel, they thronged into the cave; when
the Mink had shown them the machine to be moved, they fought one another
for the honor of being first to touch it.

       *       *       *       *       *

It stood solidly on the floor, ten feet high, twelve wide, square and
black with twin coils and a thick projection like an enormous gun on the
top. Men jammed around it, bent and gripped a ledge near the bottom,
heaved up. Loath to move, it rocked a bit, then was hoisted off the
ground. They staggered forward with it.

The hole in the wall was far too small.

"Miners! The best of you, and I don't want braggarts and second-raters,
but the best! Tear down that wall!" Revel stood on a case and roared his
commands. Men pushed out of the tunnel's throng, big bearded men, small
tough men. They stood shoulder to shoulder and at a word began to swing
their picks. Up and down, up and down, smite, smite, carve the rock
away....

Soon they picked up the machine again, and manhandled it out into the
tunnel. The crowd pressed back, and the Mink bellowed for the distant
ones to go up the shaft to the top.

"How you going to get it up to the ground?" asked John. His voice had a
kind of confidence in it, a respect for Revel that surprised the big
miner. John evidently believed in him, was even relying on his mind when
John himself was so overwhelmingly intelligent. Revel wondered: if he,
the Mink, were to fall asleep and wake in a future time, knowing all his
friends and relatives were dead long since, knowing his whole world had
vanished ... would he be as calm and alert and interested in things as
John?

There was a man, by--what was the expression he used?--by god!

"We'll get it there," he said. "So long as you can work it, John, there
aren't any worries."

"Understatement of the millenium, or is that the word I want? Optimistic
crack o' the year. Okay, Revel. It's your baby."

Slowly the men carried the machine to the lip of the shaft. Nothingness
yawned above for ninety feet, below for over a hundred. The shaft was
twenty feet across. "Now what?" asked Lady Nirea.

"There's an ore bucket at the bottom; we toss our coal down the shaft,
and once a day the bucket's drawn up to the top, by a hoisting mechanism
worked by ten men, and the coal's emptied out and taken away in small
loads. The bucket fills that shaft. It's two feet deep but so broad it
holds plenty of coal. You can see the cable out there in the center;
it's as tough as anything on earth."

"I see your idea," said John. "I _hope_ that cable's tough. The machine
weighs a couple of tons."

"Tons?"

"I mean it's heavy!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Revel bawled for the men at the top to start the winch. Shortly they
heard the creak and groan of the ore bucket, coming slowly toward their
level. When its rim was just level with the floor of the tunnel, the
Mink let go a yell that halted the men on the windlass like a pickax
blow in the belly; then Revel said, "All right, move it onto the
bucket!"

"For God's sake, be careful of it," said John. "That's a delicate
thing." He leaped down into the huge bucket. "Take it easy," he
cautioned the miners, straining and sweating at the work.
"Easy ... easy ... easy!"

The great square mysterious box thrust out over the lip, teetered there
as if it would plunge into the bucket. John with a screech of anguish
jumped forward and thrust at it with both hands.

If it fell now it would smash him to a pulp, and Revel's chance
to drop the buttons from the sky would be gone forever. Nobody on
earth could ever learn to manipulate such a complex thing as the
_antiforcescreenthrower_ of John.

The idiot had to be preserved. Revel dropped his pick and launched
himself into space, lit unbalanced and fell against John, rolled over
sideways pulling the amazed man from the past with him.

The machine teetered again, then a score of men were under it and
lowering it gently into the bucket. The broad round metal container gave
a lurch, then another as the machine settled onto its bottom. It tipped
gradually over until it seemed to be wedging itself against the wall of
the shaft. Revel howled, "Into the bucket, you lead-footed louts!
Balance the weight of that thing, or the cable'll be frayed in half!"

Miners piled down, filling the bucket; it was hung simply by the cable
through its center, and when coal was loaded into it the mineral had to
be distributed evenly if the bucket was to rise. Now it slowly righted
itself, came horizontal again.

"Up!" roared the Mink. Nothing happened. "More men on the winch!" Then
in a moment they began to rise.

The other rebels swarmed up the ladder. Lady Nirea and Rack kept pace
with the bucket, anxiously watching Revel and John.

At last the bucket halted. Its edge was even with the top of the shaft.
All that remained was to hoist the machine out and drag it out into the
night, below the shining buttons. Revel, leaping out and giving a hand
to John, ordered each inch of progress; and finally the
_antiforcescreenthrower_ was all but out of the mine. Another ten feet
would bring it clear.

Then the world shook around them with a noise like the grandfather of
all thunderclaps, the earth rocked beneath their feet, and the Mink felt
his eardrums crack and his nose begin to bleed.



CHAPTER XIV

    The Mink he turns his blazing eyes
      Up to the buttoned sky:
    "This night I'll tear ye down from there
      To see if gods can die!"

    The gentry mass in stallioned ranks,
      The priests have gone amuck;
    The orbs and zanphs they now descend,
      All-armed against the ruck!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


John staggered to his feet. "Brother! Maybe I was wrong. That was an
atomic city-buster if I ever heard one--and when the Tartarians were
over here, I did. Maybe the coal isn't so important to your damned orbs
after all." He went reeling to the open night. Revel and Nirea were
beside him now. Off to the west beneath the lurid light of the globes'
buttons rose another of the dark twin clouds.

"If they were trying to smack us, they could stand a refresher course in
pin-pointing ... let's get the thrower out here fast. Too many saucers
directly above us for comfort."

"There went another quarter of Dolfya," said Rack. "What power they
have!"

"You'll see their power come plummeting to earth if I can work the
machine," said John urgently. "Bring it out!"

The miners hauled it out, a titanic job even when men pressed tight
against men and uncounted hands lifted the great burden. John showed
them where to put it on the rock shelf. "Hoist me up on top," he
clipped. It was done. "Now watch."

Revel stared at the sky till his eyes began to ache. At last John
shouted, "I'm ready, but listen--I see a lot of torches coming up the
valley, and the men holding 'em are mounted!"

"Our rebels, likely," said Jerran.

"Send men to meet them," yelled Revel. "They might be gentry. Pickmen
and those with guns. Fast!"

"Okay, son," said John then, "watch the buttons just over us."

All heads tilted. A strange clanking came from the great box, a beam of
thick-looking purple light lanced upward from the gun-like projection on
top and fingered out toward the buttons. "Be ready," called John from
the top of the machine. "This'll nullify the diamond rays for a few
minutes, but then the things will be able to rise again. Your men must
go out and break into the buttons before the globes can get 'em up!"

Revel issued his orders quickly. The purple light had now touched a
button, which wavered from its fixed position, then as the beam caught
it fully, dropped like a flung stone. Hundreds of voices bellowed the
rebels' joy. Half a hundred miners leaped off into the night to attack
the fallen ship, which struck the earth some distance up the valley with
a shattering crash.

Already the beam, more sure now as John's hands grew confident of their
power, was flicking over other buttons. The least play of its purple
glow on the under surface of an alien ship was sufficient to send it
catapulting down. The other buttons were moving, sluggishly, then more
swiftly, coming toward the valley; and John could be heard swearing in a
strange foreign tongue as he wheeled his great gun around and around.

A ragged volley of shots broke out in the western end of the valley.
Revel jerked his head up. "They _were_ squires!" he said. "We've got to
get up there to help our men!" Rack motioned to the miners behind him
and went off into the gloom; Jerran shouted, "Some for the fallen
globes! Some have to stay to--"

Revel made a long arm, picked him up by the scruff. "Little man, are you
the Mink?"

Jerran struggled ineffectually. "No, damn it, no!"

"Then shut your mug till you're told to give orders!" Revel dropped him,
and roared out, "Two hundred men--Jerran, count 'em off as they pass
you--to the fallen buttons! Pickax the globes! Break the skull of every
zanph! The rest of you, up to the top o' this hill--spread round in a
ring that circles this ledge, and don't let a squire or enemy through!
We've got to protect John!" He turned, gripped Lady Nirea's wrist
urgently. "Have you quick eyes and hands, love?"

"Faster than most men's, save your own." Her slatey eyes glowed eerily
in the buttons' light.

"Then up you go," he said, and hoisted her up by the waist until her
hands clenched on the upper edge of John's machine. "Perhaps you can
help him. I can't spare a man yet. Luck, Lady!" He set off toward the
nearest button, tilted crazily with its rim in a cleft rock. At the
western end of the valley more shots were echoing and yells rose thin
and frightened. He wished he could be in several places at once but the
wounded ships were the place for a slayer of gods tonight.

       *       *       *       *       *

The bottom projection, dark blue and some fifty feet across, had been
knocked open by the force of the fall. From the dark interior zanphs
were crawling, a veritable army of the six-legged, snake-headed beasts.
An occasional globe floated out, but moving slowly as if it were sick.
Pickmen were axing them out of the air with yells of glee, as the zanphs
milled, then spread out to attack.

He swept his weapon in a long looping arc that tore the head off one and
maimed another as it leaped toward him. It was the first blow in a
personal battle that seemed to last forever. When one batch of zanphs
and globes had been disposed of, another lay a few yards further on,
coming out of another ship and another and another, some ravening to
kill, some weak and sick, desiring only to escape. After the ninth
"saucer" as John called it, Revel gave up counting, and slew his way
from button to button, gore of red and yellow spotting and splashing
him, wounds multiplying in his legs and arms and chest, half the hair
burnt off his head by the energy auras of angry orbs.

His force dwindled. Men died with throats torn out by zanphs, with eyes
singed from the sockets by globe-radiation. Men stood numbed and
useless, hypnotized into immobility. Men sat looking at spilling guts
that fell from zanph-slashed bellies. But still the Mink slew on and on,
a tall dark wild figure in the uncanny light of the still-flying
airships of the alien globes....

John was bringing them down faster than ever, and Revel must needs split
up his small force even more, sending miners to each wreck to catch as
many entities as possible. Many spheres of gold managed to rise into the
sky, where they found sanctuary in other saucers: some zanphs went
scooting for shelter in the rocks and bushes, but most stayed to fight
and die.

He yearned to check his forces back on the hill, those protecting John's
machine, and the men who still fought the gunmen in the upper end of the
valley. But he dared not take his encouraging presence from the miners
here. A button came swooping to earth not three yards from him, spraying
him with clods of dirt, unbalancing him by the shock; a zanph gained
purchase on his shoulder and tore flesh and sinew and muscle so that his
left arm lost much of its strength and cunning. He killed it with the
pick handle and struggled on into a mob of the brutes, panting now and
blinking blood from his eyes.

Of his original two hundred, less than seventy remained. Still he dared
not draw any from the protective ring. Where were the rebels that Vorl
and Sesker and the others had gone to rouse? Probably raiding mansions
miles away. He should have told them ... oh, well. Surely the
concentration of noise and buttons and gods above the valley would bring
them soon.

A moment's respite allowed him to look at the sky. It was lightening a
little for the early dawn, and the buttons were less bold; most of them
hovered near the horizon, only an occasional one bravely sailing in at a
terrific speed to make a try at bombing the valley. John, perhaps with
Nirea helping him, had managed to bring down every one so far. But John
and Revel would run out of luck some time, as every man does; then John
would miss, Revel's arm would fail, and they would all die.

       *       *       *       *       *

Even as he lowered his head a gargantuan blast shook the world below
him. He fell into a mob of zanphs, who were fortunately so demoralized
by the explosion that they ignored him till he could gain his feet and
begin to murder them once more. From the tail of his eye he saw a
mushroom cloud lowering just beyond the hill; he flicked his gaze
at the crest where his men had been stationed to guard the
_antiforcescreenthrower_--no human form showed against the gray sky. The
blast had hurled them to dust, together with every tree on the skyline.

Finally--the gods knew how long he had fought--he found with amazement
that no more foes were in sight. The buttons that had fallen were all
cleaned out. Zanphs lay thick in heaps and lines, emptied sacks of
globes dotted the bloody grass. He listened for the sound of firing from
the upper valley; yes, there were still isolated shots.

His forces there still held, then. He glanced again at the sky. No
buttons in range. They were giving John a respite--or was it a trick?
Revel's tired mind wondered if John and Nirea were dead, and the gods
playing with him this way....

He felt himself, his head, arms, chest, legs. He had been burned a dozen
times by energy auras, only his incredible animal quickness preserving
him, giving him the power to dodge away at first touch of the burning
and slay the golden globes. The zanph bites atop the thorn scratches and
hound gashes were rapidly stiffening his whole torso, his left arm, his
thick-thewed legs. But there were shots in the upper valley, and Revel
the Mink was needed there.

Wearily he gathered his men--twenty-six of them now, all as tired as
he--and trudged at a broken shuffling lope toward the light.

As he passed the rocks where the machine of John sat, he scanned it with
blood-shot eyes. A score of miners, perhaps thirty at most, stood around
it, and the man of the Ancient Kingdom sat on its surface, wiping his
face with a white cloth. Lady Nirea stood up beside him and waved her
hand as he passed. He swung his pick in a big arc to show he was still
hale and hearty, though the effort cost him much.

Through his dulled brain now ran one thought, one hope. It was a chant,
a prayer, a focus for his beaten spirit, for though he had won thus far,
he was so death-weary that he could not conceive victory coming to him
at the last.

_Just let me meet Ewyo. Only let me meet Ewyo without his horse. Give me
now one fair fight with Ewyo the Squire of Dolfya._

The first man he met was Rack, engaged in binding up a torn calf with
strips of his shirt.

"How goes it?"

Rack turned the walleye toward him, as though he could see out of it.
"We have eight or ten left. All their horses are dead or run away. We
stayed them in hand-to-hand combat, but when they drew back and began to
use their guns long-range, we lost heavily. Now we're dug in along that
rise, and they seem to be waiting for more squires, or horses, or
something. I think they have twenty or thirty left."

"Then we have thirty-five or so, and outnumbered them."

Rack let his good eye rest on his brother. "Your voice is the croak of a
dying frog, Revel. You must have lost a quart of blood. Your men are
like sticks and sacks and limp rag bundles. You call this force
thirty-five _men_?"

"We are still men, Rack." His voice, croak though it was, rang strong
and fierce. "I can plant this pick in any gnat's eye I desire. Now do
you lead us to the battle front."

"Yes, Mink." Rack turned and hobbled forward. "One of the slugs has
sliced half the tendons of this leg, I swear."

"That wound is in the fleshy part, and won't trouble you for a week. Is
that a man?"

"That's Dawvys."

       *       *       *       *       *

Revel started back, appalled. The man lying behind the rise was red and
brown from short-cropped hair to waist, his back a mass of
blood--sparkling crimson in the light of dawn, where it had freshly
sprung leaks, and dirty mahogany color, where the scabs had dried and
cracked and flaked. It was a back that should have belonged to a dead
man; but Dawvys rolled over on it without a wince and grinned at his
leader.

"Hallo, Revel, bless your soul," said the former servant. "I'm glad to
see you alive."

"The same to you, Dawvys," said the Mink. "Did you have any trouble in
that pit?"

"I went to sleep when the hounds had passed, and never awoke till your
men found me tonight." He stretched and grunted with pain; then, "I
think I shall live."

Revel looked cautiously over the rise. Some fifty yards down the valley
the squires were grouped in a knot, their costumes gaudy in the early
light. A few of them were looking toward him, but most watched the far
end of the valley. They were looking, thought Revel, for reinforcements.
Time might be short.

He scanned the terrain. Where the squires stood, the valley was narrow,
scarcely more than sixty feet across. Above their knot, to Revel's left,
was the open mouth of a mine; the opposite hillside was bare and rocky,
without break. A familiar voice behind him said, "What's to do, Mink?"

"Greetings, Jerran. Why did you leave the machine?"

"Nothing doing there. The gods are sitting on the horizon. Have you a
thought?"

"See that mine?" He pointed with his gory pick. "Isn't that the western
entrance of the great mine of Rosk?"

Jerran took his bearings. "It is."

"Then the other entrance is back yonder, and through it we can traverse
the mine and come out that hole-above the squires."

Jerran nodded. "The best plan under the circumstances. Let's go."

Rack said, "I come too."

"Yes, all of us save four men," agreed Revel. "They must stay here to
create noise and pretend to be forty people. Give us ten minutes, and
the squires will find that mine shaft erupting death all over them!"



CHAPTER XV

    The Mink has fought till nearly blind,
      Till almost deaf and dumb;
    Till all his strength is waned away,
      And all his senses numb.

    At last his foemen give before
      His pick as swift as fire;
    Before him now there stands alone
      The cruel, and savage squire!

    --Ruck's Ballad of the Mink


With thirty men at his back, Revel went down the valley at a crouch;
slipped up the rock shelf to the eastern entrance of the great mine of
Rosk, protected from the gentry's view by a chance outcropping of shale,
and went into the darkness. The tunnel he sought was on the second
level. He dropped down the ladder, unhooked a blue lantern to guide his
way, and followed the narrow tunnel west.

Behind him the pad-pad of his weary men lifted muffled echoes, and he
tried to set such a pace as would take them swiftly to the hill above
the squires, yet not tire them further nor wind them before the battle.
In the intense gloom he distinguished another lantern far ahead. As he
approached, it appeared to move toward him. Was someone carrying it?

He tensed himself and swung the pick a little; but when the priest
hurled himself at the Mink, bearing him back against Jerran, the Mink
was caught by surprise. It had been no lantern, but the priest's glowing
robe!

Revel's reflexes were still, if not hair-trigger, at least very quick.
This was a tough priest, though, a lean hardbitten man, with a fanatical
long face that shoved itself into Revel's and clicked its teeth a
quarter-inch short of his nose. The fellow's arms were tight about him,
as they rolled sideways against the rock, Revel straining to bring his
pick into play, clutching tight to the lantern, while the priest flailed
hands like knobby boulders against the Mink's nape and head. A blow of
his knee, and Revel doubled up, gasping; struck out blindly with the
lantern, caught the fellow in the belly, and made him curl up in his
turn, choking for breath. Jerran and the others were blocked by Revel,
and growled encouragement.

Revel straightened, nauseated and weak. The priest came at him. Revel
raised his pickax and swung it--pain stabbed into his legs and belly--he
bent involuntarily in the middle of his swing--and what should have been
a neat spitting of the holy man's skull became a messy job of
disemboweling. The fellow died gurgling, picking futilely at his spilt
entrails. Revel crawled over him and went on once more, his troops
behind him.

At the western entrance to Rosk's mine, he peered out for the first sign
of the highborn enemies. A thrill of panic touched him as he saw they
were not where they had been; then, poking his head into the dawn, he
saw them advancing in a slow line toward the rise where his four men
were raising shouts and taunts.

Orbs, he thought exultantly, here's a piece of luck! We'll take them in
the back!

He slipped down the shelf, gesturing his men on. Running silently, he
came within a yard of a squire in green and gold; then halted and
cleared his throat loudly. The squire, startled, looked back.

"Ewyo!" he shrieked, whirling. "It's the Mink!"

"Come from Hell to slay you," said Revel between his teeth, and dealt a
blow with his pick that clove the gentryman from brow to breastbone. The
line of men had swiveled, and now shots rang out; at such close range
even their guns could not miss. Half a dozen rebels fell, screaming.

And now the weary Revel was a brazen-throated fiend, brandishing his
pick, roaring, scalping one and braining the next, destroying with fresh
vigor dredged up from the pits of his free soul. For now he had a
strange certainty that the gods were done, and if he died in this moment
he died emancipated.

Joy brought him strength such as he had never had. These squires,
running off, loading their guns feverishly, firing, clubbing their
weapons to stand and fight, what chance had they against him? He looked
for Ewyo, but could not find him. _Let him not be dead_, he prayed. And
then there was Rosk.

Rosk, red of visage, narrow of jaw, bloody about the thin mean mouth,
facing him over a thrust-out gun. Revel jumped aside, but Rosk did not
fire, only following him with the musket muzzle. "Don't bounce, Mink,"
he grated. "Stand and look around you. Your men are falling faster than
autumn leaves."

       *       *       *       *       *

Revel glanced behind, and at that instant Rosk fired. It was a
treacherous trick, and by poetic justice it was his last. The ancient
gun, overheated by long use, could not take the overcharge of powder in
the shell. It blew up, its barrel twisting into twin spirals of metal,
its stock driving back into the guts of the squire, fragments of hot
iron spraying his face and chest. Rosk had no time to howl, but went
down like a lightning-struck birch. Revel felt the slug, or a piece of
the shattered gun, burn along his cheek.

What was one more wound atop the uncounted number he had? The Mink
laughed, turning to his men.

Of the thirty, Rack and Jerran and one other remained. Each was engaged
with a squire, his two friends grappling without weapons, the miner
swinging a pick against a clubbed gun. All the others were dead or
dying. Ewyo must be dead somewhere in the valley, or else he had not
been here at all.

Revel hurried tiredly to the nearest combatants, let his pick go licking
out over Jerran's small shoulder, tore off half the head of the squire.
Rack crowed triumphantly as he throttled his man. The miner had won his
fight. They were finished.

The four of them limped toward the hill of John's machine.

Then there came a pounding of hoofs on greensward behind them. Revel
turned. It was a lone rider, galloping furiously down upon them. He saw,
with an incredulous gasp, that it was Ewyo of Dolfya.

"Go on," he said urgently. "Leave me, comrades."

"You young _fool_," barked Jerran. But he took Rack's arm and pulled the
giant forward, leaving Revel standing alone with his face toward Ewyo.

The stallion was pulled up short, and Ewyo stared down at him. "I hoped
I would get here in time," he said.

"You're late. Your world is broken, Ewyo." Revel realized as he said it
that he was fatigued to the point of not giving a damn whether he lived
or not. Still there was a yearning to fight this devil on horseback.
"Shoot, Ewyo. I shall kill you all the same."

Ewyo raised his gun, hesitated, then said, "Is there only myself, then,
and you, Mink, in all the world?"

"In all the world, Ewyo."

"Will you give me a pick?"

Revel started. "You are no miner. You can't fight with a pickax."

"I can fight with anything I can hold." He threw the gun on the grass.
"Give me a pick," he commanded, leaping from his nag.

       *       *       *       *       *

Revel stooped and took up the weapon of a dead man. It was a good pick,
with a longer handle than the Mink's own. He reached it out to Ewyo,
holding it by the head, and the squire took it and stepped back a pace.

"When you're ready, Mink."

"Now, Ewyo."

They circled each other, warily watching the eyes and arms of the enemy.
"Why didn't you shoot me?" asked Revel in wonder.

"Too unsporting," growled the beefy squire, his pale eyes squinting with
strain. "A gentleman doesn't take advantages."

Revel laughed. It was too ridiculous a statement to merit an answer. He
made a feint, Ewyo parried skillfully. Then the squire brought his pick
down in a looping arc. His reach was as long as Revel's, and the pick
gave him an advantage. Revel jumped back, slashed sideways and missed.
They circled.

"The gods will win out," grunted Ewyo.

"Their day is done. We are aided by the Ancient Kingdom."

"Superstition! Things have always been as they are."

Slash, hack, parry and retreat. "Not as they are now, Squire Ewyo."

Ewyo dropped his guard, Revel came in to gut him. Too late he saw the
trick, and Ewyo's pick sliced across his shin, a shallow cut that nicked
the bone. He jabbed with the flat of the blade, struck Ewyo in the
chest, and jerking his pick sidewise and back, tore velvet coat and
satin weskit and drew blood. Ewyo cried out.

Revel summoned his strength and began a series of flashing swings, which
Ewyo parried frantically, backing across the grass. Blood spurted from
cheek and hand as the rebel's deadly weapon glinted dully in blurred
movement before the squire's eyes.

Then the squire rallied, and his power being greater than Revel's now,
if his skill were less, he drove the Mink back in turn.

There came a blow that turned the pick in Revel's hands, sending its
point down to the side; Revel recovered, but the squire threw up his arm
and brought down his blade with such force that the off-balance Mink
could not turn it wholly. It sliced over his ribs, drove through the
flesh of his hip.

Pain so hideous as to make him dizzy and ill knifed the Mink. In that
moment he knew if he did not make one superb effort he was done.
Conquering agony, he swung up the pick before Ewyo could recover from
the vicious downswing. With a noise like a rock hurled into a rotten
melon, the pick tore through cloth and flesh to lodge in Ewyo's belly,
half its head buried in the screaming squire.

Ewyo tore it from the Mink's hands as he fell, and writhed about it,
curled like a stricken serpent.

The Mink dropped to one knee beside him, head bowed with nausea and
relief. "You were a brave man, you bastard."

Ewyo, strong in his fashion as Revel in his, stiffened his body so that
he could look straight up at his killer. "Not--especially brave," he
ground out. "You see--Mink--I had no--ammunition--for the gun...."

His pale eyes filmed over, and Revel staggered off, leaving him for the
crows and worms of the valley.

       *       *       *       *       *

When he had come, dragging himself like a wounded stag up the rock
shelf, they stared at him in silence for a long minute. Lady Nirea at
last said, "But you are dying, Revel!"

"Not for a good many years," he grinned.

Jerran said, "Aye, cut him a thousand times and he'll make fresh blood
from that valiant heart!"

John called, "Look there, Mink!" Down the dawn wind rode half a dozen
golden orbs, high enough to be out of reach of their picks, low enough
to observe them. Revel gritted, "Blast 'em!"

"You can always shoot later, son. Let's hear what they want."

Reluctantly Revel waved a crimsoned hand to stop his gunmen. The globes
halted a few feet above the machine. Fingers of thought pried into the
Mink's head, and automatically up went his screen.

Then the cerebral prying ceased. John murmured, "They're talking to me."

Revel watched the silent exchange of thoughts. What if the obscene
things got hold of John's mind. Anxiously he scanned the strong face for
signs of fading will. At last he could stand it no longer, and was about
to order a volley, when John said, "I think that's it, Mink."

"What happened?" they all asked eagerly.

"The things parleyed. They see they can't get close enough to smash the
machine--that last explosion was a desperate try at crashing a saucer
with a bomb ready to trip, and it didn't work--so they want to talk. I
gave 'em a skinful." He chuckled. "Told 'em there were men of my time
wakening all over the world, with machines to defeat them totally; they
know whom they're dealing with now, and they're going to talk it over.
Mink, that's the end of the gods, with luck! They won't face a force of
twenty-first century scientists. They haven't got it, they just haven't
got it."

"But they'll discover that you lied," said Nirea. "They'll get the
thrower, sooner or later, and then we're at their mercy again."

"I didn't lie, girl. All over this hemisphere there are caves like the
one I came from, with scientists held in suspension, plenty of machines
from our time, and knowledge that will bring your world out of these
Dark Ages into another Renaissance! I have the locations in the papers
that were interred in the casket under me, and we'll send parties out
today to find 'em. This is a new world dawning this morning." He leaned
over and kissed her enthusiastically, and Revel, who would have split
another man down the brisket for that, did not mind at all. "Your globes
are done, Mink. The gentry and the priests will be easy prey. You can
probably scare them into surrender after last night."

Jerran said, "Here be men on horses, Mink." Revel turned and saw a great
cavalcade of stallioned men sweep down the valley, and in a moment of
great joy saw that they were all ruckers, carrying dead gods on pikes
and singing the Ballad of the Mink as they came.

The Lady Nirea was in his arms, kissing his lips that were caked with
three kinds of blood; and Revel the Mink forgot the pain in his torn
body, the utter weariness of brain and muscle, and everything else
except what was good and sweet and wonderful.

       *       *       *       *       *

Three months had passed, and the leaders of the successful rebellion of
Earth were sitting in a drinking-house (legal now) downing toasts to
various people and events. Revel and his wife Nirea sat at the head of
the board, and down the sides ranged their friends and lieutenants: the
giant Rack and the tiny Jerran, Dawvys and a dozen others, with John
Klapham at the foot.

"To the end of the globes," said John, his tongue a trifle thick by now.
"By gad, you brew potent stuff in these times! To the gods' finish!"

They drank that standing, roaring it out gleefully.

Revel said, "It was a sight to see, that--thousands upon thousands of
buttons, all sweeping into the sky and vanishing into dots and then
nothing ... and here's to the gentry they took with 'em!"

"How many went?" asked Nirea, though she knew as well as he.

"Seven thousand and four hundred and ten, squires and their ladies,
electing to travel out of the world for promised power in another!"
Revel grinned wolfishly. "And here's to the priests who weren't allowed
to go, and so have become miners and know what it is to sweat!"

Rack stood up, looming gigantic above them. "Here's to the men awakening
now all over this country--the men of the Ancient Kingdom!"

"And the things they can teach us," added Jerran.

"And a toast to the most important of those things--the art of tobacco
growing!" shouted John gaily.

They sat down after that, and Revel said to John affectionately, "If it
hadn't been for you, friend, we'd still be ruckers and worse. You gave
us a new world."

"Rot. I gave you a technical skill--you furnished the brains, brawn and
motivating force, a legend come to life. I was only one more weapon in
your hand."

Lady Nirea touched the Mink's arm tenderly. "We'll all be weapons in
your hands now, Revel. Tools to make a civilization again--to make the
last verse of the old song come true."

"Let's sing it," said Dawvys, a little in his cups by now. "Let's all
sing it loud."

    "The gods have flown beyond the sky,
      The priests toil underground;
    The gentry's curse is lifted free,
      And all our foes are downed....

    "Now over all the Mink he reigns,
      And gone are rank and caste;
    The ruck is lifted from the mire--
      And we are free at last!"

       *       *       *       *       *

They finished the rousing song and looked expectantly at the Mink; but
he had borne back Lady Nirea on the bench and was kissing her with
enormous warmth, so that even a prophetic song, written about him ages
before he was born, could not tear loose from him the only chains that
would ever bind him again--the wrought-steel, invisible, shatter-proof
shackles of Nirea's love.





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