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Leigh Brackett - Eric John Stark 08 - The Book Of Skaith (Omnibus)

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Leigh Brackett - Eric John Stark 08 - The Book Of Skaith (Omnibus)

THE BOOK OF SKAITH

THE BOOK OF

SKAITH:

The Adventures of Eric John Stork

THE GINGER STAR

THE HOUNDS OF SKAITH

THE REAVERS OF SKAITH

by LEIGH BRACKETT

NELSON DOUBLEDAY, INC. Garden City, New York

COPYRIGHT ? 1976 BY LEIGH BRACKETT HAMILTON

Previous copyrights:

    The Ginger Star: Copyright ? 1974 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton. A somewhat shorter version of this novel was serialized in the magazine Worlds of IF, Copyright ? 1974 by UPD Publishing Corporation

    The Hounds of Skaith: Copyright ? 1974 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton

    The Reavers of Skaith: Copyright ? 1976 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton

Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books

A Division of Random House

201 East 5o Street

New York, New York 10022

All Rights Reserved

Printed in the United States of America

CONTENTS

THE GINGER STAR 1

THE HOUNDS OF SKAITH 145

THE REAVERS OF SKAITH 301

Guide to Characters and Locale 461

THE BOOK OF SKAITH

---

THE GINGER STAR

1

    Stark got his final view of Pax from the tender, going out to the spaceport moon, and that was the best view he had had of it. Pax is the chief habitable planet of Vega. It is also a city, and the proud boast of that hopefully and precariously christened world is that not one single grain of corn grows upon it, nor is one single useful item manufactured.

    The city soars up into the sky. It spreads out over every landmass and swallows up small seas. It burrows underground, level upon level. Large areas of it are especially conditioned and equipped for non-humans. Everything comes into it from the outside. All supplies are shipped to the lunar docks and brought on down by freight tenders. Nothing lives on Pax but bureaucrats, diplomats, and computers.

    Pax is the administrative center of the Galactic Union, a democratic federation of star-worlds flung across half the Milky Way and including, very incidentally, the worlds of little Sol. In this place the millions of problems besetting billions of people inhabiting thousands of diverse planets are reduced to tidy and easily manageable abstractions on tapes, cards, and endless sheets of paper.

A paper world, Stark thought, full of paper people.

    Simon Ashton was not made of paper. Time, and accomplishments in

    planetary administration, had promoted him to a comfortable office at the Ministry of Planetary Affairs and a comfortable apartment in a mile-high building which he need not ever leave, if he did not wish to, except to take one of the moving walkways to work. Still, like many of his colleagues in that Ministry, Ashton had never lost his rawhide, taut-wire energy. He often went into the field, knowing that the problems of actual beings in actual places could not be solved merely by the regurgitation of data from a bank of clacking machines.

    He had gone once too often into the field. He had not come back.

    Stark received that information on one of the un-licked worlds outside the Union, where life was a little more relaxed for people like himself. He was, as the old phrase had it, a wolf's-head-a totally masterless man in a society where everyone respectable belonged to something. He bestowed his allegiance only where he chose, usually for pay. He was a mercenary by trade, and there were enough little wars going on both in and out of the Union, enough remote peoples calling on him for the use of his talents, so that he was able to make a reasonable living doing what he did best.

Fighting.

    He had begun fighting almost before he could stand. Born in a mining colony in Mercury's Twilight Belt, he had fought to live on a planet that did not encourage life; his parents were dead, his foster-parents a tribe of sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys. He had fought, without success, the men who slaughtered those foster-parents and put him in a cage, a snarling curiosity. Later on, he had fought for a different kind of survival, the survival of himself as a man.

    He would never have got past square one-without Simon Ashton.

    He could remember vividly the heat, the raw pain of loss, the confinement of the bars, the men who laughed and tormented him. Then Ashton came, Ashton the wielder of authority, the savior, and that was the beginning of the life of Eric John Stark, as distinguished from N'Chaka, the Man-Without-a-Tribe.

    Now twice-orphaned, Eric/N'Chaka gradually accepted Ashton as his father-in-being. More than that, he accepted Ashton as his friend. The years of his growing-up were associated almost solely with Ashton

    because they had been much alone in the frontier stations to which Ashton was sent. Ashton's kindness, his counsel, his patience, his strength and his affection were stamped indelibly on the fibers of Stark's being. He had gotten even his name through Ashton, who had searched the records of Mercury Metals and Mining to track down his parents.

    And now Simon Ashton was missing, disappeared, on the world of a ginger star somewhere at the back of beyond, out in the Orion Spur. A newly discovered, newly opened world called Skaith that hardly anyone had ever heard of, except at Galactic Center. Skaith was not a member of the Union but there had been a consulate. Someone had called to the Union for help, and Ashton was the man who went to see about it.

    Ashton had, perhaps, exceeded his authority. Even so, his superiors had done their best. But the local powers closed the consulate and refused entrance to officers of the Union. All attempts to discover Ashton's whereabouts, or the reason for his disappearance, had ended at a blank wall.

    Stark caught the first available ship outbound for Galactic center and Pax. Looking for Ashton had become his personal business.

    The weeks he had spent at Pax had been neither pleasant nor easy. He had had to do a great deal of talking and convincing and, after that, much learning. He was glad to be leaving, impatient to get on with the job.

    The world-city dropped behind him, and he breathed more freely. Presently the enormous intricacies of the lunar spaceport engulfed him, sorted him, tagged him and eventually spewed him into the bowels of a trim little cargo liner which took him about a third of the way to his destination. Three more changes were scheduled after that, progressively downward, into a rickety old tramp-the only sort of ship that served Skaith.

    He endured the voyage, continuing by means of tapes the education into things Skaithian he had begun at Pax. He was not popular among his fellow travelers. His cabin mate complained that he twitched and growled in his sleep like an animal, and there was something in the gaze of his pale eyes that disconcerted them. They called him "the wild man" behind his back and ceased trying to lure him into games, the discussions of schemes for turning a quick profit, or personal reminiscences.

    The tramp trader made several planetfalls along the way. But eventually

    it creaked and rattled out of FTL drive within sight of a solar system lost in the wilderness of the Orion Spur.

    It was the fourth month, by Galactic Arbitrary Time, after Ashton's disappearance.

    Stark destroyed his tapes and collected his few belongings. The rickety trader settled down on the rickety starport at Skeg, the only one on the planet, and discharged its passengers.

Stark was the first man off the ship.

    His papers gave his right name, which meant nothing here, but they did not mention Pax as a point of origin for his flight. They said that he was an Earthman, which he was in a way, and a dealer in rarities, which he was not. At the barrier shed a couple of surly men confiscated his purely defensive stunner-he could have it back, they said, when he left-and searched him and his meager luggage for other weapons. He was then given a terse lecture, in bad Universal, on the rules and regulations governing life in Skeg and was sent on his way with the parting information that all roads out of Skeg except the one leading to the starport were closed to off-worlders. He was not under any circumstances to leave the city.

    He rode the ten miles in a jolting cart, past plantations of tropical fruits, waterlogged paddies where some form of grain was growing lushly, and patches of jungle. Gradually the smell of mud and vegetation was overlaid by a smell of sea water, salty and stagnant. Stark did not like it much.

    When the cart topped a low line of jungled hills, he found that he did not much like the look of the sea, either. Skaith had no moon, so there were no tides to stir it, and there was a milky, greasy sheen to the surface. Skaith's old ginger-colored sun was going down in a senile fury of crimson and molten brass, laying streaks of unhealthy brilliance across the water. The sea seemed a perfect habitat for the creatures who were said to live in it.

    Beside the sea, on the bank of a river, was Skeg. The river had grown thin with age, too weak to do more than trickle through a narrow passage where the silt of centuries had all but closed its mouth. A ruined fortress-tower was set on low cliffs to guard a vanished harbor. But the city itself looked lively enough, with lamps and torches glowing out as the sun sank.

    Presently, Stark saw the first of the Three Ladies, magnificent star-clusters-the ornament of Skaith's night skies-that made it impossible to come by a decent darkness. He glowered at the Lady, admiring her beauty but thinking that she and her sisters could make things very difficult for him.

As though the situation would not be difficult enough.

    The cart eventually came clumping into the town. Skeg was one great open market where almost anything could be bought or sold, and the streets were busy. Shops and stalls were brightly lighted. Vendors with barrows cried their wares. People from all over the Fertile Belt-tall, leather-clad warrior-burghers from the outlying city-states as well as the small silken folk of the tropics-mingled with the off-worlders who came to traffic, exchanging precious foreign items like iron pigs for drugs, or artifacts looted from Skaith's plentiful supply of ruins.

    And of course there were the Farers. Everywhere. A conglomerate of all the races, dressed or undressed in every imaginable fashion, trooping about, lying about, doing whatever happened to occur to them at the moment; the careless itinerant children of the Lords Protector, who neither toiled nor spun, but blew lightly with the winds of the world. Stark noticed some off-worlders among them, drifters who had found the good life here in the warm twilight of a planet where everything went and where, if you belonged to the right groups, everything was free.

    Stark paid off his driver and found lodgings at an inn catering to off-worlders. The room was small but reasonably clean, and the food, when he sampled it, not at all bad.

    In any case, he was not interested in comfort. He was interested in Ashton.

    When he had eaten, he approached the landlord in the common-room of the inn, which was built in the breezy tropical style of Skeg, being mostly windows with reed curtains that rolled down to shut out the rain. It was not raining now, and the sea wind blew through, heavy and damp.

"How do I find the Galactic Union consulate?"

    The landlord stared at him. He was a dark purple in color, with a face of stone and startlingly light, very cold gray eyes.

"The consulate? Didn't you know?"

"Know what?" asked Stark, looking suitably blank.

"There isn't one. Not anymore."

"But I was told-"

    "The Farers wrecked it, not quite four months ago. Sent the consul and his staff packing. They-"

"The Farers?"

    "Surely you were told about them at the starport. All that human garbage littering up the streets."

    "Oh, yes," said Stark. "I was just surprised. They seem-well, too indolent."

    "All they need is the word," said the landlord sourly. "When the Wandsmen say go, they go."

    Stark nodded. "I was warned about the Wandsmen, too. Pain of death and all that. They seem to be very important men on Skaith."

    "They do the dirty work for the Lords Protector. The Chief Wandsman of Skeg, the almighty Gelmar, led the Farers. He told the consul to get gone and stay gone, they wanted no more outside interference. In fact, for a while it seemed they might kick us all out and close the starport. They didn't, quite. Needed the imports too badly. But they treat us like criminals."

    "I got the feeling that foreigners weren't popular," Stark said. "What was the row about?"

    The landlord shook his head. "Some damned official busybody from Pax. It's a fairly open secret that he was here to arrange emigration from one of the city-states. More fool he."

"Oh? What happened to him?"

    "Who knows? Except the Wandsmen." The cold eyes regarded Stark suspiciously. "Got a particular interest?"

"Hardly."

    "Then drop the subject. We've had trouble enough already. What did you want with the consulate, anyway?"

    "Some routine business about travel papers. It'll have to wait till my next port of call."

He bade the landlord good night and walked out.

Some damned busybody from Pax.

Ashton.

And only the Wandsmen knew what had happened to him.

    Stark had made that assumption himself, some time ago, so he was not downcast. He had not expected to walk into Skeg and find signs posted to tell him his way.

    He walked through the crowded streets, a dark man in a dark tunic-a big man, powerfully muscled, who carried himself as lightly and easily as a dancer. He was in no hurry. He let the city flow around him, absorbing it through all the senses, including one that civilized men have largely lost. But he was not civilized. He was aware of the lights, the colors, the mingled smells, the strange musics made by unnameable instruments and alien voices, the bright banners that hung above the sin-shops, the movements of people; underneath it all he sensed a rich, ripe stink of decay. Skaith was dying, of course, but it did not seem to him to be dying well.

    He could see no reason to delay sticking his head into the noose, and so presently he entered a tavern and began his work.

    He went about it most discreetly. He had spent what felt like an eternity at Pax, going with cold bitter patience through all the existing information on Skaith-learning the language, learning as much as was known about the people and their customs, talking to the ex-consul in an effort to learn more. It was already, of course, too late to save Ashton-had been too late from the moment he disappeared-if the Wandsmen had decided he should die. Two possibilities remained: rescue or revenge. For either one, Stark needed all the knowledge he could get.

    It was not extensive. Contact with Skaith had only occurred a dozen

    or so years ago, and the consulate was not established until five years later. Much was known about Skeg and the adjacent country. Something was known about the city-states. Very little was known about the lands beyond the Fertile Belt, where most of the population of Skaith was now gathered. He had heard tall tales about the Barrens and the People of the Barrens, and perhaps some of them were true, and perhaps not.

    Nothing was known about the Lords Protector, in the sense that no one knew exactly what they looked like or exactly where they dwelt-no one except the Wandsmen, who kept this knowledge as a high and holy secret. The beliefs of various sects and cults only confused matters. The consul's report had said:

    "The Lords Protector, reputed to be 'undying and unchanging,' were apparently established long ago by the then ruling powers, as a sort of super-benevolence. The Great Migrations were beginning, the civilizations of the north were breaking up as the people moved away from the increasing cold, and there was certain to be a time of chaos with various groups competing for new lands. Then and later, when some stability was re-established, the Lords Protector were to prevent too great a trampling of the weak by the strong. Their law was simple: to succor the weak, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to strive always toward the greatest good of the greatest number.

    "It appears that through the centuries this law has been carried far beyond its original intent. The Farers and the many smaller non-productive fragments of this thoroughly fragmented culture are now the greater number, with the result that the Wandsmen, in the name of the Lords Protector, hold a third or more of the population in virtual slavery to supply the rest.

    "It is quite obvious to me that when the Wandsmen learned of the intention of the Irnanese to emigrate, they took immediate and violent action to prevent it. If Irnan were to accomplish this removal, other communities would surely follow, leaving the Wandsmen and their charges in a sad state. Ashton's disappearance and the forcible closing of the consulate came as a shock to us, but hardly a surprise."

A great deal was known about the Wandsmen.

    What Stark wanted to do was seek out Gelmar and tear him slowly and painfully into small bits until he told what he had done to Ashton. This was not possible because of the Farers, the devoted, perpetual, ever-ready, instant mob. So he set himself out as bait.

    For two days he walked quietly in the streets and sat quietly in the taverns and talked quietly to anyone who would listen, asking questions, occasionally letting slip the name Irnan.

On the evening of the second day the bait was taken.

2

    He was in the principal street of Skeg, in the main market square, watching a troupe of acrobats performing indifferent stunts with a minimum of skill, when someone came and stood close to him, very close, warm and breathing.

    He looked down. It was a girl-he had known that, of course, from the touch-a Farer, stark naked except for body-paint laid on in fanciful loops and spirals and her hair, which hung over her shoulders like a cloak. She looked up at Stark and smiled.

    "My name is Baya," she said. It meant Graceful, and she was. "Come with me."

"Sorry. I'm not in the market"

    She continued to smile. "Love can come later, if you wish. Or not, as you wish. But I can tell you something about the man Ashton, who took the road to Irnan."

He said sharply, "What do you know about that?"

"I am a Farer. We know many things."

"Very well, then. Tell me about Ashton."

    "Not here. Too many eyes and ears, and that is a forbidden subject."

"Then why are you willing to talk?"

    Her eyes and her warm mouth told him why she was willing. "Besides, I don't care for rules, any rules. You know the old fortress? Go there, now. I'll follow."

Stark hesitated, frowning, suspicious.

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