Read a Sample
His foot had started to blister where the sole of his boot was wearing thin. The strap on his bag chafed his shoulder, and the sun on this benighted planet seemed destined to bake away whatever remained of his mind.
Coll Larren sighed, then shifted the heavy bag to his other shoulder. The muscles of his left leg were beginning to ache where the twisted scar of an old wound sliced across them. Strange he’d never noticed such discomfort when he was in his twenties. Passing his thirty-sixth birthday had evidently sapped the toughness he’d once prided himself on.
Life could do that to a man. He just hadn’t expected it would do it to him.
A faint, hot breeze brushed against his skin and stirred the tall grasses lining the side of the dusty road. Nothing else moved in the vast sweep of grasslands and rugged hills that stretched to the pale blue line of mountains on the horizon. He’d been told that Far Star was a young world. There were no birds and few insects. Their lack made the land strangely empty and silent.
Coll had expected to find transport before now, but not even a broken-down farm flitter had come by in the past three hours. The preserved meat and coarse bread he’d had for breakfast had become a fond memory. His mouth was dry, but he carried nothing except water in the small canteen in his bag, and water wasn’t what he wanted right now.
Not for the first time since the freighter, Bendrake, had unceremoniously dumped him at the grubby space port two days before, Coll wondered how he could have made the mistake of challenging the first officer. He’d known when he’d signed up back on Artes III that the ship would be a less than desirable berth. No well-run vessel took a crewman like him, a man without proper spacer’s documentation. A man without a past, so far as anyone else was concerned.
Coll squinted at the sun. Almost mid-day. On a world like this, where a day was slightly longer than standard, that meant cooler hours were still a long way off.
And so, it seemed, was any transportation. Not even a hint of dust indicated the movement of vehicles along the roadway. Since this unpretentious strip of ground served as one of the main roads between the space port and the world’s capital, Trevag, the lack of traffic didn’t bode well for his chances of catching a ride any time soon.
Far Star was a colony world, but he hadn’t thought it would be quite this rough and unsettled. Since he’d failed to find work at the port, which served as the main traffic and supply point for the entire planet, his chances of finding work elsewhere on this backwards lump of rock and grass were beginning to look pretty grim.
He could keep going. He could turn back to the port. Or he could take the trail he could see leading off to the left, toward the sea that gleamed blue in the distance. Settlers might have chosen to build their homes near the water rather than the road.
Coll grimaced. None of the alternatives held much appeal.
A drop of sweat ran off his forehead into his right eye, making him blink. With an angry swipe of his forearm across his brow, he brushed away the irritating beads of moisture.
After all these years, he should have learned there weren’t many real choices in life. It only looked that way.
Damn shame he hadn’t learned that lesson years ago.
With an irritated shrug, Coll shifted the bag higher on his shoulder where the strap wouldn’t chafe quite so badly, then turned to start down the hill toward the trail he’d spotted. As he turned, his toe caught on a rock half-buried in the dust of the road and he stumbled, then cursed.
He just wished his canteen held something other than water.
Dayra Smith swore as the slick, round rocks of the beach shifted under her feet, grating in protest at her weight. Her mother would never have approved even so mild a word, but her mother had been dead for almost five years. A lot of things had changed in that time, including her language.
She tossed back the loose strands of her hair that the wind blew into her face, then shifted the heavy bag of fish and the water-logged net slung over her shoulder, trying to find a better balance as she carefully picked her way over the rocks. The muscles of her arms, shoulders, and back ached from repeatedly throwing the net out and dragging it back filled with fish. She didn’t want to think about the effort that would be required to climb back up seventy feet of steeply tilted cliff face on a rope ladder. Unfortunately, there was no other way out of the inlet except by swimming. After an hour of fishing in the icy waters of Far Star’s vast, inland sea, she was more than cold and wet enough for that alternative to have no appeal, even if she could have hauled along the fish and her net.
The ladder hung where Dayra had left it, but instead of dangling above dry rock, the end now trailed in the dark, frothy water of an incoming wave, bobbing maniacally.
Surprised, Dayra glanced around to find the stony beach behind her rapidly disappearing under a rising tide. Either the tide was coming in faster than normal, or she’d spent more time fishing than she’d intended. She hadn’t realized how little dry ground remained between the sea and the dark cliffs that ringed the small inlet.
That’s what she got for concentrating on her problems and not the work at hand. She’d been so busy worrying about Talman Bardath and his latest demands that she hadn’t paid attention to the passage of time.
Irritated with herself, Dayra glanced at the sun, trying to judge the time. A little past noon. She’d be up the cliff before the rising sea could catch her, but she’d have to hurry if she was going to get back to the holding by the time she’d promised. If she was even a little bit late, Jeanella would start worrying and Dayra already had enough problems without adding her younger sister’s reproaches to them. At least six-year-old Jason wouldn’t heap any complaints on top of Jeanella’s. He’d be so engrossed in whatever new deviltry he was up to, he probably wouldn’t even remember she’d left.
Heedless of the calf-deep water, Dayra gratefully dumped her heavy load and grabbed the ladder. The rope flapped loosely in her hands. Startled, she stumbled backwards, craning her head to look up the length of the ladder.
“Greetings, Dayra Smith,” shouted a tall, thin man at the top of the cliff. He waved the loose end of the rope ladder—the end that should have been securely anchored on hooks sunk in the rock—in one hand. “Talman Bardath thought you might like to discuss a little matter of the debt you owe him.”
For a minute, Dayra stopped breathing. She knew the man—not by name, but by sight and reputation. He was an outcast on Far Star and a perfect tool for Bardath: vicious, unscrupulous, and not averse to the cruder forms of physical persuasion, if the price was right.
“I stopped by the holding,” the man added, continuing to yell so she could hear him over the rush of the incoming waves. “It didn’t look like anyone was home so I followed the trail your flitter left.” He paused, waiting for the significance of his words to sink in. “It’s very convenient, finding you like this.”
Dayra didn’t miss the threat behind his words. Her hand tightened around the now useless ladder. Thank the stars Jason and Jeanella had obeyed her instructions and kept the gate to the holding locked and themselves out of sight. The muscles of her shoulders and chest tensed at the thought of her younger sister and brother alone in the holding, but she ignored both the tension and the fear behind it, fighting instead to control her breathing and force her stunned mind to work. Too late now to regret having let her hired man, Black Johnny McGregor, accept the offer of a few hours work on the neighboring holding.
The man at the top of the cliff shook the ladder again, sending tremors through the heavy rope as a not-so-subtle reminder of his power.
“What? Nothing to say, Dayra Smith?”
Even from this distance, Dayra could hear the gloating smirk in his voice. Her throat tight with tension, she shouted, “I can’t give Bardath what I don’t have.”
“According to Bardath, you managed to take what you didn’t have.”
“He owed us.”
“Yeah? He doesn’t see it that way.” Bardath’s hired thug squatted on his heels, the end of the ladder negligently clasped in his hand.
He looks like an evil dwarf, Dayra thought wildly, staring up the cliff at his foreshortened form.
The man slapped the end of the ladder in his palm. He was clearly enjoying himself. “Bardath wants the boy. Now. That’s not negotiable. He suggested you could turn over the girl as partial payment on the debt. She’s young, but she’d bring a good price on any of a half-dozen worlds I can think of.”
His head tilted to one side speculatively. “Then again, Bardath just might settle for having her himself.”
Even from this distance, Dayra could have sworn the man grinned.
He rose to his feet, nodding in satisfaction. “That’s a good idea. I’ll take the girl and the boy. They shouldn’t be hard to find. Not around here.”
Fear, not for herself but for Jeanella and Jason, churned inside Dayra, threatening to paralyze her. She shook her fist in impotent fury at the malignant creature above her. “Don’t you dare touch them! Don’t you dare!”
The man laughed. “Doesn’t look like you’re in any position to argue, Dayra Smith. Come to think of it, if you’re dead, Bardath won’t be in any position to argue, either.”
He laughed again, clearly pleased with himself. “Have a nice swim, Dayra Smith—while you can. I’ll come back later to collect your flitter.” He casually saluted her and started to turn away, then stopped as if a sudden thought had just struck him. “I guess I don’t really have much use for this, after all,” he said, and tossed the end of the ladder over the edge.
With a rattle of rope against stone, the heavy ladder came slithering down the rock face on top of her. The rope slammed against her face and shoulders with excruciating force. Dayra cried out in pain, staggered, and fell to her knees in the icy waters. The rocks gouged her knees and legs; the sea plucked at her sodden shift with insistent fingers, threatening to drag her under.