John Brunner

To Conquer Chaos


The barrenland lay on the face of the world like an ulcer, nearly round, more than three hundred miles in circumference. It had been there so long that it was accepted; it was there and it was a fact and it was.

For several days’ journey in all directions away from its edge the countryside had formerly been nearly as vacant as the barrenland itself, except that grass and trees grew, which on the barrenland they did not.

With the passage of generations, however, people had crept back, driven by population pressure, or minor shifts of climate, or migration of game, or pure cussedness, until now at least a dozen settlements big enough to be called villages existed practically on the boundary line. The price of living there was the necessity of contending with the things that every so often wandered out of the barrenland and killed. But they endured that. Men endure much.

The barrenland was. That was the extraordinary part of it. Not a simple desert, which distance and word-of-mouth transmission of news had magnified into something strange and terrible, but exactly what it was reputed to be. And it was not more than a couple of days’ march north of here.

Jervis Yanderman leaned back against the tall tree under which he had taken shelter from the light fall of rain just after sunset, and from which he had not moved even when the shower stopped, and mused over the implications of the news. Three scouts had been sent out. Two had returned already, one to the line of march and one to the camp-site directly a halt was ordered for the night, and both of them had spoken of reaching the vicinity of the barrenland and looking out over it. Their instructions were to do no more than that. Yanderman hoped the lateness of the third scout was due to nothing worse than over-enthusiasm; in any case he would be sharply reprimanded unless his reasons were very good indeed.

He ceased his musing at last, and glanced around him at the nearby terrain. It was full of dim whitish shapes and little yellow fires like fallen stars in the gloom. When Grand Duke Paul of Esberg moved his army, he did it in style as he did everything else, and with many fresh and original ideas about logistics. People had said it was impossible to move two thousand men at thirty miles a day over unknown country. Yet here they were, settled to camp for the night, canvas up, fires lit, guards posted, as smoothly as though it were a parade drill instead of a risky expedition into unexplored regions.

If he’d got over being surprised at that sort of thing, Yanderman told himself ruefully, he had no business being surprised at the actual existence of the barrenland.

A shadow moved on the slope of the hill crowned by his tree, and a voice snapped out of nowhere at him, demanding his identity. He gave it, heard rather than saw the salute the patrol returned, and-when he discovered three men moving into view where he had imagined there was only one-complimented the leader on the stealthiness of his approach. The man laughed a little self-consciously.

“Used you for practice, if you’ll excuse my saying so,” he admitted. “Spotted you from down the hill, told my men to stalk you like a shy deer. Made it, too,” he added to his companions, and they chuckled.

After a pause, the leader said, “Sir, if you don’t mind-there’s a lot of latrine rumours going around the camp since we sat down for the night. About the scouts finding what we’re looking for. Is it true?”

“True enough.”

The trio of patrolmen exchanged glances. The leader went on, “And-uh-is it what the old stories say? A place of devils and monsters, where nothing honest-to-daylight can live?”

“Devils I know nothing of,” Yanderman answered easily. “I fear more the solid things that go by day than the wispy things that go by night. And as to monsters-why, strange beasts there may well be, but we’ve met savage animals before, and two thousand men’s a force to reckon with.”

One of the other men spoke up, clearing his throat, first, “Sir, if you’ll excuse me-would you settle me a bet, if it’s not presuming?”

Yanderman lifted an eyebrow towards him, but in the dusk it probably went unnoticed. The man continued, “A mate of mine says he’s going to get a charm from Granny Jassy-says the Duke has one he bought of her, which is the ground for his successes. I say no, it’s all dreamy talk, and Granny’s charms are so much stable-dirt, and bet him a day’s pay he was wrong about the Duke.”

The third patrolman, the one who had not spoken, shifted his feet uncomfortably. Yanderman had a shrewd suspicion that he must be the mate in question, and the man who had put the question wanted the bet settled quickly with no room for argument afterwards.

He said, “You have a clear head, soldier. Tell your mate-as I’m prepared to tell him myself if he claims otherwise-that Grand Duke Paul owes his successes to his clever thinking and his thorough planning. He probably wouldn’t know a charm if he saw one. And as for Granny Jassy, maybe she peddles charms on the side, and maybe she makes a little money from gullible soldiers who think she’ll give them luck. But were she to offer one to the Duke, he’d laugh till he cried.”

He was right about the identity of the other party in the bet. The third patrolman said hotly, “But what did the Duke clutter his train with her for, if not for the luck she can charm on him?”

“You speak over-fiercely, soldier,” Yanderman told him in a mild tone. “Let it pass. The Duke brings Granny with him for the sake of what she can tell about the way we travel; by some power which she herself doesn’t understand, she knows before we see what ground we’ll come to, what hazards to expect. That frightens her as well as puffing her up.”

“Can she see past the edge of the barrenland too?” the third soldier muttered. Plainly he was the one who was readiest to speak of devils and monsters. Patiently Yanderman amplified his explanation.

“It’s less a matter of seeing than of remembering. In the old days people saw this land, and Granny tells what they saw. But things change. And possibly no man has lived within the barrenland and survived to tell the tale.”

It was a mistake to have put it that way. The three men shifted their feet and looked at each other. Yanderman hurried to counteract the effect he’d had on them.

“Soldier!” he said to the third man. “How do you like your gun?”

Startled, the man hefted the weapon in his hands. “I like it well,” he said. “Fires true, kills clean, as a gun should.”

“Then thank Granny Jassy for it, as well as the Duke. It was from a memory she had that the design was drawn. And a man with a gun may venture into the barrenland and face monstrous things with determination-if he has any!”

“Are we going into the barrenland, then?” the patrol leader demanded.

“As yet, no one knows. The decision is the Duke’s-and if he says to go there, I’ll go with him rather than with any other commander who ever trod ground.” Yanderman spoke with finality; the patrol leader caught the tone, called his men to salute, and led them off into the night again.

Yanderman started to make his way down from the hilltop, frowning. It was only to be expected that when they came so close to the legendary barrenland all the old wives’ tales would revive. The difficulty was, of course, that up till now the tales of one old wife in particular-Granny Jassy-had proved to be borne out by facts, and this made it hard to laugh off the alarming notions the men had of devils and monsters.

For himself, the main reaction he got was a quickening of the pulse and a brightening of the eye at the thought of the wonders he was going to see. He’d caught that spirit of wanting to go and see for himself from the Duke, who had much of it. Yanderman wished he could also catch the cool skill in planning for new situations which went with it in the Duke’s case. Still, that was a rare gift in any generation, and the Duke had enough for any ten leaders.

There was a sudden commotion across the camp from where he stood. He looked up, seeing a searchlight on another hilltop spring to full brilliance, cutting the night like a sword. That was another of the things that Duke Paul

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