So I repeated: "I will bet shegri with you."
And Kyral stood unmoving.
For what the shegrin wagers is his courage and endurance in the face of torture and an unknown fate. On his side, the stakes are clearly determined beforehand. But if he loses, his punishment or penalty is at the whim of the one who has accepted him, and he may be put to whatever doom the winner determines.
And this is the contest: The shegrin permits himself to be tortured from sunrise to sunset. If he endures he wins. It is as simple as that. He can stop the torture at any moment by a word, but to do so is a concession of defeat.
This is not as dangerous as it might, at first, seem. The other party to the bet is bound by the ironclad codes of Wolf to inflict no permanent physical damage (no injury that will not heal with three suncourses). But from sunrise to sunset, any torment or painful ingenuity which the half-human mentality of Wolf can devise must be endured.
The man who can outthink the torture of the moment, the man who can hold in his mind the single thought of his goal--that man can claim the stakes he has set, as well as other concessions made traditional.
The silence grew in the hall. Dallisa had straightened and was watching me intently, her lips parted and the tip of a little red tongue visible between her teeth. The only sound was the tiny crunching as the fat woman nibbled at nuts and cast their shells into the brazier. Even the child on the steps had abandoned her game with the crystal dice, and sat looking up at me with her mouth open. Finally Kyral demanded, "Your stakes?"
"Tell me all you know of Rakhal Sensar and keep silence about me in Shainsa."
"By the red shadow," Kyral burst out, "you have courage, Rascar!"
"Say only yes or no!" I retorted.
Rebuked, he fell silent. Dallisa leaned forward and again, for some unknown reason, I thought of a girl with hair like spun black glass.
Kyral raised his hand. "I say no. I have blood-feud with Rakhal and I will not sell his death to another. Further, I believe you are Terran and I will not deal with you. And finally, you have twice saved my life and I would find small pleasure in torturing you. I say no. Drink again with me and we part without a quarrel."
Beaten, I turned to go.
"Wait," said Dallisa.
She stood up and came down from the dais, slowly this time, walking with dignity to the rhythm of her musically clashing chains. "I have a quarrel with this man."
I started to say that I did not quarrel with women, and stopped myself. The Terran concept of chivalry has no equivalent on Wolf.
She looked at me with her dark poison-berry eyes, icy and level and amused, and said, "I will bet shegri with you, unless you fear me, Rascar."
And I knew suddenly that if I lost, I might better have trusted myself to Kyral and his whip, or to the wild beast-things of the mountains.
I slept little that night.
There is a tale told in Daillon of a shegri where the challenger was left in a room alone, where he was blindfolded and told to await the beginning of the torment.
Somewhere in those dark hours of waiting, between the unknown and the unexpected, the hours of telling over to himself the horrors of past shegri, the torture of anticipation alone became the unbearable. A little past noon he collapsed in screams of horror and died raving, unmarred, untouched.
Daybreak came slowly, and with the first streamers of light came Dallisa and the white chak, maliciously uninvolved, sniffing his way through the shabby poverty of the great hall. They took me to a lower dungeon where the slant of the sunlight was less visible. Dallisa said, "The sun has risen."
I said nothing. Any word may be interpreted as a confession of defeat. I resolved to give them no excuse. But my skin crawled and I had that peculiar prickling sensation where the hair on my forearms was bristling erect with tension and fear.
Dallisa said to the chak, "His gear was not searched. See that he has swallowed no anesthetic drugs."
Briefly I gave her credit for thoroughness, even while I wondered in a split second why I had not thought of this. Drugs could blur consciousness, at least, or suspend reality. The white nonhuman sprang forward and pinioned my arms with one strong, spring-steel forearm. With his other hand he forced my jaws open. I felt the furred fingers at the back of my throat, gagged, struggled briefly and doubled up in uncontrollable retching.
Dallisa's poison-berry-eyes regarded me levelly as I struggled upright, fighting off the dizzy sickness of disgust. Something about her impassive face stopped me cold. I had been, momentarily, raging with fury and humiliation. Now I realized that this had been a calculated, careful gesture to make me lose my temper and thus sap my resistance.
If she could set me to fighting, if she could make me spend my strength in rage, my own imagination would fight on her side to make me lose control before the end. Swimming in the glare of her eyes, I realized she had never thought for a moment that I had taken any drug. Acting on Kyral's hint that I was a Terran, she was taking advantage of the well-known Terran revulsion for the nonhuman.
"Blindfold him," Dallisa commanded, then instantly countermanded that: "No, strip him first."
The chak ripped off shirtcloak, shirt, shoes, breeches, and I had my first triumph when the wealed clawmarks on my shoulders--worse, if possible, than those which disfigured my face--were laid bare. The chak screwed up his muzzle in fastidious horror, and Dallisa looked shaken. I could almost read her thoughts: If he endured this, what hope have I to make him cry mercy?
Briefly I remembered the months I lay feverish and half dead, waiting for the wounds Rakhal had inflicted to heal, those months when I had believed that nothing would ever hurt me again, that I had known the worst of all suffering. But I had been younger then.
Dallisa had picked up two small sharp knives. She weighed them, briefly, gesturing to the chak. Without resisting, I let myself be manhandled backward, spreadeagled against the wall.
Dallisa commanded, "Drive the knives through his palms to the wall!"
My hands twitched convulsively, anticipating the slash of steel, and my throat closed in spasmodic dread. This was breaking the compact, bound as they were not to inflict physical damage. I opened my lips to protest this breaking of the bond of honor and met her dark blazing stare, and suddenly the sweat broke out on my forehead. I had placed myself wholly in their hands, and as Kyral had said, they were in no way bound by honor to respect a pledge to a Terran!
Then, as my hands clenched into fists, I forced myself to relax. This was a bluff, a mental trick to needle me into breaking the pact and pleading for mercy. I set my lips, spread my palms wide against the wall and waited impassively.
She said in her lilting voice, "Take care not to sever the tendons, or his hands would be paralyzed and he may claim we have broken our compact."
The points of the steel, razor-sharp, touched my palms, and I felt blood run down my hand before the pain. With an effort that turned my face white, I did not pull away from the point. The knives drove deeper.
Dallisa gestured to the chak. The knives dropped. Two pinpricks, a quarter of an inch deep, stung in my palm. I had outbluffed her. Had I?
If I had expected her to betray disappointment--and I had--I was disappointed. Abruptly, as if the game had wearied her already, she gestured, and I could not hold back a gasp as my arms were hauled up over my head, twisted violently around one another and trussed with thin cords that bit deep into the flesh. Then the rough upward pull almost jerked my shoulders from their sockets and I heard the giant chak grunt with effort as I was hauled upward until my feet barely, on tiptoe, touched the floor.
"Blindfold him," said Dallisa languidly, "so that he cannot watch the ascent of the sun or its descent or know what is to come."
A dark softness muffled my eyes. After a little I heard her steps retreating. My arms, wrenched overhead and numbed with the bite of the cords, were beginning to hurt badly now. But it wasn't too bad. Surely she did not mean that this should be all....
Sternly I controlled my imagination, taking a tight rein on my thoughts. There was only one way to meet this--hanging blind and racked in space, my toes barely scrabbling at the floor--and that was to take each thing as it came and not look ahead for an instant. First of all I tried to get my feet under me, and discovered that by arching upwards to my fullest height I could bear my weight on tiptoe and ease, a little, the dislocating ache in my armpits by slackening the overhead rope.
But after a little, a cramping pain began to flare through the arches of my feet, and it became impossible to support my weight on tiptoe. I jarred down with violent strain on my wrists and wrenched shoulders again, and for a moment the shooting agony was so intense that I nearly screamed. I thought I heard a soft breath near me.
After a little it subsided to a sharp ache, then to a dull ache, and then to the violent cramping pain again, and once more I struggled to get my toes under me. I realized that by allowing my toes barely to touch the floor they had doubled and tripled the pain by the tantalizing hope of, if not momentary relief, at least the alteration of one pain for another.
I haven't the faintest idea, even now, how long I repeated that agonizing cycle: struggle for a toehold on rough stone, scraping my bare feet raw; arch upward with all my strength to release for a few moments the strain on my wrenched shoulders; the momentary illusion of relief as I found my balance and the pressure lightened on my wrists.
Then the slow creeping, first of an ache, then of a pain, then of a violent agony in the arches of feet and calves. And, delayed to the last endurable moment, that final terrible anguish when the drop of my full weight pulled shoulder and wrist and elbow joints with that bone-shattering jerk.
I started once to estimate how much time had passed, how many hours had crawled by, then checked myself, for that was imminent madness. But once the process had begun my brain would not abandon and I found myself, with compulsive precision, counting off the seconds and the minutes in each cycle: stretch upward, release the pressure on the arms; the beginning of pain in calves and arches and toes; the creeping of pain up ribs and loins and shoulders; the sudden jarring drop on the arms again.
My throat was intolerably dry. Under other circumstances I might have estimated the time by the growth of hunger and thirst, but the rough treatment I had received made this impossible. There were other, unmentionable, humiliating pains.
After a time, to bolster my flagging courage, I found myself thinking of all the ways it might have been worse. I had heard of a shegrin exposed to the bite of poisonous--not fatal, but painfully poisonous--insects, and to the worrying of the small gnawing rodents which can be trained to bite and tear. Or I might have been branded....
I banished the memory with the powerful exorcism; the man in Daillon whose anticipation, alone, of a torture which never came, had broken his mind. There was only one way to conquer this, and that was to act as if the present moment was the only one, and never for a moment to forget that the strongest of compacts bound them not to harm me, that the end of this was fixed by sunset.
Gradually, however, all such rational thoughts blurred in a semidelirium of thirst and pain, narrowing to a red blaze of agony across my shoulder blades. I eased up on my toes again.
White-hot pain blazed through my feet. The rough stone on which my toes sank had been covered with metal and I smelled scorching flesh, jerking up my feet with a wordless snarl of rage and fury, hanging in agony by my shoulders alone.
And then I lost consciousness, at least for several moments, for when I became aware again, through the nightmare of pain, my toes were resting lightly and securely on cold stone. The smell of burned flesh remained, and the painful stinging in my toes. Mingled with that smell was a drift of perfume close by.
Dallisa murmured, "I do not wish to break our bargain by damaging your feet. It's only a little touch of fire to keep you from too much security in resting them."
I felt the taste of blood mingle in my mouth with the sour taste of vomit. I felt delirious, lightheaded. After another eternity I wondered if I had really heard Dallisa's lilting croon or whether it was a nightmare born of feverish pain: Plead with me. A word, only a word and I will release you, strong man, scarred man. Perhaps I shall demand only a little space in your arms. Would not such doom be light upon you? Perhaps I shall set you free to seek Rakhal if only to plague Kyral. A word, only a word from you. A word, only a word from you....
It died into an endlessly echoing whisper. Swaying, blinded, I wondered why I endured. I drew a dry tongue over lips, salty and bloody, and nightmarishly considered yielding, winning my way somehow around Dallisa. Or knocking her suddenly senseless and escaping--I, who need not be bound by Wolf's codes either. I fumbled with a stiff shape of words.
And a breath saved me, a soft, released breath of anticipation. It was another trick. I swayed, limp and racked. I was not Race Cargill now. I was a dead man hanging in chains, swinging, filthy vultures pecking at my dangling feet. I was....
The sound of boots rang on the stone and Kyral's voice, low and bitter, demanded somewhere behind me, "What have you done with him?"
She did not answer, but I heard her chains clash lightly and imagined her gesture. Kyral muttered, "Women have no genius at any torture except...." His voice faded out into great distances. Their words came to me over a sort of windy ringing, like the howling of lost men, dying in the snowfast passes of the mountains.
"Speak up, you fool, he can't hear you now."
"If you have let him faint, you are clumsy!"
"You talk of clumsiness!" Dallisa's voice, even thinned by the nightmare ringing in my head, held concentrated scorn. "Perhaps I shall release him, to find Rakhal when you failed! The Terrans have a price on Rakhal's head, too. And at least this man will not confuse himself with his prey!"
"If you think I would let you bargain with a Terranan--"
Dallisa cried passionately, "You trade with the Terrans! How would you stop me, then?"
"I trade with them because I must. But for a matter involving the honor of the Great House--"
"The Great House whose steps you would never have climbed, except for Rakhal!" Dallisa sounded as if she were chewing her words in little pieces and spitting them at Kyral. "Oh, you were clever to take us both as your consorts! You did not know it was Rakhal's doing, did you? Hate the Terrans, then!" She spat an obscenity at him. "Enjoy your hate, wallow in hating, and in the end all Shainsa will fall prey to the Toymaker, like Miellyn."
"If you speak that name again," said Kyral very low, "I will kill you."
"Like Miellyn, Miellyn, Miellyn," Dallisa repeated deliberately. "You fool, Rakhal knew nothing of Miellyn!"
"He was seen--"
"With me, you fool! With me! You cannot yet tell twin from twin? Rakhal came to me to ask news of her!"
Kyral cried out hoarsely, like a man in anguish, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You don't really have to ask, do you, Kyral?"
"You bitch!" said Kyral. "You filthy bitch!" I heard the sound of a blow. The next moment Kyral ripped the blindfold from my eyes and I blinked in the blaze of light. My arms were wholly numb now, twisted above my head, but the jar of his touch sent fresh pain racing through me. Kyral's face swam out of the blaze of hell. "If that is true, then this is a damnable farce, Dallisa. You have lost our chance of learning what he knows of Miellyn."
"What he knows?" Dallisa lowered her hand from her face, where a bruise was already darkening.
"Miellyn has twice appeared when I was with him. Loose him, Dallisa, and bargain with him. What we know of Rakhal for what he knows of Miellyn."
"If you think I would let you bargain with Terranan," she mocked. "Weakling, this quarrel is mine! You fool, the others in the caravan will give me news, if you will not! Where is Cuinn?"
From a million miles away Kyral laughed. "You've slipped the wrong hawk, Dallisa. The catmen killed him." His skean flicked loose. He climbed to a perch near the rope at my wrists. "Bargain with me, Rascar!"
I coughed, unable to speak, and Kyral insisted, "Will you bargain? End this damned woman's farce which makes a mock of shegri?"
The slant of sun told me there was light left. I found a shred of voice, not knowing what I was going to say until I had said it, irrevocably. "This is between Dallisa and me."
Kyral glared at me in mounting rage. With four strides he was out of the room, flinging back a harsh, furious "I hope you kill each other!" and the door slammed.
Dallisa's face swam red, and again as before, I knew the battle which was joined between us would be fought to a dreadful end. She touched my chest lightly, but the touch jolted excruciating pain through my shoulders.
"Did you kill Cuinn?"
I wondered, wearily, what this presaged.
"Did you?" In a passion, she cried, "Answer! Did you kill him?" She struck me hard, and where the touch had been pain, the blow was a blaze of white agony. I fainted.
"Answer!" She struck me again and the white blaze jolted me back to consciousness. "Answer me! Answer!" Each cry bought a blow until I gasped finally, "He signaled ... set catmen on us...."
"No!" She stood staring at me and her white face was a death mask in which the eyes lived. She screamed wildly and the huge chak came running.
"Cut him down! Cut him down! Cut him down!"
A knife slashed the rope and I slumped, falling in a bone-breaking huddle to the floor. My arms were still twisted over my head. The chak cut the ropes apart, pulled my arms roughly back into place, and I gagged with the pain as the blood began flowing painfully through the chafed and swollen hands.
And then I lost consciousness. More or less permanently, this time.
When I came to again I was lying with my head in Dallisa's lap, and the reddish color of sunset was in the room. Her thighs were soft under my head, and for an instant I wondered if, in delirium, I had conceded to her. I muttered, "Sun ... not down...."
She bent her face to mine, whispering, "Hush. Hush."
It was heaven, and I drifted off again. After a moment I felt a cup against my lips.