"Yes, sir. I looked it over. Planet was checked out by Exploration. They found a couple of civilizations in stasis and another that was about to go that way. Left alone, the natives'd have reverted to a primitive hunter stage--if they didn't go clear back to the caves. And when they did come up again, they'd have been savage terrors."
"Right. So a corps of native operatives was set up by Philosophical, to upset the stasis and hold a core of knowledge till the barbaric period following the collapse of one of the old empires was over. One civilization on one continent was chosen, because it was felt that its impact on the rest of the planet would be adequate to insure progress, and that any more extensive operation would tend to mold the planetary culture."
Konar nodded. "The old, standard procedure. It usually worked better than this, though. What happened this time?"
"The Merokian Confederation happened."
"But their penetration was nowhere near here."
"No, it wasn't. But they did attack Sector Nine. And they did destroy the headquarters. You remember that?"
"Yes, sir. I read about it in school. We lost a lot of people on that one." Konar frowned. "Long before my time in the Corps, of course, but I studied up on it. They used some sort of screen that scrambled the detectors, didn't they?"
"Something like that. Might have been coupled with someone's inattention, too. But that's unimportant now. The important thing is that the sector records were destroyed during the attack."
"Sure. But how about the permanent files that were forwarded to Aldebaran depository?"
Meinora smiled grimly. "Something else that couldn't happen. We're still looking for traces of that courier ship. I suppose they ran afoul of a Merokian task force, but there's nothing to go on. They just disappeared." He picked up the mental communicator, examining the signs of aging.
"One by one," he continued, "the case files and property records of Sector Nine are being reconstructed. Every guardsman even remotely associated with the Sector before the attack is being interviewed, and a lot of them are working on the reconstruction. It's been a long job, but we're nearly done now. This is one of the last planets to be located and rechecked, and it's been over a period since the last visit they've had from any of our teams. On this planet, that's some fifty-odd generations. Evidently the original operatives didn't demolish their equipment, and fifty some generations of descendants have messed things up pretty thoroughly."
Konar looked at the bench. Besides the equipment he had just brought in, there were other items, all in varying stages of disrepair and ruin.
"Yes, sir," he agreed. "If this is a sample, and if the social conditions I've seen since I joined the team are typical, they have. Now what?"
"We've been picking up equipment. Piece by piece, we've been accounting for every one of those items issued. Some of 'em were lost. Some of 'em probably wore out and were discarded, or were burned--like this, only more so." Meinora pointed at the wrecked communicator.
"Local legends tell us about violent explosions, so we know a few actually discharged. And we've tracked down the place where the flier cracked up and bit out a hole the size of a barony. Those items are gone without trace." He sighed.
"That introduces an uncertainty factor, of course, but the equipment in the hands of natives, and the stuff just lying around in deserted areas has to be tracked down. This planet will develop a technology some day, and we don't want anything about to raise questions and doubts when it does. The folklore running around now is bad enough. When we get the equipment back, we've got to clean up the social mess left by the descendants of those original operatives."
"Very nice. We'll be busy for a long time." Meinora picked up a small tape reel. "Just got this," he explained. "That's why I was waiting for you here. It's an account of a mentacom and shield that got away. Probably stolen about twenty years ago, planetary. We're assigned to track it down and pick it up."
He turned to speak to a technician, who was working at another bench.
"You can have this stuff now. Bring in some more pretty soon."
Flor, the beater, was bone weary. The shadows were lengthening, hiding the details in the thickets, and all the hot day, he had been thrusting his way through thicket after thicket, in obedience to the instructions of the foresters. He had struck trees with his short club and had grunted and squealed, to startle the khada into flight. A few of the ugly beasts had come out, charging into the open, to be run down and speared by the nobles.
And Flor had tired of this hunt, as he had tired of many other hunts in the past. Hunting the savage khada, he thought resentfully, might be an amusing sport for the nobles. But to a serf, it was hard, lung-bursting work at best. At worst, it meant agonizing death beneath trampling hoofs and rending teeth.
To be sure, there would be meat at the hunting lodge tonight, in plenty, and after the hunt dinner, he and the other serfs might take bits of the flesh home to their families. But that would be after the chores in the scullery were over. It would be many hours before Flor would be able to stumble homeward.
He relaxed, to enjoy the short respite he had gained by evading the forester. Sitting with his back to a small tree, he closed his eyes and folded his thick arms over his head. Of course, he would soon be found, and he would have to go back to the hunt. But this forester was a dull, soft fellow. He could be made to believe Flor's excuse that he had become lost for a time, and had been searching the woods for the other beaters.
The underbrush rustled and Flor heard the sound of disturbed leaves and heavy footfalls. A hunting charger was approaching, bearing one of the hunters. Quickly, Flor rose to his feet, sidling farther back into the thicket. Possibly, he might remain unseen. He peered out through the leaves.
The mounted man was old and evidently tired from the long day's hunt. He swayed a little in his saddle, then recovered and looked about him, fumbling at his side for his horn. His mount raised its head and beat a forefoot against the ground. The heavy foot made a deep, thumping noise and leaves rustled and rose in a small cloud.
Flor sighed and started forward reluctantly. It was the Earl, himself. It might be possible to hide from another, but Flor knew better than to try to conceal his presence from the old nobleman. The Earl could detect any person in his vicinity, merely by their thoughts, as Flor well knew from past experience. He also knew how severe the punishment would be if he failed to present himself immediately. He pushed a branch aside with a loud rustle.
Startled by the noise, a husa, which had been hiding beneath a nearby bush, raced into the open. The small animal dashed madly toward the Earl, slid wildly almost under the charger's feet, and put on a fresh burst of speed, to disappear into the underbrush. The huge beast flinched away, then reared wildly, dashing his rider's head against a tree limb.
The elderly man slipped in his saddle, reached shakily for his belt, missed, and lost his seat, to crash heavily to the ground.
Flor rushed from his thicket. With the shock of the fall, the Earl's coronet had become dislodged from his head and lay a short distance from the inert form. Flor picked it up, turning it in his hands and looking at it.
Curiously, he examined the golden circlet, noting the tiny bosses inset in the band. Many times, he had watched from a dark corner at the hunting lodge, neglecting his scullery duties, while the Earl showed the powers of this coronet to his elder son. Sometimes, he had been caught by the very powers the circlet gave to the old nobleman, and he winced as he remembered the strong arm of the kitchen master, and the skill with which he wielded a strap. But on other occasions, the Earl had been so engrossed in explaining the device as to neglect the presence of the eavesdropper.
He had told of the ability given him to read the thoughts of others, and even to strongly influence their actions. And Flor had gone back to his labors, to dream of what he would do if he, rather than the Earl, were the possessor of the powerful talisman.
And now, he had it in his hands.
A daring idea occurred to him, and he looked around furtively. He was alone with the Earl. The old man was breathing stertorously, his mouth wide open. His face was darkening, and the heavy jowls were becoming purple. Obviously, he was capable of little violence.
In sudden decision, Flor knelt beside the body. His hand, holding the short club above the Earl's throat, trembled uncontrollably. He wanted to act--had to act now--but his fear made him nauseated and weak. For a moment, his head seemed to expand and to lighten as he realized the enormity of his intent. This was one of the great nobles of the land, not some mere animal.
The heavily lidded eyes beneath him fluttered, started to open.
With a sob of effort, Flor dashed his club downward, as though striking a husa. The Earl shivered convulsively, choked raspingly, and was suddenly limp and still. The labored breathing stopped and his eyes opened reluctantly, to fix Flor with a blank stare.
The serf leaped back, then hovered over the body, club poised to strike again. But the old man was really dead. Flor shook his head. Men, he thought in sudden contempt, died easily. It was not so with the husa, or the khada, who struggled madly for life, often attacking their killer and wounding him during their last efforts.
Flor consigned this bit of philosophy to his memory for future use and set to work removing the heavy belt worn by the Earl. This, he knew, was another potent talisman, which could guard its wearer from physical harm when its bosses were pushed.
The murderer smiled sardonically. It was well for him that the old nobleman had failed to press those bosses, otherwise this opportunity probably would never have been presented. He stood up, holding the belt in his hand. Such a thing as this, he told himself, could make him a great man.
He examined the belt, noting the long metal case, with its engraving and its bosses. At last, he grunted and fastened it about his own waist. He pressed the bosses, then threw himself against a tree.
Something slowed his fall, and he seemed to be falling on a soft mat. He caught his balance and rested against the tree, nodding in satisfaction. Later, he could experiment further, but now he had other things to do.
He examined the coronet again, remembering that there was something about its bosses, too. He looked closely at them, then pressed. One boss slid a little under his finger and he felt a faint, unfamiliar sense of awareness.
He put the coronet on his head and shuddered a little as the awareness increased to an almost painful intensity. The forest was somehow more clear to him than it had ever been. He seemed to understand many things which he had heard or experienced, but which had been vague before. And memory crowded upon him. He stood still, looking around.
At the edge of his mind was vague, uneasy wonder, obviously not his own thought. There was a dim caricature of himself standing over the body of the Earl. And there was a feeling of the need to do something without understanding of what was to be done, or why.
He could remember clearly now, the Earl's explanations of the action of the coronet. One incident stood out--a time when the old man, having overindulged in the local wine, had demonstrated his ability to divine the thoughts of others. Flor twitched a little in painful recollection. The kitchen master had been especially enthusiastic in his use of the strap that night.
The Earl's mount was eying Flor, who realized without knowing just how, that the vague images and rudimentary thoughts were a reflection of the beast's mind. He looked over at the thicket into which the little animal which had started the charger, was hiding. It was still there, and he could feel a sense of fearful wonder, a desire to be gone, coupled with a fear of being discovered.
Again, he looked about the woods. In a way, the husa and he were akin. It would be bad if he were caught here, too. To be sure, he would be hard to capture, with his new protection, but many men would hunt him. And some of them would be other Earls, or possibly some of the great abbots, who had their own coronets and belts, and possibly other things of great power. These, he knew, might be too much for him. He slunk into the thicket, looked down the hill, and decided on a course which would avoid the paths of the foresters.
As he walked, he plotted methods of using his new-found powers. He considered idea after idea--then discarded them and sought further. With his new awareness, he could see flaws in plans which would have seemed perfect to him only a few short hours before.
First, he realized he would have to learn to control his new powers. He would have to learn the ways of the nobility, their manners and their customs. And he would have to find a disguise which would allow him to move about the land. Serfs were too likely to be questioned by the first passer-by who noticed them. Serfs belonged on the land--part of it!
He hid in the bushes at the side of a path as a group of free swordsmen went by. As he watched them, a plan came to him. He examined it carefully, finally deciding it would do.
The man-at-arms sauntered through the forest, swaying a little as he walked. He sang in a gravelly voice, pausing now and then to remember a new verse.
Flor watched him as he approached, allowing the man's thoughts to enter his own consciousness. They were none too complicated. The man was a free swordsman, his sword unemployed at the moment. He still had sufficient money to enjoy the forest houses for a time, then he would seek service with the Earl of Konewar, who was rumored to be planning a campaign.
The man swayed closer, finally noticing Flor. He paused in mid stride, eying the escaped serf up and down.
"Now, here's something strange indeed," he mused. He looked closely at Flor's face.
"Tell me, my fellow, tell me this: How is it you wear the belt and coronet of a great noble, and yet have no other garment than the shift of a serf?"
As Flor looked at him insolently, he drew his sword.
"Come," he demanded impatiently, "I must have answer, else I take you to a provost. Possibly his way of finding your secret would be to your liking, eh?"
Flor drew a deep breath and waited. Here was the final test of his new device. He had experimented, finding that even the charge of a khada was harmless to him. Now, he would find if a sword could be rendered harmless. At the approach of the man, he had pressed the boss on his belt. The man seemed suddenly a little uncertain, so Flor spoke.
"Why, who are you," he demanded haughtily, "to question the doings of your betters? Away with you, before I spit you with your own sword."
The man shook his head, smiling sarcastically. "Hah!" he said, approaching Flor. "I know that accent. It stinks of the scullery. Tell me, Serf, where did you steal that----"
He broke off, climaxing his question with an abrupt swing of the sword. Then, he fell back in surprise. Flor had thrust a hand out to ward off the blow, and the sword had been thrown back violently. The rebound tore it from its amazed owner's hand, and it thudded to the ground. The man-at-arms looked at it stupidly.
Flor sprang aside, scooping up the weapon before the man could recover.
"Now," he cried, "stand quite still. I shall have business with you."
The expression on the man's face told of something more than mere surprise which held him quiet. Here was proof of the powers of the coronet. Flor looked savagely at his captive.
"Take off your cap."
Reluctantly, the man's hand came up. He removed his steel cap, holding it in his hand as he faced his captor.
"That is fine." Flor pressed his advantage. "Now, your garments. Off with them!"
The swordsman was nearly his size. Both of them had the heavy build of their mountain stock, and the garments of the free swordsman would do for Flor's purpose, even though they might not fit him perfectly. Who expected one of these roving soldiers of fortune to be dressed in the height of style? They were fighters, not models to show off the tailor's art.
Flor watched as his prisoner started to disrobe, then pulled off his own single garment, carefully guiding it through the belt at his waist, so as not to disturb the talisman's powers.
He threw the long shirt at the man before him.
"Here," he ordered. "Put this on."
He sensed a feeling of deep resentment--of hopeless rebellion. He repeated his demand, more emphatically.
"Put it on, I say!"
As the man stood before him, dressed in the rough shift of a serf, Flor smiled grimly.
"And now," he said, "none will worry too much about a mere serf, or look too closely into his fate. Here."
He slashed out with the sword, awkwardly, but effectively.
"I shall have to find a new name," he told himself as he dressed in the garments of his victim. "No free swordsman would have a name like Flor. They all have two names."
He thought of the names he had heard used by the guards of the Earl. Flor, he thought, could be part of a name. But one of the swordsmen would make it Floran, or possibly Florel. They would be hunters, or slayers of elk--not simply elk. He looked at the steel cap in his hands. An iron hat--deri kuna.
"So," he told himself, "I shall be Florel Derikuna."
He inspected his new garments, being sure they hid the belt, and yet left the bosses available to easy reach. At last, he put on the iron cap. It covered the coronet, effectively hiding it.
Taking up the sword, he replaced it in its scabbard and swaggered through the forest, imitating the man-at-arms' song.
At one stroke, he had improved his status infinitely. Now, he could roam the land unquestioned, so long as he had money. He smiled to himself. There was money in his scrip, and there would be but slight problems involved in getting more. Tonight, he would sleep in a forest house, instead of huddling in a thicket.
As the days passed, to grow into weeks and then, months, Florel wandered over the land. Sometimes, he took service with a captain, who would engage in a campaign. Sometimes, he took service with one of the lesser nobility. A few times, he ran with the bands of the forest and road, to rob travelers. But he was cautious to avoid the great Earls, realizing the danger of detection.
Always, he kept his direction to the east, knowing that he would have to reach the sea and cross to the eastern land before he could feel completely safe. His store of money and of goods grew, and he hoarded it against the time when he would use it.
Sometimes, he posed as a merchant, traveling the land with the caravans. But always, he followed his path eastward.
Florel Derikuna looked back at the line of pack animals. It had been a long trip, and a hard one. He smiled grimly to himself as he remembered the last robber attack. For a time, he had thought the caravan guard was going to be overwhelmed. He might have had to join with the robbers, as he had done before. And that would have delayed his plans. He looked ahead again, toward the hill, crowned with its great, stone castle.
This, then, was the land of the east--the farthest march of the land of the east. It had taken him a long, cautious time to get here. And he had spent his days in fear of a searching party from Budorn, even when he had reached the seacoast itself. But here, he would be safe. None from this land had ever been even to the mountainous backbone of his own land, he was sure. And certainly, there would be no travelers who had guided their steps from here to faraway Budorn and back.
None here knew Budorn, excepting him. Flor, the serf--now Florel Derikuna, swordsman at large--was in a new land. And he would take a new, more useful identity. He looked at the stone buildings of the town and its castle.
They were not unlike the castles and towns of his native land, he thought. There were differences, of course, but only in the small things. And he had gotten used to those by now. He had even managed to learn the peculiar language of the country. He smiled again. That coronet he always wore beneath his steel cap had served him well. It had more powers than he had dreamed of when he had first held it in his hands in those distant woods.
Here in Dweros, he thought, he could complete his change. Here, he could take service with the Duke as a young man of noble blood, once afflicted with a restless urge for travel, but now ready to establish himself. By now, he had learned to act. It had not been for nothing that he had carefully studied the ways of the nobility.
The caravan clattered through the gate beneath the castle, twisted through the streets just beyond the wall, and stopped in the market place. Derikuna urged his mount ahead and confronted the merchant.
"Here is my destination," he said. "So, we'll settle up, and I'll be on my way."
The merchant looked at him with a certain amount of relief. The man, he knew, was a tough fighter. His efforts had been largely the cause of the failure of bandits to capture the caravan only a few days before. But there was something about him that repelled. He was a man to be feared, not liked. Somehow, the merchant felt he was well rid of this guard, despite his demonstrated ability. He reached into his clothing and produced two bags.
"We hate to lose you, Derikuna," he dissembled. "Here is your normal wage." He held out one bag. "And this second purse is a present, in memory of your gallant defense of the caravan."