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Chapter Six

"The initiative is ours now," Keff said. He kept watch on the small screen of his Intentional Translator as it processed all the hedrons Carialle had recorded while he was unconscious and combined it with the dialogue he had garnered from Brannel and the magicians' discussions. The last hedron popped out of the slot, and Keff slapped it into his portable IT unit on the control panel. "That's it. We have a working vocabulary of Ozran. I can talk with him."

"Enough to ask intelligent questions?" Carialle asked. "Enough to negotiate diplomatically for our release, and inform them, 'by the way, folks, we're from another planet'?"

"Nope," Keff said, matter-of-factly. "Enough to ask stupid questions and gather more information. IT will pick up on the answers I get and, I hope, translate them from context."

"That IT has never been worth the electrons to blow it up," Carialle said in a flat voice.

"Easy, easy, lady," Keff said, smiling at her pillar.

"Sorry," she said. "I'm letting the situation get to me. I don't like being out of control of my own functions."

"I understand perfectly," Keff said "That's why the sooner I go out and face this fellow the better, whether or not I have a perfect working knowledge of his language."

"If you say something insulting by accident, I don't think you'll survive a second blast of that lightning."

"If they're at all as similar to humans as they look, their curiosity will prevent them killing me until they learn all about me. By then, we'll be friends."

"Good sir knight, you assume them to be equal in courtesy to your good self," Carialle said.

"I must face the enchanter's knight, if only for the sake of chivalry."

"Sir Keff, I don't like you leaving the Castle Strong when there's a dozen enchanters out there capable of flinging bolts of solid power down your gullet, and there's not a thing I can do to protect you."

"The quest must continue, Carialle."

"Well . . ." she said, then snorted. "I'm being too protective, aren't I? It isn't exactly first contact if you stay inside and let them pelt away at us. And we'll never get out of here. We have to establish communications. Xeno will die of mortification if we don't, and there go our bonuses."

"That's the spirit," Keff said, buckling on his equipment harness.

Carialle tested her exterior links to IT. "Anything we say will come out in pidgin Ozran. Right?"

Keff paused, looked up at her pillar. "Should you speak at all? Are they ready for the concept of a talking ship?"

"Were we ready for flying chairs?" Carialle countered. "We're at least as strange to them as they are to us."

"I'd rather not have them know you can talk," Keff said thoughtfully.

"But they already know I can speak independently. I talked to Brannel while you were unconscious. Unless he thought you were having an out-of-body experience."

"Supposing Brannel had the nerve to approach our magicians, he wouldn't be able to explain the voice he heard. He was gutsy with me, but you'll notice on the screen that he's staying well out of the way of the chair-riders. They're in charge and he's a mere peon."

"He is scared of them," Carialle agreed. "Remember how he explained punishment came from the mountains when one of his people is too curious. It's no problem for them to dispense punishment. They're endlessly creative when it comes to going on the offensive."

"Contrariwise, I take leave to doubt that any of the magicians would give him a hearing if he did come forward with the information. There's a big crowd of Brannel's folk out there on the perimeter and the wizards haven't so much as glanced their way. No one pays the least attention to the peasants. Your secret is still safe. That's why I want you to keep quiet unless need arises."

"All right," Carialle said at last. "I'll keep mumchance. But, if you're in danger . . . I don't know what I'll do."

"Agreed." And Keff shot her column an approving grin.

"Let's test the system," Carialle said. The small screen to the right of the main computer lit up with a line diagram of Keff's body. He rose and stood before it, holding his arms away from his sides to duplicate the posture.

"Testing," he said. "Mah, may, mee, mo, mu. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Maxwell-Corey is a fardling, fossicking, meddling moron." He repeated the phrases in a subvocal whisper. Small green lights in the image's cheeks lit up.

"Got you," Carialle's voice said in his ear. Lights for the mastoid implants clicked on, followed by the fiber optic pickups implanted in the skin at the outer corners of his eyes. "I'm not trusting the contact buttons alone. The lightning earlier knocked them out for a while." Heart, respiration, skin tension monitors in his chest cavity and the muscles of his thighs lighted green. The lights flicked out and came on again as Carialle did double backup tests. "You're wired for sound and ready to go. I can see, hear, and just about feel anything that happens to you."

"Good," Keff said, relaxing into parade rest. "Our guest is waiting."

* * *

"Here comes the stranger."

Keff's implant translated Asedow's comment as he stepped outside. He assumed the same air of dignity that Chaumel displayed and walked to the bottom of the ramp. He paused, wondering if he should stay there, which gave him a psychological advantage over his visitor who had to look up at him. Or join the fellow on the ground as a mark of courtesy. With a smile, he sidestepped. Chaumel backed up slightly to make room for him. Face-to-face with the silver magician, Keff raised his hand, palm out.

"Greetings," he said. "I am Keff."

The eyewitness report had been correct, Chaumel realized with a start. The stranger was one of them. The oddest thing was that he did not recognize him. There were only a few hundred of the caste on all of Ozran. A family of mages could not conceal a son like this one, grown to mature manhood and in possession of such an incredible power-focus as the silver cylinder.

"Greetings, high one," Chaumel said politely, with the merest dip of a nod. "I am Chaumel. You honor us with your presence."

The man cocked his head, as if listening to something far away, before he responded. Chaumel sensed the faintest hint of power during the pause, and yet, as Nokias had informed him, it did not come from the Core of Ozran. When at last he spoke, the stranger's words were arranged in uneducated sentences, mixed with the odd word of gibberish.

"Welcome," he said. "It is . . . my honor meet you."

Chaumel drew back half a pace. The truth was that the stranger did not understand the language. What could possibly explain such an anomaly as a mage who used power that did not come from the core of all and a man of Ozran who did not know the tongue?

The stranger seemed to guess what he was thinking and continued although not ten words in twenty made sense. And the intelligible was unbelievable.

"I come from the stars," Keff said, pointing upward. He gestured behind him at the brainship, flattened his hand out horizontally, then made it tip up and sink heel first toward the ground. "I flew here in the, er, silver house. I come from another world."

" . . . Not . . . here," Chaumel said. IT missed some of the vocabulary but not the sense. He beckoned to Keff, turned his back on the rest of his people.

"You don't want me to talk about it here?" Keff said in a much lower voice.

"No," Chaumel said, with a cautious glance over his shoulder at the other two Big Mountain Men. "Come . . . mountain . . . me." IT rewound the phrase and restated the translation using full context. "Come back to my mountain with me. We'll talk there."

"No, thanks," Keff said, with a shake of his head. "Let's talk here. It's all right. Why don't you ask the others—uh!"

"Keff!" Carialle's voice thudded against his brain. He knew then why all the Noble Primitives were so submissive and eager to avoid trouble. Chaumel had taken a gadget like a skinny flashlight from a sling on his belt and jabbed it into Keff's side. Fire raced from his rib cage up his neck and through his backbone, burning away any control he had over his own muscles. For the second time in as many hours, he collapsed bonelessly to the ground. The difference this time was that he remained conscious of everything going on around him. Directly in front of his eyes, he saw that, under the hem of his ankle-length robe, Chaumel wore black and silver boots. They had very thick soles. Even though the ground under his cheek was dry, dust seemed not to adhere to the black material, which appeared to be some kind of animal hide, maybe skin from a six-pack. He became aware that Carialle was speaking.

" . . . Fardle it, Keff! Why didn't you stay clear of him? I know you're conscious. Can you move at all?"

Chaumel's feet clumped backward and to one side, out from Keff's limited field of vision. Suddenly, the ground shot away. Unable to order his muscles to move, Keff felt his head sag limply to one side. He saw, almost disinterestedly, that he was floating on air. It felt as if he were being carried on a short mattress.

Unceremoniously, Keff was dumped off the invisible mattress onto the footrest of Chaumel's chariot, his head tilted at an uncomfortable upward angle. The magician stepped inside the U formed by Keff's body and sat down on the ornamented throne. The whole contraption rose suddenly into the air.

"Telekinesis," Keff muttered into the dental implant. He found he was slowly regaining control of his body. A finger twitched. A muscle in his right calf contracted. It tingled. Then he was aware that the chair was rising above the fields, saw the upper curve of the underground cavern in which Brannel's people lived, the mountains beyond, very high, higher than he thought.

"Good!" Carialle's relief was audible. "You're still connected. I thought I might lose the links again when he hit you with that device."

"Wand," Keff said. He could move his eyes now, and he fixed them on the silver magician's belt. "Wand."

"It looked like a wand. Acted more like a cattle prod." There was a momentary pause. "No electrical damage. It seems to have affected synaptic response. That is one sophisticated psi device."

"Magic," Keff hissed quietly.

"We'll argue about that later. Can you get free?"

"No," Keff said "Motor responses slowed."

"Blast and damn it, Galahad! I can't come and get you. You're a hundred meters in the air already. All right, I can track you wherever you're going."

Carialle was upset. Keff didn't want her to be upset, but he was all but motionless. He managed to move his head to a slightly more comfortable position, panting with the strain of such a minor accommodation. Empathic and psionic beings in the galaxy had been encountered before, but these people's talents were so much stronger than any other. Keff was awed by a telekinetic power strong enough to carry the chair, Chaumel, and him with no apparent effort. Such strength was beyond known scientific reality.

"Magic," he murmured.

"I do not believe in magic," Carialle said firmly. "Not with all this stray electromagnetic current about."

"Even magic must have physics," Keff argued

"Bah." Carialle began to run through possibilities, some of which bordered a trifle on the magic she denied but something which would bring Keff back where he belonged—inside her hull—and both of them off this planet as soon as her paralysis, like Keff's, showed any signs of wearing off.

* * *

Brannel hid alone in the bushes at the far end of the field waiting to see if Mage Keff came out again. After offering respect to the magelords, the rest of his folk had taken advantage of the great ones' disinterest in them and rushed home to where it was warm.

The worker male was curious. Perhaps now that the battle was over, the magelords would go away so he could approach Keff on his own. To his dismay, the high ones showed no signs of departing. They awaited the same event he did: the emergence of Magelord Keff. He was awestruck as he watched Chaumel the Silver approach the great tower on foot. The mage waited, eyes on the tight-fitting door, face full of the same anticipation Brannel felt.

Keff did not come. Perhaps Keff was making them all play into his hands. Perhaps he was wiser than the magelords. That would be most satisfyingly ironic.

Instead, when Keff emerged and exchanged words with the mage, he suddenly collapsed. Then he was bundled onto the chariot of Chaumel the Silver and carried away. All Brannel's dreams of freedom and glory died in that instant. All the treasures in the silver tower were now out of his reach and would be forever.

He muttered to himself all the way back to the cave. Fralim caught him, asked him what he was on about.

"We ought to follow and save Magelord Keff."

"Save a mage? You must be mad," Fralim said. "It is night. Come inside and go to sleep. There will be more work in the morning."

Depressed, Brannel turned and followed the chief's son into the warmth.



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