Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Sky People - S. M. Stirling

"Deera of the Cloud Mountain People ran as she had through the short hours of darkness, without hope and without much fear. The mild warm air of the midlands made the sweat on her face and flanks feel almost cool as it dried, and the tall grass beat against her thighs as her long legs scissored endlessly. The morning sun was still low, casting the seven runners' shadows before them and turning the clouds to the color of raw gold; they had trotted through the short bright summer night and would run on into the long span of daylight, until the great yellow globe of Sauweli sank in the east... if they lived that long, which was unlikely.

She would run until she could run no more; then the Wergu would catch them, and they would fight, and they would die. If they were fortunate, they would die quickly; her warriors had orders to make sure of that for her. There had been some slight chance that they would reach the foothills before the beastmen came up with them, being longer-limbed, but their foes had gained too quickly for that to seem likely. The Cloud Mountain party had been tired from a long journey when the ambush struck, and those who broke away had not had time to snatch up more than their weapons, nor had they been able to build enough of a lead to hide their trail. Now hunger gnawed at them as well as weariness, and they had had no time to do anything but scoop up water in their hands as they forded pool or creek. The Wergu were fresh, with gourds of water at their belts and dried meat in their pouches to eat as they pursued.

Then her mate Jaran broke the deep rhythm of his breath, sniffing deeply.

"What is it, my love?" Deera said. "What do you scent?"

Before he could answer, she smelled it herself, and spoke: "Fire!"

The land before the dozen-strong war party was gently rolling, covered in long green grass starred with flowers crimson and white, with copses of trees along the occasional small streams. They passed small herds of tharg and churr, but luckily nothing bigger, and most animals-of-fur avoided men. Not longtooths or greatwolves or crescent-horns, but there weren't any of those in sight either. Then they saw the thread of smoke rising skyward, and saw animals and flyers heading away. Men and beastmen used fire... or it might be wild-fire from a lightning strike, deadly in grassland country if it spread.

"We go there," Deera said, pointing; the sunlight broke off the bright bronze of her spearhead.

She alone of their party carried metal weapons, the spear and the knife at her belt; their trading mission to the coastal cities hadn't reached its goal before the Wergu found them.

"That is where the streak-of-light pointed," her mate said doubtfully. "A bad omen."

"It is a new thing. If we go on with no new thing, the beastmen will crack our bones for marrow before the sun sets. If it is not a new thing we can use, we cannot be killed any more surely.""

4 out of 5

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