Back | Next


DARD NORDIS PAUSED beneath the low-hanging branches of a pine, sheltered for the moment from the worst of the catting wind. The western sky was striped with color, dusky purple, gold, red almost as sultry as if this were August instead of late November. But for all their splendor the colors were as bleakly chill as the wind whipping his too-thin body through the sleazy rags of clothing.

He shrugged his shoulders, trying to settle more evenly the bundle of firewood which bowed him into an old man. There came a tug at the hide thong serving him as a belt.

"Dard—there's an animal watching—over there—"

He stiffened. To Dessie, with her odd kinship for all furred creatures, every animal was a friend. She might now be speaking of a squirrel or—a wolf. He looked down to the smaller, ragged figure beside him and moistened suddenly dry lips.

"Is it a big one?" he asked.

Hands, which wrappings of sackcloth made into shapeless paws, projected to measure off slightly more than a foot of air.

"So big. I think it's a fox—it must be cold. Could we—could we take it home?" Those eyes, which seemed to fill about a quarter of the grimy little face turned up to his, were wistful as well as filled with a too-old patience.

He shook his head. "Foxes have thick fur skins—they're warmer than we are, honey. He probably has a home and is going there now. Think you can pull the wood all the way down to the path?"

Her mouth twisted in an indignant pout "'Course. I'm not a baby any more. It's awfully cold, though, isn't it, Dardie? Wish it were summer again."

She gave a quick jerk on a piece of hide and brought into grudging motion the flat piece of battered wood winch served as a sled. It was piled high with branches and a few pieces of shredded bark. Not much of a haul today, even combining Dessie's bits and patches with his own load. But since their axe had vanished it was the best they could do.

He followed the little girl down the slope, retracing the tracks they had made two hours before. There was a frown drawing deep lines between his black brows. That axe—it hadn't just been mislaid—it had been stolen. By whom? By someone who knew just what its loss would mean, who wanted to cripple them. And that would be Hew Folley. But Hew had not been near the farm tor weeks—or had he—secretly?

If he could only get Lars to see that Folley was a danger. Folley was a landsman which made him a fanatic servant of Pax. The once independent farmers had always believed in peace—true peace, not the iron stagnation imposed by Pax—and they had early been won over as firm followers of Renzi. When their sturdy independence had been entirety swallowed up by the strangle controls of those who had assumed command after the death of the Prophet, some had rebelled—too late. Landsmen were now as proud of their lack of education as they were retentive of the few favors allowed them. And it was from their ranks the hated Peacemen were recruited.

Folley was a fervid follower of Pax and for a long time he had wanted to add the few poor Nordis acres to his own holding. If he ever came to suspect their descent—that they were of Free Scientist blood! If he ever guessed what Lars was doing even now!

"Dardie, why must we run?"

Dard caught his breath in a hall sob and slowed. That prick of frantic panic which had sent him plunging down to the main trail still goaded him. It was always this way when he was away from the farm even for an hour or two. Each time he feared to return to . . . Resolutely he closed his mind to the picture his imagination was only too ready to supply him. He forced his lips into a set half-smile for Dessie's sake.

"Going to be dark early tonight, Dessie. See those big clouds?"

"Snow, Dardie?"

"Probably. We'll be glad to have this wood."

"I hope that the fox gets home to his den before the snow comes. He will, won't he?"

"Of course he will. We'd better, too. Let's try to run, Dessie—here along the trail—"

She regarded doubtfully the almost shapeless blobs of wrappings which concealed her feet "My feet don't run very well, Dardie. Too many coverings on them, maybe. And they're cold now—"

Not frostbite—not frostbite! he prayed. They had been lucky so far. Of course they were always cold, and very often, hungry. But they had had no accidents, nor serious illnesses.

"Run!" he commanded sharply, and Dessie's short-legged shuffle became a trot.

But, when they reached the screen of second-growth brush at the end of the north field, she halted in obedience to old orders. Dard shrugged off the bundle of firewood and dropped to his hands and knees, crawling forward under cover until he could look down across the broken field-stone wall to the house.

Carefully he examined the sweep of snow about the half-ruined dwelling. There were the tracks he and Dessie had made about the yard. But the smooth expanse of white between house and main road was unbroken. There had been no invaders since they had left. Thankfully, though without any lessening of his habitual apprehension, he went back to gather up the wood.

"All right?" Dessie shifted impatiently from one cold foot to the other.

"All right."

She jerked the sled into motion and plodded on along the wall where the snow had not drifted. There was a fatal gleam of light in one of the windows below. Lars must be in the kitchen. Minutes later they stamped off snow and went in.

Lars Nordis raised his head as his daughter and then his brother entered. His smile of welcome was hardly more than a stretch of parchment skin over thrusting bones and Dard's secret fear deepened as he studied Lars anxiously. They were always hungry, but tonight Lars had the appearance of a man in the last stages of starvation.

"Good haul?" he asked Dard as the boy began to shed his first layer of the sacking which served him as a coat.

"Good as we could do without the axe. Dessie got a lot of pine cones."

Lars swung around to his daughter who had squatted down before the small fire on the hearth where she began to methodically unwind the strips of burlap which were her mittens.

"Now that was lucky! Did you see anything interesting, Dessie?" He spoke to her as he might have addressed an adult.

"Just a fox," she reported gravely. "It was watching us—from under a tree. It looked cold—but Dardie said it had a home—"

"So it did, honey," Lars assured her, "A little cave or a hollow tree."

"I wish I could have brought it home. It would be nice to have a fox or a squirrel—or something—to live with us." She stretched her small, grime-encrusted, chapped hands out to the fire.

"Maybe someday . . ." Lars' voice trailed off. He stared across Dessie's head at the scanty flames.

Dard hung up the cobbled mass of tatters which was his outdoor coat and went to the cupboard. He lifted down an unwholesome block of salted meat as his brother spoke again.

"How are supplies?"

Dard tensed. There was more to that question than was merely routine. He surveyed the pitiful array on the shelves jealously.

"How much?" he asked, unable to keep out of his voice the almost despairing resentment he felt.

"Maybe enough for two days—if you can put up such a packet."

Swiftly Dard's eyes measured and portioned. "If it is really necessary—" he couldn't stop that half-protest. This systematic robbing of their own, too scanty hoard—for what? If Lars would only explain! But he knew Lars' answer to that, too: The less one knew, the better, these days. Even in a family that could be so. All right, he'd make up that packet of food and leave it here on the table and in the morning it would be gone—given to someone he didn't know and would never see. And within a week, or maybe a month it would happen again. . . .

"Tonight?" He asked only that as he sawed away at the wood-like meat.

"I don't know."

And at the tone of his brother's answer Dard dropped the dull knife to turn and watch Lars' face. There was a new light in the man's eyes, a brightness about him that his younger brother had never seen since Dessie's mother had died two years before.

"You've finished," Dard said slowly, hardly daring to believe what might be true, that they might be free!

"I've finished. They'll pass the word and then we'll be sent for."

"Honey," Dard called to Dessie, "bring in the pine cones. We'll have a big fire tonight."

As she scampered toward the shed Dard spoke over her head.

"There's a heavy snow on the way, Lars."

"So?" the man at the table did not appear worried. "Well, snow's never stopped them from coming before." He was relaxed, at peace.

Dard was silent but his eyes flickered beyond Lars' shoulder to the objects leaning against the wall. They were never mentioned, those crutches. But in deep snow! Lars never went outside in winter, he couldn't! How could they get away unless the mysterious others had a horse or horses. But perhaps they did. That was always his greatest fault—worrying over the future—borrowing trouble ahead, as if they didn't have enough already to go around!

Dessie was back: to feed the fire slowly one come at a time. Dard scraped the meat slivers into the iron pot and added a shriveled potato carefully diced. Then he grew reckless and wrenched off the lid of a can to pour its treasured contents to thicken the water. If they were going away they'd need feeding up to make the trip and there would be little sense in hoarding supplies they could not carry with them.

"Birthday?" Dessie watched this move in wide-eyed surprise. "But my birthday's in the summer, and Daddy's was last month, and yours," she counted on her fingers, "is not for a long time yet, Dardie."

"Not a birthday. Just a celebration. Get the spoon, Dessie, and stir this carefully."

"Celebration," she considered the new word thoughtfully. "I like celebrations. You going to make tea, too, Dardie? Why, this is just like a birthday!"

Dard shook the dried leaves out on the palm of his hand. Their aromatic fragrance reached him faintly. Mint, green and cool under the sun. He sensed that he was different from Lars—colors, scents, certain sounds meant more to him. Just as Dessie was different in her way—in her ability to make friends with birds and animals. He had seen her last summer, sitting perfectly still on the wall, two birds on her shoulders and a squirrel nuzzling her hand.

But Lars had gifts, too. Only he had been taught to use them. Dard shook the last crumbling leaf from his hand into the pot and wondered for the thousandth time what it would have been like to live in the old days when the Free Scientists had the right to teach and learn and experiment. It probably had been another kind of world altogether—the one which existed before the Big Burning, before Renzi had preached the Great Peace.

All he could remember of his early childhood in those days was a vague happiness. The purge had come when he was eight and Lars twenty-five, and after that things simply got worse and worse. Of course, they'd been lucky to survive the purge at all—belonging to a Scientific family. But their escape had left Lars a twisted cripple. He and Lars and Kathia had come here. But Kathia was different—she forgot everything, mercifully. And after Dessie had been born five months later it had been like caring for two babies at once. Kathia had been sweet and obedient and lovely, but she lived in her own dream world and neither of them had ever tried to bring her out of it. Seven, almost eight years now, they had been here. But in all that time Dard had never quite dared to believe they were safe. He lived always on the ragged edge of fear. Maybe Kathia had been the luckiest one of all.

He took over the stirring of the stew and Dessie set the table, putting out the three wooden spoons, the battered crockery bowl, the tin basin and the single clapped soup dish, the two tin cups and the graceful fluted china one, which had been Dessie's last birthday gift after he had found it hidden on a rafter out in the barn.

"Smells grand, Dard. You're a good cook, son." Lars offered praise.

Dessie bobbed her head in agreement until her two pencil-thick braids flopped up and down on shoulders where the blades, as she moved, took on the angular outlines of wings. "I like celebrations!" She announced. "Tonight may we play the word game?"

"We certainly shall!" Lars returned with emphatic promptness.

Dard did not pause in his stirring though he was alert to every inflection in Lars' voice. Did he read a special significance into that last answer? Why did Lars want to play the word game? And why did he himself feel this aroused wariness—as if they were secure in a den while out in the dark danger prowled!

"I have a new one," Dessie went on, "It sings—"

She put her hands down on the table on either side of her soup plate and tapped her little broken nails in time to the words she received:

"Eesee, Osee, Icksee, Ann,

Fullson, Follson, Orson, Cann."

Dard made an effort and pushed the rhythm out of his mind—no time now to "see" the pattern in that. Why did he always "see" words mentally arranged in the up and down patterns of lines? That was as much a part of him as, his delight in color, texture, sight and sound. And for the past three years Lars had encouraged him to work upon it, setting him problems of stray lines of old poetry.

"Yes, that sings, Dessie," Lars was agreeing now. "I heard you humming it this morning. And there is a reason why Dard must make us a pattern—" he broke off abruptly and Dard did not try to question him.

They ate silently, ladling the hot stuff into them, lifting the dishes to drink the last drops. But they lingered over the spicy mint drink, feeling its warmth sink into their starved, chilled bodies. The light given out by the fire was meager; only now and again did it reach Lars' face, and shadows were thick in the corners of the room. Dard made no move to light the greased fagot supported by the iron loop above the table. He was too tired and listless. But Dessie rounded the table and leaned against Lars' crooked shoulder.

"You promised—the word game," she reminded him.

"Yes—the game—"

With a sigh Dard stooped to pick up a charred stick from the hearth. But he was sure now about the suppressed excitement in his brother's voice. With the blackened wood for a pencil and the table top for his writing pad he waited.

"Suppose we try your verse now, Dessie," Lars suggested. "Repeat it slowly so Dard can work out the pattern."

Dard's stick moved in a series of lines up, down, up again. It made a pattern right enough and a clear one. Dessie came to look and then she laughed.

"Legs kicking, Daddy. My rhyme make a picture of legs kicking!"

Dard studied what he had just done. Dessie was right, legs kicked, one a little more exuberantly than the other. He smiled and then glanced up with a start, for Lars had struggled to his feet and was edging around the table without the aid of his crutches. He looked at the straggling lines, his brows drawn together in a frown of concentration. From the breast pocket of his patched shirt he look out a scrap of peeled bark they used for paper—keeping it half-concealed in the palm of his hand so that what was noted on it remained a secret. Taking the writing stick from Dard he began to make notations, but the scratchings were all numbers not words.

Erasing with the side of his hand now and again he worked feverishly until at last he gave a quick nod as if in self-reassurance, and let his last combinations stand among the line pattern Dard had seen in Dessie's nonsense rhyme.

"This is important—both of you—" his voice was almost a whip lash of impatient command. "The pattern you see for Dessie's lines, Dard—but—these words." Slowly he recited, accenting heavily each word he spoke.

"Seven, nine, four and ten.

Twenty, sixty, and seven again."

Dard studied the smudged diagram on the table top until he was sure that it was engraved on his memory for all time.

When he nodded, Lars turned and tossed the note chip into the fire. Then his eyes met his brother's in a straight measuring look over the little girl's bent head.

"It's all yours, Dard, just remember—"

But the younger Nordis had only said, "I'll do it," when Dessie, uncomprehendingly, broke in.

"Seven, nine, four and ten," she repeated solemnly. "Twenty, sixty, and seven again. Why, it sings just as mine does—you're right, Daddy!"

"Yes. Now how about bed." Lars lurched back to hits chair. "It's dark. You'd better go, too, Dard."

That was an order. Lars was expecting someone tonight, then. Dard raked two bricks away from the fire and wrapped them up in charred pieces of blanket. Then he opened the door to the crooked stairs which led to the room overhead. There it was dark and the cold was bitter. But moonlight made a short path from the uncurtained window—enough to show them the pile of straw and ragged bed covers huddled close to the chimney where some heat came up from the fire below. Dard made a nest with the bricks laid in to warm it and pushed Dessie back as far as he could without smothering her. Then he stood for a moment looking out across the moonlit snow.

They were a safe mile from the road and he had taken certain precautions of his own to insure that no sneaking patrol of Peacemen could enter the lane without warning. Across the fields was only Folley's place—though that was a lurking danger. Behind loomed the mountains, which, wild as they were, promised safety of a kind. If only Lars were not crippled they could have gone into the hills long ago.

When they first reached the farm it had seemed a haven of safety after two years of hiding and being hunted. There was so much confusion after Renzi's assassination and the following purge, with the Peacemen busily consolidating their power, that small fry among the remaining techneers and scientists had managed to stay free of the first nets. But now patrols were combing everywhere and some day, sooner or later, one would come here—especially if Folley revealed his suspicions to the right people. Folley wanted the farm, and be hated Lars and Dard because they were different. To be different nowadays was to sign your own death warrant. How much longer would they escape the notice of a roundup gang?

Dard was aroused from the blackest of forebodings to discover that he was biting savagely on the knuckles of a balled fist. With two quick steps he crossed the small zoom and felt along the shelf. His heart leaped as his groping fingers closed about the haft of a knife. Not much good against a stun rifle maybe. But when he held it so, he did not feel completely defenseless.

On impulse he put it inside his clothing, against skin which shrunk from the icy metal. And then he crawled into the nest of straw.

"Hmm—?" came a sleepy murmur from Dessie.

"It's Dardie," he whispered reassuringly. "Go to sleep."

It might have been hours later, or minutes, when Dard came suddenly awake. He lay rigid, listening. There was no sound in the old house, not even the creak of a board. But he pulled out into the cold and crawled to the window. Something had awakened him, and the fear he lived with put him on guard.

He strained to see all the details of the bright white and black landscape. A shadow moved between moon and snow. There was a 'copter coming down, making a silent landing just before the house. Figures leaped out of it and flitted to right and left, encircling the dwelling.

Dard ran back to scoop Dessie out of the warmth of the bed, clapping his hand over her mouth. Her eyes opened, wide with fear, as he put his lips close to her ear.

"Go down to Daddy," he ordered. "Wake him!"

"Peacemen?" She was shaking with more than cold as she started down the stairs.

"Say that I think so. They came in a 'copter." That was the one thing he had not been able to guard against—surprise from above. But they had so few of the 'copters left, now that it was forbidden to manufacture any of the prepurge machines. And why should they use one to raid an insignificant farmhouse sheltering a child, a cripple and a boy? Unless Lars' work was important—so important that they dared not allow him to pass along his findings to the underground.

Dard watched the dark shapes take cover. They were probably all around the house by this time, moving in. They wanted to take the inhabitants alive. Too many cornered scientists in the past had cheated them. So they would move slowly now—slow enough to—Dard's smile was no more than a drawn grimace. He still had one secret, one which might save the Nordis family yet.

Having watched the last of the raiders take cover, Dard ran down into the kitchen. The fire was still burning, and before it crouched Lars.

"They came by air. And they have the house surrounded," Dard reported in a matter-of-fact voice. Now that the worst had at last happened he was surprisingly calm. "But they don't have their trap completely closed—as they are going to discover!"

He brushed past Lars and jerked open the cupboard doors. Dessie stood beside her father, and now Dard threw her a bag.

"Food—everything you can pack in," he ordered. "Lars, here!"

From the pegs he pulled down all the extra clothing they had. "Get dressed to go out."

But his brother shook his head. "You know I can't make it, Dard."

Dessie went on stuffing provisions into the bag. "I'll help you, Daddy," she promised, "Just as soon as I can."

Dard paid no attention to his brother. Instead he ran to the far end of the room and raised the trap door of the cellar.

"Last summer," he explained as he came back to gather up the clothing, "I found a passage down there, behind the wall. It leads out to the foundations of the barn. We can hide there—"

"They know we are here. They'll be looking for a move such as that," objected Lars.

"Not after I cover our trail."

He saw that Lars was pulling on the remnants of a coat Dessie was almost ready to go and now she helped her father not only to dress but to crawl across the floor to the hole. Dard gave her a pine knot torch before he went to work.

The doors and all the downstairs shatters were barred. Those ought to hold just long enough—

He took a small can from the cupboard and poured its long-saved contents liberally about the room. Then he withdrew to the head of the cellar ladder before hurling a second blazing torch into the nearest patch of liquid. A billow of fire sent him hurtling down with just enough time to pull the trap door shut behind him.

As he shoved aside the rotting bins which concealed the opening to the passage, he could hear the crackling above, and smoke drifted down through the flooring cracks.

A moment later Dessie scuttled into the passage ahead as Dard hauled Lars along with him. Over their heads the house burned. These outside might well believe that their prey burned with it. At the very least the blaze would cover their escape for the precious minutes which meant the difference between life and death.

Back | Next