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Excerpt: Chapter One: A WAR OF SCENTS
Cloud covered the sky like a gray stone plate. The yellow grass had a wilted look: too much rain, not enough sun. No doubt the sun was straight overhead and the Arch was still in place, but Valavirgillin hadn't seen either for twenty days now.
The cruisers rolled through an endless drizzle, through high grass, on wheels as tall as a man. Vala and Kay rode the steering bench; Barok rode above them as gunner. Barok's daughter Forn was asleep under an awning.
Any day nowany hour
Sabarokaresh pointed. "Is that what you've been looking for?"
Valavirgillin stood up in her seat. She could just see where the vastness of grass turned to a vastness of stubble.
Kaywerbrimmis said, "They leave this pattern. We'll be seeing sentries or a harvesting party. Boss, I don't understand how you knew they'd be Grass Giants here. I've never been this far to starboard myself. You, you're from Center City? That's a hundred daywalks to port."
"Word came to me," Valavirgillin said.
He didn't ask more. A merchant's secrets were her own.
They rolled into the stubble and turned. The cruisers rolled faster now. Stubble to right, shoulder-high grass to the left. Far ahead, birds were wheeling and diving. Big dark birds: scavengers.
Kaywerbrimmis touched his handguns for reassurance. Muzzle-loading, the barrels as long as his forearm. Big Sabarokaresh eased back into the turret. The top of the payload shell housed the cannon, and that might be needed. The other wagons were swinging left and right, covering Kay's wagon so that he could investigate in safety.
The birds wheeled away. They'd left black feathers everywhere. Twenty big birds, gorged until they could hardly fly. What might feed so many?
Bodies. Little hominids with pointy skulls, lying some in stubble, some in uncut grass, stripped of most of their meat. Hundreds! They might have been children, but the children among them were even smaller.
Vala looked for clothing. In strange terrain you never knew which hominids might be intelligent.
Sabarokaresh dropped to earth, gun in hand. Kaywerbrimmis hesitated; but nothing sudden popped out of the grass, and he followed. Foranayeedli popped a sleepy head through the window and gaped. She was a girl of sixty falans or so, just reaching mating age.
"Since last night," Kay said presently.
The smell of corruption wasn't strong yet. If Ghouls hadn't arrived before the birds, then these victims must have been slain near dawn. Vala asked, "How did they die? If this is local Grass Giant practice, we want none of it."
"This could've been done by birds. Cracked bones, see? But cracked by big beaks, for marrow. These are Gleaners, Boss. See, this is how they dress, in feathers. They follow the harvesters. The Gleaners hunt smeerps, firedots, anything that digs. Cutting the grass exposes the burrows."
Feathers, right. These feathers were black and red and purple-green, not just black. "So what happened here?"
Forn said, "I know that smell."
Beneath the corruption: what? Something familiar, not itself unpleasant ... but it made Foranayeedli uneasy.
Valavirgillin had hired Kaywerbrimmis to lead the caravan because he was local, because he seemed competent. The rest were his people. None had ever been this far to starboard.
Vala knew more of this place than any of them ... if she was right about where she was.
"Well, where are they?"
"Watching us, maybe," Kay said.
Vala could see a long way from her perch at the bow of the cruiser. The veldt was flat, the yellow grass was chopped short. Grass Giants stood seven and eight feet tall. Where grass stood half their height, could they hide in that?
The traders pulled their cruisers into a triangle. Their midday dinner was fruit and roots from stores on the running boards. They cooked some local grass with the roots. They'd caught no fresh meat.
They took their time. Most hominids were more approachable after feeding. If Grass Giants thought like Machine People, they would let strangers eat before they made contact.
No ambassador came. The caravan rolled on.
Three cruisers rolled sluggishly across the veldt with no animal to pull them. Big square wooden platforms rode four wheels at the corners; the motor, centered aft, turned two more drive wheels. The cast-iron payload shell rode ahead of the motor, like an iron house with a fat chimney. Big leaf springs were under the bow, under the steering bench. A savage might wonder at the tower on the payload housing, but what would he think if he had never seen a cannon?
Shapes the color of the golden grass, shapes too big to be men: two big humanoids watched from the crest of a far hill. Vala saw them only when one turned and loped away across the veldt. The other ran along the crest, toward where the cruisers would cross.
He waited in their path, watching them come. He was nearly the color of the golden grass: golden skin, golden mane. Big. Armed with a great curved sword.
Kaywerbrimmis walked to meet the giant. Valavirgillin set the cruiser following him like a friendly ridebeast.
Distance put strange twists in the trade dialect. Kaywerbrimmis had tried to teach Vala some of the variations in pronunciation, new words and altered meanings. She listened now, trying to make out what Kay was saying.
"We come in peace ... intend to trade ... Farsight Trading ... rishathra?"
The giant's eyes flicked back and forth while Kay talked. Back and forth between their jaws, Forn and Vala and Kay and Barok. The giant was amused.
His face was hairier than any Machine Person's! Pretty Forn's jawline fringe of beard just growing, just long enough to take a curl at the corners. Vala's was turning elegantly white, two points at the chin. Other hominids were too often distracted by Machine People beards, especially on the women.
The giant waited out Kay's chattering, then strode past him and took a seat on the cruiser's running board. He leaned against the payload shell and immediately jerked away from the hot metal. Recovered his dignity and waved the cruiser forward.
Big Barok held his post above the giant. Forn climbed up beside her father. She was tall, too, but the giant made them both look stunted.
Kaywerbrimmis asked, "Your camp, that way?"
The giant's dialect was less comprehensible. "Yes. Come. You want shelter. We want warriors."
"How do you practice rishathra?" It was the first thing any trader would want to know, and any beta male, too, if these were like Grass Giants elsewhere.
The giant said, "Come quick, else learn too much of rishathra."
Forn's eyes widened. "That smell!"
Kay smiled, seeing not a threat, but an opportunity. "I am Kaywerbrimmis. Here are Valavirgillin, my patron, and Sabarokaresh and Foranayeedli. In the other cruisers they are Machine People, too. We hope to persuade you to join our Empire."
"I am Paroom. Our leader you must address as Thurl."
Vala let Kay do the talking. Grass Giant sword-scythes had too little reach. Farsight Trading's guns would make short work of a vampire attack. That should impress the Bull, and thenbusiness.
Grass Giants, scores of them, were pulling wagons filled with grass through the gap in a wall of heaped earth.
"This isn't normal," Kaywerbrimmis said. "Grass Giants don't build walls."
Paroom heard. "We had to learn. Forty-three falans ago the Reds were fighting us. We learned walls from them."
Forty-three falans was 430 rotations of the star patterns, where the sky rotated every seven and a half days. In forty falans Valavirgillin had made herself rich, had mated, had carried four children, then gambled her wealth away. These last three falans she had been traveling.
Forty-three falans was a long time.
She asked or tried to ask, "Was that when the clouds came?"
"Yes, when the old Thurl boiled a sea."
Yes! This was the place she sought.
Kaywerbrimis shrugged it off as local superstition. "How long have you had vampires?"
Paroom said, "Always there are some. In this last few falans, suddenly they are everywhere, more every night. This morning we found nearly two hundred Gleaners, all dead. Tonight they will hunger again. The walls and our crossbows hold them back. Here," said the sentry, "bring your wagons through the gap and prepare them to fight."
They had crossbows ?
And the light was going.