This is a short story that will be incorporated into my upcoming novel, The Robots of Andromeda.
Lord Winsor Woodwick, a portly man with a walrus mustache, arrived at the gravball game shortly after the second half had begun. He was dreadfully late, he knew, but hoped Lord Devlin Maycare wouldn’t be cross.
The gravball stadium was built like a tube within a tube. The outer part, with seating along its circumference, faced the inner part, a transparent cylinder in which the players floated in zero gravity. The stadium stood on the grounds of Westford college, one of four prestigious universities located in and around the capital Regalis.
The crowd, dressed predominantly in the school colors, blue and gold, cheered loudly as their team scored another goal. Startled, Woodwick nearly spilled his martini as he navigated the stairs leading up to Maycare’s private box. This would have been a disaster, Woodwick thought, knowing that getting a replacement martini, even at Westford, would not be an easy task.
Reaching the box, Woodwick found Maycare alone in his seat except for a robot sitting beside him. Maycare wore a blue and gold-stripped scarf draped over his shoulders. The robot, roughly humanoid with a blue and silver paint job, held a Westford pennant that he waved periodically.
“I say, Devlin,” Woodwick wheezed while sitting down. “I don’t remember you sitting so far up!”
“Winnie!” Maycare replied. “Where the hell have you been?”
The heavy-set man rolled his eyes but didn’t reply until he had taken another sip of his drink. “Now don’t you start. Lord Groen kept me with some infernal story about a horse he was betting on.”
“Did he win?” Maycare asked.
“Of course not.”
Inside the gravball court, the other team came charging toward the Westford goal. Wearing the orange and black of Avondale, one of the other four schools in the exclusive IV League, the players bypassed the Westford defense and scored.
“Damn it!” Maycare shouted, covering his eyes.
Woodwick glanced at the scoreboard, just below the words Lord Devlin Maycare Stadium:
AVONDALE LANCERS 8
WESTFORD CAVALIERS 7
“Chin up, old man,” Woodwick said. “We’ll get them surely.”
He took another look at the robot on the other side of Maycare, gently but steadily waving his pennant depicting a gold horse and rider against a blue background.
“I say,” he went on, “didn’t you have a different robot before?”
“Of course,” Maycare replied, his eyes fixed on the court. “Bentley was destroyed, so I had to get a new butlerbot.”
“What’s this one called then?”
The robot turned his head while leaning forward. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Woodwick noted that, like his predecessor, Benson was an older model. The robot’s face had a small grill instead of a mouth and his large eyes were a reddish-orange. In the back of his head, parts were clearly visible instead of covered by a casing.
Woodwick chuckled. “You still fancy antiques I see…”
Maycare, a swath of his carefully combed hair hanging over his blue eyes, turned from the game just long enough to glare.
“I’m spending time with you, aren’t I?” he said and turned back to the court.
“Humph!” Woodwick grunted, downing the rest of his martini.
On a moon orbiting a gas giant, Sir Golan helped strap his robot across the back of a Centauri like a saddle bag.
“This seems undignified,” Squire confessed.
The Pellion carrying the robot gave Sir Golan a sour look as if to say, “how do you think I feel?”
“Don’t complain,” Sir Golan told his robot. “It’s not our fault you’re too heavy to ride properly.”
“I could walk,” Squire replied. “I don’t mind…”
Qadan, the Centauri warrior, galloped up with his spear in hand.
“Out of the question!” he said. “It’s either this or we leave you behind!”
“Not a problem,” the knight replied. “Thank you for your generosity.”
Qadan looked the knight up and down before trotting off again without another word.
“I think you’re winning him over, Master,” Squire remarked, his head hanging upside down below the Pellion’s belly.
“We’ll see,” the knight said.
The group set off across the rolling hills of grass. Sir Golan rode atop one of the Pellions, although the antlered warrior appeared unhappy to have someone on his back. The knight was keenly aware that they were a proud race, unaccustomed to such indignities. Remembering his own people, the Cruxians, Sir Golan knew the dangers of hubris. Arrogance destroyed them, leaving them scattered across the galaxy. He hoped the same fate would not befall these creatures.
The gas giant filling the sky began to set, though the sun providing light remained a little longer. Sir Golan allowed himself to doze, the steady gait of his mount providing a soothing rhythm. With a jolt, he woke again, the soft sound of music in his ears. Along with a quiet melody, a woman’s voice was singing in some unknown language.
“Can you translate that?” Sir Golan asked Squire, still strapped across the back of the Pellion.
“Translate what?” the robot asked.
“The song, of course.”
“Are you deaf?” the knight asked.
“Perhaps,” Squire replied. “I can run a self-diagnostic…”
“Are you saying you can’t hear that singing?” Sir Golan asked again.
The Centauri on which the knight was sitting turned his head. “Machines can’t hear it.”
“But you can?” the knight said.
“Of course,” the Pellion replied. “It’s the Song of the Sirens.”
Relieved he was not going mad, Sir Golan was still curious. “What is it?”
“No one knows,” the warrior said. “Whenever we travel through these parts, we can hear it, but nobody has ever found its source. Our Herd Father, Batuhan, went searching once, but confessed it eluded him. You can ask him yourself soon enough.”
In the distance, far across the wide plain, the tops of several structures appeared along the crest of a low hill. Although they were still over a mile away, Sir Golan thought at first they were peaks of snow until he realized they were white tents.
The Westford player received the ball from a teammate and fired the thrusters in his boots, sending him careening down the gravball court. One of the Avondale players, dressed in orange and black stripes, pushed off the glass wall, propelling himself to intercept. Before he could, however, a different Westford teammate put his body in the way, sending them both spiraling together in a tangle of arms and legs.
The partisan crowd cheered when the ball went into Avondale’s goal.
Sitting in the Maycare family box, Woodwick was surprised to see Devlin remain in his seat.
“I say, Devlin,” Woodwick said disapprovingly. “What’s got you gutted, old man?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maycare grumbled.
From several aisles over, a vendorbot approached carrying a heavy metal box held to his chest by straps around his neck.
“Gimlets!” the robot shouted. “Get your ice-cold gimlets here!”
Woodwick waved, getting the vendorbot’s attention. When the robot arrived, he poured a bottle of gin into a metal container, followed by some lime juice. Covering the container, he gave it a strong shake before pouring the contents into a cocktail glass.
“Here you go,” he said.
Woodwick, after paying, took the glass and gave it a sip, but made a sour face.
“Serves me right,” he admitted. “Stadium gimlets are always a bit dodgy.”
The vendorbot walked on, calling out to the stands, while Woodwick gave Maycare the side eye.
“Don’t look at me like that, Winnie,” Maycare said, noticing. “I’m fine!”
“Girl troubles?” Woodwick said, wiggling his walrus mustache. “Can’t say I’ve ever had them myself–“
“Well, what then?”
Maycare took a deep breath, letting it out again with a sigh. “I’m bored!”
“The idle rich, eh?” Woodwick replied with a chuckle. “What about your side job, that alien business?”
“It’s called the Maycare Institute of Xeno Studies.”
“Yes, that one.”
“Jess has been in my library for weeks but hasn’t found any new leads,” Maycare said. “Meanwhile I’ve been twiddling my thumbs…”
Woodwick nodded thoughtfully before absentmindedly taking another sip from his cocktail. The lime juice made his mouth pucker.
“Dreadful,” he said, but his eyes suddenly widened. “I say, I think that’s dislodged something.”
“Do you need a doctor?” Maycare asked.
“No, I meant I remembered something.”
“There’s a story about a place, rubbish probably, but it might be true… anyway, there’s a legend about it. Now what was it exactly?”
“I’ve no idea…”
“Travelers say you can hear a woman singing, but nobody’s there — Yes, that’s it! — Mysterious singing, but nobody can figure out the source.”
Maycare stared at him incredulously. “So?”
“So?” Woodwick replied with equal incredulousness. “You should go investigate! That’s what you do, surely!”
“You have some drunken memory and you want me to investigate?”
“I’m not snockered, I assure you!” Woodwick protested. “Sod it, entertain yourself then!”
Both men crossed their arms and stared ahead solemnly. On the court, Westford scored another goal and the crowd jumped to their feet in jubilation. Benson, Maycare’s robot who had been largely ignored up to that point, waved his pennant.
Lords Maycare and Woodwick remained in their seats.
Still riding a Centauri warrior, Sir Golan arrived at the Pellion camp along with the others.
The Pellions were a nomadic race and the tents of their camp were a reflection of that. Built from canvas, the tents were longer than they were wide, with wooden poles propped in the middle to hold up the tarpaulin roofs. Cooking fires burned at the center of the camp with the tents stretching outward like the spokes of a wheel.
The knight dismounted and helped pull Squire off the other warrior’s back. The robot lost his balance and landed on his metallic backside. Several young Centauri watching this spectacle laughed at Squire’s expense.
“Most undignified,” the robot muttered, getting back up.
Qadan pointed his spear at the long tent to the North. “The Herd Father will see you there.”
The flaps of the Herd Father’s dwelling were lined with fur that Sir Golan pulled to one side as he entered. Behind him and Squire, Qadan and the other warriors followed, their spears remaining at the ready. Inside the tent, a heavy fog of smoke filled the space, much of it taken up by carpets and resting Pellions, most of them female. Toward the other end, several Centauri were lying down, drinking from wine bottles.
At the head of this group, on a carpet of colorfully woven fibers, a large Pellion sat. Compared to the others, his antlers were significantly larger and had more points. He also had a long dark beard which he stroked while taking another pull from his bottle.
Qadan came to the front.
“Greetings, Batuhan,” he said. “We caught these strangers for your judgment. They had defiled the sacred place.”
Batuhan raised his great antlers, surveying the knight and his robot. He frowned.
“Why have you desecrated our holiest of sites?” the Herd Father asked loudly.
Sir Golan bowed deeply before resting on one knee. He motioned at Squire to follow suit.
“As I told your warrior,” the knight said. “We are strangers in this land. We meant no offense and ask humbly for your forgiveness.”
Batuhan stood and approached the knight who remained on one knee. Along with his antlers, the Herd Father was well over six and a half feet tall, towering over Sir Golan. Hazarding to glance up, the knight saw Batuhan’s dark eyes staring down on him. They were bloodshot, and the pupils enlarged.
The Herd Father blurted out a laugh, his expression changing from serious to amused.
“Of course!” he bellowed. “Come have a drink as an honored guest!”
Although Sir Golan was deeply relieved, he heard Qadan grunt his disapproval.
Being a butlerbot was not an easy job and Benson, although he didn’t wear shoes, had rather large ones to fill. Lord Maycare’s previous robot, Bentley, knew Maycare since he was a boy. When the butlerbot was destroyed, it left a gaping hole in Maycare’s heart that Benson was keenly aware needed filling. This was a tall order for an older model robot. He wasn’t sure his programming would measure up.
In the Maycare family mansion in the West End of Regalis, Benson went into the library to check on his master’s two assistants, Professor Jessica Doric and Henry Riff. He found Doric at a table stacked with books and a silver tray with two empty cups.
“May I bring you more coffee, Professor Doric?” the butlerbot asked.
The face of a woman in her early thirties peered out from behind an open book. Her straight, dish-water blond hair was poorly combed and her dull brown eyes had a sleepy glaze to them. “Huh?”
“Oh, god yes!” she replied, disappearing again behind the book cover.
Not seeing the young man named Henry, Benson searched the library until he found him lying on a leather coach in front of one of large fireplaces located at either end of the room. The flames in the fireplace were a simulation, a hologram with a thermal emitter behind it. Lengthwise on the sofa, Henry was also buried in a book, but it lay across his face.
“Mister Riff?” the robot asked but heard only quiet snoring.
He gently removed the book, revealing a man in his twenties with freckles and the pink imprint of the book crease on his forehead. Extending his metallic finger, the robot gave Henry a nudge in the ribs.
“What?” Henry awoke with a start, nearly sliding off the couch. “What’s going on?”
“Sorry to wake you, Mister Riff,” Benson said.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” Henry replied, wiping his eyes.
“Professor Doric has requested more coffee. Would you like me to bring you some as well?”
“Extra cream and sugar?”
The robot bowed. “Of course.”
Benson turned to leave, but Henry stopped him.
“Hey,” he said.
“Yes?” the robot replied.
“How are things going?” Henry asked.
“I mean, how are you fitting in and everything?”
Benson paused for a moment before answering. “It’s been an adjustment for… everyone.”
Henry gave a long, toothy grin. “I bet!”
“I’m told my predecessor was destroyed in this room…”
“Yeah, it was pretty terrible.”
“How would you describe the previous butlerbot?”
“Oh, I don’t think Bentley liked me too much,” Henry replied, “but he was a good robot. He was more than just a butlerbot to Lord Maycare. He was like a friend.”
“A robot as friend?” Benson asked doubtfully.
“Sure, why not? I mean, Lord Maycare knew him his whole life. I don’t think anybody else was always there for him like Bentley.”
“Biologicals don’t usually seek such things from cyberlings,” Benson said and then after another pause, “But I suppose it’s possible.”
“Anything’s possible, right?” Henry laughed.
Benson returned with a service tray and two steaming cups of coffee to find that Lord Maycare had joined the other two humans. All three were gathered at the main table where Doric had been sitting, their expressions of listlessness also shared.
The robot placed the tray on the table, sliding a few books out of the way in the process. Without acknowledging Benson’s presence, Maycare took one of the cups without asking who it was for. The butlerbot raised a finger, knowing that cup was for Henry, but remained silent.
“I can’t believe we haven’t found anything, Jess,” Maycare said, taking a sip. His eyes squinted. “Too much sugar…”
Doric’s face turned crimson. “You know we’ve been scouring these books for weeks!”
“Warlock Industries has an army of researchers searching data bases across the Imperium,” Maycare replied. “Who knows what they’ve turned up?”
“Well, maybe you should hire more people for the Institute?” she countered. “You keep expecting Henry and me to do the work of a staff ten times as big!”
Sitting between Maycare who was standing and Doric who remained in her chair, Henry was slowly shrinking in his own seat. His eyes were fixed at a random spot on the table where his happy place was apparently located. He had told Benson of this mythical locale, but the robot had never fully understood what he was talking about.
“You’ve never complained about staff before!” Maycare scoffed, waving his cup around, oblivious of the coffee spilling on the fine rug at his feet. “What’s changed?”
Doric crossed her arms. “I don’t know!”
In the silence that followed, it occurred to Benson that these people should not be drinking more caffeine. Before he could consider removing the tray, Henry spoke up, “Maybe we’ve found everything already,” he suggested meekly.
Both Maycare and Doric scoffed loudly in unison.
“Unlikely,” Doric replied.
“I hope not,” Maycare said.
“Why?” Henry asked.
“There must be countless undiscovered artifacts,” Doric said. “We just need to keep looking.”
Maycare lowered his head, staring at the floor and the newly stained rug.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper,” he said after a long pause.
Doric shrugged. “Me too.”
“I didn’t lose my temper–” Henry started.
“It’s just I’ve been bored silly of late,” Maycare went on. “If we don’t get a lead on something soon I’m going to lose my mind…”
“May I make a suggestion?” Benson said.
The others suddenly stared at him as if he had magically materialized into the room.
“Well,” the robot continued, “what about that phenomenon Lord Woodwick mentioned?”
“What phenomenon?” Maycare asked, the cup in his hand hovering somewhere near his mouth.
“He referred to a mysterious singing, I believe. He seemed to think you should investigate it.”
“Bentley — I mean Benson — that’s just one of Winnie’s idle conversation pieces,” Maycare replied. “He probably made it up.”
“Oh,” the robot said. “Pardon my interruption.”
“Actually,” Henry remarked, “I remember hearing something about that.”
Maycare glanced at him, his eyebrow cocked. “Really?”
“Don’t get excited,” Doric said. “I read about it too, but I’m sure it’s just a legend.”
“Excited?” Maycare asked. “I haven’t even begun to get excited!” He pointed at Benson while tossing his empty coffee cup on the table. “Get my ship ready!”
Sir Golan, with Squire standing nearby, knelt beside the Herd Father while he drank periodically from his wine bottle. A female Pellion brought the knight a roasted leg of a bird from which he took a tentative bite before tearing into it with gusto. Batuhan, seeing the stranger enjoying the meal, laughed.
“Try some of this too,” the Herd Father suggested, offering his bottle.
Sir Golan, hesitant to set down the bird leg, kept it in one hand while grasping the offered bottle with the other. After he took a deep gulp, euphoria overtook him immediately.
“What is this?” the knight asked.
Batuhan rubbed the thick hair on his bare chest and smiled.
“It’s a special wine we make from a berry that grows on the steppes here,” he said. “Do you like it?”
Sir Golan coughed before answering. “Yes.”
“Are you feeling alright, Sir?” Squire asked. “You seem distressed.”
“On the contrary,” the knight replied. “I feel great.”
“I’m glad to hear it!” Batuhan said, slapping Sir Golan on the back. “You’ve come at a good time…”
“This is our Winter Feast,” the Herd Father went on. “We celebrate before traveling to the sacred place where Qadan found you and your robot.”
“My name is Squire, by the way–“
“Why is it sacred?” Sir Golan asked.
“Each year around this time, our antlers come loose so we travel to the sacred place where we have a ceremony and place our antlers on the pile. It’s our way of honoring the passing of another season and all the Pellions who fell during the previous year.”
“That’s beautiful,” Sir Golan said, tears welling up in his eyes as he tore another piece of meat off the bone.
Batuhan, barely able to coordinate his limbs, lightly slapped Sir Golan on the shoulder. “You should come!”
“What?” the knight replied.
“You should come along and see for yourself.”
The warrior Qadan, who had refrained from taking part in either the roasted bird or the wine, was nonetheless within earshot.
“Out of the question!” he shouted. “You can’t bring an outsider to our sacred gathering!”
“I’m the Herd Father!” Batuhan roared back. “I can do whatever the hell I want!”
Sir Golan, whose hands were still full, tried waving one and then the other but ended up merely holding both up at once.
“I don’t mean to cause any bother,” he said helplessly.
“Think nothing of it,” Batuhan replied, eying Qadan with dark, bloodshot eyes. “My warrior oversteps himself. Apparently, he’s forgotten who leads this herd!”
Qadan grimaced and lowered his head. “My apologies.”
The Herd Father gave Sir Golan another playful shove and the knight slowly toppled over.
“You’re my welcome guest,” Batuhan said, pointing at the prostrate knight. “Tomorrow we’ll head to our hallowed spot and celebrate together!”
In Sir Golan’s ears the Herd Father’s bellowing voice drifted off and grew quieter as if moving away across the steppes. The voice faded entirely as the knight fell asleep.
On cloven hooves, Horngore trotted to the top of a hill overlooking the steppes. From a race called the Ferans, he had the arms and torso of a humanoid but the lower body and legs of a goat. He had a ram’s head with curling horns, and he was covered with hair the color of charcoal.
Behind Horngore, the earthen lodges of his tribe were scattered across a low depression, protected from the wind. The dome-shaped homes were partially submerged in the soft soil, with wooden frames for walls filled with mud and sod.
Horngore stared out on the open landscape, his back to his village. This was not his home and this moon was not his planet. If he had a choice, he would burn it all.
Needing the Feran’s home planet for their own ends, the Imperium had resettled them against their will on Pellium D decades earlier. The Imperial government reasoned this was a fair trade, considering the open expanses of Pellion D and the chance of making a fresh start. The humans failed to consider that the native population might take offense at the Ferans’ presence, leading to years of hostility punctuated with occasional warfare. Horngore didn’t mind the fighting. He loved it in fact, but the fact that he was fighting over land that he didn’t love left him with a strange dissatisfaction that only fueled his anger. He hated these wide-open spaces, but he hated those who wanted to take them away even more.
He pulled on the hairs hanging from his chin and ground his teeth.
Returning down the hill, Horngore soaked in the daily background noises of his village. A blacksmith hammered a glowing piece of iron into shape before sending it back into the forge. Younger Ferans, their horns mere nubs, chased each other until an older female shouted at them to get back into the lodge.
Horngore found the simple village life monotonous and mundane. He was a warrior with a warrior’s spirit. His greatest wish was to fight, a wish easily granted.
Another warrior named Emberfist, a few years younger than Horngore, galloped through the crowd of other villagers. The warrior, his hair a copper brown, carried a sword but sheathed it as he approached. He stopped short in front of the older fighter, his chest heaving.
“What is it?” Horngore demanded.
Gasping for breath, Emberfist coughed a reply, “The Centauri! They’re returning.”
“Already?” Horngore said, smiling to himself. “They’re early this year.”
“They pitched their camp farther off, but several were seen around the antler hoard.”
Punching his fist into his hand, Horngore ground his knuckles into his palm.
“I thought we taught them a lesson last season,” he said, “but apparently they’re back for more.”
“What do we do?” Embefist asked.
“Get the warriors together,” Horngore replied. “I’ll meet you shortly.”
The younger Feran ran off while Horngore sauntered confidently toward his lodge. Inside, the smoke from the central fire carried an acrid scent throughout the house. Opposite the entrance, beside a bed layered with furs and animal skins, Horngore stopped before a long wooden case. He slowly raised the lid and pulled out a bundle of red velvet. Even through the thick material, Horngore could feel the tingling in his fingers and smell the slight odor of ozone. He unwrapped the velvet to reveal a weapon, a long metal handle with a cone-shaped head on one end. Small, rounded knobs went around the circumference of the head and tiny arcs of electricity jumped from one to the other. The entire mace hummed like a dynamo.
The dark, slanted irises in Horngore’s eyes widened to match the grin on his face.
“Thunderclap,” he said.
The next morning, or rather the late morning because everyone was hung over, the Pellions and Sir Golan headed back to the sacred antler shrine. As before, Squire found himself strapped across a Centauri’s back with nothing than the passing grass for scenery, along with far more of the Pellion’s anatomy than either had wished for.
Squire admitted to himself that he had never seen his master inebriated before, but that was the only explanation for Sir Golan’s behavior. Fermented fluids were often the weakness of organics, the robot realized, but the green knight was usually above such appetites. Knowing how the Cruxians had fallen from grace, Squire worried that Sir Golan might be turning down the wrong road. He hoped this was only a temporary lapse.
Of course, it didn’t help that his master was once again talking about imaginary music in the air.
“It’s quite beautiful,” Sir Golan remarked, riding on the back of his own Pellion.
“I’m sure it is,” Squire replied while doing a quick check of his database for delusions.
Toward the later part of the day, the group arrived at the shrine. Batuhan, the Herd Father, led the procession with Qadan close behind. As far as Squire could tell from his ungainly vantage point, the group included all the mature males of the herd, each with intact antlers on their heads. Sir Golan and the robot dismounted while the others went about creating piles of wood for bonfires around the giant mound.
“What time does the ceremony start?” the knight asked the Herd Father.
“Just after dark,” Batuhan replied. “In the meantime, you should probably stay out of the way if you can. Qadan isn’t happy with your presence here, regardless of what I say, so I would give him a wide berth if I were you.”
Taking the advice to heart, Sir Golan and Squire stood a good way off, watching the preparations take shape. Qadan, his spear on display, rode around the heap of antlers, shouting orders at the younger warriors. Batuhan looked on while drinking from a bottle he kept in his saddle bag.
“They have a curious relationship,” Squire said, turning to his master.
“Who?” Sir Golan asked.
“Well, Qadan seems to be in charge, but he takes orders from the herd father.”
The knight murmured in agreement.
“Some lead by example,” he said, “and others lead by letting others lead by example.”
Not fully understanding, the robot shrugged.
When the sun had crossed the farthest hilltop and the sky turned a deep indigo, the Pellions lit the bonfires around the antler mound. By the time the stars began appearing, all of the Centauri except the Herd Father had formed a wide circle around the mound, facing outward. Batuhan, carrying a golden carafe, trotted around the circumference of the circle, calling out to the others who shouted in reply. Each time the male Pellions shouted back, they also clapped their hands in unison.
“Do you know what they’re saying?” Sir Golan asked his robot.
“I believe it’s something about the passage of time,” Squire answered. “Also, did you notice that they’re ordered by age?”
“Yes, it appears the oldest Pellion starts the circle and it goes all the way around, descending in age, until it comes back to the oldest again.”
At that point, the Herd Father stopped abruptly in front of the youngest Centauri who stood beside the eldest. The boy lowered his head while Batuhan poured from the carafe, a dark liquid soaking the base of the Pellion’s antlers. This process continued, from youngest to oldest, until all of the males were anointed. Batuhan then emptied the remainder of the vessel over his own head, shaking his rack of antlers with a deep laugh.
He motioned to Sir Golan and the robot. “Now watch!”
The Herd Father joined the others as they turned to face the mound. With a firm grasp on the shaft of their racks, they shouted together as they pulled their antlers free and held them high above their heads.
“Good lord,” the knight whispered.
“Indeed,” Squire replied.
Over the crackling bonfires, the Pellion males cheered as they threw their recently detached antlers onto the pile.
Aboard his yacht, the Acaz, Lord Devlin Maycare and Benson sat in the pilot and co-pilot seats respectively. In the adjacent lounge, Professor Jessica Doric and Henry Riff were seated on couches.
“You realize,” Doric said, “this would have been a lot more efficient if we had known where we were going before we left.”
“Probably,” Maycare replied, “but you found the information we needed, didn’t you?”
“I helped…” Henry mentioned.
“Yes, of course,” Maycare said. “Good job, Henry!”
With a wide grin, Henry glanced at Doric who nodded back in tacit approval.
“Anyway,” Doric went on, “don’t get your hopes up about finding whatever this is.”
“What? Don’t be silly!” Maycare protested. “This is the best I’ve felt in months. Of course we’ll find it!”
“But we don’t even know what it is,” Doric replied.
“That’s part of the fun!” Maycare said.
Benson took a look at the instruments. “We’ll be arriving in the Pellium system in another hour.”
“Thank you, Benson,” Maycare smiled.
“Speaking of which,” Henry spoke up. “Does anyone else think it’s strange that robots can’t hear the siren music?”
“Which is precisely why I think this is some kind of mass psychosis,” she said.
“Come on, Jess!” Maycare sighed. “You’re ruining my buzz…”
“Somebody has to be the voice of reason.”
“Well, I think it’s exciting,” Henry said.
“That’s the spirit!” Maycare shouted, causing Henry to recoil.
“Actually,” Benson said from the co-pilot’s seat, “there could be a range of reasons why robots are unable to hear the music.”
“Or the whole thing’s made up,” Doric replied, rolling her eyes.
Maycare groaned. “Buzz killer!”
With his sword Rippana hanging by his side, Sir Golan felt a kinship with the Pellions, something he had not experienced since leaving his home world so many years ago. His people, the Cruxians, were scattered across the stars of Andromeda, but the green knight’s connection to them persisted through rituals and memories of those long past, not unlike the ceremony performed by the Centauri. They kept themselves grounded in the roots of their culture, just as he did with his own. Sir Golan only wished he could feel the same comradeship as these warriors felt for each other.
On the other hand, he had a robot.
“What a strange display,” Squire remarked, in sight of the Pellions still gathered around the antler monument.
“Really?” Sir Golan replied. “I thought it was magnificent.”
“I mean it seems odd that you can simply remove part of your body like that,” Squire said. “What if I suddenly pulled off a leg and threw it onto a pile?”
“Well, you could,” the knight suggested.
“True, but I wouldn’t like it very much.”
The bonfires around the sacred mound were dying down, the flames dwindling to an orange glow. With the dimming of the fire, the stars in the sky grew brighter, filling the expanse of black with flecks of light. Since it was too late to head back to the main camp, the Pellions set out bedrolls on which to lie. However, before they could bed down, a cry erupted from the darkness. Sounding like bleating goats, the noise roused the warriors, their spears and bows out almost immediately.
By instinct, Sir Golan did the same, Rippana emerging from its scabbard like a sharp, dangerous claw.
“What’s going on?” he shouted at the Centauri passing by.
“Ferans!” one of the warriors replied before disappearing into the night.
“Squire?” the knight asked.
The robot paused while consulting his data base.
“They’re a race of animalistic humanoids,” Squire replied finally. “Humans call them Beastmen.”
“They must be mad to attack warriors such as these!” Sir Golan shouted, already moving toward the sounds of fighting.
“I’ll stay here if you don’t mind…” Squire called after him.
Sir Golan had not gone far before he encountered several Pellions engaged in combat. Most of the Ferans had horns, curved and goat-like. Sir Golan thought the Pellions probably wished they still retained their antlers, but it was too late for that. At least both sides were evenly matched with weapons. The knight saw the flashing of swords against spears amid the rumble of hooves on the grassy earth.
Sir Golan came across his first Feran shortly after the Beastman had apparently chopped down a young Pellion warrior. Armed with a medium-sized blade, the Feran took a swing at the knight, but Sir Golan parried it harmlessly away. Apparently not expecting a non-Pellion, the Feran fighter hesitated, which the knight used as an opportunity to attack, driving Rippana deeply into his chest. The fighter let out a brief bleat before gasping his last breath and falling to the ground. Christened with blood, the knight’s sword tasted the viscera of several more Ferans in short order until Sir Golan felt his clothes becoming heavy and wet.
While stepping past dead Beastmen, the knight also found the bodies of numerous Pellions. During the pitched battle, both sides had taken heavy casualties. He was wondering what grievance led to this when a flash of blue light caught his attention. A moment later, the crack of lightning reached his ears. Sir Golan headed in the direction of the flare. The Herd Father’s voice, loud and angry, greeted him.
Sir Golan started running.
Over a rise, Batuhan was absorbed in combat with a Feran with large, curved horns. While the Herd Father struck at his adversary with a spear, the Beastman swung an odd-looking mace, knobs along the head glowing with arcs of blue electricity.
Sir Golan thought Batuhan should be at an advantage with his longer spear, but gaping wounds on the Herd Father’s legs and flank suggested this was not his first opponent of the night. Weakened, he lunged without vigor and was slow to parry the Feran’s attacks.
“You’re finished!” the Beastman shouted.
Perhaps gathering the last of his strength, Batuhan responded with a quick jab, but the Feran swiped the spear away. Raising the mace over his horns, he slammed it down, the metal head erupting with a burst of lightning. Batuhan’s body crackled as bolts of electricity surged across his skin. Still too far away, Sir Golan could do nothing but watch the Herd Father drop into the grass, dry tufts catching fire. In the light of the flames, the Feran took a second to survey his victory before racing away.
Qadan galloped up to where Sir Golan was standing.
“What’s happened?” the warrior asked gruffly.
“Batuhan is dead,” the knight replied.
Without a word, Qadan cantered over to the Herd Father’s body, but instead of stopping, he galloped past it and disappeared into the darkness.
Mud City wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded. The largest human settlement on Pellium was still no more than a village, most of its structures built from prefab kits brought to the moon decades earlier. Between the buildings, the roads were a mixture of wet dirt and gravel, but mostly mud from which the town got its name. Sidewalks, raised a few inches off the ground, were metal grates to keep the inhabitants from traipsing through the muck whenever possible. This was fine in principle, until the grates became encrusted with mud as well.
The Acaz landed on a pad of reinforced concrete euphemistically called the Mud City Starport. Since the accommodations on Maycare’s yacht were superior to whatever the town had to offer, Doric and Henry remained aboard while they finished their research on the Song of the Sirens. Meanwhile, feeling bored, Maycare found the nearest tavern, accompanied by his butlerbot Benson.
The outside of the Salty Dog Saloon was unassuming and nearly unlabeled except for its name scrawled in spray paint above the front door. Inside, Maycare found the place nearly deserted. A settler, his head pressed against a table top, sat snoozing while a Wulver stood behind the bar. A canine race, the Wulver had white fur with patches of brown. His eyes, red around the edges, drooped nearly as much as his jowls that hung lazily from his face.
“I’m Salty,” he said in a gruff voice, “What’ll you have?”
“Gin and tonic?” Maycare replied, taking a stool at the bar. Benson remained standing behind him.
“We have beer,” Salty said.
Maycare smiled, his teeth white and perfect. “I’ll have beer then!”
The Wulver pulled a dusty bottle off the shelf behind him. Popping the lid off with the edge of the bar, he poured the beer into a glass mug that looked surprisingly clean.
“We don’t get a lot of off-worlders here,” the bartender remarked.
“What a surprise!” Maycare replied.
“There was a guy came through here not long ago,” Salty went on. “He cleared out a nest of ratlings for us. Kinda green.”
Salty glared. “No, his skin was green!”
“Oh, my mistake.”
“He had a robot too,” Salty said. “Kind of an older model like this one…”
Benson perked up. “Thank you for including me in this conversation.”
The bartender rolled his bloodshot eyes.
“Anyway,” Maycare said. “We’re here about that siren business.”
“Can you tell us anything about it?” Maycare asked.
“Just head out of town until you get to a big heap of antlers,” Salty said. “Then go a little farther and you’ll start hearing it.”
“Big heap of antlers?”
“But be careful of the Ferans,” Salty went on. “They’ll kill you as soon as look at you. And you better steer clear of the Pellions too.”
“Unfriendly, are they?”
“They won’t kill you on sight,” Salty said. “They’ll trample you for a spell and then kill you.”
“Delightful!” Maycare replied and drank his beer.
The day after the battle, the Pellions honored their fallen Herd Father by erecting a funeral pyre before placing Batuhan on top and setting it alight. While the fire burned, the tribe buried the other dead warriors around the pyre, the smell of smoke and death lingering in the air.
At a discreet distance, Sir Golan and Squire watched.
“Why would the Ferans attack?” the green knight asked.
“They’re a fiercely territorial species,” Squire replied. “Ironically, they are not native to this moon.”
“Then why are they here?”
“You can thank the humans for that!” Qadan said, riding up in a flurry of hooves.
“What do you mean?” Sir Golan asked.
“The Beastmen are a scourge wherever they go,” the warrior replied angrily. “They outlived their welcome on some other unfortunate planet, so the Imperium stuck them here with us!”
“I don’t believe that’s entirely true,” Squire suggested.
“I don’t care!” Qadan shouted. “They have brought nothing but misfortune to my people since they arrived.”
“There was one Feran in particular,” Sir Golan went on, “the one who killed Batuhan. He carried a strange weapon…”
“That was Horngore, their leader,” Qadan said. “A capable warrior but without honor. He bought the mace from a human trader in Mud City. I promise you I’ll pry it from his dead hands one day soon!”
Sir Golan’s eyes turned to the ground. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save the Herd Father…”
“I’m the Herd Father now,” Qadan replied. “However, your bravery during the battle did not go unnoticed, green knight. Even so, we’re at war now against these Beastmen. Do not interfere…”
Sir Golan nodded. “I understand.”
The Pellion warrior trotted back toward the remains of the funeral pyre, the flames still reaching into the morning sky.
“So, what do we do now?” Squire asked.
Watching the new Herd Father gallop away, the green knight shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Pol and Cas were a brother and sister sharing the enormous body of a two-headed giant. Over ten feet tall, they wore animal pelts and the skins of Pellions they had killed, flayed, and tanned into fine leather. Sister Cas had a tangled mess of red hair but a lovely singing voice, while her brother Pol never sang and kept his hair neat and closely shorn.
When Pol and Cas were young, their mother, who had only one head, would sing to them before they went to sleep. With melodies that were simple and improvised lyrics, their mother weaved music for them throughout their early lives. Cas inherited her mother’s skill, but whenever Pol opened his toothy mouth, the notes that emerged made everyone laugh, including Pol himself. He eventually stopped trying, preferring to listen to his mother and sister instead.
When Pol and Cas were older, their mother died at the hands of the Pellions. On a hunt, they came across a lone, dark-bearded warrior out on the steppes. Normally, a single Pellion would have been no match for them, but this one was fierce and cunning. He used his speed to escape the ambush the giants had set, but instead of fleeing, he circled back and charged, injuring the mother giant in her leg. Hobbled, she was unable to defend herself against his subsequent attacks, until the Centauri dealt the killing blow. Pol and Cas managed to injure the warrior, but they could not avenge their mother’s death and he escaped.
In the years that followed, the twins lived by themselves, hunting and scavenging as best they could. They spent each night in a cavern hidden behind a concealed entrance, watching the light of the fire dwindle as Cas sang the songs their mother had taught them. Without family and without friends, the two had no one but each other to keep them company. Even so, the music bound them together and to their lost mother.
One night, Cas was singing as usual but Pol noticed a strangeness in his sister’s voice. The words she had sung so many times were slurred and the notes were off-key.
“Are you alright?” Pol asked.
Cas turned her head around, her eyes dull.
“There’s too much smoke from the fire,” she said. “Everything’s cloudy…”
“What are you talking about?” her brother asked.
Cas tried speaking, but Pol couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then her eyes rolled back and her head slumped forward, the arm on her side of their body falling limp.
That was the last time Pol spoke with his sister.
Henry Riff was dismayed to learn that he might be trampled to death by Pellions if they left the relative safety of Mud City. He felt even less enthusiastic when Lord Maycare said they would depart immediately.
On board the Acaz, Maycare did his best to rally the troops.
“What’s a little danger?” he asked with a shrug. “It’s exciting!”
Jessica Doric and Henry Riff exchanged glances.
“I think what Henry is saying,” Doric said, “is that dying on a strange moon in the middle of nowhere was not in the job description.”
Maycare scoffed. “Come on! We’ve almost died in much stranger places than this!”
“I don’t think dying anywhere is a particularly good idea,” Doric went on. “Perhaps this artifact we’re chasing isn’t worth our lives.”
“I’d like to die in my sleep actually,” Henry remarked.
Maycare crossed his arms, the muscles bulging through his linen shirt.
“Not me!” he replied. “I want to see Death coming so I can give him a good punch in the nose!”
Doric rolled her eyes before turning to Benson.
“You were there,” she said to the butlerbot. “How dangerous did that bartender make it sound?”
“Well, Mister Salty seemed quite confident there was some risk involved,” Benson replied.
“Who cares?” Maycare asked. “He’s just a big scaredy-cat!”
“He actually appeared more dog-like–” Benson began.
Maycare sighed. “We didn’t come all this way to turn back now, did we?”
“No, I suppose not,” Doric agreed. She gave Henry a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Are you sure?” the young man asked.
“No,” she replied, “but certainties aren’t in the job description either…”
Pol found himself alone, even though he was not alone, at least not entirely. In the years that followed, he could hear a low whistling from Cas’ nose, a faint snoring to tell Pol that his sister was still alive. He spoke to her from time to time, but she never replied and never opened her eyes.
“It’s cold this morning,” he said.
The sun had risen and the gas giant, Pol’s only real company, filled the sky. Outside the cavern entrance, frost clung to the tall grasses, giving the green a hint of white. When Pol emerged, his breath escaped in a great cloud that hung in the cool air before dissipating. In his right hand, he carried a heavy wooden club, while his left arm hung lifeless at his side, dead since Cas had left him. His stomach reminded him that breakfast would not go and catch itself.
When the sun reached the top of the sky, the dew had burned away but Pol still had not caught anything. In frustration, he headed toward an area of the steppes that he rarely visited, mostly because the terrain was rougher and the prospect of game was unlikely. Still, he was no less hungry and was willing to give it a try.
Descending into a valley where rain water had dug a shallow canyon, Pol found the footing treacherous. His lumbering girth barely fit between the canyon walls, loose dirt and rocks rolling down as his shoulders scraped by. A small mammal, similar to a rabbit, bounded out of its burrow and Pol gave chase as best he could. Such a small animal would be little more than a snack for him, but he wasn’t choosy at that point.
The mammal passed through another narrow section of the canyon, causing Pol to stop. Unwilling to concede defeat, the two-headed giant swung his massive club, smashing the walls of dirt until they crumbled, giving Pol just enough space. When he, turning sideways, squeezed through the gap, Pol’s eyes widened at what he saw.
Half buried in the soil, the stone remains of a building stuck out of the ground.
Pol forgot about his hunger and explored the ruin. Dirt had covered much of the single chamber inside, but items were still visible. Pots of different sizes, some broken, were scattered about. Metal items too, including plates and goblets, lay on the floor. One item, however, caught Pol’s attention. In a corner, next to a faded mural, a small object roughly the size and shape of a lamp sat on its side. It was glowing.
And then Pol heard the singing. He recognized the voice as his sister’s.
All around the Pellion camp, the Centauri were making preparations for war. Following their new Herd Father’s direction, they collected weapons and donned heavy armor on their equine bodies. Although Qadan remained true to his word, allowing Sir Golan and Squire to stay, the green knight decided the time was right to leave. Squire whole-heartedly agreed, or at least as much as he could without having an actual heart.
Sir Golan and the robot retraced their path back to Mud City. Qadan could not spare one of his warriors, so the two had to return on foot. After nearly a day they reached the antler mound. Both sides had removed their dead from the previous battle, and only the charred remains of the bonfires remained. The next morning, the green knight and his robot set out for another day of hiking across the empty grasslands. Along the horizon, gray clouds approached on the wind, a dark curtain descending to inundate the distant hills with rain. When the drops overtook them as well, Squire observed another group approaching from the other direction.
“Your eyes are better than mine,” Sir Golan remarked. “What do you see?”
“Four people,” the robot replied. “Correction, I think one is a robot.”
“One appears to be female, so take from that what you will…”
Growing closer, the largest male of the other party waved, his boisterous voice traveling easily over the flat terrain. “Hello there!”
Sir Golan waved in return, although he waited until they were at a more reasonable distance before replying.
“What brings you out this way?” the knight yelled.
“Sightseeing!” the man shouted with a wide grin.
Squire found him instantly irritating.
“Give them a chance,” Sir Golan said and greeted them warmly when they eventually met face-to-face.
“I’m Lord Devlin Maycare,” the man said, “and this is Professor Doric and Henry Riff. Oh, and this is my butlerbot, Benson.”
“I’m Sir Golan and this is my robot, Squire. Would you like to get out of the rain?”
Maycare glanced around. “If that’s possible…”
Squire activated a displacement field, a translucent dome of blue energy, over the two groups. The rain beaded on the surface before rolling down the sides.
“Cool,” Henry said. “Can you do that, Benson?”
The butlerbot eyed the other android. “No.”
“Oh, that’s a shame…” Henry replied with a note of disappointment.
“We’re investigating some strange sounds reported in the area,” Doric said.
“The singing?” Sir Golan asked.
“You know of it?” Doric replied.
“Yes, of course,” the knight went on. “I’ve heard it, although I’m afraid Squire thinks I’m going mad.”
“Well, that’s outstanding!” Maycare said. “I mean, not the crazy part obviously…”
“This might not be the best time, however,” Sir Golan said. “There’s war brewing and this area is the center of it.”
Henry looked nervously around. “Really?”
“Squire and I were returning to Mud City,” the knight continued, “but perhaps we should accompany your party for a while?”
“That’s very generous of you,” Maycare said. “Are you sure it’s no trouble?”
Sir Golan rested his hand atop the hilt of his sword. “Not at all.”
Henry raised his head.
“What’s the matter?” Doric asked him.
“Did anyone else just hear thunder?” he replied.
Horngore’s yellow eyes glared in contrast to his fur, slate black against a dull sky. In his hands, the handle of Thunderclap was still sticky with blood from the battle the night before. His ears drummed with the memory of hooves galloping to glory. Horngore never felt more alive than when he was killing his enemies. Their dying gasp was his music, and the shock mace in his hands was the instrument on which he played.
Still, there was a cost. Emberfist fell to a stranger. A green knight in armor, armed with a sword, had killed the Feran warrior. Horngore gritted his teeth, vowing to avenge the death of his friend. The Pellions were Horngore’s sworn enemy, but this outsider, by stepping into a fight that was not his own, had shown an insolence that the Ferans could not allow. This stranger must pay.
One of the other warriors climbed the hill to where Horngore was standing.
“The scouts have returned,” he said, a burly young Feran missing one of his horns. “The Pellion camp is preparing a counterattack.”
“How long?” Horngore replied.
“A few hours at most.”
Horngore raised his head, his nostrils flaring. “There’s rain brewing.”
“We’ll catch them on the open plain where the mud gets deepest,” Horngore said. “We’ll strike as they swoop in, catching them when their hooves are bogged down.”
When the warrior turned to trot back down to the Feran village, his leader stopped him.
“Tell the others,” Horngore said, “if they see the green stranger…”
“Tell them he’s mine.”
The rain began as little more than mist. The fog drifted over the steppes like a body rolling down a hill. The warriors on both sides, the Pellions and Beastmen, could barely see each other even before the downpour started, the heavy raindrops getting in their eyes.
With every hoof that trudged through the grass, the wet soil churned, forming a thick, dirty mess. The quagmire of mud pulled at each step, slowing a gallop to a canter and then to a slow walk. In the gray death, the charging forces became bogged down in a dreary, slow-motion battle.
And Sir Golan found himself in the middle of it.
In the chaos, the green knight had lost the others. He had sworn to protect them, but now they were nowhere to be seen. Even Squire was gone who-knows-where, leaving Sir Golan to fend for himself. In the rain and mist, he could only see a few feet in front of him, and that was mostly filled with angry Ferans.
His sword, Ripanna, slashed at the furry flesh. The blade danced between the rain drops, filling the air with streams of red. The blood splashed over Sir Golan’s armor, but quickly washed away in the deluge, collecting at his feet before mixing with the muck. Like everyone else, he found the footing treacherous. He felt his boots being tugged from below as if creatures in the grass were grasping with tiny claws. Each thrust and parry nearly toppled him over.
The pitter-patter of rain against Benson’s metal casing reminded him that Squire’s displacer field was no longer active. The robots were alone, their human and Cruxian masters gone, and the sounds of battle around them were nearly as suffocating as the dense fog. They had each other, but Benson wasn’t sure that filled either with much confidence.
“Dear me,” Squire said, “I wish Sir Golan was here.”
“You don’t have any weapons of your own?” Benson asked.
“I have a small energy shield built into my arm, but that’s all I’m afraid.”
“If you don’t mind me saying,” the butlerbot remarked, “you have some remarkable accessories for an older model.”
“Well,” Squire replied with a shrug, “someone added a few upgrades recently.”
“Yes, her name was Mel. An interesting story–“
A scream in the gloom rattled the robot into silence. They waited a full minute, wondering if another cry would follow, but whoever was dying made a point of getting on with it quickly.
“Do you think that was Lord Maycare or Jess?” Benson asked. “Or even that other one… Henry?
“I’m not really sure,” Squire said, “but it sounded more like a Feran if I’m not mistaken.”
“Have you known your human companions long?”
“Only a month,” Benson replied.
“Are they nice at least?”
The buterbot didn’t answer immediately. “They’re typical humans, I suppose.”
“I’m thankful for Sir Golan,” Squire said. “He’s exceptional. Better than most, I would say.”
Benson would have sighed if able. “Some robots have all the luck.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Benson replied, “I’m thankful for Lord Maycare, but I don’t know where I fit in with these humans. They don’t seem to need me around.”
“Well then, why do they keep you?” Squire asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps you fulfill some purpose that only fleshlings would understand. I often find their behavior questionable, even irrational at times, but that’s simply their nature it seems.”
“Henry does things in the bathroom that are truly disgusting.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“I mean, for someone who doesn’t need lubrication, he’s covered in a lot of greasy residue…”
A flash and the crack of thunder jolted the two robots.
“What now?” Benson asked.
Through a curtain of gray, the muscular form of a Feran appeared, his horns like sharpened daggers. He carried a weapon that crackled with electricity.
“You!” he shouted, pointing his mace at Squire. “You belong to the green knight!”
“It’s more of mentor-protégé relationship, actually,” the robot replied.
“Where is he?” the Beastman yelled.
“Truthfully, I have no idea,” Squire said. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t tell you even if I did.”
The Feran waved the mace around like a wheel, arcs of white criss-crossing the knobs on its head.
“No matter,” he sneered. “Perhaps if he hears his protégé begging for mercy, he’ll come running…”
The storm grew stronger, but the sound of thunder Sir Golan followed was not natural. Remembering the Feran warrior who killed the Herd Father, the green knight searched for him in the fog, homing in on the cracks of lightning he knew came from the Beastman’s strange weapon. In truth, he had no reason to feel guilty for failing to save Batuhan, but seeing the proud Pellion leader fall as he did made the knight feel sick inside.
The hunt took Sir Golan through the heart of the battlefield, the dead and dying strewn across the grass matted with their bodies and weapons. It was a dreary slog, but the knight fought on. The flashes through the gray shroud were growing brighter, the accompanying rumble louder, and Sir Golan realized he was getting close.
What the knight didn’t expect was to find his robot when he got there.
Behind the glow of his shield, Squire lay with his arm raised, absorbing an onslaught of blows, each one releasing a blast of electrical energy.
“Squire!” Sir Golan shouted through the rain.
The robot, turning his head, gave an expression of both relief and embarrassment.
“Good to see you, sir!” Squire replied. “Your help would be greatly appreciated!”
The Feran also turned, stopping his attack. Seeing the knight, he smiled.
“Finally!” he yelled.
Sir Golan drew his sword, Rippana. “Were you waiting for me?”
“I’m Horngore,” the warrior yelled, “and you killed my friend!”
“That makes two of us,” the knight replied.
The two approached each other. Out of the corner of Sir Golan’s eye, he noticed Squire struggling to stand with the help of Maycare’s butlerbot, Benson. Both machines showed signs of damage, which only angered the knight more.
“Attacking defenseless robots?” he said.
“They make excellent target practice!” Horngore replied.
The Feran swung his mace, but Sir Golan stepped to one side, easily avoiding the blow. The knight countered, his blade glancing off the mace’s handle.
“I’ve never seen your species before,” the Feran admitted. “Most green-skins are despicable by nature.”
The knight squinted, water dripping over his eyes. “That just shows your ignorance, Beastman.”
Horngore laughed. “That’s what the humans call us, so that should tell you something!”
“I only know what I’ve seen,” Sir Golan said. “I can’t say I’m impressed.”
With an overhead swing, the Feran landed his weapon against the knight’s. The vibration resonated through Sir Golan’s hands and up his arms. Almost losing his grip, he tightened his fingers around the hilt and pushed the other warrior back.
“Nice weapon,” he said.
“Yours too,” Horngore replied. “I’ll sell it in Mud City once you’re dead.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
Arcs of electricity curled around the head of the mace. The flares of light reflected in Horngore’s yellow eyes.
“Something occurs to me,” the Feran said.
“You’re an idiot to fight with a sword during a storm!”
Instead of striking the knight directly, Horngore brought the head of the mace down on Rippana, sending a bolt of energy through the sword and into Sir Golan’s body. Frozen, his muscles seizing, the knight stood rigid for a moment before staggering backward. The sword still in his hand, Sir Golan landed with a splash.
Horngore paused, staring down at the stricken knight.
“Didn’t see that one coming, did you?” the Feran chuckled.
The warrior raised his mace again, ready to relieve Sir Golan of his life, when a shout stopped him.
Where did everyone go? Henry thought. They had all been together one minute and then all hell broke loose.
Soaking wet, Henry hid behind the body of a dead Pellion. He made a conscious effort to avoid looking directly at the corpse, but his peripheral vision was still showing him more than he wanted to see.
Henry crawled away on all fours and kept going until the clatter of weapons grew to a distant din. By that time, he was not only drenched, but also covered in cold, sloppy mud. Like a drowned rat, his hair lay across his face, matted down with the weight of rain and dirt. He shivered, knowing he would need to find somewhere warm.
Coming over the rim of a washed-out gully, he slid down the side and into the rushing water of a flooded stream. The surge pulled him under, dragging him along like a rag doll. Henry had never been a good swimmer, but the prospect of suffocating far from home was a strong motivator. Pushing with his legs, he broke the surface and gasped for air, even as the current hauled him farther downstream.
He didn’t see the rock until it was too late, although he was vaguely aware of the sound his skull made when he hit it.
Much to his surprise, when Henry regained consciousness he was not as cold as before. His first assumption was that he had died and this was heaven, but the strong, musky stench that greeted him seemed inconsistent with his understanding of the afterlife.
Henry opened his eyes.
A fire was burning in the center of a large cave. Beside the fire was a hulking creature sitting on his haunches, wearing crude skins and furs for clothing. The giant had at least one more head than Henry was used to seeing on a person, but what struck Henry as especially strange was the beautiful singing.
Hearing his sister’s voice again made Pol realize just how much he had missed her. The giant didn’t know how the device worked, but he didn’t care. Like a lantern made from concentric disks of crystal, it glowed brighter as Pol grew near and filled the air with Cas’ singing. Whatever it was, Pol was grateful and carried it with him back to the cavern that he and his sister called home.
Next to the fire, the relic reflected the flames in its glass-like structure, the light dancing on the walls of the cave. Pol spent many nights staring into the shimmering brightness, remembering the times his family had spent in front of the fire, sharing the music together. Although Pol was still alone, his sister still in a comatose state, this was the closest he could get to the way things had been before he lost it all.
Years passed, and Pol survived from day to day by hunting and living off whatever scraps the land would provide. Getting older, he was no longer as bold as he had been in his youth. His fights with the Pellions became rarer, perhaps because a new group had appeared and drove the old enemy away. Pol hunted these new creatures too, their hooves like the Pellions’ but with horns and strange bleating noises when they died. Even so, the giant kept his distance most of the time, preferring to attack only occasionally.
Wrapped in pelts, Pol kept to the cavern at night and rested his tired bones by the campfire. He still had his sister’s singing to keep him company, but even so, the loneliness of constant solitude wore at his spirit.
On one of the days Pol was out hunting, a storm erupted across the steppes, soaking the giant in the cold rain. He was looking forward to getting back to the cavern when he nearly stumbled over a body sprawled beside a swollen creek. Pol stopped and knelt next to the creature. Covered in mud, it appeared drowned at first but after Pol gave it a firm nudge, the body made a gasping wheeze like a bladder leaking air. Out of curiosity, the giant threw the sack of flesh and bones over his shoulder and brought it home so he could get a better look at it.
In the fire light, Pol realized it was one of the off-worlders that sometimes made the mistake of coming too close. Normally, Pol would simply give it a good clubbing, but he paused. They made for poor eating, and this one was especially scrawny, but that wasn’t the reason. The giant felt a certain pity for this one, like a bird with a broken wing. He didn’t have the heart to kill it, let alone cook it over the fire.
Pol made up his mind to keep it. He had always wanted a pet.
Devlin Maycare’s shirt was ruined and he wasn’t happy about it. Of course, he had dozens of linen shirts made for him by a tailor in Regalis, but the circumstances of losing this one were particularly galling.
Maycare and Jessica Doric had gotten separated from the rest of their party. Normally, this would have been another opportunity for Maycare to look heroic in the presence of the professor, but the rain and the battle around them made this prospect difficult, not to mention awkward. He had no doubt that everything would work out, as it always did for him. However, the sheer number of Beastmen appearing from the mist posed several obstacles, not the least of which was actual death.
Taking a spear from a fallen Pellion, Maycare parried the first Feran, striking him squarely below the chin with a satisfying crack. The second Feran was less eager, preferring to deflect Maycare’s thrusts before dying at the end of his spear anyway. Doric picked up a sword, but her lack of military training put her at a disadvantage. Maycare, while attending classes at Westford, had learned a great deal about fencing and general hand-to-hand combat.
Maycare made a mental note to have Benson remind him to enroll Jess in a few courses. It was painful to see her hold a sword like that. Just painful.
Then another warrior appeared and interrupted Maycare’s thoughts. The Beastman’s dagger ripped a gaping tear across his linen shirt.
“Blast it!” Maycare said and knocked the Feran unconscious with the butt of his spear.
“Are you alright?” Doric asked.
Maycare examined the rip, threads dangling loosely around the tattered edges. Also, he was bleeding.
“Well, now I look ridiculous!” he huffed.
Doric, her own wet hair hanging past her shoulders, shook her head. “You were already soaked.”
“It’s the principle of the thing, Jess! I have standards to keep, you know…”
“Let’s worry about finding Henry and the others,” she replied.
For the next hour, the two meandered through the rain and mud, hoping to discover those they had lost. Maycare was almost to the point of doubting himself when the ragged flashes of light ahead created a beacon they could follow. When they arrived at the source, they found a Feran holding an electrified mace over Sir Golan, lying in the grass.
“Stop!” Maycare shouted.
The Feran warrior halted, his weapon hanging above Sir Golan’s body.
“Who the hell are you?” the Beastman yelled back.
Maycare’s eyebrow rose in surprise. “Lord Devlin Maycare!”
“Never heard of you,” the Feran said.
Maycare glanced at Doric who merely shrugged.
“Well, I’m very well-known actually!” he replied, a hint of defensiveness in his tone.
Sir Golan, who had seemed unable to move, came to life and raised his sword, slashing the Beastman in the abdomen. The Feran leaped backwards, holding the wound, and gave out a scream of pain mixed with anger.
The warrior, perhaps seeing himself now outnumbered, staggered off into the fog and disappeared.
Against his better judgment, Henry Riff was not afraid. Of course, he had every reason to be. The two-headed giant who shared the cavern with him moved about tending to the fire and lumbering around the enclosed space. Henry, for his part, remained as perfectly still as possible on the off chance the creature had poor eyesight and simply hadn’t noticed him. At the same time, music filled Henry’s ears although he had no idea where it was coming from. The giant, the head that appeared awake at least, was definitely not singing. The other head, a female with tangled red hair like a nest that had fallen from a tree, remained inert as if sleeping.
At some point, the giant took notice of Henry who was covered in drying mud and dirt. The creature poured water from an animal bladder onto a piece of torn cloth and crouched beside him, wiping the fabric roughly over his hair and face. Henry nearly fell over under the strain but tried not to resist. Even so, it occurred to him that this giant was simply cleaning his food for a later snack. The thought of being eaten frightened him, but he was not entirely surprised either that he might end up this way. Of the top ten list of ways he would likely die, Henry had predicted being someone’s dinner as number five.
Now relatively bathed, Henry waited to see what was on the menu. Much to his relief, the giant brought him a length of bone covered in meat and motioned for him to eat it. Henry gladly gnawed at the leg, having not fed in at least a day. The food was a bit gamy and tasted, as far as Henry could tell, a bit like what a horse would taste like. He decided not to consider this too deeply, preferring ignorance and a full belly.
Meanwhile, the music ebbed and flowed. Sometimes someone was singing and sometimes simply humming. Other times, Henry was sure there were words, but he couldn’t understand them. The melodies were simple but pleasing, and Henry felt strangely at ease while listening.
The rest of the cavern was cluttered with skins and furs and bits of bone. Cooking pottery sat around the central fire as well as crude utensils. As a whole, the place reminded Henry of his apartment back in Regalis.
Among the mess of miscellanea, one object caught Henry’s eye. Atop a pile of stones, almost like an altar, something like a crystal lantern glowed with a dim yellow light. Henry wondered if the giant had made it but decided against it. The shape and construction were unlike anything else in the cavern. Henry tried taking a closer look, but as he drew nearer, the giant flung a jawbone from across the cave, striking Henry in the head.
“Ouch!” Henry yelped and went back to his original spot.
Neither Henry nor the giant spoke the same language, but they were beginning to understand each other.
After stumbling through the battlefield with Lord Maycare, Jessica Doric felt a deep relief at seeing the two robots, Benson and Squire, and the green knight. Squire had a deep indent where the Feran warrior had bashed him in the head, but Benson, who seemed largely intact, helped him stand. With the Beastman gone, Sir Golan got to his feet by himself.
“Are you hurt?” Doric asked the knight.
“I’m alright,” he replied, but unconvincingly.
Hands on his hips, Maycare puffed out his chest. “Well, at least we’re all back together again!”
“Together?” Doric said incredulously. “What about Henry?”
With a quizzical look, Maycare glanced to either side of where Doric was standing.
“You mean he hasn’t been with us the whole time?” he asked.
Doric waved her hands wildly. “Have you seen him recently?”
“Well, no, come to think of it,” Maycare said.
“You’re the worst!” Doric shouted.
“That seems a bit unfair, Jess. I mean, Henry’s usually hanging around. I guess I just assumed…”
“We need to find him,” she replied. “He’s out here somewhere all alone!”
“Of course,” Maycare nodded gravely. “We’ll start looking for him immediately.”
“We’ve been looking for him!”
Dumbfounded, Maycare shrugged. “I thought we were looking for Benson.”
“Thank you,” the butlerbot said.
Sir Golan, steadying himself, sheathed his sword. “I’m going after that Feran, Horngore.”
“Why ever for?” Benson asked. “It seems lucky you weren’t killed.”
“He murdered the Pellion Herd Father, a friend of mine,” Sir Golan replied. “It’s only right that I avenge his death.”
Squire tottered across the muddy ground toward his master. His left eye was blinking randomly.
“I’m not sure that’s the best course of action, sir,” the robot said.
“What do you mean?” Sir Golan asked.
“You swore you’d protect these people,” the robot went on “and now that we’re reunited, perhaps you should honor your pledge.”
“If I don’t go after Horngore now, he may not pay for killing Batuhan.”
“The Herd Father is already dead,” Squire replied and motioned at the group standing in the rain, “but they are still living. Would you risk that to satisfy your desire for vengeance?”
“Actually, revenge feels pretty sweet,” Maycare remarked.
Doric slapped him across the arm.
“No, you’re right,” Sir Golan said. “Keeping my word is more important. I may cross paths with Horngore again someday, but only fate can decide that.”
“You’re taking a robot’s advice?” Benson asked.
“Certainly,” Sir Golan replied. “Squire’s always been my trustworthy adviser.”
“Interesting,” the butlerbot said and gazed over at Maycare.
“What?” Maycare asked.
“Nothing,” Benson replied.
Long before becoming a Herd Father himself, Qadan listened as a yearling to the stories of Batuhan, the leader he would one day replace. Batuhan was the legend who walked among them. He was the great warrior who had killed a giant single-handedly and frightened off her mutated cubs. All of the Pellions, even those from other herds, revered him and sought his council and wisdom.
Qadan, too, looked in awe at the hero. He trained to become a warrior himself, and he emulated the Herd Father as much as he could, or at least the ideals that he projected as the head of their tribe. Perhaps it was his own growing abilities that made Qadan begin to question Batuhan’s. With an eye of a warrior, he could recognize the failings of the now much older veteran. Batuhan spent more time in a tent drinking wine than out on the steppes fighting their enemies. While Qadan and the younger warriors patrolled the prairie, Batuhan grew fat with the stories of his own greatness. He sought to reap the rewards of his youth, satisfied that he had earned the right to justify his luxurious life as Herd Father.
It made Qadan sick.
Now Batuhan was dead and Qadan was the new Herd Father, leading his people into war against the Ferans.
In the heavy rain, Qadan wrapped his fingers tightly around the shaft of his spear. Metal plates adorned his shoulders and torso while stiff leather hung from his horse-like body.
The battle had been chaotic. Many from both sides lay motionless in the grass and mud. Qadan found himself alone, but this did not concern him. He was ready for whatever emerged from the fog.
Up ahead, a Feran with dark fur lumbered clumsily between the corpses. With one hand, he held his wound and with the other, a mace. Qadan recognized the weapon.
“You!” he shouted at the Beastman who turned, reluctantly, to face him.
“What do you want?” he replied.
“You’re the one they call Horngore?”
“You have the honor of my presence, yes!” the Feran said.
Qadan came closer but kept his distance. “You killed the Herd Father of my tribe.”
“I am the new Herd Father,” Qadan said.
“Congratulations,” Horngore replied sardonically.
“My people have lived on these plains for centuries, yet you thought you could drive us away?”
“I don’t give a damn how long the Centauri have been here!” the Feran warrior spat. “We’re here now and we plan on staying.”
Holding the mace in both hands, Horngore twirled it like a pinwheel, the electrical arcs forming a circle of dancing light.
Qadan, unimpressed, charged with his spear leading the way. The Feran pivoted, allowing the Pellion to gallop by. Qadan made a wide circle, dodging between the bodies like an agile colt as his armor clanked together with each stride. Lining up for another assault, he aimed the tip of the spear at the center of Horngore’s chest.
With a shout, Qadan bounded forward but again the Feran side-stepped. This time, with a great upward motion, Horngore swung his mace, the head meeting the spear along its shaft, smashing it into splinters. Qadan’s front legs bent beneath him, sending him rolling head over tail across the muddy grass. When the Pellion regained his footing, he was holding nothing more than a shattered length of wood. Between him and Horngore, the rest of the spear was stuck into the ground.
The warriors moved simultaneously, both dashing toward the spear: one to arm himself and the other to deny the other.
With two extra legs, Qadan reached the spear first, but only just in time to parry a blow from Horngore’s mace.
“The last Herd Father died by my hands,” the Feran snarled. “Now it’s your turn!”
Horngore made two quick swings, but Qadan blocked each of them. The Centauri warrior also noticed blood pouring from his opponent’s wound.
“Somebody’s gotten to you before me!” Qadan said, gasping for air.
“Your green knight took a crack at me,” Horngore replied, eyeing the gash as well. “When I’ve healed properly, I’ll pay him another visit!”
The Feran lifted the heavy mace once more but, perhaps feeling the weight after losing too much blood, hesitated and left an opening for the Pellion. Qadan thrust his shortened spear, lodging the tip into Horngore’s chest. Gathering power in his rear haunches, he launched forward, driving the spear through to the other side.
The Feran warrior, his mouth gaping, drew in a long breath, exhaling a long, tortured groan. The mace still in Horngore’s right hand fell dully to the ground, the energy sapped away into the wet earth.
Qadan pulled the spear out, letting the dead Feran topple face first.
Snatching a hatchet from a dead Pellion, Qadan hacked at his prize until the head came loose. Jamming in the spear, he hoisted his trophy high above, the rain and blood mixing in the air before dripping across his flank. With his victory on full display, he trotted triumphantly back in the direction of his people’s camp.
The storm broke with the coming of the dawn, the morning light falling through the clouds in a glow of orange and red. Sir Golan and the rest of the party trudged out of the mud and into a wide expanse of grass untouched by the battle from the night before. The stench of decay became less noticeable, the merciful wind having shifted, now blowing away from the group.
While Doric and Maycare, along with their butlerbot, remained several paces behind, the green knight and Squire took the lead. Although Sir Golan’s robot remained damaged, he tried his best to keep up.
“Sorry to slow you down,” Squire said.
“Not at all,” Sir Golan replied. “The others are far slower than you.”
“I meant to thank you for saving us last night. That Feran warrior was a brute. He surely would’ve smashed me to bits if you hadn’t intervened.”
“Well, I only wish I could have finished him.”
“You’re limping slightly,” Squire noted. “Are you injured?”
Instinctively, Sir Golan quickened his stride. “I’m fine.”
“That electrical mace of his…” the knight said. “It may have done some nerve damage.”
The robot nodded, at which point his left eye dropped out of its socket, swinging loosely by a wire.
“Good grief!” Sir Golan said.
“What? Oh, sorry about that,” Squire replied, popping the eye back in. “I’ll be glad when we find this Henry fellow so we can return to civilization. We could both use some repair.”
The steppes, a landscape of gently swaying green, stretched into infinity with only low hills breaking the monotony. In the distance, a speck appeared atop one of the hills, only to disappear again.
“What was that?” Sir Golan asked.
“I don’t know,” Squire replied.
Straining his eyes, the green knight peered at where the thing had been, only to see something much larger appear. It too, however, vanished shortly thereafter.
“There!” Squire said, pointing. By this time, the others had caught up with the knight and his robot.
“What’s going on?” Doric asked. She had tied her hair back to get the wet strands out of her eyes.
Far off, the smaller speck reappeared, exhibiting the vaguely gangling limbs of a human.
“Is that Henry?” Doric asked.
The person seemed to sink into the grass, while something else appeared immediately after. Massive, the second thing rose up and then back down again.
“Did that thing have two heads?” Benson the butlerbot asked.
“Well, that can’t be good,” Maycare remarked.
Sir Golan pulled Rippanna from its scabbard. “Come on!”
Henry wasn’t sure how long he had spent in the cavern with the two-headed giant, but he knew it was too long. His friends would probably be missing him by now. Professor Doric would wonder if he was alright and Lord Maycare would comfort her. His broad shoulders were ideal for comforting, Henry thought, whose own shoulders were narrow and bony. He imagined Doric, her eyes soaked with tears, resting her head against Maycare’s chest…
Henry needed to get the hell out of there.
The giant, however, would have nothing of it. Every time Henry edged toward the only exit, the creature would roar and throw various dead animal parts at him.
How many skulls and femurs can one giant have? Henry asked himself.
The constant singing, while pleasant, never stopped and started grating on Henry’s nerves. He couldn’t understand the words and the melodies were on a continual loop. He began questioning his sanity.
What kind of music does Maycare play for Jessica? Henry wondered. I bet it’s the kind that lulls you into falling in love with him.
Eventually, the giant’s mouth widened into a gaping yawn. The two-headed behemoth stretched out over a pile of furs and fell asleep. Within a few minutes, a nasal trumpeting echoed off the cavern walls and Henry knew this was the chance he had waited for.
Cautiously, Henry started making his way toward the entrance, just past the giant. Henry glanced at him just for a moment, taking his eyes off where he was going long enough for his foot to catch the shell of a dead turtle on the cluttered floor. Henry caught himself by grabbing the closest thing he could find which, in this case, was a wooden frame holding up a cooking pot over the central fire. The frame and the pot toppled over, spilling the liquid contents onto the flames, which produced a loud hissing along with plumes of smoke and cinders. One of the cinders landed on the giant’s bed, catching it on fire.
“Ah, for the love of–” Henry swore, scrambling back to his feet.
The giant’s eyes opened, followed by his mouth from which a roar erupted as he frantically patted at the burning bedding around his legs.
Henry rushed past and out into the blinding daylight. Stunned at first, he shielded his eyes while stumbling forward. The ground quickly rose in a gentle hill, which Henry quickly crested and came down the other side. This cycle repeated again and again until Henry felt like a bobber rising and falling on the waves of a green ocean.
Henry didn’t need to turn around to know the giant was close behind. Even with the music still playing in his ears, Henry could hear the stomping of heavy feet pursuing him. If the creature wasn’t going to eat him before, he would certainly be hungry enough now after chasing him across the countryside.
Just about the time his eyes were finally adjusting to the daylight, Henry spotted the armor of Sir Golan glinting in the sun. Henry changed direction, aiming toward the knight. Getting closer, he made out the other figures in the party, including Doric and Maycare. Henry was pleased the two were not embracing in their grief about his supposed demise. Instead, they stared at him with dumbfounded amazement.
The two-headed creature continued to chase Henry, directly into the path of Sir Golan. While the others scattered out of the way, the giant swung his massive arms at the knight who proved too nimble and simply dodged. With a quick thrust, Sir Golan sliced at the giant’s belly, causing a nasty wound which began gushing blood. With a shout of pain, the creature curled his hand against the cut.
“Stop!” Henry heard himself shout.
Sir Golan halted his next attack. “What is it?”
“Just wait,” Henry replied.
The giant, not hesitating, turned and stumbled back in the direction of the cavern, leaving a tail of blood behind him.
“He’s getting away!” Maycare yelled.
“Let him go,” Henry said.
Doric approached her assistant and put her hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright, Henry?”
“I’m fine,” Henry replied, “but there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“I think I found what’s causing the music…”
Henry led the others back to the cavern. Although they protested, Henry insisted that he go in alone.
“Be careful,” Doric said.
Compared to the light of day, the cavern interior seemed pitch-black, even with the central fire still burning. It occurred to Henry that he might be putting himself in terrible danger, but somehow he felt that the giant was never a threat, at least not to him.
His eyes slowly adjusting, he heard a low breathing. The music, which had been faint where Henry first reunited with Doric and the rest of the party, was now as loud as ever.
“Hello?” he said, but no one answered.
The smell of wet cinders and spilled soup hung in the air. On the pile of furs and skins, the giant lay on his back, his chest slowly heaving. Henry stepped in a pool of liquid at the foot of the bed, which he assumed was not soup.
The giant opened his eyes but only barely. His complexion was ghostly pale.
“I’m so sorry,” Henry said.
The giant muttered something incomprehensible and coughed several times, wincing in pain.
Henry felt utterly helpless. He knew there was nothing he could do, or anything he could offer. He stayed with the giant until the massive creature died. Perhaps that was enough, Henry thought, but it didn’t feel sufficient.
Once the giant’s chest stopped moving and he drew his last breath, something happened that Henry hadn’t expected.
The music stopped.
Thinking for a moment, an idea appeared in Henry’s head like two puzzle pieces that finally fit. He crossed the cavern to the other side where the glowing device had been, except now it was no longer glowing. The lantern-shaped relic, which the giant had refused to let Henry touch, was dark and silent.
Henry hesitated, but after collecting his courage, he picked up the device and held in in his hands. Taking a quick final glance at his former captor, Henry carried the object out to the others who waited for him outside.