by Robert E. Vardeman
It took several minutes for the cougar's ululating screech to make Rorr look up from his autumn plowing. The day was unseasonably warm for Neth, and sweat trickled down his back. He knew the heat was an illusion—cutting through the dried brown chaff remaining in his field and plowing it under for spring fertilizer had to be completed soon, before snow buried the land. Already at night the wind off the distant Lake of Mists and Veils cut through even a well-padded jacket and brought tears to unprotected eyes. Soon enough a heavy doublet would be necessary when venturing outside the comforting warmth of his small farmhouse.
If he didn't complete the turning of the soil to provide composting, the thin, rocky dirt would be worthless in Pharast and he would be forced to grow a cover crop—perhaps oats—and let a valuable portion of his farm lie fallow if he wanted cash crops another year. Rorr cursed himself for not undersowing, but too much repair work had to be done on the barn to attend to every detail. After two of his plow horses died of the wasting disease, there had scarcely been time to plow the more productive of his two large fields. Even working his two stepsons until they moaned, he hadn't accomplished enough.
He dragged his arm over his forehead to mop sweat, then wanted to clap his hands over his battered ears—or what remained of them. The cougar refused to be quiet. Rorr stretched to his full height, but that was not enough by half to reveal the big cat that stayed just beyond his sight at the edge of the woods.
He walked around his remaining plow horse and patted the thick neck, noting how the coat had grown matted and tangled. He'd have to curry the burrs out of the mane—or better yet, have Fren or Rayallan do it. If either of his boys had shown any sign of slacking, he would have demanded the chore of them immediately, but both worked sunup to sundown, as he did.
It was going to be a cold winter.
The cougar's scream brought him around, all worry of the coming ice and frigid wind forgotten.
Grumbling, he unhitched the horse and vaulted easily onto its back. His bowed legs fit perfectly around the horse's bulging flanks. At least one creature on his farm ate well, and why not? With its two companions dead, there was no reason to withhold the horse's fodder.
"You are our salvation," he said, bending low and whispering in the horse's ear. The large ear flicked as if a fly had buzzed near. The horse turned a huge brown eye back and stared unblinking at him, as if wondering why he had mounted and didn't insist on plowing still more. Half the field remained to be turned under.
Rorr sat straight and used the added height to cast a sharp eye along the far line of trees. One day he would cut those trees and expand the field, but taking out stumps was tedious work, better left to days when the crops were growing and all the work consisted of plucking bugs off the green leaves and listening to the corn groan with the speed of its growth.
"Fren!" He looked around for his older son. At the far side of the field, the youth of fifteen summers leaned on the handle of a shovel. Rocks had migrated up during the past summer and required removal. "Fren, do you see it?"
He pointed to the trees and past.
"Smoke," the boy called back. "From the direction of the Torvan farm."
"Come on. We'll ride over to see if there's trouble." The Torvans were good neighbors, generous with seed and advice to a man who had long been away from the earth and growing. Rorr found Ganley Torvan, Thom's wife, abrasive—but then, with only one arm, life couldn't be easy for her. Their children were younger than even Rayallan's twelve years, and did little that he could see to help either their father or mother. Rorr felt blessed by Shelyn for his two boys, and for Beeah.
Fren ran, kicked hard, and vaulted up to land behind his stepfather. Rorr had to reach back and grab to keep the boy from toppling off the other side.
"Hang on," Rorr said, snapping the reins and putting his heels to the horse. It moved at a plow horse pace for a few yards, then began to trot at its top speed.
"You're not going to chastise me for almost falling off?" Fren hesitated to hold around Rorr's waist, though he did not easily adapt to the uneven gait.
"Some are natural horsemen. Others learn. You'll be one of the latter."
"Did you have to learn?" Fren asked. "Or did you race a courser before you married Ma?"
Rorr laughed. "Seldom have I ridden a horse better than this one, and always I was glad for it. It takes less time than you might imagine to become footsore."
The boy's hold improved, and Rorr urged the horse to pick up speed. The rising smoke was an ominous, greasy black.
They found the main road and made better time, but Rorr slowed when he came to Torvan's gate. It lay in the middle of the double-rutted road, ripped from the post. Several feet of fence had been trampled.
"Their cattle will get out," Fren said, not understanding what he saw.
"You should dismount, boy."
Rorr would normally have been pleased at hearing the term from his stepson, but just now he had other concerns.
"Do it." He swept his arm back and slid the boy off the horse's rump. Fren landed hard but kept his balance.
"You have no right—!" the boy began, but Fren was speaking to his back. Rorr trotted forward, the quickest gait the plow horse could muster.
The main house was hidden from the road by a stand of trees desperately harboring leaves against the encroaching winter, but the instant he rode past their screen, heat from the burning house forced him to look away. Throwing up his arm to shade his eyes, he turned back toward the inferno. The building was already consumed—if anyone had been inside, they had found their own funeral pyre.
Riding a safe distance from the house, he circle around to the barn. A coldness settled in his belly when he saw the pigs and chickens slaughtered on the ground. Insects crawled up to feast, and carrion birds had already plucked delicate morsels from eye socket and haunch. The smell of death was hidden by the acrid smoke billowing from behind.
"Torvan!" His call was swallowed by the crackle and roar of the burning house. These flames had not been lit by some carelessly placed oil lamp or spark from a pipe. He called again, knowing there would be no reply but still hoping.
He slid his leg over the horse's neck and hopped lightly to the ground. His bowed legs moved with precision and resolve as he quickly looked into the barn. More slaughtered animals. He let out a sigh when he saw how cruelly Torvan's plow horse had been mutilated. It had been strong and of an age to last a dozen more seasons. A waste.
Cries from behind the barn sent him racing around the two-story building. He stopped under a carefully painted hex sign supposed to turn away evil. If anything, it had attracted it.
Four men astride warhorses worked to light a torch, which they clearly intended to toss into the granary. None saw Rorr as he moved forward.
Torvan wasn't a good farmer, but he had six sons and twice the acreage Rorr did. Their harvest had been bountiful, yet these men with their leather armor and short, businesslike swords intended to destroy what could keep a family of eight alive through the cruel winter.
He reached the hindmost rider, grabbed and caught leather straps fastening the armor around his body. Powerful muscles bunched, and the warrior was lifted from the saddle and hurled through the air. The clank of his sword hitting the ground was as loud as the snapping of bones—almost.
The three remaining warriors turned at the unexpected disturbance. For an instant they didn't understand what had happened. Rorr stepped close to a second one—the warrior holding the torch—and caught his foot as it rested in the stirrup. He twisted viciously and forced the rider to the ground.
"We missed a plowboy," another warrior said sarcastically.
"You set fire to the house. Where's the family that lived there?" Rorr spoke but continued to move with deceptive slowness. He caught a third man's wrist as he reached to unsheathe his sword. That one joined his two companions on the ground.
The one who had spoken backed his horse from Rorr and swung a triangular shield about. Rorr didn't recognize the escutcheon, but he did know better than to reach for this soldier. The bottom edge of the shield had been honed like a razor, and could slice through flesh and bone easily.
Instead of attacking the rider, Rorr swept his leg about in a powerful circle and kicked the horse's front leg just above the cannon bone. From the way the horse reared, he had both frightened it and delivered great pain. It landed heavily on its front legs and bucked, throwing the rider. His shield flew through the air like a deadly silver blood kite and skidded in the dirt just shy of the granary.
"Where's the Torvan family?"
He grabbed one warrior as he struggled to stand and lifted him, fingers sliding expertly under his gorget to dig into his throat. He repeated the question but received only gurgles. Blood began trickling from the side of the man's mouth. Rorr tossed him away—he wasn't likely to get answers when the man had bitten through his own tongue.
"You will die," the shield-man spat. "No one attacks soldiers of our liege and lives!"
Rorr frowned. He knew of no lord holding sway over this land. The ebb and flow of royalty meant little to anyone plowing the land, fighting locusts and drought and wheat intermixed with water-hungry weeds.
The three who could still stand spread in front of him, drawing weapons and advancing.
"Does this lord of yours murder and pillage?" Rorr pointed to the still burning house.
"They refused to pay the taxes owed."
That settled it. Rorr had heard nothing of any lord demanding taxes, and his farm adjoined the Torvan acreage. These were brigands and nothing more. As they came closer, he studied their stance, how they held their weapons and the set to their bodies. They had military training and were used to fighting in unison. That elevated them above common highwaymen.
But not by much.
The one on Rorr's left attacked, thinking to distract him. Rorr knelt, used a leg sweep like the one that had brought down the horse and its rider, but didn't stop after he felt his heel strike the back of the fighter's knee. From his crouch, he launched himself at the man attacking from the right flank. His shoulder caught the man in the belly and bowled him over. As they hit the ground, locked together, Rorr clawed at the brawny wrist holding the sword and wrested it away. A quick roll and he came to his feet with the sword up in time to parry a two-handed overhead cut.
The blades collided and sent sparks dancing away. The impact jarred his attacker; Rorr twisted about and dropped his sword in favor of delivering a hard punch to the man's temple. Delicate bone crushed and drove into brain. The fighter sagged to the ground.
"Rorr!" Suddenly Fren was behind him, voice high and scared. "What's happening? Who are these men?"
Damn it—the boy was supposed to stay clear. "Get out of here, Fren. They're brigands. They killed the Torvans."
A whistling sound galvanized Rorr. He whirled and grabbed, fingers closing on an arrow in midair.
Fren's eyes went wide. The arrowhead with its wicked barbs had been halted only inches from his face.
Rorr broke the shaft and flung it from him. He turned to interpose himself between his stepson and two new combatants, these towering half-orcs.
"What have we here?" one said mockingly. "I thought we'd killed them all."
"These are new." The second half-orc nocked an arrow, drew back the bowstring, and let fly.
His bow had a heavier pull, and the arrow sang through the air at a higher pitch. There was no way Rorr could catch it before it spitted his stepson, but his arm flew up to block. He winced as the arrow drove through the muscle in his forearm. An involuntary reflex as he jerked away robbed the shaft of its power; the arrow remained embedded in his arm.
"Run, Fren. Go!"
Rorr lifted his right forearm and drew out the now-bloody arrow. He stabbed it in the half-orcs' direction. "You're not wanted here."
The pair laughed.
Rorr spun in a full circle and flung the arrow as if it were a spear. The broad head drove through one half-orc's eye.
"Impressive," the surviving warrior said, no fear in his voice.
"I missed. I'd aimed for his throat."
The half-orc laughed and fired another arrow, but Rorr drove hard, legs pumping furiously. He slid through the dirt and grabbed the fallen shield with the knife-sharp edge. The arrow missed him, but a new whistling sounded immediately. The half-orc was competent with his weapon.
Rorr rolled and used the shield to deflect two more arrows, then saw the half-orc had chosen a different attack. From a second quiver slung across his broad back, he brought forth an arrow dripping with black, oily fluid. The half-orc let fly. Rorr watched the arrow soar above him. As it passed, it exploded into flame and continued on to drive itself into the wooden door of the Torvan granary.
The brigand laughed again and reached for another.
Rorr gripped the upper edge of the shield and spun it outward in a glinting arc, then let go.
The sharpened side cut through the half-orc. The chest wound exploded in a bloody fountain, and the archer slid backward off his horse.
Rorr felt no triumph. He bent over and took a few quick steps away from the burning granary. The arrow and its black oil had ignited a fire as fearsome as the one devouring the farmhouse. Nothing could stand against it.
That was when he heard Fren's call for help—from inside the blazing building.
Putting his head down, Rorr charged like a bull, crashing through the door and into the inferno.
Coming Next Week: The dark side of manifest destiny in Robert E. Vardeman's "Plow and Sword."
Robert E. Vardeman is the author of more than fifty science fiction and fantasy novels, including both original series such as Cenotaph Road, War of Powers, and Swords of Raemllyn, as well as tie-in novels for such notable properties as Tom Swift, God of War, Battletech, Star Trek, and Magic: The Gathering. He has been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, and is one of the founders of the New Mexico science fiction convention Bubonicon. For more information, visit his website.
Art by Carlos Villa.