awkward and inexperienced at riding as he was, could keep his seat. He headed her back on the road which had brought him to the valley and they came up into the rolling fields once more.

In spite of the nagging ache of his wound Fors knew a surge of exultation and happiness. He had won safely out of the Eyrie, having plundered the Star House, he dared the lowlands, had spent one night in the heart of a dead town, had crossed a river through his own skill, spied successfully at the woods lake, faced the savage boar from which even the best of the mountain hunters sometimes fled, and now he had a horse under him, his weapons to hand, and the road open before him.

Judged unfit for the Star, cast aside by the Council was he? His even teeth gleamed in a grin which bore some likeness to Lura’s hunting snarl. Well, they would see-see that Langdon’s son, White Hair the Mutant—was as good as their bestl He would prove that to the whole Eyrie.

Lura drifted back and the mare side-stepped as if she were still none too pleased to have the big cat venture so close. Fors jolted out of his daydreams, paid heed to his surroundings.

There were piles of rubble scattered through the brush, skeletons of old buildings, and, all at once, the mare’s unshod hoofs raised a different sort of noise. She was picking her way across pavements in which were set long straight lines of rusted tracks. Fors pulled her up. Ahead the ruins were closer together and grew larger. A town —maybe even a small city.

There was something about these ruins which made him uneasy. The farms which had been recaptured by wild vegetation had none of this eerie strangeness about them. He knew again the faint sickness, neither of body nor spirit, which had gripped him on the road when he had traveled beside the wrecked convoy. Now he wiped one hand through the mare’s coarse mane as if he would like ta rub away an unpleasant smear. And yet he had touched nothing in this place. There was an evil miasma which arose mistlike even through the steady drizzle of rain.

Mist—there was real mist, too! Ahead he saw coils of dirty white drifting in, wreathing the tangled bulk of rotting wood and tumbled brick and stone. A fog was gathering, thicker than the mountain ones he had known, thick and somehow frightening. His fingers left the horse hair and flipped against his sore leg. The stab of pain which followed made him bite out a hot exclamation. This fog would put an end to travel for the day as far as he was concerned. Now he needed a safe place to hole up in where he could light a fire and prepare another treatment for his wound. And he wanted to be out of the rain for the night.

He did not like the ruins, but now they might hold what he needed and it was wiser to penetrate farther into them. But he held the mare to a slow walk and it was well that he did. For soon a break in the pavement opened before them—a gaping black hole rimmed with jagged teeth of broken concrete. They made a detour, edging as far from the crumbling lip as the ruins would allow. Fors began to regret leaving the stone hut on the farm. His constant pain he could no longer ignore. Perhaps it would have been better to have rested for a day or two back there. But if he had done that he would not now be riding the mare! He whistled softly and watched her ears point up in answer. No, it was worth even the grinding in his flesh to have such a mount.

Twice more the pavement was broken by great holes, the last being so large that it had the dimensions of a small crater. As Fors rode slowly around it he crossed a strip of muddy, but hard-beaten earth which came up out of its shadowed maw. It had the appearance of a well-worn and much-used path. Lura sniffed at it and snarled, her back fur roughened, and she spat with a violent hissing sound. Whatever made that path she counted an enemy.

Any creature which Lura, who would tackle a wild cow, a herd of roving swine, or a stallion, so designated was not one which Fors cared to meet in his present crippled state. He loosened rein and urged the mare to a brisker pace.

Some distance beyond the crater they came to a small hill on which stood a building of white stone, and it still possessed a roof. The slope of the hill was clear of all save a few low bushes and from the building Fors guessed one could have an almost unhampered view of the surrounding territory. He decided quickly in its favor.

It was a disappointment to discover that the roof covered only a part and that the center was open to the storm—being a small amphitheater in which rows of wide seats went down to a square platform.

However, there were small rooms around the outer rim, under the roof, and in one of these he made camp. He tied the mare to one of the pillars forming the aisle to the amphitheater and contented her with grass pulled from the hill and some of his parched corn which she relished. She could have been hobbled and left to graze but the memory of that worn path by the crater kept him from doing that.

Rain had collected in broken squares of the pavement and Lura drank eagerly from one such pool while the mare sucked noisily at another. From the drift of wind-driven branches caught among the pillars Fors built a fire, placed behind a wall so that it could not be observed from below. Water boiled in his pan and he went through the ordeal of redressing the gash in his leg. The salve was working, for the flesh was sore and stiff but it was clean and without infection, and the edges were already closing, though undoubtedly he would be scarred for the rest of his life.

Lura made no move to go hunting, although she must have been hungry. In fact, since she had skirted the crater she had kept close to him, and now she lay beside the fire, staring into the flames broodingly. He did not urge her to go out. Lura was more woodswise than any man could hope to be and if she did not choose to hunt there was good reason for her decision. Fors only wished that she could reveal to him the exact nature of the thing she both hated and feared. That hatred and fear came through to him when their minds held fleeting touch, but the creature which aroused such emotions remained a secret.

So they went hungry to bed since Fors determined to use what was left of his corn to bind the mare to him. He kept the fire burning low for he did not want to lie in the dark here where there were things beyond his knowledge.

For a time he listened for the drumming of the night before. He fully expected to hear it again. But the night was still. It had stopped raining at last, and he could hear insects in the grass outside. There was the murmur of a breeze through the foliage on the hill.

It made Fors uneasy, that faint sad soughing. Lura was not asleep either. He sensed her restlessness even before he heard the pad of her paws and saw her move toward the door. He crawled after her, trying to spare his leg. She had halted at the outer portico of the building and was looking down into the blackness of the ruined city. Then he saw what held her—a pin point of red to the north—the telltale flicker of fire flame!

So there was other life here! Plainsmen for the most part kept clear of the ruins—in memory of the old days when radiation killed. And the Beast Things—did they possess the secret of fire? No man knew how much or how little they had in the way of intelligence or perverted civilization.

The urge to get the mare, to crawl up on her back and cross the rubble to that distant fire, was strong. Fire and companionship in this place of the restless dead—they pulled at Fors now.

But before he so much as filled his lungs again he heard it—a low chorus of yapping, barking, howling which rose higher and higher to a frenzied bedlam. Lura’s hair was stiff under his hand. She hissed and snarled, but she did not stir. The cries were coming from some distance— from the direction of the fire. Whatever manner of beast made them had been drawn by that.

Fors shuddered. There was nothing he could do to aid the fire maker. Long before he could find his slow way through the ruins the end would have come. And now— now—there was only blackness down there! The flicker of friendly red was gone!


Fors dragged himself out into the morning sun. He had slept poorly, but he was content that his wound was healing. And, after he once got to his feet, he managed better, being able without too much effort to take the mare out to graze on the hillside. Lura had been on duty before he roused, as the body of a plump turkey laid on the floor by the remains of the fire testified. He broiled it and ate, knowing all the time that when he was done he must mount and ride across the shattered town searching out the cite of that fire which had vanished in the night.

And he did not want to take that ride. Because he did not want to, he finished quickly, gathering up his supplies with nervous haste. Lura came back and sat in the broad beam of sunlight washing her fur. But she was on her feet instantly as Fors got up on the mare and turned into the heart of the ruins.

Вы читаете Daybreak—2250 A.D.
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