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HUMAN COMPANY

A Novel by
Robert Petty

CHAPTER 1   --   MECHANICALS

The trouble with women is that all you get is sympathy. They will
probably still be patting me on the head when the Elevator destroys
the world.

As I searched for Redblood, I took a deep breath to ease the
tightness gripping my chest. This would be her last chance. She
either helped me or else.

Was she gone? A dark shape moved on the left -- only a horse in the
stables. Across the square, the open gate framed a deserted
drawbridge. Why did it have to get dark so soon? At last I saw
someone to the right, standing on the castle wall. Shadows from the
tower hid her features, but she stood straighter than the farm girls.
It was Redblood.

She frowned, I thought, when she saw me on the ladder, and when she
extended her hand to help me onto the walkway, she tilted her head to
make my name a question. "Gypsy?"

"It's cold."

It wasn't, not really, but she let me snuggle against her while she
stared up at the mechanicals' garage. Several times I started to
speak, but what could I say when her thoughts were so clearly on
tomorrow.

So I watched the shadows chase the last rays of sunshine off the
peaks and tried to marshal my arguments. I was too young, she would
claim, but fifteen years -- no, thirty winters, that sounded older --
was almost grown. They would make me marry next year.

Finally, after the white rock of the cliff below the garage faded
into darkness, she broke the silence. "I'm worried about Apogee."
"You should worry about the Elevator."

"Have patience little one." Her hand stroked my hair. "Your time will
come."

I pulled away. "Just look at it. You can see that it curves."

She turned. The motion took her eyes to the east, but she didn't
bother to look up. "It's always been that way."

"Not in ancient times. It was straight then."

My eyes sought the vertical line. The darkness of the land hid its
base, but higher up the setting sun caught the silver thread as it
rose into the sky.

Once, two elevators carried women to their orbiting starships. But
the old Femdom was gone: destroyed when the Western Elevator fell.
The Eastern Elevator was the last of their ancient wonders, and now
it too was in trouble. Up where the stars poked pinholes in the
darkening sky, I could see it curve gently to the south. It was
falling.

They would blame me. They said not, but they blamed my ancestors when
the Western Elevator fell, and in the end, they would blame me too.

"It's up to me to save it," I said. "I need your help."

Redblood spread her hands. "You know that I'm committed to Apogee."

"I told you. It's not about him."

"I'm sorry."

"But he always gets everything." I bit my lip. Law. I might as well
have stamped my feet.

"Good night Gypsy," she said, making the words a sigh that signaled
the end of her patience. She had no time for kids. Not now.

I watched her walk away. She paused for the briefest moment, but her
glance was to the garage, not to me. Then she faded into the shadows.

I would have thrown myself off the wall except my hand, acting on its
own, crept into my pocket. So I let my fingers caress the cool, slick
sides of the cards, as they always did, until they felt the cards
warm to life. Then they traced quickly over the smooth edges to find
the one card separated from the others.

I drew it out. The Mech Card, omen of adventure. Sometimes the cards
were like that: so right, yet you still had to think about what to
do.

The Mech Card. It had to be about tomorrow. I would have one last
chance.

#

Smoky aromas from the breakfast fires still lingered in the air when
the trumpeters blew their horns and the procession came out through
the castle gates. Everyone, even the people from the fair, crowded
into the narrow street to watch them pass. They got in the way and
you couldn't see anything except the pennants dragging a bubble of
applause and commotion through the village.

I couldn't get to the front, but as the procession passed, I found a
box to stand on. Even so, I still had to raise up on my toes to see
over the women's heads. I could just make out Redblood leading the
way with Apogee on her arm. Redblood's company flanked them:
Stoneheart carried Apogee's pennant; Slayer, the Mechanic's pennant.
Mechanic Axeblade, the Court, and important property owners trailed
close behind.

Redblood looked fierce. She wore full battle gear: a broadsword
across her back, a short sword at her side, and numerous knives stuck
in her belt and strapped to her legs. The black leather armor and
polished breast cups clung to her figure and emphasized her strength.

"Redblood. Redblood. Look at me," a little village boy called as she
passed. Her answering wink brought a chorus of screams and whistles
from the other boys. They kept it up, making her grin and breaking
her pretense at a serious demeanor.

Apogee remained somber. Dressed in the traditional heavy shirt and
baggy trousers of a mech rider, he kept his eyes straight ahead and
did not respond when called.

Since ancient times, the flight ceremony has tested the boys from
Farhaven. By mountain law, only boys who have flown can rule. So
today Apogee would ride a mechanical and earn the right to commission
a company. One day he would become the Rider; his captain, the
Mechanic.

The confusion and milling about helped me. No one noticed as I
pressed through the excited crowd and attached myself to the
procession. I was taking a chance: the women tried to keep boys out
of the garage; too dangerous they said. And Axeblade had threatened
dire punishment for the next time I got into trouble. But I had drawn
the Mech Card. I had to go.

#

The long path to the garage wound back and forth up the face of the
mountain. On the switchbacks, I could look up and see the black
openings of the cave mouths where the mechanicals took off and
landed. They liked the long drop down the sheer cliff because it
allowed them to build up the speed needed to create lift from their
wings.
But the trip dragged on when you had to walk. I kept hoping we would
finally be there, but it never seemed that the garage got any closer.
Eventually the pull of the steep trail wore at my legs and as my
excitement cooled, my mind drifted.

Below I could see the village, grown tiny as we climbed. I spread my
arms:

#

I was a mechanical soaring high above the land. I swooped down low
and fast over the rooftops. The boys and old women ran around in
panic, frightened by the fierce rush of my passing. Trying to chase
me off, guards shot arrows into the air. But I laughed at such feeble
efforts and used my speed to dodge the tiny shafts. Choosing a fat
cow for my prey, I swept forward in a terrific dive, impaling it with
my manipulators and dragging it into the air. With mighty beats of my
wings, I surged upwards towards my garage.

#

The grasp of a powerful hand on my arm ended my triumph. It belonged
to Mistress Tallebrand, a shop owner I could sometimes talk out of
taffy or peppermint. "Careful Gypsy. You almost went over the edge."

Her words made me look down. When I saw the depths below my feet, my
head spun and I clung to her.

"You shouldn't be here anyway," she continued as she dragged me to
safety. "Maybe you should go back down to the village."

"Apogee wants me here," I said. "He says he might need me." It wasn't
really a lie: I was Apogee's adopted brother; he should have invited
me.

She looked dubious but couldn't think of another excuse to send me
back. "All right," she said at last, "but stay out of the way. And no
more play acting."

I wiggled from her grasp and hurried to catch up with the procession.
I had to be more careful. What would Redblood think if I got kicked
out for acting like a kid?

#

At the garage, I followed the procession through a series of dimly
lit tunnels until we stepped into the glare of light flooding a large
cavern. Across the cavern, blue sky marked where it broke out of the
cliff edge. To the left, more tunnels led back into the rock; to the
right, a little alcove overlooked the ledge.

While the crowd milled around in the center of the cavern floor, I
stayed in the tunnel hoping to keep out of sight. Then, thinking that
the alcove would be a better spot, I edged quietly around the cavern
wall towards it. But when I got there, I saw that someone else had
the same idea. A little girl hugged the shadows where she could watch
without being seen.

When she saw me, her eyes widened and she let her mouth fall open.
The protruding teeth betrayed her: she was human. I started to summon
a woman to chase her off, but then I remembered my own questionable
status. So I had to risk her bad luck by throwing pebbles at her
until she retreated down a dark tunnel.

However, she was too dumb to realize that no one wanted to share her
misfortunes. A few minutes later, I saw her across the cavern,
peeking out from a small tunnel set well above the main floor.

#

Soon my nose wrinkled as oily fumes wafted into the cavern. It's the
human girl, I thought, casting her baneful spell over us. But then a
sudden silence drew my attention back to the cavern where a pale
white mechanical crept onto the floor.

They say the mechanicals are gentle and intelligent. Even though they
couldn't speak, they once piloted ships between the stars. Still, the
crowd backed away: the mechanical was the ghost of every insect you
ever stepped on, come back to get you.

First, it was big: the rectangular slab of its body was about the
size and shape of a freight wagon. And it was unreal: gray shadows,
moving under the white, translucent surface, hinted at mysterious
forces. And like an insect, the legs seemed too thin and too long.
Four straight shafts emerged from each side and angled upwards to
tower over the body. At the top, the shafts formed a sharp 'V' before
extending to footpads on the ground. The insect like appearance was
heightened by manipulator arms extending from the front and by the
two sensors setting on stalks rising from the top.

Axeblade stood near the ledge with her arms raised. "Come, White
Mech, Come," she commanded.

A complex shuffle of legs glided the ghostly insect smoothly enough
across the cavern; however as it neared my alcove, its mechanical
nature was revealed. A trail of acid droppings sizzled on the ground
behind it, and seeping oil created yellow stains around the leg
joints.

Axeblade made White Mech lower its torso to the cave floor, and when
assistants brought steps forward, Redblood helped Apogee onto the
mechanical's back. She laid him down on a cushion and strapped him
securely in place. Afterwards someone pulled away the steps and the
mechanical rose.

Everything happened too fast. Expecting a speech from Axeblade, I sat
on the ground to wait it out. But Axeblade simply raised her hand and
White Mech stepped forward and disappeared over the edge.

I didn't even get to see how the mechanical converted its legs into
wings. By the time I inched over to the edge and looked down, white
fabric was already billowing between them. They now formed the ribs
of rectangular wings that extended from either side of the body. I
did see the leg-ribs moving to tension the fabric and to adjust the
shape of the wings until they caught the air.

The mechanical soared out from the cliff face, and as it leveled off,
it began beating the wings against the air to gain altitude. It rose
quickly, and soon it was above us. When it reached a nearby peak, it
wheeled about in a tight circle and immediately headed back, coming
straight at us in a shallow dive.

The landing was something. At the last moment, the mechanical spread
its wings wide and braked sharply. With a loud crack, the fabric
parted from the rear set of legs, and as they sprang down to the
ground, the mechanical bounced and fell forward. Two more cracks,
following in rapid succession, freed the other legs to catch the body
before it hit the ground. The wing fabric -- it happened too fast to
be sure -- seemed to get sucked into the legs.

As the women swarmed to the mechanical, I   realized the show was all
over. The flight, the whole ceremony, had   lasted less than five
minutes. I didn't spit when Redblood took   Apogee off, but I wanted
to. What was he thinking? The women might   never let him have another
ride, and he hadn't done anything.

He looked pale and seemed unsteady on his feet, but Redblood seemed
not to notice. Instead of shaking his hand properly, she covered it
with hers and bowed so low she was practically kissing it.

"Rider," she called him.

#

I stayed in the alcove as the procession departed. The Mech Card had
promised me adventure, but all I had gotten was to watch Redblood
slobber over Apogee. That little human rodent was going to get it
good for ruining my luck.

Crouching down into the darkest shadows, I settled down to wait.
Slowly the noise from the procession faded, and the cavern became
quiet except for slight echoes and whispers coming from the bowels of
the garage. I began to fidget with growing impatience: I couldn't
wait all day for her.

I resolved to leave, then changed my mind when my ears picked up a
new sound. Never loud, a scraping and brushing got closer and closer
until, finally, I saw her emerging from the tunnel where White Mech
had come and gone. She was spreading sawdust on the oil and acid
drops and sweeping them into a bucket.
As she moved onto the launch pad, I stepped silently from the alcove,
blocking her retreat to the tunnels. Intent on her work she did not
immediately notice my presence, giving me time to take a good look at
her.

They say that the women who created the Femdom settled on Snowshoe
because it was an isolated planet that no one else wanted. The
isolation gave them the time and privacy they needed to remake
themselves into bios, perfect women that were bigger and stronger and
healthier than humans.

And it does make sense that women who could tame a planet and build
the elevators could remake themselves. But like their failed
elevators, the remake must have been flawed: human births were
becoming less rare.

I could see why no one wanted to be human. She was dirty; of course -
- old oil stained her clothes; grease smudged her cheek; and black
grime hid under her fingernails -- about what you would expect from a
mechanic. But the dirty yellow hair and crooked teeth made her look
strange. And she was small: about my size and flat chested. Just a
kid.

When she turned back to the caverns, the unexpected sight of my feet
startled her. She gasped and stood open mouthed while her eyes ran up
and down my body.

I gave her my meanest sneer. "So you like to spy on boys, do you?"

"I meant no harm." Her voice squeaked.

"I should thrash you good."

She cringed a little then nodded hopefully towards the big tunnel. "I
can show you the mechanicals."

I snorted. The bribe was so flagrant. Who did she think I was anyway?
Still... See the mechanicals? Was that what the card meant? Maybe I
could ride one. Redblood would have to take me seriously then. She
would have to help me save the Elevator.

"I know all the mechanicals," she persisted. "Flasher is nice, you
could meet Flash Mech."

I put my fists on my hips and tapped my foot impatiently. "Well, all
right. But I should report you."

#

"I know all about the mechanicals," she said as she led me down White
Mech's tunnel. "They call me Tiny, I can show you everything, I never
talked to a boy before."

"The mechanicals call you Tiny?"
"No, the women, mechanicals don't talk."

We stepped out of the tunnel onto a ledge overlooking the garage. I
squinted into the bright sunshine and saw an elaborate system of
tunnels, ramps, and ledges covering the steep walls of an open
crater. On the crater floor, tanks and vats surrounded the waters of
a shallow lake. A confusing network of pipes interconnected the
tanks, and from one vat, a torch flamed from a long tube rising into
the air. Rainbow colors glinted off islands of oil film floating on
the lake.

Several mechanicals lay on   the lakeshore with their wings spread out
into the sun. A few others   crept about their duties among the tanks.
One mechanical swam in the   water. Its legs spread straight out and
rose and fell like oars as   it propelled itself forward.

Tiny tugged at my sleeve and I let her guide me down the ramp towards
the lake. At the bottom, she released me and disappeared into an
opening in the crater wall. I peered after her, and when my eyes
adjusted to the dim light, I saw racks of legs, sensor balls, and
other parts for the mechanicals.

"I got batteries," she said when she came out. She had untucked her
blouse and pulled the tails into a sack to carry something heavy.

We walked out onto the crater floor past several mechanicals sunning
themselves beside the water. They remained motionless as we passed,
but I saw their sensor balls turning as they tracked us.

"This is Flasher," Tiny said as we approached a brown mechanical.

Clearly, the name came from the glow of light that slowly rippled
under the brown surface of the mechanical. But despite the snappy
name, the stir of internal lights, the gentle sway of wings in the
breeze, and the slow rotation of sensors gave Flasher a lazy
appearance.

Tiny handed me a fist-sized ball. "Throw her a battery."

I examined the dull red ball in my hand. The clay like material
deformed when I squeezed it and came apart when I dug my fingers into
it.

I smoothed the battery back to its ball shape and looked at Flasher.
Up close she looked too big to play with. A dozen feet seemed close
enough, so I leaned over and threw the battery underhanded to her.

She was lazy! Flasher's sensors barely moved as she casually opened a
manipulator to capture the battery. She stuffed the ball into a hole
in her body then resumed her posture of quiet watching.

I picked another battery out of Tiny's shirt and pitched it well
above Flasher's head. In a blur of sudden motion, wing fabric
unsnapped; legs pushed the body upright; and a manipulator extended
to snag the battery out of the air.

After the battery disappeared into the hole, Flasher stayed up,
looking alert and ready. So I threw the next battery as hard as I
could, high and well away from her, out over the water.

The throw was not fair, but Flasher sprang gamely backwards into the
air, pushing with her powerful legs and spreading her wing fabric for
balance. She did catch the battery, at the peak of her leap, but had
no chance to right herself. She fell on her backside, and although
Tiny and I ducked, we were soaked from the splash.

As I took the last battery from Tiny, Flasher righted herself in the
shallow water, getting her legs set underneath her, ready to spring
in any direction. But instead of throwing the battery, I stepped to
the edge of the lake, holding it out to her. Her sensors rotated
suspiciously as she puzzled out the new rules of the game.

When I remained still, Flasher crept forward, looming over me. I made
myself hold my pose, resisting the urge to back away from her. Slowly
her manipulator jaws closed over my hand and stripped the battery
from my grasp.

I moved between the two manipulators and touched Flasher's body. It
was smooth and warm and gave just a little when I pushed hard. She
was patient with me as I poked and prodded at one of her
manipulators. For grasping, it had two powerful jaws that could
rotate to any angle. And for finer tasks, the jaws could fold back to
let tendrils get at the work. Her sensor stalks, I noticed, had bent
forward so she could track my explorations.

"Come on, let's take a ride around the lake," Tiny invited. She
stepped on the joint where the first leg joined the body and
scampered up onto Flasher's back. Then she held down her hand and
helped me climb behind her. She slid up between the sensor stalks and
had me sit behind her with my arms around her waist.

"Swim, Flasher, Swim," she commanded.

Flasher turned in the water and stroked gently away from the shore.

"She understands you?" I asked.

"Sure she does, I know all the commands, I'll show you, say, 'Left,
Flasher, Left,' only loud so she can hear."

It was fun -- learning to ride the mechanical. I liked the feel of
the powerful legs pushing us across the lake, the feel of the noon
sun drying the splash of cold water, and even the feel of my arms
around the little human girl.

#
When we returned to our starting point I jumped off. "Come on," I
said. "Let's take her to the ledge. I want to fly her."

"Fly? It's too dangerous."

"I thought you wanted to be friends."

"You can meet all the mechanicals, we can have a swim in the lake."

I raised my arms. "Come, Flasher, Come."

Water cascaded down her sides as she heaved herself onto the bank and
followed me towards the crater wall.

"Wait," Tiny cried. "Wait, we've got to put on her harness."

I lowered my arms to stop the mechanical. "All right," I said. "But
make up your mind. If you want to be friends, you've got to help me
when I want."

I helped Tiny carry a cushion out from the storage cave. The leather
straps coiled on its top made it heavy and awkward to handle, but
with Tiny pulling and me pushing, we lifted it onto Flasher's back.
Afterwards, Tiny made Flasher rise high on her legs so she could drop
loose straps to me while I ran them under the mechanical's body and
threw them back up.

Once the harness was secure, Tiny pulled me up and we rode Flasher up
the ramp. At the ledge, a tight knot formed in my stomach when Tiny
made me lie down on the cushion. It positioned me up front between
the sensor stalks, forcing me to look down past Flasher's body into
the depths below the cliff edge.

Fortunately, Tiny was quick. She used straps on the harness to tie my
thighs in place and showed me a strap to grasp with my hands. "Hang
on tight," she said. "And just let her go out and come right back."

When Tiny scrambled off and raised her hand, Flasher stepped off the
ledge and we plunged downwards.



CHAPTER 2   --   FARMERS



The trouble with jumping off cliffs is it makes you scream. But it
wasn't my fault: the harness was too loose. For that first moment as
we fell free and the wind tugged me away from Flasher's back, I had
this vision of myself falling all alone down the cliff face, flailing
my arms and legs all the way to the bottom.

But the harness was sound: it just had a little slack was all. So I
didn't fall; instead, Flasher's wings bit into the air, and I was
pushed tight against the cushion. Then when we leveled off, I was
released to the rush of the wind and the rhythm of her wings.

We climbed towards the same mountain that Apogee had circled. Flasher
wheeled around in the same tight circle, giving me a good view of the
rocks and scrub brush that covered the peak. Then she started the
shallow glide back to the garage.

Not yet. Already my hands ached from gripping the strap, but we had
work to do. "Up, Flasher, Up," I commanded.

She surged upwards, taking me over the garage, over the crater with
the lake. I could see the mechanicals lying around the water and
looking up at us.

We rose higher, soaring above the mountains until I could feel
Flasher struggling with the altitude. I turned her back to the east
and let her glide as I surveyed the land.

I had been taught about Snowshoe, about how life clung to a narrow
band of warmth around the equator of the planet, but now I could see
it. When I looked left, I could see the approach of the Northern
Winter, see the snowfield spread across the northern horizon as it
made its annual invasion of the forest. When I looked ahead, I could
see the forest, see it stretch eastwards across the badlands to the
Rincon Mountains. And when I looked right, I could see the Sea of
Storms, see the thin band of blue green color that now flowed free
from the grip of the retreating Southern Winter.

I looked below me. We crossed high over the garage and soared out
over Haven Valley. A patchwork of yellow and brown marked where the
women had cut their fields from the forest. As we lost altitude, the
farmhouses and, eventually, the animals in their corrals became
visible.

When we wheeled around   at the far side of the valley to head back
towards the mountains,   I spotted the caravan route, a thin brown line
wandering from the sea   towards Farhaven. We followed the route and
dropped slowly towards   the castle.

I could see the fair. In the field between the castle and the
village, a circle of tents formed an arena where the girls were
competing. I made Flasher dive faster. We streaked between the castle
and village, brushing the tops of the tents.

I heard shouts. What did they say?

A thump. Did we hit something?

A hill loomed ahead. We soared up and over.

Now Flasher had to work hard again, beating her wings against the air
as she spiraled upwards towards the mountaintops. Once again she
wheeled around the peak and began the glide into the garage. When the
black cave mouth loomed before us, she spread her wings and flared to
a landing on the ledge.

"Are you okay?" Tiny asked as she untied me.

"It was great." I slid off Flasher, then grabbed Tiny's arm. "Wow.
The ground's moving."

After I recovered my sense of balance, we led Flasher back to the
crater, stripped off her harness, and sat on the bank while she
cooled off in the lake.

"I never had so much fun," I told Tiny. "We were so high I could see
the sea. Did you see us at the castle? We were so low that I was
looking up at the tower."

#

Axeblade's face flushed red. "You've gone too far this time," she
said.

My flight over the fair had caused a commotion. Frightened horses had
bucked women from their backs, and cattle had stampeded out of the
corrals and charged about the fairgrounds. Outraged, the mechanics
had rushed up the mountain and marched us back down to the castle.

"And you." Axeblade pointed an accusing finger at Tiny. "I trusted
you."

"She didn't do nothing," I said. "I made her help me."

"Be quiet. You're fired Tiny. Get out of my sight."

Poor Tiny. She kept her dignity, bowing to Axeblade and keeping her
head up as she left the court. But I knew she was upset: she didn't
say anything at all.

I glared at Axeblade. "That wasn't fair."

"I'll do the lecturing here," she said. "We have a responsibility to
protect the mechanicals. Your actions... "

I stared at the floor. When you argued with her or tried to explain,
she went on forever.

"Blame yourself for getting Tiny fired. If... "

I discovered that if I turned my foot just so, my toes almost
perfectly matched the outline of one of the floor stones.

"I blame myself," she said at last. "I've been thinking of you as a
child, but you've grown. It's plain you need to be courting."

I looked up. "A warrior company?"
Her lips turned up in a cynical smile. "I'm thinking a good steady
company to keep you out of mischief."

I folded my arms. "Not farmers."

"Now Gypsy. Don't be stubborn. I want you to let Littlewolf take you
to the fair. Be nice, give her a chance and perhaps we'll forget this
morning's little adventure."

"You'll give Tiny her job back?"

"Well, perhaps. But you can't keep getting the girls into trouble."

#

When I left the court and looked about for Littlewolf, I spotted her
long blonde hair and bronze skin across the courtyard. She was in the
stables petting Axeblade's horses and talking with Yellowbird and
Shortbull.

I crossed the yard and slipped under the rail to join them. "Victory
is my favorite," I said.

"She's got the look of a workhorse," Littlewolf said. "I bet she
could pull a straight furrow."

I patted the gray mare's neck and rubbed my hand over her flank.
"She'll not see a plow I hope. It's carrying warriors into battle
she's bred for."

"It's the same," Shortbull said. "My mom says that the best
workhorses are the steadiest in a fight." Shortbull would be steady
in a fight: her name perfectly suited her muscular build. Even her
voice possessed a solid huskiness.

"We've formed a company." Yellowbird's voice sang. Finely chiseled
features made her exceptionally attractive, but she had fair skin and
coal black hair, so it wasn't until she spoke that you understood her
name.

"So look at you," I said while tugging at Littlewolf's sleeve. All
three girls were outfitted in matching leather vests with hardwood
buttons. "Are you looking to do some courting perhaps?"

"Did the Mechanic speak to you about us?"

"I forget. Something about keeping you out of trouble."

"Trouble?"

"Come on," I said. "There's lots to see at the fair."

#
The fair was the event of the year. Everyone came: farmers to sell
their produce; merchants to hawk their wares; and craftswomen to show
their skills. And of course they offered treats to eat and prizes to
win. But the real excitement was in the arena where the girls
competed for their futures in the archery and wrestling.

Girls liked stories about old Earth because, in these stories, there
was always a boy for every girl. But I always laughed when I heard
them. "Earth's a myth," I would say. "How could just one girl
properly support a boy?"

"Oh, would you rather belong to the fems?" the meaner girls would
reply. Everyone knew that they kept us as pets.

Never mind. After the collapse of the Western Elevator, came the
Troubles, an age long struggle for survival. When the cloning
technology was lost, boys became the only means of reproduction, so
we were important now.

But in tinkering with our genes, the fems had almost engineered us
out of existence, so we were always too few. Wars were fought over us
until the One Law led the farmers' army to victory.

Looking back, one had to wonder why it took so long to work out. The
One Law required girls to ban together into marriage companies. As
company, they pooled their resources to attract a boy and fought
together to defend their claim to him. What could be more natural
than that?

#

We toured the exhibits. The girls were excited about picking out
breeding stock from the prize animals at the fair. Shortbull was
particularly impressed with the good selection of pigs. She quickly
got into an argument with Littlewolf over the merits of the Landrace
versus the Berkshire breeds. Then Yellowbird started in about how the
Duroc breed was the most adaptable.

"Let's go watch," I said when trumpets announced a competition.

A crowd of cheering and jeering girls already surrounded the
wrestling pit, but they gave way when I pushed on them. When I
reached the front row, I saw Apogee rubbing oil onto Redblood's arms
and legs. He was taking his time about it, rubbing it in like he was
more interested in touching than helping. Slayer and Stoneheart
walked around the pit, kicking the sand smooth and glaring at
Redblood's opponent.

No one expected Redblood's marriage to Apogee to go unchallenged.
Someone needed to do it, but not Winifred, not Tallebrand's daughter.
For despite Winifred's habit of hanging about the court and fawning
over Apogee, she could not hide her merchant's heart. The mechanicals
are an expense and of no real use, she claimed. They would not fare
well with her as Mechanic. No one that loved them would cheer for
her.

The oil saved them. When the trumpets sounded, the girls stepped into
the ring and right away Winifred feinted to the side and dived for
Redblood's legs. She caught one and started to pull it out from under
Redblood, but her hand slipped on the oily skin. Redblood pulled free
and the girls began circling each other.

The pattern repeated: several times they grappled and one girl or the
other would gain an advantage only to lose it when her opponent
pulled away. Both girls were quick, but Winifred lacked Redblood's
endurance. As Winifred tired, Redblood began to catch her more often
and her escapes became more desperate.

It ended suddenly: Redblood got in close and flipped Winifred over
her hip. Winifred lay in the sand where she fell until Redblood
reached down to pull her to her feet. Only then did Redblood raise
her arms into the air to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Then
she walked away, surrounded by friends, one arm still in the air, the
other around Apogee.

I stared at the sand until the crowd thinned enough for Littlewolf to
reach me, "What happened?" she asked.

"Redblood won," I said. The mechanicals won. They needed Redblood and
her mechanic's heart.

I sighed. Well, I would just have to find another captain. But there
ought to be rules. Especially when the world needed saving.

#

The farm girls bought sausages wrapped in white bread, and we took
them to a sunny spot on the castle wall. While we ate, Littlewolf
explained how the girl's families would provide a dowry that included
the Bullhead Ranch, fertile land in the lower valley.

"A ranch is fine," I said, "but I'm looking for girls to help me with
the Elevator."

"The Mechanic said we shouldn't encourage you," Littlewolf replied.
"She says that the scholars at Towerhold will deal with it."

"They're not gypsies. What do they know?"

"Well, it's nothing to worry about anyway." She shrugged and popped
the last of her sausage into her mouth.

I nibbled at my sausage. That was the problem -- it seemed so
harmless: a thin thread in the sky. Yet, I knew that the Western
Elevator had destroyed the Femdom and plunged the world into the dark
age called the Troubles. But how?
I wished that I could speak to a real gypsy: someone who knew
something.

#

"We should look at the horses."

"Wait. There's Tiny," I said pointing through a break in the crowd.

Littlewolf took hold of my arm and held me back. "A human?"

"She's my friend." I pulled free and walked over to her.

Tiny was full of news to share. She had found another human girl, a
caravan guard. Bandits had attacked a caravan. They were taking on
extra guards. Her friend had found her a job tending horses. She was
going to Calmwater.

"To the sea? When?" I asked.

"Tomorrow."

"You're lucky. I have to stay here and raise pigs."

Littlewolf objected, "It's honest work."

"But sometimes a boy needs excitement," said a new voice. It belonged
to an olive-skinned girl with dark eyes who had been standing with
Tiny.

I looked her over for signs of being human, but she was too big, too
perfect.

Littlewolf stepped between the stranger and me. "He's with us."
Yellowbird and Shortbull eased closer too.

"Well, it is Fair Day." The stranger's smile flashed clean white
teeth. "I'll fight you then. For an introduction. Archery or
wrestling?"

"Wrestling," Shortbull answered.

The stranger was somewhat taller and slimmer than Shortbull, but when
she stripped off her blouse and trousers, I could see that she gave
nothing away in strength. She was slim only because she had no fat at
all. Her bulging muscles stretched her skin so tight that you could
see veins and tendons underneath.

When the girls stepped onto the sand, someone sounded a trumpet and a
crowd gathered around. Shortbull and the stranger wasted no time
feinting and circling; they embraced and stayed locked together in a
contest of raw strength. Except for the quivering of their muscles,
you could have thought them statues carved from stone.
We'll be here forever. The thought made me glance anxiously around.
What could be more embarrassing than being the subject of a poor
fight? The crowd, however, seemed content to wait it out. The girls
fell silent and stared intently at the contestants, looking for the
first sign of weakness.

Suddenly the girls began screaming, and I looked back to see
Shortbull starting to give way. Slowly, with relentless force, the
stranger bent her over backwards. Several times she took strength
from the cheers of her friends and struggled back nearly upright, but
finally she could do no more and collapsed to the ground.

Leaving Shortbull on the ground, the stranger waved briefly to
acknowledge the applause of the crowd, then she bowed to me. "I am
Amin, My Lord, trader in fine goods."

"Don't call me Lord," I said as I offered her my hand. "I'm no
farmer."

"Gypsy then." She smiled, but her handshake seemed quick and light
for such a strong woman. "Come. I'm thirsty. Let's have a beer."

"Beer? I'm too young to drink."

"Wasn't that you on the mechanical this morning?"

"So?"

"So by mountain law, you're grown." She offered me her arm. When I
took it, she gestured to Tiny. "Fetch my clothes Tiny. You can come
with us."

"You caused quite a panic this morning," Amin said. "A bull broke out
and chased everyone around."

"Did it?" When I glanced back, I saw Littlewolf and the other girls
watching us leave.

#

Amin sipped on her beer. It made my mouth pucker just to watch her.
Women only drink it to prove they're women. They couldn't possibly
like it.

"It's wrong that I was able to take you from the girls like that,"
she said.

"Wrong?"

"We should be sharing the boys, not fighting over them."

I sucked in my breath. Axeblade said bandits were saying things like
that.
I glanced around. We were in a quiet corner of the Mechanic's Inn; no
one was near. Still, this was dangerous talk. "Hush. Someone might
hear."

"It's something that needs hearing."

"Are you a bandit?" I asked.

"Because I'm willing to discuss new ideas?"

"It's not the One Law."

She smiled. "So have the gypsies become defenders of the One Law
then?"

I frowned. Where were my loyalties?

We had not always been gypsies, once we had been the caretakers of
the elevators. Ferrying women and mechanicals into space had made us
rich and powerful.

Afterwards, when the survivors blamed and persecuted us for the
collapse of the Western Elevator, we used ancient powers to build the
fortress at Towerhold. Hiding behind the great walls, we became an
isolated and secretive people with our own ways and laws.

But after the farmers defeated the barbarian tribes in the war that
ended the Troubles, they resolved that there would be no more wars.
So they declared that all peoples of the land must follow the One
Law. Fearful of the farmer's wrath, the sailors at Calmwater and the
mechanics at Farhaven submitted. Only the caretakers, who thought
ourselves safe behind our walls, resisted. But walls are not
warriors: the farmers swarmed over them and took the city.

Still, we refused to bow to the One Law. We abandoned the Elevator
and threatened to bring it down on the farmers' heads. But this only
angered the farmers, who cast us out of the city and banned us from
owning property. We became gypsies then, wandering about, doing odd
jobs, telling fortunes, and creating mischief until the farmers drove
us out of the land entirely. So now we were sailors, living at sea
beyond the reach of the farmers' army.

No, the gypsies would not defend the One Law. But I was a gypsy by
birth only: I had been raised by Axeblade after being rescued from a
shipwreck. The One Law was what I had been taught; I had nothing
gypsy except the cards.

"It's still bandit talk," I said. "Axeblade says there will be
fighting soon."

Amin fell quiet, sipping on her beer and looking thoughtful, so to
change the subject, I looked at Tiny. "Axeblade says you can have
your job back."
She shook her head. "Saratan says the sisters have a school in
Calmwater, she says I should go."

"Sisters?"

"Human girls, we have to stick together."

"Human girls," Amin said. "There's a case where the One Law is hardly
fair. They're too small to compete."

"There's more to it than the competitions," I objected. "The boys get
to decide."

"Oh? Was it your choice to be with farmers? I heard you were looking
for warriors."

"You got it wrong. I'm looking for help with the Elevator."

"The Elevator? Don't you need a gypsy company then?"

I shrugged. "Do you know one?"

"Not personally," she said. "But their ships stop at Calmwater often
enough."

I noticed that her eyes were locked intently on mine. What was she
getting at?

"What good does that do me?" I asked.

"You could come to Calmwater with us."

I wanted to. The gypsies were a mystery: why weren't they already
doing something? Surely, they knew the Elevator was falling. If I
could just talk to them. We could raise a company.

I sighed. "Axeblade wouldn't let me go."

"So don't tell her," Amin said.



CHAPTER 3    --   TRAVELERS



The trouble with running away is they make you get up too early. I
should have rested when I reached my hiding place, but nervous energy
made my idle fingers select a card, and now I had to worry about it
too.

And I was distracted by cracking whips, snorting horses, and creaking
harnesses -- sounds of heavily loaded wagons -- that broke the
morning stillness. The noise grew louder as the caravan approached
and soon teams of four, sometimes six, horses pulled wagon after
wagon past my hiding place.

The wagons groaned under the weight of furs and leather, cheese and
grain, salted pork and beef. No great treasure, just mountain goods
purchased at the fair for the markets on the coast. Yet hard looking
guards walked alongside the wagons. These merchants meant to deliver
their goods. Bandits beware, they declared.

For a while, I watched them from behind the bushes, but the yellow
rays from the morning sun hurt my eyes, so I leaned back against the
tree and let my ears track the caravan's passage. My fingers flipped
the card over and over. It was the Elevator, omen of death. Clearly
it portended the coming journey. But what? An urgency to begin? Or a
warning of doom?

Not that it mattered. If anyone called me a fool for running off
without a proper company -- well, they weren't helping me, were they?
In Calmwater I could raise a company of gypsies to save the Elevator.

A fading of sounds drew my attention back to the road. As we had
agreed, Amin and Tiny walked behind the last wagon. They had already
passed my hiding place in the woods, so I returned the card to my
pocket, picked up my pack, and hurried up the road after them.

"I knew you would come," Tiny said. She took my pack and trotted
forward to find a place to stow it.

"Any trouble?" Amin asked.

"No. I did like you said."

Better even. The previous night, I had caught Axeblade busy
conducting business and mentioned that Littlewolf wanted to show me
the ranch.

"That's fine," Axeblade had said to get rid of me. A few days from
now, when she summoned Littlewolf to explain, I would be long gone.

"And here?" I asked.

"All arranged."

Meet the new me: Troy, farm boy and nephew of Amin who was taking me
to Calmwater on family business.

The tricky part was joining the caravan without being seen by anyone
in the village. I was delayed, Amin had told the caravan mistress. Of
course, the caravan couldn't wait, so we were to catch up.

Now all we had to do was avoid attracting attention until we were
well down the road.

#
Tiny and another human girl waited on the side of the road for us.
"This is Saratan, she's going to teach me to be a warrior."

I almost laughed. The girl's sword practically dragged on the ground.
At three-quarters Amin's size, only a few inches taller than me, she
looked like a kid playing with her mother's weapons. Except I didn't
dare laugh: the heavy brows that framed her thick nose and lips gave
her an angry look.

She glanced down at my hand, but I kept it at my side. Did she expect
privileges? Tiny, I bet, had been blabbing secrets.

"Hello," I said.

She nodded stiffly. "My Lord."

"Don't call me -- Oh!" I looked at Amin and rubbed my bottom where
she had pinched me.

"Excuse me My Lord. It is necessary to be careful."

I scowled at Saratan. Amin's pinch had been a needed reminder of our
deception; still, I didn't like the way human girls always caused
trouble. And I wondered how much she had been told. She was Tiny's
friend but her main loyalty would be to the caravan. Or would it? Did
women who fought for money have loyalties?

"I was just admiring your bracelet," Saratan said. However, her grin
turned the compliment into a rebuke. "Farm boys don't often wear
gold."

So she knew. I slipped the bracelet off and put it into my pocket.
But she kept looking at me, so I removed the necklace and rings too.
Finally she nodded her approval.

I glared at Tiny. It was bad enough that she was tagging along. But
now she had this other human girl hanging around giving me orders.

"If you want to ride," Saratan said, "I can stop one of the wagons."

"I'll walk." One thing I knew for sure: mercenaries expected to be
paid for their services.

#

But walking was awkward. Over the years, wagon wheels had cut deep
ruts into the road. Amin invariably walked in the center, along the
hump between the ruts, so to stay close to her, I walked on the side
of the road. I had to dodge bushes and rocks, but at least it forced
Saratan and Tiny to walk behind us where I didn't have to talk to
them. I did, however, have to listen to their chatter.

"When will we get to the mountains?" Tiny asked.
"Tonight perhaps," Saratan said. She explained that the caravan route
ran generally southeast to the Sea of Storms. Past the farms of Haven
Valley it climbed steeply over Gates Pass and then dropped slowly
until it met the sea at Calmwater.

"Will we get to see any ships?"

"Lots, they come from everywhere to trade at the market."

"Gypsy ships?" I bit my lip. The question had just popped out.

"Sometimes," Saratan said. "You'll know they're gypsy because they're
big and have three masts."

"I know that."

"Will you show us the market?" Tiny asked. "Can we take Gypsy?"

"Troy," Saratan said. "Call him Troy or we'll be found out, don't
forget."

There she was, giving orders again. Let Tiny ask the questions.

Three masts and big. Something to remember.

#

We trailed along behind the wagons throughout the morning, until in
the mid-day, they came to a halt. The drivers began dismounting,
stretching and walking over to the camp wagon to collect their lunch.

Tiny and Saratan had horses to tend, so Amin escorted me to the camp
wagon and introduced me to the caravan mistress. "This is Mistress
Sayyid."

I offered my hand.

"My Lord. I feared we had missed you." Her hand was big and callused,
what you would expect from a working woman. It swallowed mine as we
shook.

"Barely made it. It was a rush."

She raised an eyebrow. Axeblade did that too, when she expected a
real explanation.

I grimaced and put my hands up in mock frustration. "Well, when Amin
said sunup, how was I to know she meant the middle of the night?"

Sayyid smiled with amused tolerance. I knew she would: women like
being smarter than boys. She even took me to the head of the line for
my meal.
#

The lunch stop was too brief. Tiny and Saratan, who had done chores,
were still eating when Sayyid came around rousting the women back to
the wagons. Worse, I had not recovered from the morning's walk: my
legs felt stiff and weak when I rose.

"Can I ride?" I asked.

"Over there," Sayyid said pointing to her wagon.

Saratan, who was eating with her knife, scraped the last of her beans
from the plate into her mouth and started to rise. "I'll help you
up."

"I can do it." I didn't need help from a human. So maybe they let her
carry a sword, but did she think I wouldn't notice that the real
guards had already eaten?

However, when I reached the freight wagon, I realized I had no idea
how to get up. The wheels were about the same height as a tall woman,
so the wagon body sat too high above the ground for me to pull myself
up.

Saratan leaned uninvited against the wagon and picked at her teeth
with the stem of a weed. "Step on the spokes."

"I know that."

The spokes were sloped at awkward   angles for climbing, but I managed
to climb aboard by stepping first   to a lower spoke, then to the hub,
then to an upper spoke, which got   me high enough to pull myself onto
the top of the wheel and into the   seat.

Sayyid   climbed aboard and put the reins in my hands, four big leather
straps   in each. Then she cracked her whip in the air and the horses
leaned   into their collars. The harness creaked and groaned from the
strain   then eased as the big wheels started turning.

As we pulled away, Tiny joined Saratan and I lost sight of them
behind the wagon. But Tiny, I noticed, had found a straw to chew on
also. I would have to speak to her. She didn't need to be picking up
bad habits from a mercenary.

Sayyid kept me busy for a while, pulling on one set of reins then
another and slapping them onto the horses' backs as we maneuvered
onto the road. But once the caravan formed up and began moving, the
horses were content to follow along behind the wagon in front. I
needed only to leave slack in the reins and slap them occasionally
when a horse got lazy about pulling its share of the load.

"What takes you to Calmwater?" Sayyid asked.

"Family business. A private matter."
"An important one, I hope. This is a bad time for a boy to be
traveling."

"I have Amin. She is quite capable."

"Of course. Still, traveling without a company... Seems unwise. I am
reminded of a time when..."

From the seat I could look down on the backs of the horses and see
how they were harnessed. The tongue ran forward from the center of
the wagon and supported a set of double hitches behind each pair of
horses. From the hitches, straps ran forward and attached to collars
around each horse's neck. Another set of straps, the reins, ran
backward from each side of the horse's muzzles into my hands.

"... so you see, it's never a good idea..."

Axeblade and Sayyid could not have been related. But it was odd: the
way they were the same. Oh, they meant well enough, I suppose, but if
they had their way, I would never get out of the castle.

#

I whiled away the afternoon by watching the trees pass. As we climbed
out of the flat lands, they began to show their fall colors, giving
one a sense of the coming winter. But as we moved into the shadow of
the mountains below Gates Pass, the forest changed. Dark green trees,
the kind that didn't change color in the fall, crowded the road and
spread heavy branches over us.

Soon the foreboding trees stole the last of the light, forcing Sayyid
to call a halt. When we pulled into a dimly lit clearing and climbed
down from the wagons, the women began unhitching horses, spreading
out sleeping rolls, and throwing wood onto campfires.

I looked for Amin.

She sat alone on a fallen tree near the forest edge. When I joined
her, she held a silver coin towards me. "If I understand my legends,
a gypsy boy will tell your fortune if you offer him silver."

I looked towards the camp. We were quite alone, Tiny and Saratan
seemed safely occupied with their chores, so I accepted the coin and
rubbed it between my fingers. "What knowledge would you seek
Mistress?"

"Why, what the future holds of course."

I took the cards from my pocket and let my fingers stroke their
smooth surfaces. Other than a few dim memories, they were the only
possession I retained from the shipwreck. They were made of some
magic material that was impervious to abuse. Even after all these
years, they showed no signs of wear; proof, I was sure, that they
possessed powers from ancient times.

Straddling the trunk to face Amin, I drew a card from the deck and
placed it between us. "This is the Seeker Card," I explained.

Laying the coin on the card I added, "The silver is used to connect
you with the ancestors. If they like its feel, perhaps they will
reveal something of what is to come."

I drew four cards one by one from the deck, laying them face down
around the Seeker. "Your question is quite general, so the ancestors
cannot be specific. This spread is called Past, Present, and Future.
The bottom card may foretell unexpected events."

When I turned the cards face-up, one by one, they were:

    Past      -- the Pulling, hard work with little reward;

    Present   -- the Neglected Wagon, discouragement;

    Future    -- the Beast, omen of danger;

    Unexpected -- the Elevator, omen of death.

Again the Elevator had made its ominous appearance. It scared me
until I looked up to see Saratan standing over us. As I had feared
earlier: she had come over to see what we were doing, bringing her
bad luck with her.

The fortune was ruined, and I couldn't tell it: no good ever came of
such grim tidings. I returned the coin to Amin. "The cards make no
sense," I said.

"Perhaps you could try again?"

"Another time." I picked up the cards. "The ancestors are busy
tonight."

#

We ate hot stew and black bread for supper, a perfect meal for an
autumn night by the campfire. Afterwards one of the women leaned back
and rubbed her belly. "Ah. Good meal Cookie."

"Better with a warm beer," another said.

"Make that a warm beer and a hot man."

Sayyid stood and made calm-down motions with her hands. "Fems, we
have a guest. Let us remember our manners."

If only she knew. Sometimes when the women were drinking late at
night, I would sneak into the court and listen to them tell raunchy
stories. She would probably blush to think of some of the words I
knew.

Bowing towards me, Sayyid said, "My Lord. It is a tradition that when
a boy travels with a caravan, that he should tell a story each night.
Perhaps you will so honor us?"

Again her words and manner reminded me of Axeblade. And I was
reminded too of a game that I liked to play with the women. "Very
well," I said. "I will tell you a story. But this story is also a
puzzle. If you cannot find the answer before tomorrow night, then it
is you women who must tell me a story."

They all seemed interested and some were nodding, so I began:

"A traveler was on the road when the weather turned bad. In the
distance, she saw a farm, and seeking to find shelter, she headed for
it.

"Now the traveler knew that the farmers in that region were a
suspicious lot. So when she came to the barn, she thought, 'Well I'll
just stay the night in here and be gone in the morning before anyone
knows.'

"But when she opened the door, she found that the barn was full of
bulls, the mean ones with long horns that like to stick you. So she
closed the door and went up to the farmhouse.

"The farmer was not happy to see the traveler. 'I already have
guests,' she complained. 'The only space left is in my son's room.'

"For a moment the traveler wondered how she could be so lucky. The
son was one of those strong, lusty-looking farm boys the women like
so much. You know the type.

"But the farmer had other ideas. 'Don't much like the idea of
strangers lurking about,' she said. 'But I want to be fair. Tell me
something about yourself. If I judge it true, you can sleep in the
barn. But if you lie, you'll be on your way.'

"Of course this disappointed the traveler. Compared to the son's
room, the barn and the road seemed equally miserable possibilities.
But after scratching her head for a minute, she figured out what to
say.

"So the traveler spoke up and then it was the farmer's turn to
scratch her head. She thought and thought and then had to let the
traveler spend the night in her son's room.

"Now the puzzle is this: What did the traveler say to the farmer? And
remember: you must have the answer by tomorrow night, else you women
will owe me a story."

#
In the morning I got up at first light. It had been a miserable
night: the first night I had ever spent on the ground. Although I had
cleared the ground of rocks and sticks before laying out my bedroll,
they had somehow crept back under the blanket. Every time I would
drop off to sleep, something would attack, poking me in the hips,
shoulders, or sides. So despite being tired, I was too sore to lie in
bed.

The camp was quiet. Here in the shadow of the mountains, the early
dawn light was still too dim to chase the women from their bedrolls.
All except for Amin, whom I saw returning to the camp from the trail
ahead.

It seemed strange that she had been out in that direction because the
river, where one might go to wash, was towards the rear of the camp.
I meant to ask her about it, but not seeing me, she lay down and
wrapped her blanket around her. I supposed she was trying to catch a
few minutes more sleep before the camp rose and so I did not disturb
her.

The morning quiet did not last long. Soon the women were awake. The
cook started breakfast and Tiny and Saratan began hitching the horses
to the wagons. We were ready to move by the time the sun began
shining into our eyes.

As we climbed onto the wagons, Tiny walked by and asked. "Did the
traveler tell the farmer she was a Justice?"

"No. The answer is in the story."

She would never get it, but I felt too tired to tease her. I climbed
into the back of the wagon and stretched out on the grain where,
despite the jolting from the road and the coarse cloth of the sacks,
I soon fell asleep.

#

Tonight I'm sleeping in the wagon, I thought when I woke up. I
stretched out on the grain sacks and yawned, feeling lazy and liking
it.

Mid or late morning, I guessed from the way the sun hung high in the
sky over the mountains. In the front of the wagon, Sayyid seemed
almost asleep at the reins. I saw Amin walking alongside, so I slid
to the back of the wagon, climbed down the tailgate, and dropped to
the road.

Amin nodded.

"Have we come far?" I asked.

"A piece," she said.

I twisted around and walked backwards so I could see where we had
been. The road stretched straight behind us, creating an open lane in
the trees. Through the slot, the sky looked like a blue arrow
pointing down to the valley floor.

"We're up pretty high," I said.

Amin made no reply.

I turned the right way about and walked along with her, but she kept
her eyes busy scanning the road ahead and seemed hardly aware of my
presence.

Women. They're always moody. Or maybe she was just tired, I thought
after a few more minutes. The warm day, the steady rise of the trail,
and the relentless pace soon quickened my breath and brought a film
of perspiration to my skin.

I heard footsteps behind me and glanced around to see Tiny and
Saratan walking forward to join us.

"Are you awake?" Tiny asked.

"Yes. But I should have stayed in the wagon." I exhaled loudly and
hung out my tongue. "This trail is steep."

Saratan snorted. "We're not even in the pass yet."

"Great." I looked at the wagon, wondering if I could get back on.

"That's the trouble," Saratan said.

"What is?"

"Saving the world, they make you work at it, a bother really."

Go ahead and laugh, I thought. You aren't so tough. Amin could tear
you apart.

#

When we entered Gates Pass, the mountains closed in on both sides of
us. The road shared the canyon with a stream, which we could see
running in a rugged little gorge below us. The drivers woke up from
their sleepy ride and filled the air with the crack of their whips.
The horses had their mouths open and they snorted and whinnied their
complaints.

I wanted to complain too, and take a rest. But I didn't dare, not
with Saratan hanging about. It's stupid, I thought. Who cares what
human girls think?

Finally relief. When the canyon walls opened up and we came out onto
a flat meadow, Sayyid called a halt for lunch and the women climbed
down from their wagons.
I rested on a rock. The meadow lay quietly in a little bowl in the
mountains. Stands of white barked trees lined the edges of the bowl,
hiding the harsh rock walls from our gaze. Splashes of red and violet
wild flowers followed the stream where it cut across the straw
colored grasses.

Perhaps the meadow inspired a sense of tranquility, or perhaps the
quiet merely provided some needed relief from the groaning wagons and
cracking whips, but even the women gathering around the camp wagon
spoke softly here.

When I saw Tiny carrying buckets, I followed her down the stream bank
to the water. I knelt down on soft moss and began splashing my face
and neck, enjoying the shock of cold water.

Upstream, I could see Sayyid and Amin. Something was wrong.

Stop it, I wanted to tell them, this was not a place for arguing. I
couldn't hear their words, but they were shouting and waving their
arms at each other.

Sayyid dismissed Amin with an impatient chop of her hand and turned
back to the wagons. But she took only a couple of steps before Amin
drew her sword and swung it at Sayyid's head. Perhaps warned by the
sound of the sword being drawn, Sayyid managed to turn and throw up
her arm for protection. However, the blow of the sword severed her
arm and knocked her to the ground. Two more brutal slashes left the
mistress motionless.

Then Amin looked up and saw me staring at her.



CHAPTER 4   --   BANDITS



The trouble with ambushes is that no one tells you what's going on.
Women, screaming women, rushed from the woods. They held their swords
and pikes straight out before them and charged the wagons.

Bandits! That's what Amin had been doing in the night: arranging an
ambush. And Sayyid's murder was the signal to attack.

I grabbed Tiny's blouse and dragged her into the stream with me. New,
more terrible, screams from the wagons chased us across the water. We
scrambled up the far bank and broke through bushes onto the flat
meadowland.

We clung to each other and looked desperately about. What to do?

Hide? Maybe, the stream and the bushes shielded us from the carnage
and maybe from bandit eyes.
No. Upstream, I could see Amin struggling up the bank onto our side
of the stream.

Tiny saw her too. "Come on," she said as she pulled me towards Amin.

"No." I shouted. "She's a bandit." Either Tiny hadn't seen Amin kill
Sayyid or she was a bandit too. I had no time to sort it out. I
jerked away from Tiny's grasp and sprinted across the meadow towards
the woods.

Tiny's footsteps pounded into the ground behind me. And over my
shoulder I saw Amin break free from the bushes and begin running
parallel to us, angling to enter the woods upstream of us.

I looked ahead. The little band of trees between the meadow and the
mountain was too narrow: we could never slip past Amin to escape
upstream. Behind the trees, the mountain rose steeply upwards. And
downstream, the canyon narrowed into the deep gorge.

Again I felt Tiny tugging on my shirt. "This way," she said, trying
to pull me downstream.

"No. It's a trap."

In the woods, I dodged around trees and cried out as the brush ripped
at my legs.

We burst through the shallow stand of trees to the canyon wall, a
jumbled fall of boulders. I leapt up onto one rock and used it to
spring to another, then another.

A ledge blocked our way. I jumped up and just caught the lip. Tiny
pushed on my bottom to help me up, then I pulled her after me.

Below, Amin emerged from the trees and started climbing the boulders.

We struggled up a steep slope. I grabbed a rock; it came loose and I
slipped backwards. Tiny grabbed my shirt and held me up.

Amin cleared the ledge and climbed relentlessly upwards after us.
Didn't she ever slip?

I could hardly breathe. "She's... gaining... "

"Keep moving... Saratan is coming."

I risked another glance backwards and paid for it with skinned knees
from another slip. Saratan? Or another bandit? I couldn't tell. And
what could Saratan do anyway?

Tiny gave me no chance to look again. She kept pulling and dragging
me upwards. Finally we reached the top and came out onto a broad
ridgeline. We staggered up the ridge until a wall of rock blocked our
path.

We started to move to the right but Amin had caught us. She stopped
ten feet from us. Everyone gasped for breath, unable to speak. I
dropped to my knees and stared at her. Her hand worked the grip on
her sword, turning it repeatedly in time with the heaving of her
chest. I could see the blood stains on the blade.

"Now Gypsy," she said finally, "there is no need to be running. I
told you I would take good care of you."

"You had best look to yourself first."

Our heads jerked around. Saratan had finally caught up, just as Tiny
had promised.

Saratan and Amin glared at each other with grim determination, and as
they approached each other, they crouched low in a fighting stance
with their swords held out. Suddenly they charged at each other,
clashing their swords together until Amin pushed the lighter Saratan
backwards. Saratan stumbled and fell. Amin raised her sword.

"No," I screamed as I picked up a rock and threw it at Amin.

Amin ducked, giving Saratan an instant to roll to her feet. Another
rock, from Tiny, struck Amin's shoulder and she gave ground as we
pelted her with more stones. Saratan ducked under the stones and
drove her sword into Amin's side.

Everything stopped. Amin dropped her sword and sat down causing
Saratan's sword to pull free. She held her hands to the wound and sat
looking as if she couldn't believe the blood oozing through her
fingers.

After a while she looked up at me. "I meant to make you free," she
said.

"You murdered Sayyid."

She shook her head. "It's war. I had to do it."

She lay back then and closed her eyes. Her breathing quickened and
her face paled and beaded with sweat. It must have hurt.

#

"We need to get going," Saratan said.

I nodded.

Saratan had allowed me to sit leaning against the rocks until I had
recovered. Now she slid her hand under my arm and pulled me to my
feet.
"The caravan?" I asked.

"Gone."

As Saratan   led us away from the bandits, I looked back to where Amin
was lying.   When you dreamed of adventure, only the bad women died.
But on the   road, you didn't even know who they were. Why did they
make it so   hard?

Saratan   followed the rock wall across the ridgeline until the ground
started   falling away into another narrow valley. There she paused and
pointed   to the west. "If we go down that way," she said, "we can work
our way   back to the trail and return to Farhaven."

In the distance, the peaceful fields of Haven Valley lay under her
outstretched hand, but my eyes turned to the eastern sky. The
Elevator was invisible during the day, but its threat overshadowed
the promised security of the valley. Already it had extracted a toll
of blood. There could be no going home now, not until the Elevator
was saved.

"No," I said. "I'm not quitting."

Saratan was surprised, I think. Or maybe she just thought I was
stupid. She stared hard at me, but I met her eyes, and eventually she
pointed to the east. "If we stay high and work our way around the
mountain, we can cross the divide and cut the trail leading to
Calmwater."

I looked from Saratan to Tiny. Not the sort of girls to save the
world, but they had rescued me from the bandits. Maybe they could
take me to Calmwater. I nodded. Nothing had changed really: I could
still raise a gypsy company; that was still the plan.

I pushed past Saratan and started around the mountain. But I couldn't
help looking back one more time. Amin was dead. I had seen her die.
But I had this feeling, like she was watching me leave.

#

Fields of jagged rock covered the mountainside. Most times we stepped
from rock to rock, but sometimes when the gaps were wide, we climbed
over or around them. Too often we slipped and hurt ourselves.

Our struggle across the mountainside ate up the afternoon: the sun
sat low in the west by the time we reached the divide.

"Look," Tiny said. She pointed down.

We stood at the top of a sheer cliff. Thirty feet below, the forest
made a brown and orange blanket that gradually turned green as it
flowed down over the hills to seek the warmth of the sea. Far to the
southeast, the last rays of the sun glinted off the water.
The evening light caught the Elevator too. I traced it into the sky,
then blinked with confusion. It curved to the north, but that was
wrong. That night with Redblood, it had curved to the south. I was
sure of it. What was going on?

"Come on," Saratan said. She showed us a crack in the cliff where
some force of nature had found a fault in the rock and split it open,
leaving us a series of ledges to climb down.

"I can't do it," I said. "I'm too tired. I can't even see straight."

"We can't stay here," Saratan said. She swung her arms around
indicating the barren rock that covered the ridge. No trees, or even
weeds, had ever rooted there to offer shelter from the wind and cold.

"Come on," Tiny said. "We can rest when we get down."

But she was wrong. When we reached the base of the trees Saratan set
us to work scooping up dry leaves into a big pile. We just beat the
darkness, and the terrible chill that descended with it.

"Gypsies have powers," I warned as we lay down in the leaves. "Molest
me and you'll be sorry."

But I might as well have been talking to the wind. They turned me on
my side and pressed against me and scooped leaves over us until we
were buried. I would have protested, but my arm ended up around
Saratan's waist, and I could feel the swell of something soft against
my thumb. It was her breast I think, but I didn't dare move to find
out.

"What did she say?" Tiny asked.

"Who?"

"The traveler, what did she say to the farmer?"

I groaned. "She said, 'Go to sleep.'"

Saratan never said what she was thinking. Did she feel the touch of
my thumb? Did she care?

Soon the leaves and the press of bodies brought warmth and sleep.

#

We could see our breath in the morning cold. But no one thought of
lazing about in the leaves. Hunger and thirst drove us out of our
cozy nest.

Thirst we satisfied at a stream. But hunger we had to endure, an
endurance made harder whenever we passed bushes full of yellow
berries. They say that people once lived on planets where the food
was good. But no one on Snowshoe ever ate native food twice: only
grown food was safe.

We followed the slopes downhill, and whenever we had a choice, we
worked our way east. Saratan said that if we could get back onto the
road we could find a farm and get something to eat.

But we found the farm first. We stepped from the trees onto a plowed
field and there it was. In the distance, a white house sat on a
little rise overlooking outbuildings and stone fences.

"Hey," Tiny said. "Maybe you should tell us what the traveler said?"

I laughed. "So you like farm boys?"

"What if the farmer isn't friendly?"

"Then tell her, 'You will send me away.'"

She screwed up her face. "That makes no sense."

"Think about it. What happens if the farmer decides your words are
false?"

"She sends me away."

"So that makes it true. And she can't send you away, can she?"

"So she puts me with the bulls?"

"But if she did that, it would make your words false and she would
have to send you away, which would make them true, so -- "

"Come on," Saratan said. "Maybe this farmer will be friendly."

#

"Well we can't have humans lurking about," the farmer said. "Our
husband won't like it. But see that woodpile over there? Go and split
some logs and I'll bring you some lunch. Then you'll be on your way."

Most of the wood was already split, neatly stacked and ready for the
winter fireplace. But the farmer had left some logs for us. Most were
two feet or so in diameter, and they had been cut into two-foot
sections.

"Farmers," I said. I could hardly lift the iron mallet. But I picked
it up and dropped it onto the spike. The spike sank into the wood,
and after more drops -- my efforts were too feeble to be called blows
-- the log began to groan and finally gave out a crack as it split
into two pieces.

The farmer joined us at the woodpile bringing the aroma of fresh-made
bread with her. It was on a tray with cheese and slices of beef.
"I'll give you some advice."   The farmer was looking at me. "You had
better learn to work as hard   as your friends here if you want to
amount to anything." Her arm   swept over the woodpiles. Saratan had
quartered four logs and Tiny   two while I had been struggling to halve
the one log.

But she left the tray and we sat on unsplit logs and tore into the
food. The beef, which had been preserved in salt, left us thirsty so
Tiny and I pulled a bucket of water up from the well while Saratan
returned the tray to the farmhouse. She also got directions and we
started down the road to Calmwater.

"Do I really look that bad?" I said as I combed my hair with my
fingers and brushed at the dirt on my clothes. The farmer hadn't even
realized that I was a boy.

#

Two days later I was even dirtier. The farmers along the way had been
friendly enough. They fed us and let us sleep in their barns. Of
course, if they always made us do a chore or two, it was only to be
expected. Farmers, I knew, held that everything should be earned. And
it seemed easier to do the chores than to explain how a boy came to
be running about with human girls. But I needed a bath and clean
clothes and a sit-down meal.

But despite the grime, my spirits lifted when we reached the
outskirts of Calmwater. It's a festival, I thought. The fields
outside the city were covered with tents, and colorful pennants flew
everywhere.

But it was not a festival. When we stopped at the first tent to ask
what was going on, the women told us the army was assembling. They
were going to fight Mercid the Mad.

Mercid was called 'the Mad' because she advocated a new regime where
men would be shared equally by all women. But this idea was contrary
to the One Law. Women won men by forming companies: successful
companies attracted men; unsuccessful companies did not.

Most women who failed to join a successful company accepted their
fate, but others had weaker souls. These unhappy women became easy
prey for Mercid. She promised them men and land and recruited them
into her bandit army.

All summer long, while memories of dreadful famines kept the farmers
in the fields, Mercid had grown stronger and bolder. The women that
attacked our caravan must have been hers, and Amin must have been her
agent.

But now the harvest was done and the farmers were out to put a stop
to her nonsense. Just as Axeblade had said, the war was starting.

#
Inside the city the   market overflowed with warriors looking for
something to do and   vendors looking to help them find it. Their calls
drew my eyes to the   booths and carts, but Saratan hurried by, leading
Tiny and me through   the market into a narrow street.

Soon laughter from an open tavern door drowned the unruly buzz of the
market and then itself gave way to the sharp pounding of a smithy's
hammer. But as the street turned past a tailor's shop, the city
sounds faded until we could hear the slap of our footsteps on the
paving stones.

We entered a shop marked with a carved quill hanging over the door.
Inside, desks and shelves crowded together, their surfaces
overflowing with stacks of paper, boxes of quills, bottles of ink --
everything a scholar could need. A human woman labored over a vat,
making even more paper, and in the back a girl sat at a desk,
scratching at a paper with her quill.

"Saratan!" The woman rose with open arms.

While they hugged and patted each other, I swept disapproving eyes
over the shop. Humans, it was plain, had no respect for tradition.
Scholarship was for boys, but here they were, stealing our work.
Worse, they were obviously not even competent. The cluttered shelves
and dusty air made my lips pucker with distaste.

"Mother, I want you to meet someone," Saratan said. "This is Gypsy."

"You are Saratan's mother?" I asked. How could she have children? The
wrinkles that deformed her face and hands marked her too clearly as
human.

"Some of the girls honor me with that title," Mother explained. "I
help with their raising when I can."

As her eyes dropped to take in my grimy appearance, it   took an effort
of will to keep from tugging at the wrinkles and tears   in my clothes.
And I shouldn't have been rude, after all Saratan, and   hence her
mother, had earned some respect, but my hands twitched   and slid of
their own accord behind my back.

My manner must have betrayed me. Mother straightened and looked at
Saratan. "A boy?" she asked.

"A boy?" The girl, the one who had been writing, peeked from behind
Mother and stared at me.

Mother slipped her arm around the girl and drew her forward. "This is
my apprentice, Scribbles."

Scribbles and I looked at each other in mutual disdain. It would be
better, I decided, not to look at her when eating. Her face was
covered with pockmarks, and on the side of her nose, white puss
looked ready to erupt from an angry looking bump. But what I
especially didn't like was the way she pushed her head forward to
look at me. "He's dirty," she pronounced.

Saratan cleared her throat and drew Tiny forward, "This is Tiny,
she's a mechanic."

"Welcome to Calmwater Tiny," Mother responded. "Gypsy will be needing
a bath, perhaps you and Scribbles can help him while I have a word
with Saratan."

#

Scribbles led Tiny and me through curtains into a kitchen that
extended behind the shop. The girls threw fresh wood into the
fireplace and after filling an iron pot with buckets of water, swung
it over the fire.

"Is Mother sick?" I asked Scribbles.

"Sick? Why?"

"Well the wrinkles. And the white hair."

"Huh? That's not sick, she's just old."

She wasn't making sense. "Axeblade's old," I said, "and she doesn't
have wrinkles."

"Axeblade!" Scribbles almost shouted. "You're the gypsy! The one they
kidnapped and sold to old Axeblade, there will be trouble over this
for sure."

"Trouble? What do you mean? No one kidnapped me."

"I heard rumors, the Harbor Mistress helps gypsy crews jump ship,
she'd never give a boy to them."

Could it be true? The farmers -- they had never treated us fair.
Sudden anger set me to pacing around the room. "Well, they won't get
away with it. I'll find the gypsies tomorrow."

"They're not real gypsies, you know."

I glared at Scribbles. "Now what?"

"They're not from old Earth."

She was ridiculous. "Earth's a myth."

"No, I've read books, an encyclopedia, written there."

I shook my head and sat down to watch the fire. Kidnappings and
rescues, gypsies and old Earth -- Scribble's theories flickered about
faster than the flames. How human.

#

"It's ready," Tiny said.

I looked blankly up at her.

"The bath." She pointed to a tub, which somehow had gotten placed in
the center of the kitchen floor and filled with water.

When she followed Scribbles out of the kitchen, I stripped off my
clothes and slid into the water. It burned my skin, but I slid all
the way under, and when I surfaced, I immediately began soaping my
hair. Farm dirt -- I wanted it gone.

While I was rinsing my hair, Scribbles came back and announced, "I've
got clean clothes and a towel."

She approached right next to the tub making me double up to cover
myself. Setting the fresh clothes on a sideboard, she reached down to
scoop up my dirty clothes from the floor. "Hey, what's this?" she
asked as she took my cards from a pocket.

Already vexed at her for violating my privacy, I snapped, "They're
mine. Put them down and get out."

"Are they real?" She lifted the cards close to her eyes and started
going through the deck, looking briefly at the design on each card.

"Stop it," I pleaded. "It ruins the cards to have strangers handle
them."

Apparently the agitation in my voice finally got through to her. "Oh,
all right," she said as she dropped the cards onto the clean clothes.
"They're not real anyway."

Humans. They're as bad as farmers. Law, they were farmers. Well,
tomorrow I would find a real company, gypsies to help me save the
Elevator.



CHAPTER 5   --   GYPSIES



The trouble with recruiting gypsies is that you have to find them
first. I felt lost on the docks. In my memories, ships were things of
motion: pitching decks, singing ropes, and canvas straining against
the wind. These ships were idle. Their masts, spars, and rigging made
a barren forest riding quietly above the fat tubs of the hulls.

Looking out over the bay, I could see how the city took its name.
Everything was calm here. A few birds wheeled in lazy circles and
glassy smooth water reflected images of clouds drifting across the
bay.

But the same still air that left the harbor waters free of ripples
also failed to carry away the smell of fish and bilge water. The
unpleasant odors added to the churning in my stomach. It wasn't my
fault. The human girls knew I was here to meet the gypsies, but they
had forced me to be firm about coming alone. So by the time I left,
everyone was upset.

I was glad when the stillness gave way to the workday. The rising sun
brought out the sailors and dockworkers. Soon they were shouting
orders, swarming over piles of cargo, and running about on their
errands. Many of them cast curious glances as I passed, but they let
me be.

#

I knew the ship was gypsy when I saw it. For one thing it was big,
the only three-masted ship in the harbor. Another thing was the
familiar figurehead on the bow. I searched through my cards until I
found it, the Mech Card.

"A remarkable similarity."

The unexpected voice made me start. When my head snapped around, I
saw a tall swarthy woman standing next to me. She wore a loose
fitting blouse and covered her head with a red bandanna. And big
loops of gold stuck through her ears so that they dangled from the
lobes.

"Pardon me," she said. "I couldn't help notice your cards. An
excellent copy."

"It's no copy," I said. "The cards are real."

She smiled. "Sometimes, I fear, the women misrepresent the copies
they sell. But real cards are rare. And no gypsy would ever sell
them."

"You're right. I would never sell them." I returned the cards to my
pocket. "And who are you to be telling me about gypsies?"

Her smile widened at my challenge. "I am Captain Roma and this is my
ship, the Sea Garage."

"I've been in a real garage," I said. "And flown a mechanical. They
call me Gypsy."

Her face darkened. "Show me the cards," she commanded.

I stepped backwards away from her and my hand gripped protectively
over the cards.
At the same time, Roma took a long look at me. She couldn't have seen
anything special, just a boy in borrowed clothes, but as her eyes
searched down to my feet and back up again, her intensity changed
into a more studied look. "We should talk, I think. Can I offer you
coffee?"

I hesitated. What was that all about? A moment of -- what? And now
she was acting casual.

Finally I nodded. Troubles on the road had made me too suspicious:
gypsies wouldn't be acting like farmers.

#

Officers, wearing the red bandannas, white blouses, and bright multi-
colored trousers, supervised teams of gray women working hoists set
in the rigging. One crew attached ropes to the barrels, boxes, sacks,
and baskets on the dock; another pulled on the ropes to hoist the
loads into the hold; another, I supposed, worked below to stow the
goods.

I thought the women gray, not so much because they wore sleeveless
sacks of unbleached fabric, but because of their subdued manner.
Other women I had known, mechanics and farmers and even the
wagoneers, eased hard labor with friendly banner or chants. These
women worked silently and watched their officers with more care than
their cargo.

Their need for caution became apparent when one woman paused in her
task of coiling a rope to watch me walk up the gangplank. The lapse
earned her a cuff on the head and a sharp reprimand from her officer.

That officer and another came forward when we reached the deck. "My
officers," Roma said. "Mate and Bosun."

I nodded but didn't offer them my hand. "And the others?"

"Petty officers," Roma said with a gesture towards the other
commanders as if that explained everything.

But it didn't. Sometimes, in the contests, girls got angry and struck
each other. And in war they had to do it. But striking a woman for a
pause at work?

"And the gray women?" I persisted.

"Gray women?"

"The ones you beat."

Finally, she sensed my disapproval. "You judge without understanding.
We are not farmers with all year to debate decisions. At sea,
disaster comes quickly; commands must be obeyed."
I looked away. On the main deck where we had come aboard, open
hatches, stacks of cargo, and work crews consumed every foot of deck
space. Such a tiny world would need special rules.

Still, as I followed Roma, I couldn't help notice the fortified
nature of the aft quarters. A solid bulkhead that lacked windows and
doors separated the quarters from the main deck. And a single ladder,
guarded by two alert officers, led up to the aft deck. Were the
officers afraid of their crew?

#

The jingling of rhythmic music spilled down from the aft deck as I
climbed the ladder. At the top, I saw two boys shaking and tapping
hoop shaped instruments. Another sat clapping in time while they
laughed and offered advice to a boy trying to dance to their rhythm.

Roma walked past the boys to a covered stairway that led down into
the ship, but I stopped to look them over. They wore baggy green
trousers and sleeveless maroon vests that were open exposing their
chests and stomachs. They all wore several necklaces and a multitude
of bracelets around each wrist.

When they noticed my presence, their music trailed away and I could
feel their eyes going over my clothes. One boy asked, "What's a
farmer doing here?"

"Well, he doesn't belong," another declared.

Another challenged, "Who are you?"

"Gypsy."

My reply seemed to startle the boys, but Roma allowed me no time to
talk with them. She took my arm and led me down the steps.

#

"I've heard all this before," I said.

I had refused to show Roma the cards, but she was beyond needing
proof. In her mind the mere possibility of the farmers committing an
injustice made it true. But where Scribbles had seen a lowly
kidnapping, she saw a grand conspiracy against the gypsies.

"You should take this seriously," she said. "Young Daemon was aboard
the Sea Beast when she went down. You are most certainly heir to the
Tower Throne."

I laughed. "You're crazy. No one ever called me Daemon. I would
remember that."

"No." Her scowl turned to a smug smile. "You would have been called
by your title, not your name."

"Title?"

"Gypsy. It's a title, not a name. Only the heir to the throne is
called that way."

I frowned. She was as bad as Scribbles. I hated it when girls kept
making stuff up to keep from admitting they were wrong.

"It's too farfetched," I said. "And anyway it's an empty honor. The
farmers have the throne now."

Her smug look became intense. "Not for long."

"What do you mean?"

"We mean to take it back."

She really was crazy. Hadn't she seen the army outside the gates?
"They'll kick your butts," I declared.

"They won't be doing anything after the Elevator falls."

#

So the gypsies knew the Elevator was in trouble. But the way she
brought it up scared me.

"You want it to fall?" I asked.

"Yes."

"But we're the caretakers," I argued.

"No." She brushed the thought away with her hand. "We were dismissed
from its care."

I could hardly breathe. I had left my home, got women killed,
deserted my human friends, all because I assumed a sense of duty that
didn't exist.

I had to make her help me. "But a collapse would destroy the land."

Her voice remained harsh. "No business of ours."

"But it is," I reasoned, "when the Western Elevator collapsed, it
destroyed all of civilization. Surely the new lands would suffer as
well."

"Across the sea? No. And our ships will ride out the shock waves at
sea. Then we'll land and take back what is ours."

I slumped in my seat. How could she be so full of hate over something
that happened so long ago? She didn't even have her facts straight.
The gypsies had not been dismissed from the Elevator: they had
abandoned it to spite the farmers.

What was I going to do? My whole plan had been to enlist the gypsies'
aid. But she would never help me -- that much was plain.

The one thing I did know was that I couldn't quit. I had to save the
Elevator before she disgraced us forever. I rose to my feet. "I had
better be going now."

She remained sitting.

"It would be best for you to remain on board until we sail," she
said.

#

I was a prisoner.

Not so. She was trying to protect me. The farmers would do terrible
things to me if she let me go. She had a duty to return me to my
family. I would be wealthy and important.

She was a liar. And worse, a no account pirate. All she wanted was
profit. Or pleasure. And if she let the Elevator fall she would be
worse that a pirate: she would be a murderer.

As I ranted, Captain Roma's frown deepened until she rose abruptly to
her feet. "We'll talk later," she said and stomped out of the cabin.

When he cabin door banged shut behind her, I leaped towards the only
other door in the cabin. But it was just a closet, the captain's
private jake.

Returning to the cabin door, I listened, and when I heard nothing, I
tried it. It was locked of course.

The cabin windows, I discovered, would open, but only a few inches.
Enough to let fresh air in, but not enough for me to slip out.

#

All through the day the ship settled deeper into the water as load
after load of cargo was brought aboard. The shouts of the crew and
the creaking of the hoists continued into the evening hours with not
even a break for lunch or dinner. Plainly the Captain was rushing the
loading, intent on putting to sea this very night.

At sunset I looked out the cabin windows and saw women swarm up the
rigging of another ship. The sails rippled in the breeze as they were
unfurled and the ship drifted away from the dock. One by one the
sails billowed out and she heeled over and began racing across the
water. She tacked just once as she cleared the breakwater and slid
out of sight behind the point.

Would the human girls realize that I had been kidnapped? Probably
not. I had made it plain that I didn't expect to be back. And even if
they got curious and came to see the Gypsy ship and somehow became
suspicious, what could they do? Saratan could not fight the entire
crew.

I would have to get away on my own. And soon. Once we were at sea, I
would have no chance to escape.

Fortunately for me the loading continued after sunset giving me hope
that I could make a break while the crew was tired and distracted
with the loading. But during that long hour between sunset and
darkness I paced nervously about the cabin.

I kept searching to the east until the setting sun lit the silver
thread. Up high in space, it curved to the south again. It was
wobbling about, getting ready to come down.

Time was running out.

#

When I entered the Captain's private jake, I could hear the waves,
lapping at the ship's side under the wooden seat. The hole was too
small for me to slip through, but when I yanked on the boards, they
felt loose. So I kept jerking on them until one came free, then used
it to pry up the entire seat.

Afterwards, I stared down into the black water expecting to see
disgusting things floating in it, but the light was too dim, I could
hardly see the surface. So I held my breath and lowered myself into
the opening. I meant to lower myself quietly to the water, but the
slimy sides of the box made me shutter, and I let myself fall.

I came up out of the icy water spitting and gasping for breath and
paddled quickly to the dock. It was built on rock lined with thick
timber to protect the hulls. I slipped under the timber and used the
rough stones to pull myself along the water's edge until, after about
twenty feet, I came to the bow of another ship.

I was in trouble. I needed to get out of the water: already I could
feel the cold water sapping my strength away. But I was still too
close to the Sea Garage: they would see me climbing onto the dock.
Ahead, I could see the gentle swells pushing the hull alternately
into and then away from the dock. If I tried to slip between the hull
and the dock, I would be crushed. I would have to swim around the
ship and risk being seen in the open water.

I looked back at the Sea Garage and forced myself to wait until I saw
the crew hoist another load of cargo into the air. Hoping that it
would occupy their attention, I swam out from the dock and around the
bow.
I began to tire. Desperately I felt along the hull but its smooth
sides offered no handholds. Keep going; keep going, I told myself. I
remembered another time when the waves kept pulling me under and I
kept fighting my way back up until they gave up and dumped me onto
the shore. All I had to do was keep going.

Finally, at the ship's stern, my fingers found the rudder. I clung
there only for a moment then I forced myself to cross the last bit of
open water to the dock. Again I used the roughness of the rock to
help me along, only this time I scrambled up over the timber and out
of the water.

Back at the Sea Garage, the women had stopped loading and were
lighting torches. Searchers were just starting to move along the dock
peering into the water and between stacks of cargo. My escape had
been discovered.

I looked around. The city was too dark: candle light flickered in the
windows of a few scattered buildings and in the distance a torch
guided someone on a night-time errand, but everything else was hidden
in darkness. Everything except the searching torches, which came
steadily closer.

Across the dock, I could just make out the deeper blackness of an
alley leading between buildings. But where to go? Who would have me
now?



CHAPTER 6   --   CAMPAIGNERS



The trouble with escaping through a toilet is that you could never
tell anyone how you did it. So when Scribbles and Tiny began arguing,
I welcomed the distraction.

"Go back to Farhaven," Scribbles said. "You're not safe here."

Tiny disagreed, "No, stay here, we can take care of you."

We were in the back room of the shop. While the girls had gotten me
dried and seated by the fire I had told them about my kidnapping.
Now, I blew on my tea and sipped at its surface. Some adventure.
First I had failed to recruit Redblood, then Littlewolf, and finally
the gypsies.

"You don't need the gypsies," Saratan said. "We can help you."

I hesitated. True, Tiny and Saratan were not so bad. But Scribbles
was awful. Anyway they didn't know anything. I shook my head. "No.
The gypsies know about the Elevator."
"Elevator?" Scribbles asked. "What's that got to do with anything."

"I've got to save it."

"Can't," Scribbles declared. "The gypsies sealed the Spire."

"Spire?"

"It's where Towerhold gets its name -- a big rock that sticks up
above the city. When the gypsies left, they sealed the Beast that
controls the Elevator into the Spire. That's why it's falling."

Could it be true? Where did Scribbles get these stories anyway?

Well, she was right about one thing, I was not safe here. Captain
Roma would try to recapture me. And, when word came from Farhaven,
the Harbor Mistress would join in the chase. My only chance was to
keep moving. And Scribbles had just told me where to go.

"First thing tomorrow," I said, "I'm off to Towerhold."

"Can I come too?" Tiny asked.

"We'll all go," Saratan said.

"Great," Scribbles said. "We get into the Spire, then the Beast eats
us."

"Come or not, but I'm leaving in the morning." I went to my bed and
drew the blanket up over my head. Let the girls decide, then later,
when I found a real company, it wouldn't me my fault.

I pretended sleep and soon the girl's voices faded to murmurs. Was
there really a beast? Would it really eat us?

#

Tiny was pushing on my shoulder. "Wake up," she said.

The dawn was just beginning. A hint of gray lightened the windows,
but the walls still flickered with the shadows of the girls. In the
candlelight I could see them stuffing supplies into packs.

Tiny worked quickly. She took gear from piles laid out on the floor
and jammed it into the packs. First, she lined the bottom of the
packs with winter gear -- coats, gloves, and padded boots -- and
topped it off with lighter clothing. Next she found room for camp
gear -- a pot, bowls and utensils, and packages of food.

Saratan seemed more deliberate. She helped Tiny get the   right gear in
each pack and was constantly looking about to make sure   nothing was
missed or misplaced. Afterwards she helped tie bedrolls   onto the
packs. And onto the side of her pack, she tied a quiver   full of
arrows.
Scribbles had a private project. She carefully smoothed quill
feathers and stored them into her writing box. Then her fingers ran
over the little compartments, checking that her inks, knives, paper,
and blotters were all in place. Satisfied that all was well, she tied
the lid shut and stored the box in her pack.

"Breakfast everyone," Mother announced as she passed out bowls of hot
cereal. I sat up and leaned against the wall to eat; the girls sat on
their packs.

The packs, and the early hour, could only mean one thing, but Saratan
wanted it clear. "We've formed a company to take you to Towerhold."
Then seeing my glance towards Scribbles, she added, "Scribbles too,
she knows things."

Knew them? More likely she made them up. Still, maybe she wasn't
completely awful. I nodded in agreement.

"Good," Saratan said and added, "finish your breakfast then put these
clothes on."

"But these are girls clothes," I protested when I felt the rough
fabric.

"Yes."

"Oh." The farmers had mistaken me for a girl, so maybe everyone
would. The disguise would conceal me from my pursuers and keep me
from becoming a target for bandits while we were on the road.

However, I think the girls meant to take advantage of me. I thought I
looked plenty drab in the nut-brown blouse and trousers, but when I
came out of the kitchen, Tiny handed me a pack. "Part of the
disguise," she said.

"Well, you didn't have to put all the heavy stuff in it." I didn't
like the way the straps scraped at my shoulders.

"I told you Bilbo wouldn't do it," Scribbles said.

"Bilbo?"

"It will give you away," Scribbles explained, "if we call you Gypsy."

"I know that," I snapped. "But 'Bilbo?' What kind of name is that?"

Scribbles laughed. "Oh, it's a good name for a boy on a quest."

"A quest?" Tiny interrupted. "Is that what we're on? A quest?"

"Yes," Scribbles replied. "That's what they call an improbable
adventure, a quest."
#

"Something's happening," Saratan declared.

She was right. With the sun barely up, one expected empty streets,
but people were everywhere. Some stood around in small groups
exchanging gossip, but most seemed intent on errands. And when we
reached the market, we saw vendors hustling about, setting up their
stalls and calling out to the crowd.

"Gypsies," I said as I grabbed Saratan's arm and pointed across the
market square. Two women wearing red bandannas were leaning against a
stone wall near the city gates. They acted casual, like idle
loiterers, but their eyes were busy scanning the crowd.

"Don't point," Saratan said as she pulled my arm down and led us
behind a tent.

Tiny peered around the tent. "There's only two, we can beat them."

"Two? They have everyone up and after us," Scribbles said. "We're
going to get caught."

"Calm down," Saratan ordered as she drew Tiny back out of sight. "No
one would help the gypsies capture a boy. Something else is
happening."

Saratan was right. The crowd was excited, but they were talking and
moving things. Not searching.

I took a turn peeking around the tent. Maybe the crowd wasn't
searching, but the gypsies were. Their eyes never stopped moving. "So
how do we get out?" I asked.

"They're looking for a boy," Saratan said. She couldn't resist
peeking either. "We can walk right past them, just don't act nervous,
and don't look at them."

Saratan sounded confident, but I noticed that she took a deep breath
and hitched up her pack before she stepped from behind the tent and
strode towards the gate. Tiny also pulled her pack higher on her
shoulders when she stepped out behind Saratan.

"Look at the vendors," Scribbles said as she pushed me ahead of her.

Sensible advice I'm sure. However, as we crossed the open space
before the gate, I could feel the gypsies' eyes on me, boring though
my disguise. Eventually, I could stand it no longer and looked up at
them.

One gypsy was polishing an apple; the other, looking across the
market. We were invisible.

#
Outside the city gates, we entered into a sea of commotion: tents
collapsed; justices shouted orders; warriors assembled and marched
off; horses snorted and fought their harnesses. The army was breaking
camp.

Saratan left us alongside the road and went off to find out what was
happening. Under strict orders to stick together and stay put, we
shouted questions at passing women to piece the story together for
ourselves.

Mercid the Mad had occupied old Fort Rincon. In the old days the fort
had guarded against barbarian raids from the Badlands. But after the
farmer's army had cleared the Badlands, it had been unneeded and
eventually abandoned. Now, Mercid had camped her bandit army in the
empty fort.

She   declared herself Mistress of the Badlands and sent out a call for
all   women without men to join her. They would resettle the Badlands
and   establish a new regime where all men were shared equally among
the   women.

Her plan was clear. The fort not only gave her a strong defensive
position but its location gave her control of the road to Towerhold.
The land was cut in two. But life in the land was too fragile to
survive without the caravans. If the farmers failed to dislodge her,
they would have to sue for peace and give in to her evil designs.

#

"We will follow the army," Saratan said when she returned. "When they
clear Mercid from the road, we'll go on to Towerhold."

She led us to a train of wagons just getting underway. Horses, driven
by the sharp snap of the whips, strained against their harnesses and
the heavy wagons lurched into motion. We were allowed to throw our
packs onto the rear wagon and walk alongside.

Saratan explained that she knew Adide, the mistress of this caravan.
Like us, she was following the army, hoping to deliver cloth goods to
the eastern cities. When Saratan told her that she was taking
youngsters to school in Towerhold, Adide invited her to join the
caravan.

I fell into stride alongside the girls. I wanted to run, to hurry the
journey, but knew from the previous trek that hour after hour of the
slow steady pace would drain my energy. And on this journey, I would
not be allowed to rest in the wagons: that was a privilege allowed
boys, not human girls or those pretending to be such.

#

Even before the sun got directly overhead, I began wondering when we
would stop for lunch. But when we rounded the curve of a hill and saw
the line of women, horses, and wagons snaking steadily across the
next valley, I lost hope for a stop. The column stayed on the road
and marched onwards until it disappeared into a cloud of dust kicked
up by the passing feet.

I looked at the girls, but they chattered on, looking, for all I
could tell, as fresh as when we started.

"What about the Beast?" Tiny asked. "What's it like?"

"No one knows," Scribbles said. "Some say it's an alien, very
powerful."

So she didn't know everything. I handed the Beast Card to Tiny. "This
is it."

While they studied the card, I wiped sweat from my brow. The day was
too hot. And too dry: already the cloud of dust, looking like the
smoke from a forest fire, rose above the road ahead.

Tiny surrendered the Beast card to Scribbles. "It looks mean."

Scribbles looked thoughtful. "We need to know more, maybe when we get
to Towerhold, they'll let us into the Library."

"Not girls." Not human girls, I meant. The gypsies had founded the
Library when they ruled at Towerhold, but the farmers had made it
into a school for boys. Human girls would not be welcome there.

"Maybe -- " Tiny sneezed as the dust tickled her nose " -- they'll
let Gypsy in."

"Bilbo," Saratan reminded us.

"I'm a girl, remember." The dust caught in my throat and made me
cough.

Scribbles handed the Beast card back to me and began tying a
handkerchief around her nose and mouth. "We'll think of a story, the
mother will know."

"There's a mother in Towerhold?"

The handkerchiefs kept the worst of the dust out, but your breath
felt hot and sticky. And when you tried to talk, cloth got sucked
into your mouth and made you want to spit, except your lips were too
dry.

#

I knelt besides the bucket and splashed water on my face. I should
have been resting. But no. When the setting sun had finally forced
the army to stop, Saratan had handed me the bucket and sent me to
fetch water.
The water turned the dust to mud as it ran off my face, but I
finished washing and filled the bucket, only to discover that when I
lifted it, the wire handle hurt my hands. So I had to carry it a few
feet, set it down, change hands, and lug it another few feet all the
way back to the camp.

The girls should have helped me, but Tiny pretended to be busy
building a fire and Scribbles was fiddling with dinner. And Saratan
was off talking to the caravan mistress, not doing any work at all.

I dropped my bucket near Scribbles.

"Hey!" She complained when water splashed on her.

I ignored her and sat down to lean against a tree. Now that they had
lowered their handkerchiefs, the girls had masks of dark-gray dust
that outlined their eyes. When we catch up with Mercid, she'll claim
we're the bandits...

#

Tiny was shaking me again. "Wake up."

Didn't she have anyone else to bother? I pushed her away and kept my
eyes closed, but the clamor of shouting women, braying horses, and
cracking whips prevented a return to sleep. When dust tickled my
nostrils, I sneezed and opened my eyes. Morning had come and the army
was moving again.

"Hurry up," Tiny said. Our last wagon was already moving and Saratan
and Scribbles were tossing our packs aboard.

Hurry up she said, but she wasn't the one hobbling along on stiff
muscles.

"Breakfast." Scribbles handed me a bun with a filling that smelled of
hot eggs and sausage.

Never mind that the rising dust made it taste gritty. The aroma
triggered my hunger, so I ate while marching. And soon my leg muscles
loosened, allowing me to keep stride alongside the girls.

#

Mid-morning, the column stopped.

"What's happening?" Tiny asked.

No one answered. All morning, the dust and the handkerchiefs had
stifled conversation. We had become so accustomed to marching in
silence, that we milled aimlessly about, seemingly unable to either
speak or stop.
Gradually the dust settled, and when everyone began lowering their
handkerchiefs, Saratan led us to a shady tree by the side of the
road.

"Why don't they tell us what's happening?" Tiny asked.

They never did, but later when we started moving again, the dust was
not so bad. A good trade, I thought.

#

"What's that?" Tiny asked. She pointed ahead to where women were
digging alongside the road.

At first it made no sense, digging holes in the wilderness, but as we
passed we saw more women lying behind the mounds of dirt. They could
have been sleeping, except for the red-brown stains of their wounds.
The women were digging graves.

"I knew it," Scribbles said. "There's been fighting, we should have
stayed in Calmwater."

When   I glanced to Saratan, her eyes were scanning the trees on either
side   of us. And her fingers were pulling at the little strap that
held   her sword in place. And I noticed that the women in the wagons
were   all fiddling with their weapons too.

"If there's fighting," Saratan told us, "get on the ground, don't run
for cover, don't expose yourselves, and don't draw attention."

Tiny rebelled. "We want to fight."

"Do as you are told."

#

Later, when the column stopped again, Adide ordered her drivers to
dismount and stand guard on each side of the road.

"Stay with Adide," Saratan said. She checked that her sword was free
and began walking down the road, towards the bandits.

"Where's she going?" Tiny asked.

"She'll get killed," Scribbles complained. "Then what will we do?"

When Saratan disappeared around a bend in the road, we looked at each
other, and at the woods, and at the wagons. Adide's women, even the
guards, seemed relaxed. Not that they were lax: they kept their eyes
on the woods. But they leaned against their wagons and no one was
fiddling with their weapons. The other women got busy watering the
horses.

A few minutes later, a group of women came scurrying up the road,
headed towards the rear of the column. As they passed, Adide reached
out and grabbed one woma

				
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