“Call ’em in. This matches the description of the place Ampier got to, and the elapsed time is just about right.”

They were earlier here than the scout had been, of course; the fact that he would have ridden rather faster was cancelled out by the greater distance he had had to cover from the line of march.

Stadham reached for the little brass horn hanging at his saddlebow and sounded the three shrill blasts which were the signal to regroup and confer. Yanderman shaded his eyes and stared at the terrain ahead. There was that suggestive wavering of the air-rising, perhaps, off desert-bare ground …

He checked that line of thought and turned to address his companions, now assembled in a semicircle facing him.

“From the description Ampier gave me, we’re almost at the limit of the trip he made. In other words, by the time we breast the next rise we should be in clear sight of the famous and legendary barrenland.”

A couple of his men exchanged glances. One might have given an imperceptible shudder; at any rate his horse moved nervously and tossed its head.

“It’s come to my notice,” Yanderman went on steadily, “that some of our men have been getting-ah-second thoughts now they know the barrenland really exists. They’ve been buying charms from Granny Jassy, for instance, thinking she can sell them good luck as easily as-as a measure of beer. Well!”

He straightened sharply in his saddle and slapped his open palm on his thigh.

“Well, I don’t care what you do with your money. But I do care what you do with your lives. You’re expensively trained soldiers, with craftsman-made weapons about you, and those are hard to come by. I don’t want any of you going a yard further thinking you can trust to Granny Jassy’s luck-charms when what you need is the same as what you always need-a cool head and a keen eye.

“Any of you got a luck-charm about you? Speak up!”

His gaze flashed searingly from face to face, settling finally on the man whose horse had started a few moments ago. He didn’t say anything.

At last, shamefacedly, the man shrugged and drew a little bundle of coloured feathers from the lining of his helmet.

“Augren, I’m surprised it was you,” Yanderman said. “Anyone else?”

The others all shook their heads. One or two of them grinned at Augren’s discomfiture. Yanderman scowled at them, and they straightened their expressions abruptly.

“All right, Augren,” he went on. “You can do one of two things-throw that charm away and stay with us, or trust to it and ride off on your own. I won’t have superstitious fools in my company. As far as I’m concerned the barrenland is a place like any other dangerous place-and before venturing into it I’m going to prime myself with all possible information from people who’ve seen it before. And if I do go into it I want nobody with me but a man who’ll do his own thinking rather than hire it done by an old woman.”

Augren, his face scarlet with embarrassment now, tried to hurl the charm away from him. Like anything made of feathers, it was impossible to throw. A breeze caught it and carried it out of sight.

“Good,” said Yanderman in a satisfied tone. “Ride on.”

He could feel the tension mounting as the party ascended the next rise-the last, he expected, before sighting the barrenland. It was the last. He drew rein and motioned to the others to copy him.

Now he could feel the tension leaking away as fast as it had built up. Nobody actually said, “So that’s all it is!” But they thought it.

Just bare ground-rocks cropping out of loose, wind-tossed dust and dry, sun-baked expanses of clay. Not a devil or monster in sight. Just land-barren. What else did its name suggest?

“See any smoke such as Ampier mentioned?” he asked Stadham, after scanning the horizon. The older man grunted and shook his head. Yanderman called to the others.

“From here we’ll move off slowly around the rim, the same way Ampier did, keeping well together in case of emergency, and try to spot the smoke he described. A couple of you-you two-watch the sky. The rest, watch the rocks for signs of movement.”

They wheeled their horses and proceeded cautiously. In a little while there was a whoop from Augren, who had pushed to the head of the line as a blustering compensation for his gullibility in the matter of the luck-charm. Yanderman saw him rise in his saddle and point down into a dip in the ground.

“Keep watch,” he told Stadham, and rode forward to see what Augren had found.

It was the animal Ampier had killed. It was exactly as he had described it, with the claw-beak and a yard of its neck lying severed from its body, except that in the night something must have come by and fed on it, for the belly was torn open and an evil smell rose from the contents. Flies swarmed on the claw-beak, presumably tempted by the blood on its tip, but with a shudder he could not repress Yanderman noted that they would not settle on the rest of the carcass. Meat that flies would not touch must indeed be different from ordinary flesh!

Struck by a sudden thought, he bent low from his saddle to see whether the green mould had marked the carcass anywhere, but apparently it had not. He raised his head again, searching the skyline. Unless Ampier had been mistaken about the smoke-or unless it had been from a natural brush-fire-they ought to be able to see it from here …

And yes, there it was, a thin greyish veil on the blue of the sky, rising from the other side of a nearby hill.

The rest of his men had all come now to stare at the dead beast. He let them continue for a few moments- dead, it was less alarming than it must have been in life, and to see it lying so would stamp on their minds that it was an animal, even if monstrous, and not an invulnerable supernatural being. Then he called them back to attention, pointed out the smoke, and ordered them to ride on.


Grey from head to foot with wood-ash, Conrad sat by the soap-vats, in one hand his knife held by the blade close up near the point, in the other a piece of excellent soap-the hardest and whitest he had ever seen set in the shallow wooden pans. That batch was all ready for carrying back to the town, but he had left it where it lay because the attraction of the idea which had come to him was irresistible. Thoughtfully, and with some difficulty because the weight of the knife’s handle caused it to swing about, he was shaping a girl’s head.

It was meant to be a likeness of Idris, but somehow it wasn’t quite turning out like her. He was spending as much time puzzling over the lack of resemblance as he was actually carving it.

Anyway, he had little inducement to make a move. He wouldn’t be thanked if he went home before sunset, and even then he might well have to go and beg a bite of supper at Idris’s back door, for no one would buy much soap in the next three or four days-wash-day having just come and gone.

And there was another reason, still more compelling than those, why he preferred to stay out here a mile or more from the town when the current batch of soap was finished. It was the same reason why he preferred this dirty, monotonous job to any other the community might have offered him. If the mood came over him just to sit and think, there was no one to fling mud or stones at him with a shout of “Idle Conrad!”

His mouth tightened at the memory, and he drove it down.

It isn’t fair, he thought rebelliously. I didn’t ask for my head to be stuffed with all these crazy visions!

And yet …

He let the hand holding the soap carving fall to his knee, and gazed out unseeing over the sun-hot countryside. That was a question he had never been able to answer: if one of the wise men came to him one day and said, “Conrad, I can wash from your mind these troublesome visions of yours as your soap takes dirt from a man’s hand; I shall do so?”-what would he reply?

Could he sacrifice his dreams of a world in which no one needed to be jealous of anyone else, because everything was plentiful-a world where even ash-grimed, greasy-garbed Conrad the soapmaker had incredible powers to serve his every whim?

He didn’t know. And since the question was never likely to arise-the wise men were not that wise-there wasn’t much point in worrying about it. He returned to concentrating on his carving.

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