Unfortunately, a fiery fate isn't the only danger the town is facing. From out of the desert come monsters -- great birds with blades instead of wings, driven by some unknown force. Although they can be killed, the threat these terror birds pose is worse than death. Danger on the roads means no trade. No trade means that Tep's Town will be no more.
Sent by the Lords of Lordshills to discover the source of the terror birds, Lord Sandry and his beloved, Burning Tower, must travel into a world where magic is still strong -- and where someone or something waits to destroy them!
Filled with the sweeping adventure, memorable characters, and imaginative world-building that have defined the novels of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Burning Tower is another triumph.
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About the Author
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were the joint winners of the 2005 Robert A. Heinlein Award.
Jerry Pournelle (right), a past winner of the John W. Campbell Award, has collaborated with Niven on numerous bestsellers. He has also written such successful solo novels as Janissaries and Starswarm. He lives in Studio City, California.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were the joint winners of the 2005 Robert A. Heinlein Award.
Read an Excerpt
The hot wind was rising. Kinless called it a Devil Wind. Lord Regapisk had his doubts about devils, but any devil might have invented that wind. It was hot and dry and gusty and it was whipping fire into a frenzy. A dozen houses had already burned. They were only Bull Pizzle houses, not in the territory Regapisk was guarding, so they weren't his business. Five houses on the other side of the Darkman's Cup gorge were part of Serpent's Walk, but there was no way to save them. Regapisk's Firemen had tried, but no one would blame him for losing those houses.
They'd been able to loot the occupied houses before the fire got them. Gather, Regapisk thought, grinning. His Lordkin Firemen would call that "gathering." And if the Lords' Council asked him, Regapisk would say "salvage," but it was looting all the same.
Lord Regapisk coughed. The smoke was blowing across the canyon, thicker now, and the wind grew hotter. The fire was coming.
A chariot clattered up the road along the edge of the canyon. Regapisk turned with what he hoped was well disguised contempt. It wasn't that he didn't like his second cousin. Sandry was a likable boy. But he was younger than Regapisk, so recently a Younglord that he still answered to the lesser title, and yet he was put in charge here, while Lord Regapisk, fully a Lord for three years now, was assisting his young cousin.
He got lucky, Regapisk thought. I was busy at the Harbor when the Congregation of Lords Witness decided to organize these Lordkin as Firemen. Cousin Sandry was available and I had other work. One day it would be different; the Council would put Lord Regapisk in charge of all the fire brigades. Until then, Lord Regapisk nominally worked for his younger cousin --
"Hail, Lord Regapisk," Sandry said formally.
His cousin always did that, used formal titles, when their Lordkin Firemen were around. Sometimes it drove Regapisk to distraction. What was the need for all that? But you had to admit, Sandry made a handsome figure, standing tall in his chariot, the reins held so loosely that it looked as if Sandry could guide the big horses by talking to them. Whatever else you thought about Lord Sandry, he knew horses. Loved them more than he did people.
The chariot was one of the larger war chariots, with room for two spearmen and the driver. It held only Sandry and a small kinless boy.
"Hail, Firemen," Sandry said. He waved to the four Lordkin who worked with Regapisk. The Firemen got to their feet and acknowledged Sandry's greeting with waves and a few muttered words. Sandry was popular with the Lordkin Firemen of Serpent's Walk, and this was wild enthusiasm compared with the way Lordkin usually acted around someone they worked for.
With, Lord Regapisk reminded himself. Lordkin worked with you. Even though both you and they knew that they were working for you. Lord Regapisk could understand that.
"I see we lost the houses on the other side of the Cup," Sandry said. "Too bad the wind came up like that."
"Yeah, we tried, but there just wasn't any way," Regapisk said.
Sandry nodded. "No use crying about it. But we have to stop the fire here," he said. "At this gorge, before the wind whips up and drives it across this road. We need a firebreak just here, and I can't spare you any more men." Sandry dismounted and looked across the canyon to the wall of flames. The wind was blowing it toward them, along with smoke and hot ashes. The fire hadn't gone down into the canyon yet, but that was a matter of minutes.
Lord Regapisk knew what a firebreak was. Peacevoice Fullerman had explained it when the Council put Regapisk into the fire brigade. It was one of the things fire brigade officers had to learn. "Won't have time with just four men," Regapisk said. He pointed to the rising flames. "Once it gets down into the canyon, it will be up here in moments."
Lord Sandry nodded. "I know, Lord Regapisk. We'll use a backfire."
Regapisk frowned. "You sure about that?"
"It's chancy, but it's the only thing we can do." Sandry inspected the gorge, then stooped down and picked up a handful of dust. He released the dust and watched it blow. "With this wind, I'd say about four paces, wouldn't you?"
"Four paces," Regapisk said. "Sounds about right."
"Good. Get torches and go four paces down the canyon. Light fires. When the fire burns here to the road, get through the ashes and go four more paces down and do it again. I doubt you'll have time to do it again after that, but if you can, do four more paces. I'm pretty sure an eight-pace firebreak will stop that fire, and I know a twelve-pace break will do it."
"Yeah, twelve paces will do it," Regapisk said. He looked down into the canyon, then across. The fire would start down into the canyon pretty soon. "This is going to be tricky -- "
"Yes, so get started now. You understand -- four paces, set fires and let it burn off, then four more. Start the second fire as soon as the first one burns off. And be careful; you don't want to get trapped between fires. Right?"
"Good. I have to go. We've got more fires to the south. They'll be harder to stop because there's nothing like the canyon there. We're tearing down houses to build a firebreak. After this fire season, we're going to have to plan more firebreaks -- "
"Good luck, then," Sandry said. He leaped into the chariot and twitched the reins in one motion. The horses turned sharp left, turning the chariot around in its track on the road. "Git," Sandry said. The chariot clattered off, the kinless apprentice boy hanging on for life, but Sandry stood balanced in the chariot, just swaying with its motion.
He sure can drive, Lord Regapisk thought. He looked up. The fire was already closer to the canyon lip.
This was how the land lay:
Fire held the valley. The wind was blowing the fire uphill toward this road. The road was wide; it must have been a mammoth trail once. If the fire jumped the road, it might take a hundred houses before it burned out.
A year ago, fire would not burn indoors. An adobe exterior wouldn't burn either, then or now. Fighting a fire was easier when houses wouldn't burn.
But the fire god was dead, was myth, for most of a year now. Lord Regapisk felt he understood fire, fire under the new rules.
"Let's do it," Lord Regapisk said.
Lordkin Strafreerit asked, "Why do twice the work? Lord, let's just go eight paces down and light it off there."
Lord Regapisk thought about it. Later he remembered the way the other three were grinning. Now he didn't notice. "Good," he said.
Strafreerit measured off eight paces . . . odd paces, stepping long here, shorter here. What was he doing? He'd picked his place and was making his paces match, Lord Regapisk thought, but he didn't quite have the nerve to speak.
They spread out in a line through the brush. All together, they set off the fires, then stepped back in case the wind changed. But the wind held steady; the fire leaped upward in a great roar. Lord Regapisk waited until the flames died down and then followed the fire up the hill, stepping over the still-burning roots. The stalks and dried grass burned hot, but they burned out quickly --
The fire had jumped the road. Brush was burning on the other side.
Lord Regapisk yelled. "Help! It's jumped the gap!" He whirled off his cloak and began beating at the flames. Only when he'd clearly lost the battle did he wonder why he had no help.
Then he looked down across a ten-pace gap of black ash and saw his four Lordkin searching where the brush had burned away. They barely looked up at his yells. Then fire swept around them, and that got their attention. They ran.
Four houses were burning now. The fifth and sixth were just catching. Where was that misbegotten Lord? Regapisk was supposed to have backfired to make a firebreak! Sandry, moving at a careful run with a bucket in both arms, looked about him through smoke and red-and-yellow light.
Wanshig's Lordkin Firemen ran with buckets, splashing water all over themselves. One was caught in a sudden gust of flame; he doused himself with the bucket and ran with it still on his head. Good move, Sandry thought. Wanshig was yelling his head off. A few did hear: they converged on the eighth house and hurled their half-bucketsful at the roof.
No sign of Lord Regapisk.
He was torn between rage and fear for the do-nothing Lord and his men. Fire can sweep around and have you surrounded. Fire can take your mind. Fire can burn indoors --
But men did not obey Regapisk. If it was a talent, Regapisk didn't have it. Or it might be that the Lord expected too little of himself, and men saw that.
The wizard Morth of Atlantis had sunk Yangin-Atep the fire god into the tar. He was myth now, a myth that lived under the Black Pit: children were told to fear the fire god as well as the tar. You'd think Yangin-Atep's town would have fewer problems with fire!
And the Lordkin were holding it.
Take a moment, savor that: these were Lordkin. You couldn't make Lordkin work. They wouldn't be anywhere on time; they wouldn't get up if they were sleepy; wouldn't hoe grapes even to get wine, wouldn't carry anything but loot. But under attack, they'd be awake and sober in an instant.
Never mind that fire had been sacred to them once. Yangin-Atep's gift was that fires would not burn indoors. Now anything could burn, anytime.
Once thought, the logic was inescapable. Fighting a fire wasn't like farming or hauling or taking coins for goods and a smile, or any kind of mind-numbing kinless labor. Fire didn't keep regular hours. Firemen didn't take a salary; they took gifts from those whose houses they'd saved. Fire was an enemy worth facing. Saving a child from burning was a feat worth bragging about, and remembering in old age.
You could get Lordkin to fight a fire. You could even get Serpent's Walk Lordkin -- Snakefeet -- to fight fire in Grey Falcon -- Dirty Bird -- turf!
And Lordkin wouldn't kill Lordkin firefighters . . . unless in a turf war.
Of course these houses belonged to kinless. The eighth house belonged to Artisan, and he ran about screaming orders that didn't match Wanshig's until Wanshig's man clubbed him to the ground. Other kinless watched. Not all. Here came one running with a borrowed armful of empty buckets; maybe they'd make some progress now.
Sandry watched. The Lordkin were wasting effort, wearing themselves out where any officer could have steered them right. But they were learning, and they were winning. Eight houses were lost, collapsing in upon themselves, but the Snakefeet were containing the sparks.
A dozen stranger Lordkin ran in from under cover of the smoke. They threw rocks at Sandry's Firemen. Another band ran into a house and began carrying out goods. "I am possessed of Yangin-Atep!" one shouted. The others laughed. And more came out of the smoke. Some carried clubs. No knives were drawn yet, but any moment now . . .
This was the pity of it: Lordkin fighting a fire made a fine target for a rival band. There had never been anything stronger than truce between Serpent's Walk and Bull Pizzle, and usually there wasn't even that much peace. What would Wanshig do? Sandry raised a hand and waved, but nothing else. Wait for Wanshig. . . . Wanshig was the proud leader of Serpent's Walk -- Lord of Serpent's Walk in Lordkin parlance when the Lords weren't listening. He would accept help, but he'd never ask for it, and if help was offered when it wasn't needed, there could be trouble. Sandry hadn't been aware of all this when he took the assignment to build a Fire Brigade, but he'd learned.
And Wanshig was special. Wanshig was Burning Tower's uncle.
Burning Tower! He hadn't seen her in nearly a year, and still the memory was exciting. Long red-brown hair, deep brown eyes, slim legs dancing on a tightrope, perfect bare feet on the taut hemp line. She wasn't like any of the girls in Lordshills, not like any girl he'd ever known. And she would be coming back soon. . . . He shook his head. No time for this.
Wanshig threw his bucket and had his weapon in hand and was screaming warning as he leaped. A Pizzle ducked the bucket but not Wanshig's knife. Did Wanshig actually need help?
But when he counted thirty more Pizzles, Sandry knew this was a major raid, not just a group of Lordkin pretending this was a Burning, even though some carried torches and shouted of their possession by the fire god. The new chief of Bull Pizzle had to prove himself. This would be the way he did it.
Sandry frowned at the empty leather bow case on his chariot. He hadn't really expected to fight. There were two throwing spears in their larger quiver. Have to do, he thought. He raised both hands high in signal, then shouted: "The Fire Brigade is under the protection of the Lord's Witnesses! All not part of the Fire Brigade are ordered to leave this area immediately. This I command. I am Lord Sandry acting under the authority of Lord Chief Witness Quintana and the Lords of this city! Leave now or you will be killed."
Some of the Pizzles looked up, astonished, and a few turned to run. A dozen others, all shouting to Yangin-Atep, came on, throwing rocks and screaming challenges, and ten more moved into another house to gather.
"Peacevoice Tatters! Forward the guards!" Sandry commanded.
"Aye, My Lord!" The shout came from upwind. There was the clatter of hooves. Five chariots riding abreast came out of the smoke and fog. "Stand ready to throw! Throw!"
Spears arced from the chariots. They weren't throwing to kill, not yet, but two of the raiders went down. The others scattered.
Armored Lordsmen came from the shadows. Sandry smiled to himself. If those idiot Pizzles had thought to look, they'd have seen where Sandry kept his troopers, and they could have raided elsewhere. But would they? Or was there some crazy point of honor involved? Sandry didn't know. He knew more of the ways of the Lordkin than most Lords, but they were still a mystery. No one really understood the Lordkin.
The shouts of "Yangin-Atep" and "I am possessed!" quieted as the Pizzles realized they were trapped and defeated. For a moment Sandry thought of his options. If he killed them all, there would be trouble. Bull Pizzle wasn't as powerful as it used to be, but it was still large and powerful enough to challenge Serpent's Walk. A real war between Pizzles and Snakefeet would harm everyone. Most of his Fire Brigade would quit to go fight, and many of them would be killed, and he'd have to start all over again.
He raised his voice. "Evidently you did not hear! This area is under the protection of the Lord's Witnesses! I command you to leave this area at once. Do so now!"
The Pizzles looked at Sandry's men, then to Wanshig. Wanshig turned away contemptuously and began shouting orders to his Firemen. The bucket lines began to move again.
"Now, if you please!" Sandry shouted. "Troopers! Make ready!"
Spearmen in each chariot raised spears.
"Oh yeah, we didn't hear you before," a Pizzle shouted. "We're leaving!" They gathered their dead and wounded and left in a walk, their heads still high.
Sandry glanced over to Wanshig and got a grin. Good, Sandry thought. Good. Wanshig didn't really want a war either.
As the Pizzles were leaving, a chariot clattered out of the smoke from the north. Regapisk blocked the retreating Pizzles with his chariot. "Stand! You're taken!" he shouted. "Lord Sandry, I have them!"
There were three Snakefeet with Lord Regapisk, all clinging to his chariot, all looking blackened and the worse for wear. They'd been in smoke and ashes. And the Pizzles had dropped their dead, carefully set down their wounded. They hadn't drawn their knives. Not quite.
"Cancel that order!" Sandry shouted. "You are free to go. Now go! Lord Regapisk, a moment of your time, if you please . . ."
Copyright © 2005 by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle