The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-One
Don Loris hesitated, essayed to speak, and thought better of it. He shrugged his shoulders and went slowly back to the flight of stone steps. He descended. The Lady Fani started to wring her hands. Then she said hopefully:
“What’s your secret?”
“That your father thinks I have one,” said Hoddan. “Thanks for the breakfast. Should I walk out the gate, or–“
“It’s closed,” said the Lady Fani forlornly. “But I have a rope for you. You can go down over the wall.”
“Thanks,” said Hoddan. “It’s been a pleasure to rescue you.”[Illustration]
“Will you–” Fani hesitated. “I’ve never known anybody like you before. Will you ever come back?”
Hoddan shook his head at her.
“Once you asked me if I’d fight for you, and look what it got me into! No commitments.”
He glanced along the battlements. There was a fairly large coil of rope in view. He picked up his bag and went over to it. He checked the fastening of one end and tumbled the other over the wall.
Ten minutes later he trudged up to Thal, waiting in the nearby woodland with two horses.
“The Lady Fani,” he said, “has the kind of brains I like. She pulled up the rope again.”
Thal did not comment. He watched morosely as Hoddan made the perpetually present ship bag fast to his saddle and then distastefully climbed aboard the horse.
“What are you going to do?” asked Thal unhappily. “I didn’t make a parting-present to Don Loris, so I’ll be disgraced if he finds out I helped you. And I don’t know where to take you.”
“Where,” asked Hoddan, “did those characters from Walden come down?”
Thal told him. At the castle of a considerable feudal chieftain, on the plain some four miles from the mountain range and six miles this side of the spaceport.
“We ride there,” said Hoddan. “Liberty is said to be sweet, but the man who said that didn’t have blisters from a saddle. Let’s go.”
They rode away. There would be no immediate pursuit, and possibly none at all. Don Loris had left Hoddan at breakfast on the battlements. The Lady Fani would make as much confusion over his disappearance as she could. But there’d be no search for him until Don Loris had made his deal.Hoddan was sure that Fani’s father would have an enjoyable morning. He would relish the bargaining session. He’d explain in great detail how valuable had been Hoddan’s service to him, in rescuing Fani from an abductor who would have been an intolerable son-in-law. He’d grow almost tearful as he described his affection for Hoddan–how he loved his daughter–as he observed grievedly that they were asking him to betray the man who had saved for him the solace of his old age. He would mention also that the price they offered was an affront to his paternal affection and his dignity as prince of this, baron of that, lord of the other thing and claimant to the dukedom of something-or-other. Either they’d come up or the deal was off!
But meanwhile Hoddan and Thal rode industriously toward the place from which those emissaries had come.
All was tranquil. All was calm. Once they saw a dust cloud, and Thal turned aside to a providential wooded copse, in which they remained while a cavalcade went by. Thal explained that it was a feudal chieftain on his way to the spaceport town. It was simple discretion for them not to be observed, said Thal, because they had great reputations as fighting men. Whoever defeated them would become prominent at once. So somebody might try to pick a quarrel under one of the finer points of etiquette when it would be disgrace to use anything but standard Darthian implements for massacre. Hoddan admitted that he did not feel quarrelsome.
They rode on after a time, and in late afternoon the towers and battlements of the castle they sought appeared. The ground here was only gently rolling. They approached it with caution, following the reverse slope of hills, and dry stream-beds, and at last penetrating horse-high brush to the point where they could see it clearly.If Hoddan had been a student of early terrestrial history, he might have remarked upon the re-emergence of ancient architectural forms to match the revival of primitive social systems. As it was, he noted in this feudal castle the use of bastions for flanking fire upon attackers, he recognized the value of battlements for the protection of defenders while allowing them to shoot, and the tricky positioning of sally ports. He even grasped the reason for the massive, stark, unornamented keep. But his eyes did not stay on the castle for long. He saw the spaceboat in which Derec and his more authoritative companion had arrived.
It lay on the ground a half mile from the castle walls. It was a clumsy, obese, flattened shape some forty feet long and nearly fifteen wide. The ground about it was scorched where it had descended upon its rocket flames. There were several horses tethered near it, and men who were plainly retainers of the nearby castle reposed in its shade.
Hoddan reined in.
“Here we part,” he told Thal. “When we first met I enabled you to pick the pockets of a good many of your fellow-countrymen. I never asked for my split of the take. I expect you to remember me with affection.”
Thal clasped both of Hoddan’s hands in his.
“If you ever return,” he said with mournful warmth, “I am your friend!”