FOR A POOR, DOWN-ON-HIS-LUCK EX-MARINE, FITZ WAS DOING OKAY
It all started when "Fitz" Fitzgilbert tumbled down a certain STAIRWAY TO FOREVER -- and found himself in another world. At first it had seemed a world that offered only infinite loneliness, a world of nothing but ocean, sand, and inland desert. But before long this "empty" world had granted Fitz incredible wealth, the love of a beautiful soulmate, godlike telepathic and telekinetic powers-in short, a life of pure and joyful adventure.
But the time of play is ending now. The Elder Gods who called him to this world grow impatient for Fitz to take up the burdens of kingship for which they have summoned him. And though he loves the life he has been living, and does not want to be a king, Fitz learns that for him there is no choice: he must live as a king if he is to live at all.
Robert Adams (1932-1990) was a career soldier whose Horseclans series drew on his military background to lend verisimilitude to the exploits of 26th Century of immortal mutant warriors in a balkanized North America. The Coming of the Horseclans (1975) was the first of 18 novels in the sequence, which ended, with The Clan of the Cats (1988), only on account of the author’s death.
His non-Horseclans work included two other series. Castaways in Time (1980) and its five sequels were a mix of alternate history and time travel. The Stairway to Forever and Monsters and Magicians (both 1988) were the only volumes to appear of a projected fantasy series.
He also co-edited several anthologies, among them Barbarians (1985, with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles H. Waugh), four Magic in Ithkar volumes (1985-87, with Andre Norton), Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (1987, with Pamela Crippen Adams and Martin H. Greenberg) and Robert Adams' Book of Soldiers (1988, same co-editors).
Yancey Mathews missed going back to the county farm to finish his sentence in enforced and unremittingly hard labor by the width of a cat’s whisker...or so everyone readily informed him. This even after he had told the pure truth—leaving out only the part about having tried to shoot his neighbor, Mr. Fitzgilbert, and being so drunk that he had managed to miss with both barrels at a range of less than twenty yards.
But he had told the unvarnished truth; told just what had happened, as he recalled it. How he, minding his very own business while standing in the back yard of Mr. Fitzgilbert’s next-door neighbor, Old Man Collingwood, had seen Fitzgilbert come out of his back door, suddenly leap completely over the twelve-foot chain link fence and the barbed-wire strands that topped it, lay hold to poor Yancey, and fling him up onto a tree limb a score of feet above the ground, whereupon he had lost consciousness.
Yancey had not come to until after sunup, brought back to a conscious state by the repeated shouts and threats and baseless insults of Collingwood, standing on the ground below. Stung to the quick by the old man’s slanders of his two darling sons, Yancey had tried to quit the limb, only to lose his balance and find himself hanging beneath it by his belt, which somehow had been lapped around both his own skinny waist and the oak limb. It had taken a brace of sheriff’s deputies and a stepladder to at last get him down.
He had told them all the true story, right from the beginning. The arresting deputies had laughed at him, then thrown him into the tank with the rest of the preceding night’s collection of drunks. Upon arrival, Sheriff Vaughan had heard him out, then shaken his head and said, with a wolfish smile, “Yancey, I think you done vi’lated your parole, las’ night. Didn’ I warn you ‘bout thet? ‘Bout behavin’ yourse’f and all, boy? Well, you’ll be back on the farm lickety-split, this time. You oughta get there jest about in time for the plowin’ and plantin’, too.”
Turning to his accompanying deputies and the turnkey, he had ordered, “Take Yancey out’n here and put him upstairs, heah. One you read him his rights and let him make any phone calls he wants to, too. Judge Hanratty, he’s due in...lessee, Monday of nex’ week; Yancey should oughta be over the shakes by then.
“I’ll let Missus Pugh know ‘bout this so she can go out and put Welfare back on pore Char’ty Mathews and them two hellions Yancey got on her. I’ll call Mike Mills over to the Courthouse, too, and see ‘bout gettin’ another free lawyer, a P.D. for Yancey, you know damn well he could pay one no way...‘cept in empty beer cans.”
The young lawyer the county finally turned up for him had heard him out, too, then just sat across the table from him for long minutes, staring at him and rolling a yellow pencil between the slender fingers of his butter-soft, hairless hands. At length the sallow-skinned lawyer had nodded his head of modishly-long black hair once, leafed through the papers contained in a manila file folder until he found what he sought, pulled out that sheet and used the yellow pencil to underline some things on it.
Returning his brown eyes to stare at Yancey, where he had sat cold sober, shaky, haggard and clad in ill-fitting jail clothing, he had asked, “How much had you had to drink that night, Mr. Mathews?”
As Yancey had begun to shake his head, the young man—almost a boy, Yancey thought—had warned in a cold voice that had snapped like a bullwhip, “And don’t try to lie to me. If you do, I’ll know and you can then just find yourself another attorney...if you can. You’re not exactly any good attorney’s dream of a client, you know.
“Now, how much did you have to drink that night? How many beers?”
“I...I don’t remember all that good, Mistuh Klein,” Yancey had half-whined, avoiding that icy, penetrating gaze as best he might. But that fearsome gaze had finally trapped his bloodshot eyes and he had felt compelled by cruel circumstance to add,
“Not much. Mebbe four...five...” The lawyer had said not a word, but his thin lips had become thinner and those terrible brown eyes had bored like a cold-steel star drill powered by a twelve-pound sledgehammer, and so Yancey was constrained to add, “Six-packs. Four, mebbe five six-packs...but they was all pony-cans, Mistuh Klein, little ‘uns, all of em.
“Holy shit” exclaimed David Klein, most feelingly, “Even if those were all pony-cans—which I do not believe for one minute, but never mind that, for now—that would be over a gallon and a half of beer. After drinking that much, a man as skinny and fleshless as you are, I don’t see why you weren’t comatose. I can’t imagine how you were able to stagger a block or so over level ground, much less climb up into an oak tree, before you passed out.”
Yancey had snuffled, then, whining dolefully, “You don’ b’lieve me neethuh. An’ I swear awn the Holy Bible, Mistuh Klein, suh, I done tole you the whole, gospul truth, ‘bout whatall happuned thet night. Thet Fitzgilbert bastid, he flang me up in thet tree. I dint climb up, I couldn’ of, I alius been pow’ful afeered of heights, is why. Jest you ast, ast enybodys’ done done construcshun work with me. I’m scairt of high places.”
By the time Yancey had finished he was sobbing, and tears were trickling down through his three days’ worth of stubble.
To Sheriff Vaughan, David Klein had said, “My client swears to the truth of his story about this Fitzgilbert having thrown him up into that tree, after jumping over the fence and attacking him without any provocation whatsoever. Has anyone yet talked to Mr. Fitzgilbert about it?”
After pouring himself another mug of coffee from his office silex, the sheriff sat back down, sipped, then set aside the mug and sighed. “Mr. Klein, no, suh, nobody’s talked to Mistuh Fitzgilbert, ‘cause nobody can, not ‘round here. Mistuh Fitzgilbert ain’t even in the country, ain’t been for weeks. He travels around a lot and, last I heered, he’s in Africa, huntin’ elephants or suthin.”
“Well, then,” probed Klein, doggedly, “could someone who might have resembled Fitzgilbert to my client in his somewhat intoxicated condition have jumped over that fence and...”
Vaughan had shaken his greying head vehemently. “Cous’luh, couldn’t nobody of jest jumped ovuh thet fence, I tell you! Thet fence is a almost-new, twelve-foot cyclone fence with three strands of bob-wire at the top. It can be climbed—Yancey, he’s climbed it afore and so has his two sons—and that’s all...lest you can fly.
“B’sides of the fact thet Mistuh Fitzgilbert, he’s ‘bout your height, though with a bit of a heftier build, but no ways strong enough for to th’ow a ridge-runnuh size of Yancey twenty foot up into no tree, nor carry him up, neethuh.
“You are gonna represent Yancey, then?”
It was David Klein’s turn to sigh. Nodding slowly, he said, “Yes, I told the poor man I would...and I will, for all that you’ve just blown the defenses I was putting together out of the water. You must like him, despite everything, to . . .”
Slamming a horny palm onto his desktop with such force as to set all on it into motion, Vaughan burst out, “Like him? Mistuh Klein, I purely hate Yancey Mathews’s pickled guts! He’s made life a pure, unholy hell for that pore little gal he conned into marryin’ up with him and he’s set his boys such a bad example and let ‘em both run so lawless and hog-wild for so damn long of their lives I don’t think enything’s goin’ to ever straighten the two of ‘em out, lest it’s a bullet or a load of buckshot.
“Cold sober—which he ain’t often, ain’t never if he can help it—Yancey is mean as a snake, connivin’, thievin’ and I don’ know whatall; drunk, he’s a murder just awaitin’ a time and place to happen at. I think...I knows, the bestest place, the onliest place cut out to his measure for him to be, to spend the rest his natcherl life at, is on the county farm, where he knows if he lets eny his white-trash meanness come out, he’ll purely get the shit kicked out of him and thet damned quick-like, too.
“The reason I made sure Mistuh Mills sent for you is I don’t want nobody to never be able to say or make it look like I got even a no-good hillbilly scumbag like of a Yancey Mathews to get railroaded by this county jest ‘cause of he was a troublemaker and dint nobody like him. Heah?”
As it happened, on the very evening of the day Yancey first met Attorney David Klein, Public Defender, Circuit Judge Harold Hanratty put his big, seal-brown thoroughbred at one fence too many and wound up in surgery for his trouble. It was more than a month before an adequate substitute judge could make his way to that county and Klein made good use of the time, having Yancey thoroughly examined, physically, mentally and emotionally, by competent specialists.
All of these specialists were located in the city and, although Sheriff Vaughan hated the expenses of deputy-drivers and transport for the handcuffed, shackled prisoner, he gritted his teeth and bore it as best he could, solacing himself with pleasant reveries of rawboned Yancey Mathews, working his skinny butt off on the county farm, with nothing to drink except water, coffee, tea and orange juice for the next several years...at the least. Hopefully, poor little Charity Mathews would use the absence of her spouse and his knobby knuckles to recognize the error of staying his wife, divorce the miscreant and find herself a good, decent, sober, law-abiding, God-fearing man with a good job, like she deserved.
But the sheriffs daydreams were not to be, this time.
Once down from the last of the sand dunes and onto what he had come to call the Pony Plain, the man on the motorcycle gave the machine gas, moving as fast as he dared over the expanse of sandy soil grown with tough species of grass, weedy shrubs and stunted trees and running with herds of big-headed ponies and many another beast, some of them of exceedingly strange appearance.
Had it not been for the fact that the plain was not really level, cut here and there at odd intervals with deep gullies, he would have squeezed even more speed from his bike’s powerful engine, for he had no slightest wish to encounter another of the fearsome monsters called Teeth-and-Legs, as he had on his last trip across in this direction. Yes, he had finally managed to kill the hairy thing before its huge, black-clawed, manlike hands and its fearsome array of orangish fangs had gotten close enough to rend his flesh, but it had proven itself more than fast enough to pace his bike across the broken terrain and had absorbed far and away too many of the .44-magnum slugs spat out by Fitz’s carbine to suit the man.
He still bore the carbine and his revolver, but he also now carried an old but well-kept Holland and Holland double rifle, an elephant gun—its gaping bores bigger than more modern shotguns’ bores and its two chambers containing custom-made cartridges that looked of a size more likely to be made for an automatic cannon than a hunting piece. Despite the best recoil pad that the gunsmith had been able to obtain and carefully fit to the butt of the rare, very expensive gun, despite its world-heavy but recoil-absorbing weight, Fitz had experienced from it an unremittingly brutal kick. However, the things that the thumb-thick lead-alloy slugs would do to even the weather-hardened wood of the ancient, partially wrecked dromon in the dunes back near the beach gave him a sense of near confidence in the rifle’s ability to put down even a Teeth-and-Legs with one...or, at most, two shots.
Still, he had no slightest desire to have to test the capabilities of the massive weapon. If he could cross the plain to the wooded hills without encountering a Teeth-and-Legs, he would be pleased. With a hill or two between him and the plain, he knew that he could unload and case the double-barreled rifle; for some reason the monsters never came into the hills.
Recalling how the thing he had had to kill the last time had tried to ambush him, he paused on each available elevation to scan the terrain ahead, behind, and on either flank with his binoculars, and he travelled well clear of the thicker clumps of vegetation and the verges of the gullies, where possible.
In the times before he had become aware of the existence of the terrible Teeth-and-Legs, he had spent much time—both by day and by night—on the Pony Plain. He had ridden the bike, walked, and camped out on it, observing the singular varieties of wildlife, some very similar to the beasts he had either seen in the flesh or at least in pictures in the world in which he had grown to his present fifty-five years of age. But there were others which he had never seen or even imagined.
“This Teeth-and-Legs, now,” he thought to himself, “not even my set of the Encyclopedia Britannica describes anything remotely resembling the things. The closest beast I can think of would be a baboon of some land, but monstrously distorted and vastly oversized. The one I shot had a head as big as a full-grown lion’s, a body almost as big as a gorilla’s, legs longer and thicker than mine ending in feet more like human feet—adapted to running, obviously, not to climbing—and arms that hung past its knees with hands like hams; it had a long muzzle like a huge dog or a bear and a full complement of orangish-whitish teeth with fangs that a Bengal tiger wouldn’t have been ashamed to show. Oh, and a shortish tail, too, as I recall.
“God, but that thing was fast; it could have run down any antelope, no sweat, or outraced even a cheetah. From the look of the body it must have been as strong as the proverbial ox, too. Looking back, though, I should’ve realized that something out of the ordinary was going on that day when I set out and saw so very little of any of the other animals on my route across. They keep as much distance as possible between them and the Teeth-and-Legs, wisely.
“The ponies are odd in many ways, too. I don’t know all that much about the various kinds of equines, but I’m still not sure that these are ponies at all. Yes, they’re pony-height, big-headed for their size, thicker-legged than most horses, but their necks don’t have real manes, just short bristles like a zebra or Pre...Prz...that weird-named wild horse some Russians found in Asia years ago after everyone thought it was extinct. Their coloring is way different, too—solid red-roan, most of them, with chocolate-brown neck bristles, tails and a broad stripe of it down the length of their spines. Some few of them look to have very faint stripes running around their lower legs, too.
“Danna says that she recalls reading somewhere, some time, an account by some naturalist or other of a small number of horses or ponies some place on one of the larger Caribbean islands that she thinks she recalls were colored like these...but she admits that she read it only once and long ago and can’t be sure.
“But both of us are stumped as to just what these things I call rat-tailed ostriches could be. They’re most about the size of an ostrich, they live and feed and move about in herds or flocks or whatever you call them like ostriches, they have legs and feet like an ostrich and they lay humongous eggs like ostriches, their heads and long necks look like ostriches’, but there the similarities end. Now comes the weird parts: they don’t have any feathers where ostriches have feathers, rather hair—fine, thick, downy hair—and instead of wings, they have a pair of spindly arms and hands or paws or whatever with three long fingers and a shorter one that is semi-opposed, like my thumb, almost. And then there’s their tails—a long, tapering, scaly tail—they can move them, but rather stiffly, and seem to use them mostly for balance.
“I’ve not seen any of the flying lizards close enough to get a good idea of the details of them; I don’t even know if the various sizes and colors of them are sexual dimorphism, stages of growth of the same animals or different animals altogether.
“Then there’s those weird birds with claws on their wing joints, that like to clamber in the thorn trees and eat the berries and any strange bugs they can catch. They have beaks like birds, but I think they have small teeth, too. But they at least do have feathers, not fur like the ostriches.
“Most of the smaller, furry animals, look fairly much like the small furry beasts anywhere else. But then there’s the flying rabbits. The grown ones are about the size of a prairie jack-rabbit, though they look to have much thicker bodies at first glance, when you see them moving about on the ground. It’s not until they get spooked and jump that you see that what you thought was a thick body is actually folds of furred skin that stretches from the forelegs to the hind legs and allows them to glide when extended, so that they can cover distances that would be incredible if not flatly impossible for rabbits back where I came from.
“There’s also some kind of horned animal that I’ve only seen from a distance with the binoculars—and that only once, so there must not be too many of them or they are just rare in this area, one or the other. They’re as big as the ponies or bigger, look kind of antelopish and all have a pair of long, curving, pointed horns with raised ridges around the shafts of them. The herd I saw wasn’t at all large, smaller than some of the pony herds, in fact; but if there’s any prey animal out here that could take on a Teeth-and-Legs with a chance of winning, I’d put my money on those great big antelopes or whatever, with their size and their horns.
“Something lives in the bigger lake over to the east that’s big enough to take paddling birds the size of a duck; I saw it happen, twice, when I was camped beside that lake once. It may be just a largish fish, like a muskellunge or a pike, but I don’t know, I never saw anything but ripples and the birds being pulled underwater. Nonetheless—he chuckled aloud at the memory—I stopped swimming in that particular lake.
“I know damned good and well there’re other predators—large and small—around out here. I’ve found several shed snakeskins and seen feline paw-prints of a number of sizes on the muddy banks of the ponds and lakes; but the only snake I have actually seen was in process of being eaten by a small eagle perched atop a big thornbrush. Apparently, the raptors and the Teeth-and-Legs are the only real predators out here that hunt by day—them and the terrestrial lizards, none of which are all that big.”
Atop another rise of ground, the man paused as usual and swept his immediate surroundings on all sides carefully with his eyes before using the big binoculars. Some mile ahead, a herd of ponies had converged along the nearer fringes of a reedy pond to drink and graze on the short, tender red-green grasses that grew there and in the hills beyond, but not out on the more arid plain.
Fitz recognized the herd stallion, a big one for his weedy breed—between fourteen and fifteen hands. The equine was missing part of his near-side ear, and the cheek below that eye bore three long furrows of scar tissue, quite dissimilar to his other battle scars. Fitz had often wondered at the origin of the facial scars in times past while roaming the plains among the herds. Now he thought he knew: the big stallion had at some time faced and fought a Teeth-and-Legs and survived the encounter. One tough pony!
Unslinging his two-quart waterbag, Fitz drank to the courageous pony stallion in the bottled mineral water which, its provenance notwithstanding, still harbored an unpleasant, vaguely-chemical undertaste and aftertaste as compared to the fresh waters of this place. Disgusted, he upended both of the waterbags and poured the otherworldly liquid out onto the sandy soil at his feet; he could refill them shortly when he reached the pond ahead, with water, real water.
In the deep-cut, steep-sided gully that dropped away from the rise on which he sat his idling machine, lizards of a plethora of sizes and shapes and many different iridescent colors scuttled among the rounded pebbles of the seasonal stream bed seeking insects and worms. They and the scattering of small birds obviously set to the same mission all ignored him and his noisy transportation, not considering him a threat.
He had cased his binoculars and was just about to proceed when, with the speed of insanity, everything happened at once. With a wild blur of fluttering wings and squawks of alarm, all the birds in the dry stream bed took flight, the lizards abruptly flicked out of sight, and suddenly there was one of the huge, pithecoid Teeth-and-Legs standing on the dry, round pebbles, its fierce, feral gaze locked upon him and its orangy teeth and fangs displayed in an utterly unhumorous grin. With a howl, the thing raised its over-long arms and ran two steps, then leaped upward.
Sitting there, Fitz was appalled to see a pair of big, black-nailed hands appear on the verge of the cut; he gauged the depth of the gully at least twenty feet and not even something on the order of this outrageous predator should have been able to leap so high straight up...but it clearly had done just that. He could hear the feet clawing the clay wall for support and the debris of that frenetic clawing cascading down to rattle among the pebbles below.
Realizing that there was no time to unship either the double rifle or the carbine and knowing from the first encounter the fatal folly of trying to outrun one of the things on his bike, Fitz instead drew his big magnum revolver, levelling the long barrel just as the gigantic, toothy head came into sight above the rim of the cut. He rapid-fired, double-action, at the horrible head. On impact of the weighty slugs, the hairy skull above the beast’s eyes dissolved into winking-white bone splinters, grey-pink globs of brain and a spray of bright-red blood, the remainder of the head tilting far, far back under the impacts of the bullets. His fifth and final shot missed as the dying creature’s grip slackened and the body tumbled back down the side of the cut to sprawl among the pebbles and send little lizards streaking in every direction.
Although the visible body’s only movements were twitching muscle-spasms, Fitz still felt the pressing need to reload. He was able to open the revolver and eject the brass all right, but found himself fumbling out a speed-loader, dropping it, and having to use the second one to recharge his handgun. Replacing the pistol loosely in its holster, he unslung the Holland and Holland, and it was as well he did.
Preceded by a roaring howl that echoed back from the walls of the cut, another of the Teeth-and-Legs, this one if anything larger than the dead one, issued from somewhere to bounce onto the blood-flecked pebbles, race along the bed to a lower stretch of bank and mount to the same level as the man, only some score of yards distant...and rapidly closing, teeth flashing and long fingers hooked for clawing.
Fitz stood up, one foot still on either side of the cycle, brought the rifle to his shoulder—some part of his roiling mind surprised at how the very heavy weapon seemed now almost weightless—sighted on the hair-covered chest of the nearing monster, and squeezed off the load in the right barrel.
Not really braced as he should have been before firing a piece with such brutal recoil, it was all that he could do to stay on his feet at all, so he did not witness the moment of impact of outsized bullet with oversized killer-beast. But when he looked down the barrels again it was to see the Teeth-and-Legs on its back on the ground—though still thrashing, roaring and trying repeatedly to arise.
After briefly considering putting the left barrel’s load into the downed creature, too, he decided that the rifle’s butt had done him enough injury for one day, slung it, and instead drew his revolver, sending three of the 240-grain, soft-point .44 bullets into the beast’s head. Not until he clearly heard the death-rattle did he reload and holster the revolver, reload the rifle, pick up the dropped speed-loader, then head for the distant hills at full throttle, lest more of the monsters should suddenly make an appearance.
As he neared the pond he swung well clear of the ponies, rounded a smallish body of water to the site of the bubbling spring that fed it, and refilled his two waterbags, after first rinsing them of the remaining residue of that other-worldly water. A glance into a blue sky flecked with wisps of lacy white clouds showed him that the sun was barely past its meridian and so, knowing that he had plenty of time to get back up to the cave where he had left his companions, he indulged himself in stripping and wading out to a deeper section of the icy-cold pond to swim and lave off the sweat. For he knew that the pony herd would give him adequate warning of the approach of Teeth-and-Legs or any other dangerous beasts.
When finally he waded out of the frigid, refreshing water to air-dry himself beneath the patchy shade of some palms and cycads, the ponies were still there on the other side of the pond, the young ones frisking about while their elders gorged on the short, tender grasses. Not intending to halt again until he had reached his destination, Fitz took advantage of the opportunity to eat a brace of tomato-and-lettuce sandwiches, washing them down with a cup of the cold, clear water from the spring.
Shortly he was setting his machine to the slope of the first hill, threading his way between the trees and thick shrubs up a gradual incline toward the point at which the incline abruptly became more precipitous. But luck was with him, for where the slope steepened and the underbrush thickened, he chanced across the path that he and the Norman knight, Sir Gautier, had hacked through it when they had manhandled the motorcycle down from the higher hills two or three days previously. Staying to this path made the ascent faster and much easier than had been his first climbing of the hill; it meant that he could ride, though in low gear, rather than push the bike while hacking a way through the dense brush with his machete.
Although he remembered, knew just what to expect at the top, he still felt surprise when the bushy, natural wooded and steep slope abruptly became level, grassy, parklike land with a vast assortment of hardwood and fruit trees growing in so uncrowded a manner as to appear unnatural. As before seen, both in ascent and descent, the expanse was virtually alive with birds and game of all descriptions.
On his last ascent he had seen two deer, spotted, adult deer, one of them bearing an impressive rack of palmate antlers. They were nowhere in sight this time, but a group of four smaller and unspotted cervines of some sort were visible, browsing some yards off to his left as he came up into the level ground and headed toward the hill that loomed beyond it. These deer—if that is what they truly were—were much smaller, the biggest no more, he estimated, than a bit over two feet at the withers and with antlers about the size and shape of wooden slingshots. What he could see of them as they slowly moved around under the thick-boled trees showed bodies all of a solid reddish-brown color and rear legs looking to be a bit longer than forelegs.
The big persimmon tree was not, this time, being raided by an opossum and birds, but rather by six or eight big, tailless, dog-faced monkeys or apes of some sort—all a yellow-brown on the back and sides, shading to a yellowish-white on the chest and belly. Fascinated, Fitz halted and idled the bike fairly close to the spreading tree, hoping to get a better look at these, the first primates—unless one considered the savage Teeth-and-Legs to be of that order—he had seen in this world.
One of the larger of the beasts ran out along a limb high above, until it began to sag under his weight—Fitz estimated that the big one weighed in the neighborhood of forty to forty-five pounds—keeping a secure grip on his elevated avenue with both his hands and hand-shaped feet. Halting, he looked down at the upward-looking man, showed a mouthful of good-sized teeth, then barked.
Fitz started at the completely unexpected noise. The ape had the exact sound and timbre and pitch of an Eskimo Spitz once owned by a friend of Fitz. He still was laughing at himself when the big beast cupped one hand behind him, defecated into it, brought the hand up long enough to regard and sniff at its contents, then hurled said contents down at the unwanted observer.
The foetid mess missed...barely, and Fitz decided to move on. Even over the noise of his engine, he could hear the raucous, triumphal barks of the most inhospitable apes in the persimmon tree.
Following the blazes he had hacked into tree-trunks when he and Sir Gautier de Montjoie had crossed on the way back down to the Pony Plain, he once more passed close to the hollow full of blackberry bushes. Repeated shakings of the tops of these showed clearly that some thing or things fed within the depths of the prickly thicket, but he could not see it—possum, raccoons, that long-legged and skinny bear or whatever.
Remembering that the ascent of the knife-sharp ridge was far too steep for the engine of the loaded bike, he dismounted and pushed it to the narrow summit, being a bit amazed that the near exhaustion he recalled from the last time he had had to do it alone failed to this time materialize.
“Not bad for a man over a half-century old,” he thought. “This roughing it in the boondocks I’ve been doing in recent weeks must be good for me. I don’t think I’ve felt this good, this fit since...oh, hell, since I was in my twenties, anyway.”
In the grassy glen beyond the ridge he stopped, dismounted and sprawled on the pebbly bank of the little, fast-flowing rill to drink of its icy water, then gathered a handful of round stones before he arose and uncased the drilling, loading its two smooth-bore barrels with birdshot and its rifled barrel with a hollow-pointed .22-caliber magnum. The two shotloads garnered him as many plump pheasants and a lucky shot from the rifle barrel dropped a peculiar, hornless cervine or antelope—he could not be certain which the creature, little larger than a large hare and equipped with upper cuspids that projected well below the lower jaw, really was, but it was well fleshed and, if Sir Gautier did not immediately claim it, it would make a nice tidbit for Cool Blue.
After very roughly field-dressing his mixed bag, Fitz added them to the load of the motorcycle and headed up the next hill, aware that before he reached the rendezvous at the small, hillside rock-overhang, he would perforce be once again afoot and pushing the conveyance due to the steepness of the rocky ascent.
But when arrive at the rendezvous he finally did, it was to find himself completely alone, neither the 12th-century Norman knight nor the baby-blue lion being anywhere in sight and the ashes in the firepit being dead-cold and dampish. Such supplies and equipment as he had left far back in the shallow cave appeared just as he had placed them prior to his departure, only a canteen being missing.
Shaking his head, Fitz set about doing the necessary—first cleaning out the firepit, gathering squaw-wood and laying a new fire, then fully dressing the ruminant and the two birds for cooking. He was not in the least worried about Sir Gautier for, if any man could take care of himself in this primitive world, it was certainly that doughty, medieval Anglo-Norman warrior. As for Cool Cat, strands of baby-blue fur showed that the ensorcelled, one-time bopster musician had slept at least once in the rock overhang and most likely was out hunting, his lion-body requiring sizable amounts of high-protein food.
While the wood burned down into cooking-coals, Fitz unloaded the bike and side-car, sorted out the supplies and equipment and stored it in the cave with the shrouded bike at the rear, for his previous sojourn had emphasized the impracticality of trying to use the bike in the broken, rocky, heavily wooded or swampy country that lay beyond to east, west or north. His required journeying must be on shank’s mare, perforce.
Taking into account the Norman knight’s ingrained senses of honor, duty and loyalty, Fitz doubted that his liegeman had gone far from the rendezvous point and likely would be returning soon, so he would just await that return. Even had he not had a plentitude of supplies, the land abounded with game of all types and descriptions, berries, nuts, wild fruits and other edible wild plants, with springs and brooks and rills almost everywhere. The rocks still were lying nearby with which he could partially barricade the rear area of the overhang at nights so that, with the banked fire and the weapons he always took into his sleeping bag, he felt himself safe from nocturnal predators even without Sir Gautier or the baby-blue lion nearby.
By the time he had done to his satisfaction all that was needful, the first logs were become coals, so Fitz spitted one of the pheasants over the firepit, nestling two canteen cups of water near the edges—one for boullion, one for tea—then sat before the coal-bed watching the bird cook. The other pheasant and the dressed hoofed-beast had been hung high enough to be safe from the predations of anything save insects.
“Odd,” he thought, “but after the weeks here, then the last couple of days...and the nights—those beautiful, rapturous, very strenuous nights—with Danna; after the stresses and strains of today, even, I’m still not really tired. Used to be, two or three years ago, before all of this started, a normal day of peddling those damned vacuum cleaners would often leave me exhausted. I burned more than one TV dinner through just nodding off in my chair while the blasted thing was cooking.”
As he sat, relaxed, watching the spitted fowl brown over the bed of coals, the first tenuous wisps of steam arise from the kidney-shaped steel cups of crystal water, his mind went racing back to the bad old times, when war and mischance had slain his son, made a hopeless alcoholic of his wife, driven his daughter away from their home and then brought her back—drug-addicted, diseased and pregnant. Driving drunk, his wife had had an accident fatal to her and the unborn child. His daughter had been rendered a human vegetable—kept alive only by machines and seeming miles of tubing—and when the greedy physicians and even greedier hospital had made of him a virtual pauper, had taken the worth of the house and everything else he had managed to accumulate throughout a lifetime of work, he had made the opportunity to do that which he had felt he must do: had granted his daughter, the husk that once had contained her, the boon of a dignified death.
They had branded him “murderer,” of course, but everyone had seemed to feel sorry for him—a good, decent, hard-working sales executive who had suffered far more than most, for a very long time and completely through no fault of his own—and his very last assets had secured him the services of a competent attorney who had managed to convince the court and jury that so much suffering over so protracted a period had finally brought about a moment of insanity. But the verdict had cost him his job, his position, his career. They had been kind about it: they did not fire Fitz, just retired him, complete with gold watch and pension, for stated “reasons of health.” But the sizable loan he had felt constrained to take out with the firm’s credit union had had to be repaid, of course, and the monthly installments left damned little pension on which to try to live.
With his record of a felony trial and a finding of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, he quickly discovered that he might as well forget employment in his previous field and in most others for which he was otherwise eminently qualified. He wound up selling vacuum cleaners on a straight-commission basis out of a rusty clunker of a car, living in a rented, ill-furnished and dilapidated tract-house in a rundown neighborhood, his only companion being Tom, his big grey tomcat, last survivor of his one-time happy family, last reminder of the good times that then seemed gone forever.
Then, to pile Ossa atop Pelion, a sadistic juvenile delinquent armed with a cheap, battered, .22-caliber rifle had senselessly shot Tom. Gutshot and dying in hideous agony, the creature had still managed to make it back to the foot of the crumbling, concrete rear stairs, where Fitz had found his body, the eyes just beginning to assume the glaze of death.
In the back yard of the rented house was a peculiar, oval mound of overgrown earth, said to have existed as long as white men had inhabited the area. Tom had liked in life to snooze atop the mound under a bush, and so, when the grieving Fitz had washed and arranged the stiffening body, had shrouded it in his best, threadbare bath towel, he had sought out a rusty spade and begun to dig a cat-size grave atop the mound, under the bush.
But only a foot or so down into the black loam he had struck stone. Afraid to risk the flaking blade of the venerable spade in any attempt to pry up the obstruction, he had essayed to dig around it, only to discover that it was more than just a stray boulder beneath the soil of that mound. At the end of his labor, he had disclosed a rectangle of worked stones, precisely fitted one to the other by a skilled stonemason. And fitted within that rectangle was a much larger single stone that, he had quickly found, was so balanced as to pivot up and down within its lodgement.
His curiosity piqued, equipped with a flashlight and the old snake-gun from out his tackle box, fortified with a couple of fingers of neat Irish whiskey, he had entered the damp, earthy-smelling stone vault, descended stairs with peculiarly small, shallow treads and arrived at last in a bare, stone-walled chamber well below the surface. Careful search having revealed nothing of any sort in the crypt, his flashlight beginning to dim, Fitz had started back up the slimy stairs, lost footing and balance and felt himself falling backward.
Steeled for the impact of his unprotected head against the hard, cold stone, he had instead landed with a breathless thump on a hard, but tvarm, surface. Even before he opened his eyes he was certain that he was badly injured: lying, despite sensations of warmth and dryness, on that damp, cold floor of the crypt and hallucinating from trauma and pain. Then he became dead certain of the fact.
His vision and other senses indicated that he lay on the sand of a sunlit beach...well, at least most of him did. His eyes’ testament was that his legs ended abruptly a bit above the knees, beyond the spot whereon his thighs rested athwart a near-buried, weathered and bleached log of driftwood. But he still could move the unseen limbs, could feel with them the cold, slimy stones whereon they rested.
When his mind had ceased to whirl, his incipient hysteria been forced down, Fitz had slid forward far enough to make the discovery that just beyond the log was an invisible portal of some kind—on the one side the cold, stygian stone crypt, on the other the warm, sunny beach—and solid as the stonework appeared to his eyes, he still was able to pass back and forth through it as freely as through empty air.
That discovery made, he decided to just accept the patent impossibility of the situation, to save the reasoning-out of it for another time. After carefully marking the location of the invisible portal on the thick, heavy log, he set out to explore the strange new world.
It had not been until he had left the beach and climbed the high dunes that he found any single trace of mankind. There, partially buried in the sand, he had found a long, wooden ship or rather what was left of one—masts all snapped off, sand completely filling its forecastle and part-decked hull.
However, when he had forced open two doors below the quarterdeck, he had found some artifacts—a big knife and a small, copper cup—in the first. Behind the second door, in the larger of the two cabins, he had found more artifacts...and treasure, real treasure, a cour bouilli casket almost filled with ancient coins of gold.
“And that,” he muttered to himself as he again turned the spitted fowl, “was when all hell really started popping.”
Knowing next to nothing about coins, he had taken a double handful of the ones he had found, just what his pockets could easily hold, back to his own world with him, hoping to get only the bullion value of them, perhaps as much as fifteen hundred dollars—enough to pay off the balance of his ailing automotive abortion, get some needed repairs and, possibly, a decent-looking suit from the Goodwill store.
He had driven the miles into the city of his former residence and taken the coins into the shop of a dealer, a retired Army NCO he knew vaguely from the VFW. Then he had come within an ace of actually fainting, right there in the coin shop, upon being given a rough estimate of the true values of the coins—mostly from the Mediterranean littoral, none of them minted less than a full millennium past though some were centuries older than even that, and all in unbelievably good condition for such archaic rareties.—
Then it had all just snowballed, happening almost too fast for comprehension. Believing Fitz’s spur-of-the-moment fabrication that the coins had been the bequest of some deceased uncle, Gus Tolliver had taken advantage of his guild’s far-flung network of contacts to begin to sell and mail-auction the exceedingly rare collector gold pieces all over the world, taking a fee of twenty percent of the profits and giving Fitz the remaining eighty.
The very first thing that Fitz had done with his newcome wealth was to buy the rental house and land outright. Then he had hired a general contractor to convert the decaying edifice into a small luxury home with attached double garage to house the two new vehicles with which he had quickly replaced his clunker.
Next he had paid off the balance of the credit-union loan, which meant that he then began to receive his full retirement pension from his former firm—not that he had any need of so trifling a sum anymore, with money pouring in from sales of the forty pounds or so of golden coins from the casket in the wrecked ship.
In his by then copious spare time, he had spent many full days in what he had come to think of as the sand world, and further exploration of the old ship had disclosed another and much larger cabin behind the two smaller ones, extending completely across the beam of the wrecked vessel. With bits of furniture from the other two cabins and modern items laboriously brought down the narrow, ever-treacherous stone stairs Fitz had fashioned of the sterncabin a moderately comfortable pied-a-terre in this world of sea and sand, birds and sea creatures but with no recent trace of man.
The dunes seemed to march on into infinity to the east, the west and the north, as far as he had walked.
It had not been until he had thought to buy and wrestle down the stairs an off-road motorcycle that he had begun to learn more of the sand world, had seen the long, broad Pony Plain north of the dunes and glimpsed the succession of dark-green, forested hills rising on the other side.
He had first brought firearms into the seemingly uninhabited sand world because no matter where he went or travelled within it, he experienced the unpleasant, uncanny feeling that he was being watched, being observed. Even within the locked, barred and shuttered sterncabin he often felt that he was not truly alone, that someone or some thing was invisibly with him.
Trouble was brewing in the other, more mundane world, too, coming fast to a roiling boil for him and Gus Tolliver. First came a succession of break-ins at Fitz’s house during various of his sojourns in the sand world; although little of any real value was ever taken—save the two artifacts, the knife and the copper cup which had been his first finds aboard the beached ship—he had liked so little the idea of strangers poking about his home that he had taken extreme and very expensive steps to harden up the place and its grounds—steel-sheathed solid doors, special windows and state-of-the-art locks, high cyclone fencing for the perimeter of the entire property topped with barbed wire, floodlights, trip-flares, banshee-loud alarms, the works, the best that money could buy.
Gus Tolliver, too, had had at least one break-in at his shop. Although a good number of silver coins had lain exposed in glass cases and there had been some modern gold coins in the big, old-fashioned, deliberately visible safe that had been skillfully opened, then just as skillfully reclosed, none of this had been so much as touched. Despite intensive, destructive searchings, the location of his hidden safe had never been found. But what had upset the old soldier more than this had been when word had been privately passed to him that certain governmental agencies had been putting pressure on officials of his bank to disclose certain information of a private, financial nature.
That had been when he first had confided in Fitz of his fierce distrust of certain bureaus of the government he had served so long and so faithfully. Furthermore, he had announced his avowed intent of foiling them all.
Fitz had heard his partner out, sympathized aloud, and then simply forgotten the matter, figuring that it had been just one more instance of a disgruntled taxpayer blowing off a little steam. Months later, to his sorrow, he discovered that Tolliver had been serious, dead serious, and that his manner of foiling the Internal Revenue Service had tarred them both with the same brush in the mind of one Agent Henry Fowler Blutegel.