Read Dreamsongs. Volume II Page 2

  Tuf drained his mug in silence, then signaled for two more. The barkeep brought them promptly.

  “Thank you, thank you,” Norn said, when the mug was set golden and foaming in front of him.


  “Yes. Well, the Twelve Great Houses of Lyronica compete in the gaming pits, you know. It began—oh, centuries ago. Before that, the Houses warred. This way is much better. Family honor is upheld, fortunes are made, and no one is injured. You see, each House controls great tracts, scattered widely over the planet, and since the land is very thinly settled, animal life teems. The lords of the Great Houses, many years ago during a time of peace, started to have animal-fights. It was a pleasant diversion, rooted deep in history—you are aware, maybe, of the ancient custom of cock-fighting and the Old Earth folk called Romans who would set all manner of strange beasts against each other in their great arena?”

  Norn paused and drank some ale, waiting for an answer, but Tuf merely stroked a quietly alert Dax and said nothing.

  “No matter,” the thin Lyronican finally said, wiping foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. “That was the beginning of the sport, you see. Each House had its own particular land, its own particular animals. The House of Varcour, for example, sprawls in the hot, swampy south, and they are fond of sending huge lizard-lions to the gaming pits. Feridian, a mountainous realm, has bred and championed its fortunes with a species of rock-ape which we call, naturally, feridians. My own house, Norn, stands on the grassy plains of the large northern continent. We have sent a hundred different beasts into combat in the pits, but we are most famed for our ironfangs.”

  “Ironfangs,” Tuf said.

  Norn gave a sly smile. “Yes,” he said proudly. “As Senior Beast-Master, I have trained thousands. Oh, but they are lovely animals! Tall as you are, with fur of the most marvelous blue-black color, fierce and relentless.”


  “But such canines,” Norn said.

  “Yet you require from me a monster.”

  Norn drank more of his ale. “In truth, in truth. Folks from a dozen near worlds voyage to Lyronica, to watch the beasts fight in the gaming pits and gamble on the outcome. Particularly they flock to the Bronze Arena that has stood for six hundred years in the City of All Houses. That’s where the greatest fights are fought. The wealth of our Houses and our world has come to depend on this. Without it, rich Lyronica would be as poor as the farmers of Tamber.”

  “Yes,” said Tuf.

  “But you understand, this wealth, it goes to the Houses according to their honor, according to their victories. The House of Arneth has grown greatest and most powerful because of the many deadly beasts in their varied lands; the others rank according to their scores in the Bronze Arena. The income from each match—all the monies paid by those who watch and bet—goes to the victor.”

  Haviland Tuf scratched Dax behind the ear again. “The House of Norn ranks last and least among the Twelve Great Houses of Lyronica,” he said, and the twinge that Dax relayed to him told him he was correct.

  “You know,” Norn said.

  “Sir. It was obvious. But is it ethical to buy an offworld monster, under the rules of your Bronze Arena?”

  “There are precedents. Some seventy-odd standard years ago, a gambler came from Old Earth itself, with a creature called a timber wolf that he had trained. The House of Colin backed him, in a fit of madness. His poor beast was matched against a Norn ironfang, and proved far from equal to its task. There are other cases as well.

  “In recent years, unfortunately, our ironfangs have not bred well. The wild species has all but died out on the plains, and the few who remain become swift and elusive, difficult for our housemen to capture. In the breeding kennels, the strain seems to have softened, despite my efforts and those of the Beast-Masters before me. Norn has won few victories of late, and I will not remain Senior for long unless something is done. We grow poor. When I heard that a seedship had come to Tamber, then, I determined to seek you out. I will begin a new era of glory for Norn, with your help.”

  Haviland Tuf sat very still. “I comprehend. Yet I am not in the habit of selling monsters. The Ark is an ancient seedship, designed by the Earth Imperials thousands of years ago, to decimate the Hrangans through ecowar. I can unleash a thousand diseases, and in the cell-banks I have cloning material for beasts from more worlds than you can count. You misunderstand the nature of ecowar, however. The deadliest enemies are not large predators, but tiny insects that lay waste to a world’s crops, or hoppers that breed and breed and crowd out all other life.”

  Herold Norn looked crestfallen. “You have nothing, then?”

  Tuf stroked Dax. “Little. A million types of insects, a hundred thousand kinds of small birds, full as many fish. But monsters, monsters—only a few—a thousand perhaps. They were used from time to time, for psychological reasons as often as not.”

  “A thousand monsters!” Norn was excited again. “That is more than enough selection! Surely, among that thousand, we can find a beast for Norn!”

  “Perhaps,” Tuf said. “Do you think so, Dax?” he said to his cat. “Do you? So!” He looked at Norn again. “This matter does interest me, Herold Norn. And my work here is done, as I have given the Tamberkin a bird that will check their rootworm plague, and the bird does well. So Dax and I will take The Ark to Lyronica, and see your gaming pits, and we will decide what is to be done with them.”

  Norn smiled. “Excellent,” he said. “Then I will buy this round of ale.” And Dax told Haviland Tuf in silence that the thin man was flush with the feel of victory.

  THE BRONZE ARENA STOOD SQUARE IN THE CENTER OF THE CITY OF All Houses, at the point where sectors dominated by the Twelve Great Houses met like slices in a vast pie. Each section of the rambling stone city was walled off, each flew a flag with its distinctive colors, each had its own ambience and style; but all met in the Bronze Arena.

  The Arena was not bronze after all, but mostly black stone and polished wood. It bulked upwards, taller than all but a few of the city’s scattered towers and minarets, and topped by a shining bronze dome that gleamed with the orange rays of the sunset. Gargoyles peered from the various narrow windows, carved of stone and hammered from bronze and wrought iron. The great doors in the black stone walls were fashioned of metal as well, and there were twelve of them, each facing a different sector of the City of All Houses. The colors and the etching on each gateway were distinctive to its House.

  Lyronica’s sun was a fist of red flame smearing the western horizon when Herold Norn led Haviland Tuf to the games. The housemen had just fired gas torches, metal obelisks that stood like dark teeth in a ring about the Bronze Arena, and the hulking ancient building was surrounded by flickering pillars of blue-and-orange flame. In a crowd of gamblers and gamesters, Tuf followed Herold Norn from the half-deserted streets of the Nornic slums down a path of crushed rock, passing between twelve bronze ironfangs who snarled and spit in timeless poses on either side of the street, and then through the wide Norn Gate whose doors were intricate ebony and brass. The uniformed guards, clad in the same black leather and grey fur as Herold Norn himself, recognized the Beast-Master and admitted them; others stopped to pay with coins of gold and iron.

  The Arena was the greatest gaming pit of all; it was a pit, the sandy combat-floor sunk deep below ground level, with stone walls four meters high surrounding it. Then the seats began, just atop the walls, circling and circling in ascending tiers until they reached the doors. Enough seating for thirty thousand, although those towards the back had a poor view at best, and other seats were blocked off by iron pillars. Betting stalls were scattered throughout the building, windows in the outer walls.

  Herold Norn took Tuf to the best seats in the Arena, in the front of the Norn section, with only a stone parapet separating them from the four-meter drop to the combat sands. The seats here were not rickety wood-and-iron, like those in the rear, but thrones of leather, huge enough to accommodate even
Tuf’s vast bulk without difficulty, and opulently comfortable. “Every seat is bound in the skin of a beast that has died nobly below,” Herold Norn told Tuf, as they seated themselves. Beneath them, a work crew of men in one-piece blue coveralls was dragging the carcass of some gaunt feathered animal towards one of the entryways. “A fighting-bird of the House of Wrai Hill,” Norn explained. “The Wrai Beast-Master sent it up against a Varcour lizard-lion. Not the most felicitous choice.”

  Haviland Tuf said nothing. He sat stiff and erect, dressed in a grey vinyl greatcoat that fell to his ankles, with flaring shoulder-boards and a visored green-and-brown cap emblazoned with the golden theta of the Ecological Engineers. His large, rough hands interlocked atop his bulging stomach while Herold Norn kept up a steady stream of conversation.

  Then the Arena announcer spoke, and the thunder of his magnified voice boomed all around them. “Fifth match,” he said. “From the House of Norn, a male ironfang, aged two years, weight 2.6 quintals, trained by Junior Beast-Master Kers Norn. New to the Bronze Arena.” Immediately below them, metal grated harshly on metal, and a nightmare creature came bounding into the pit. The ironfang was a shaggy giant, with sunken red eyes and a double row of curving teeth that dripped slaver; a wolf grown all out of proportion and crossed with a saber-toothed tiger, its legs as thick as young trees, its speed and killing grace only partially disguised by the blue-black fur that hid the play of muscles. The ironfang snarled and the Arena echoed to the noise; scattered cheering began all around them.

  Herold Norn smiled. “Kers is a cousin, and one of our most promising juniors. He tells me this beast will do us proud. Yes, yes. I like its looks, don’t you?”

  “Being new to Lyronica and your Bronze Arena, I have no standard of comparison,” Tuf said in a flat voice.

  The announcer began again. “From the House of Arneth-in-the-Gilded-Wood, a strangling-ape, aged six years, weight 3.1 quintals, trained by Senior Beast-Master Danel Leigh Arneth. Three times a veteran of the Bronze Arena, three times surviving.”

  Across the combat pit, another of the entryways—the one wrought in gold and crimson—slid open, and the second beast lumbered out on two squat legs and looked around. The strangling-ape was short but immensely broad, with a triangular torso and a bullet-shaped head, eyes sunk deep under a heavy ridge of bone. Its arms, double-jointed and muscular, dragged in the Arena sand. From head to toe the beast was hairless, but for patches of dark red fur under its arms its skin was a dirty white. And it smelled. Across the Arena, Haviland Tuf still caught the musky odor.

  “It sweats,” Norn explained. “Danel Leigh has driven it to killing frenzy before sending it forth. His beast has the edge in experience, you understand, and the strangling-ape is a savage creature as well. Unlike its cousin, the mountain feridian, it is naturally a carnivore and needs little training. But Kers’ ironfang is younger. The match should be of interest.” The Norn Beast-Master leaned forward while Tuf sat calm and still.

  The ape turned, growling deep in its throat, and already the ironfang was streaking towards it, snarling, a blue-black blur that scattered Arena sand as it ran. The strangling-ape waited for it, spreading its huge gangling arms, and Tuf had a blurred impression of the great Norn killer leaving the ground in one tremendous bound. Then the two animals were locked together, rolling over and over in a tangle of ferocity, and the Arena became a symphony of screams. “The throat,” Norn was shouting. “Tear out its throat! Tear out its throat!”

  Then, as sudden as they had met, the two beasts parted. The ironfang spun away and began to move in slow circles, and Tuf saw that one of its forelegs was bent and broken, so that it limped on the three remaining. Yet still it circled. The strangling-ape gave it no opening, but turned constantly to face it as it prowled. Long gashes drooled blood on the ape’s wide chest, where the ironfang’s sabers had slashed, but the beast of Arneth seemed little weakened. Herold Norn had begun to mutter softly at Tuf’s side.

  Impatient with the lull, the watchers in the Bronze Arena began a rhythmic chant, a low wordless noise that swelled louder and louder as new voices heard and joined. Tuf saw at once that the sound affected the animals below. Now they began to snarl and hiss, calling battle cries in savage voices, and the strangling-ape moved from one leg to the other, back and forth, in a macabre dance, while slaver ran in dripping rivers from the gaping jaws of the ironfang. The chant grew and grew—Herold Norn joined in, his thin body swaying slightly as he moaned—and Tuf recognized the bloody killing-chant for what it was. The beasts below went into a frenzy. Suddenly the ironfang was charging again, and the ape’s long arms reached to meet it in its wild lunge. The impact of the leap threw the strangler backwards, but Tuf saw that the ironfang’s teeth had closed on air while the ape wrapped its hands around the blue-black throat. The ironfang thrashed wildly, but briefly, as they rolled in the sand. Then came a sharp, horribly loud snap, and the wolf-creature was nothing but a rag of fur, its head lolling grotesquely to one side.

  The watchers ceased their moaning chant, and began to applaud and whistle. Afterwards, the gold and crimson door slid open once again and the strangling-ape returned to where it had come. Four men in Norn House black and grey came out to carry off the corpse.

  Herold Norn was sullen. “Another loss. I will speak to Kers. His beast did not find the throat.”

  Haviland Tuf stood up. “I have seen your Bronze Arena.”

  “Are you going?” Norn asked anxiously. “Surely not so soon! There are five more matches. In the next, a giant feridian fights a water-scorpion from Amar Island!”

  “I need see no more. It is feeding time for Dax, so I must return to The Ark.”

  Norn scrambled to his feet, and put an anxious hand to Tuf’s shoulder to restrain him. “Will you sell us a monster, then?”

  Tuf shook off the Beast-Master’s grip. “Sir. I do not like to be touched. Restrain yourself.” When Norn’s hand had fallen, Tuf looked down into his eyes. “I must consult my records, my computers. The Ark is in orbit. Shuttle up the day after next. A problem exists, and I shall address myself to its correction.” Then, without further word, Haviland Tuf turned and walked from the Bronze Arena, back to the spaceport of the City of All Houses, where his shuttlecraft sat waiting.

  HEROLD NORN HAD OBVIOUSLY NOT BEEN PREPARED FOR THE ARK. After his black-and-grey shuttle had docked and Tuf had cycled him through, the Beast-Master made no effort to disguise his reaction. “I should have known,” he kept repeating. “The size of this ship, the size. But of course I should have known.”

  Haviland Tuf stood unmoved, cradling Dax in one arm and stroking the cat slowly. “Old Earth built larger ships than modern worlds,” he said impassively. “The Ark, as a seedship, had to be large. It once had two hundred crewmen. Now it has one.”

  “You are the only crewman?” Norn said.

  Dax suddenly warned Tuf to be alert. The Beast-Master had begun to think hostile thoughts. “Yes,” Tuf said. “The only crewman. But there is Dax, of course. And defenses programmed in, lest control be wrested from me.”

  Norn’s plans suddenly withered, according to Dax. “I see,” he said. Then, eagerly, “Well, what have you come up with?”

  “Come,” said Tuf, turning.

  He led Norn out of the reception floor down a small corridor that led into a larger. There they boarded a three-wheeled vehicle and drove through a long tunnel lined by glass vats of all sizes and shapes, filled with gently bubbling liquid. One bank of vats was divided into units as small as a man’s fingernail; on the other extreme, there was a single unit large enough to contain the interior of the Bronze Arena. It was empty, but in some of the medium-sized tanks, dark shapes hung in translucent bags, and stirred fitfully. Tuf, with Dax curled in his lap, stared straight ahead as he drove, while Norn looked wonderingly from side to side.

  They departed the tunnel at last, and entered a small room that was all computer consoles. Four large chairs sat in the four corners of the square chamber, with control p
anels on their arms; a circular plate of blue metal was built into the floor amidst them. Haviland Tuf dropped Dax into one of the chairs before seating himself in a second. Norn looked around, then took the chair diagonally opposite Tuf.

  “I must inform you of several things,” Tuf began.

  “Yesyes,” said Norn.

  “Monsters are expensive,” Tuf said. “I will require one hundred thousand standards.”

  “What! That’s an outrage! We would need a hundred victories in the Bronze Arena to amass that sum. I told you, Norn is a poor House.”

  “So. Perhaps then a richer House would meet the required price. The Ecological Engineering Corps has been defunct for centuries, sir. No ship of theirs remains in working order, save The Ark alone. Their science is largely forgotten. Techniques of cloning and genetic engineering such as they practiced exist now only on Prometheus and Old Earth itself, where such secrets are closely guarded. And the Prometheans no longer have the stasis field, thus their clones grow to natural maturity.” Tuf looked across to where Dax sat in a chair before the gently winking lights of the computer consoles. “And yet, Dax, Herold Norn feels my price to be excessive.”

  “Fifty thousand standards,” Norn said. “We can barely meet that price.”

  Haviland Tuf said nothing.

  “Eighty thousand standards, then! I can go no higher. The House of Norn will be bankrupt! They will tear down our bronze ironfangs, and seal the Norn Gate!”

  Haviland Tuf said nothing.

  “Curse you! A hundred thousand, yesyes. But only if your monster meets our requirements.”

  “You will pay the full sum on delivery.”


  Tuf was silent again.

  “Oh, very well.”

  “As to the monster itself, I have studied your requirements closely, and have consulted my computers. Here upon The Ark, in my frozen cell-banks, thousands upon thousands of predators exist, including many now extinct on their original homeworlds. Yet few, I would think, would satisfy the demands of the Bronze Arena. And of those that might, many are unsuitable for other reasons. For example, I have considered the selection to be limited to beasts that might with luck be bred on the lands of the House of Norn. A creature who could not replicate himself would be a poor investment. No matter how invincible he might be, in time the animal would age and die, and Norn victories would be at an end.”