Plague Ship/Chapter VI
Inside the red stockade there was a crowded community. The Salariki demanded privacy of a kind, and even the unmarried warriors did not share barracks, but each had a small cubicle of his own. So that the mud brick and timber erections of one of their clan cities resembled nothing so much as the comb cells of a busy beehive. Although Paft's was considered a large clan, it numbered only about two hundred fighting men and their numerous wives, children and captive servants. Not all of them normally lived at this center, but for the funeral feasting they had assembled—which meant a lot of doubling up and tenting out under makeshift cover between the regular buildings of the town. So that the Terrans were glad to be guided through this crowded maze to the Great Hall which was its heart.
As the trading center had been, the hall was a circular enclosure open to the sky above but divided in wheel-spoke fashion with posts of the red wood, each supporting a metal basket filled with imflammable material. Here were no lowly stools or trading tables. One vast circular board, broken only by a gap at the foot, ran completely around the wall. At the end opposite the entrance was the high chair of the chieftain, set on a two step dais. Though the feast had not yet officially begun, the Terrans saw that the majority of the places were already occupied.
They were led around the perimeter of the enclosure to places not far from the high seat. Van Rycke settled down with a grunt of satisfaction. It was plain that the Free Traders were numbered among the nobility. They could be sure of good trade in the days to come.
Delegations from neighboring clans arrived in close companies of ten or twelve and were granted seats, as had been the Terrans, in groups. Dane noted that there was no intermingling of clan with clan. And, as they were to understand later that night, there was a very good reason for that precaution.
"Hope all our adaption shots work," Ali murmured, eyeing with no pleasure at all the succession of platters now being borne through the inner opening of the table.
While the Traders had learned long ago that the wisest part of valor was not to sample alien strong drinks, ceremony often required that they break bread (or its other world equivalent) on strange planets. And so science served expediency and now a Trader bound for any Galactic banquet was immunized, as far as was medically possible, against the evil consequences of consuming food not originally intended for Terran stomachs. One of the results being that Traders acquired a far flung reputation of possessing bird-like appetites—since it was always better to nibble and live, than to gorge and die.
Groft had not yet taken his place in the vacant chieftain's chair. For the present he stood in the center of the table circle, directing the captive slaves who circulated with the food. Until the magic moment when the clan themselves would proclaim their overlord, he remained merely the eldest son of the house, relatively without power.
As the endless rows of platters made their way about the table the basket lights on the tops of the pillars were ignited, dispelling the dusk of evening. And there was an attendant stationed by each to throw on handsful of aromatic bark which burned with puffs of lavender smoke, adding to the many warring scents. The Terrans had recourse at intervals to their own pungent smelling bottles, merely to clear their heads of the drugging fumes.
Luckily, Dane thought as the feast proceeded, that smoke from the braziers went straight up. Had they been in a roofed space they might have been overcome. As it was—were they entirely conscious of all that was going on around them?
His reason for that speculation was the dance now being performed in the center of the hall—their fight with the gorp being enacted in a series of bounds and stabbings. He was sure that he could no longer trust his eyes when the claw knife of the victorious dancer-hunter apparently passed completely through the chest of another wearing a grotesque monster mask.
As a fitting climax to their horrific display, three of the men who had been with them on the reef entered, dragging behind them—still enmeshed in the hunting net—the gorp which Dane had stunned. It was uncurled now and very much alive, but the pincer claws which might have cut its way to safety were encased in balls of hard substance.
Freed from the net, suspended by its sealed claws, the gorp swung back and forth from a standard set up before the high seat. Its murderous jaws snapped futilely, and from it came an enraged snake's vicious hissing. Though totally in the power of its enemies it gave an impression of terrifying strength and menace.
The sight of their ancient foe aroused the Salariki, inflaming warriors who leaned across the table to hurl tongue-twisting invective at the captive monster. Dane gathered that seldom had a living gorp been delivered helpless into their hands and they proposed to make the most of this wonderful opportunity. And the Terran suddenly wished the monstrosity had fallen back into the sea. He had no soft thoughts for the gorp after what he had seen at the reef and the tales he had heard, but neither did he like what he saw now expressed in gestures, heard in the tones of voices about them.
A storm priest put an end to the outcries. His dun cloak making a spot of darkness amid all the flashing color, he came straight to the place where the gorp swung. As he took his stand before the wriggling creature the din gradually faded, the warriors settled back into their seats, a pool of quiet spread through the enclosure.
Groft came up to take his position beside the priest. With both hands he carried a two handled cup. It was not the ornamented goblet which stood before each diner, but a manifestly older artifact, fashioned of some dull black substance and having the appearance of being even older than the hall or town.
One of the warriors who had helped to bring in the gorp now made a quick and accurate cast with a looped rope, snaring the monster's head and pulling back almost at a right angle. With deliberation the storm priest produced a knife—the first straight bladed weapon Dane had seen on Sargol. He made a single thrust in the soft underpart of the gorp's throat, catching in the cup he took from Groft some of the ichor which spurted from the wound.
The gorp thrashed madly, spattering table and surrounding Salariki with its life fluid, but the attention of the crowd was riveted elsewhere. Into the old cup the priest poured another substance from a flask brought by an underling. He shook the cup back and forth, as if to mix its contents thoroughly and then handed it to Groft.
Holding it before him the young chieftain leaped to the table top and so to stand before the high seat. There was a hush throughout the enclosure. Now even the gorp had ceased its wild struggles and hung limp in its bonds.
Groft raised the cup above his head and gave a loud shout in the archaic language of his clan. He was answered by a chant from the warriors who would in battle follow his banner, chant punctuated with the clinking slap of knife blades brought down forcibly on the board.
Three times he recited some formula and was answered by the others. Then, in another period of sudden quiet, he raised the cup to his lips and drank off its contents in a single draught, turning the goblet upside down when he had done to prove that not a drop remained within. A shout tore through the great hall. The Salariki were all on their feet, waving their knives over their heads in honor to their new ruler. And Groft for the first time seated himself in the high seat. The clan was no longer without a chieftain. Groft held his father's place.
"Show over?" Dane heard Stotz murmur and Van Rycke's disappointing reply:
"Not yet. They'll probably make a night of it. Here comes another round of drinks—"
"And trouble with them,"—that was Captain Jellico being prophetic.
"By the Coalsack's Ripcord!" That exclamation had been jolted out of Rip and Dane turned to see what had so jarred the usually serene Astrogator-apprentice. He was just in time to witness an important piece of Sargolian social practice.
A young warrior, surely only within a year or so of receiving his knife, was facing an older Salarik, both on their feet. The head and shoulder fur of the older fighter was dripping wet and an empty goblet rolled across the table to bump to the floor. A hush had fallen on the immediate neighbors of the pair, and there was an air of expectancy about the company.
"Threw his drink all over the other fellow," Rip's soft whisper explained. "That means a duel—"
"Here and now?" Dane had heard of the personal combat proclivities of the Salariki.
"Should be to the death for an insult such as that," Ali remarked, as usual surveying the scene from his chosen role as bystander. As a child he had survived the unspeakable massacres of the Crater War, nothing had been able to crack his surface armor since.
"The young fool!" that was Steen Wilcox sizing up the situation from the angle of a naturally cautious nature and some fifteen years of experience on a great many different worlds. "He'll be mustered out for good before he knows what happened to him!"
The younger Salarik had barked a question at his elder and had been promptly answered by that dripping warrior. Now their neighbors came to life with an efficiency which suggested that they had been waiting for such a move, it had happened so many times that every man knew just the right procedure from that point on.
In order for a Sargolian feast to be a success, the Terrans gathered from overheard remarks, at least one duel must be staged sometime during the festivities. And those not actively engaged did a lot of brisk betting in the background.
"Look there—at that fellow in the violet cloak," Rip directed Dane. "See what he just laid down?"
The nobleman in the violet cloak was not one of Groft's liege men, but a member of the delegation from another clan. And what he had laid down on the table—indicating as he did so his choice as winner in the coming combat, the elder warrior—was a small piece of white material on which reposed a slightly withered but familiar leaf. The neighbor he wagered with, eyed the stake narrowly, bending over to sniff at it, before he piled up two gem set armlets, a personal scent box and a thumb ring to balance.
At this practical indication of just how much the Terran herb was esteemed Dane regretted anew their earlier ignorance. He glanced along the board and saw that Van Rycke had noted that stake and was calling their Captain's attention to it.
But such side issues were forgotten as the duelists vaulted into the circle rimmed by the table, a space now vacated for their action. They were stripped to their loin cloths, their cloaks thrown aside. Each carried his net in his right hand, his claw knife ready in his left. As yet the Traders had not seen Salarik against Salarik in action and in spite of themselves they edged forward in their seats, as intent as the natives upon what was to come. The finer points of the combat were lost on them, and they did not understand the drilled casts of the net, which had become as formalized through the centuries as the ancient and now almost forgotten sword play of their own world. The young Salarik had greater agility and speed, but the veteran who faced him had the experience.
To Terran eyes the duel had some of the weaving, sweeping movements of the earlier ritual dance. The swift evasions of the nets were graceful and so timed that many times the meshes grazed the skin of the fighter who fled entrapment.
Dane believed that the elder man was tiring, and the youngster must have shared that opinion. There was a leap to the right, a sudden flurry of dart and retreat, and then a net curled high and fell, enfolding flailing arms and kicking legs. When the clutch rope was jerked tight, the captured youth was thrown off balance. He rolled frenziedly, but there was no escaping the imprisoning strands.
A shout applauded the victor. He stood now above his captive who lay supine, his throat or breast ready for either stroke of the knife his captor wished to deliver. But it appeared that the winner was not minded to end the encounter with blood. Instead he reached out a long, befurred arm, took up a filled goblet from the table and with serious deliberation, poured its contents onto the upturned face of the loser.
For a moment there was a dead silence around the feast board and then a second roar, to which the honestly relieved Terrans added spurts of laughter. The sputtering youth was shaken free of the net and went down on his knees, tendering his opponent his knife, which the other thrust along with his own into his sash belt. Dane gathered from overheard remarks that the younger man was, for a period of time, to be determined by clan council, now the servant-slave of his overthrower and that since they were closely united by blood ties, this solution was considered eminently suitable—though had the elder killed his opponent, no one would have thought the worse of him for that deed.
It was the Queen's men who were to provide the next center of attraction. Groft climbed down from his high seat and came to face across the board those who had accompanied him on the hunt. This time there was no escaping the sipping of the potent drink which the new chieftain slopped from his own goblet into each of theirs.
The fiery mouthful almost gagged Dane, but he swallowed manfully and hoped for the best as it burned like acid down his throat into his middle, there to mix uncomfortably with the viands he had eaten. Weeks' thin face looked very white, and Dane noticed with malicious enjoyment, that Ali had an unobtrusive grip on the table which made his knuckles stand out in polished knobs—proving that there were things which could upset the imperturbable Kamil.
Fortunately they were not required to empty that flowing bowl in one gulp as Groft had done. The ceremonial mouthful was deemed enough and Dane sat down thankfully—but with uneasy fears for the future.
Groft had started back to his high seat when there was an interruption which had not been foreseen. A messenger threaded his way among the serving men and spoke to the chieftain, who glanced at the Terrans and then nodded.
Dane, his queasiness growing every second, was not attending until he heard a bitten off word from Rip's direction and looked up to see a party of I-S men coming into the open space before the high seat. The men from the Queen stiffened—there was something in the attitude of the newcomers which hinted at trouble.
"What do you wish, sky lords?" That was Groft using the Trade Lingo, his eyes half closed as he lolled in his chair of state, almost as if he were about to witness some entertainment provided for his pleasure.
"We wish to offer you the good fortune desires of our hearts—" That was Kallee, the flowery words rolling with the proper accent from his tongue. "And that you shall not forget us—we also offer gifts—"
At a gesture from their Cargo-master, the I-S men set down a small chest. Groft, his chin resting on a clenched fist, lost none of his lazy air.
"They are received," he retorted with the formal acceptance. "And no one can have too much good fortune. The Howlers of the Black Winds know that." But he tendered no invitation to join the feast.
Kallee did not appear to be disconcerted. His next move was one which took his rivals by surprise, in spite of their suspicions.
"Under the laws of the Fellowship, O, Groft," he clung to the formal speech, "I claim redress—"
Ali's hand moved. Through his growing distress Dane saw Van Rycke's jaw tighten, the fighting mask snap back on Captain Jellico's face. Whatever came now was real trouble.
Groft's eyes flickered over the party from the Queen. Though he had just pledged cup friendship with four of them, he had the malicious humor of his race. He would make no move to head off what might be coming.
"By the right of the knife and the net," he intoned, "you have the power to claim personal satisfaction. Where is your enemy?"
Kallee turned to face the Free Traders. "I hereby challenge a champion to be set out from these off-worlders to meet by the blood and by the water my champion—"
The Salariki were getting excited. This was superb entertainment, an engagement such as they had never hoped to see—alien against alien. The rising murmur of their voices was like the growl of a hunting beast.
Groft smiled and the pleasure that expression displayed was neither Terran—nor human. But then the clan leader was not either, Dane reminded himself.
"Four of these warriors are clan-bound," he said. "But the others may produce a champion—"
Dane looked along the line of his comrades—Ali, Rip, Weeks and himself had just been ruled out. That left Jellico, Van Rycke, Karl Kosti, the giant jetman whose strength they had to rely upon before, Stotz the Engineer, Medic Tau and Steen Wilcox. If it were strength alone he would have chosen Kosti, but the big man was not too quick a thinker—
Jellico got to his feet, the embodiment of a star lane fighting man. In the flickering light the scar on his cheek seemed to ripple. "Who's your champion?" he asked Kallee.
The Eysie Cargo-master was grinning. He was confident he had pushed them into a position from which they could not extricate themselves.
"You accept challenge?" he countered.
Jellico merely repeated his question and Kallee beckoned forward one of his men.
The Eysie who stepped up was no match for Kosti. He was a slender, almost wand-slim young man, whose pleased smirk said that he, too, was about to put something over on the notorious Free Traders. Jellico studied him for a couple of long seconds during which the hum of Salariki voices was the threatening buzz of a disturbed wasps' nest. There was no way out of this—to refuse conflict was to lose all they had won with the clansmen. And they did not doubt that Kallee had, in some way, triggered the scales against them.
Jellico made the best of it. "We accept challenge," his voice was level. "We, being guesting in Groft's holding, will fight after the manner of the Salariki who are proven warriors—" He paused as roars of pleased acknowledgment arose around the board.
"Therefore let us follow the custom of warriors and take up the net and the knife—"
Was there a shade of dismay on Kallee's face?
"And the time?" Groft leaned forward to ask—but his satisfaction at such a fine ending for his feast was apparent. This would be talked over by every Sargolian for many storm seasons to come!
Jellico glanced up at the sky. "Say an hour after dawn, chieftain. With your leave, we shall confer concerning a champion."
"My council room is yours," Groft signed for a liege man to guide them.