Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘A Wizard’s Henchman’
A WIZARD’S HENCHMAN
FIRST BOOK OF THE KASLO CHRONICLES
By Matthew Hughes
Erm Kaslo came to Cheddle on the Adelaine, a tramp freighter that didn’t mind taking passengers who didn’t mind the quality of the accommodations. He could have come on a liner, but he preferred, when working, to make his entrances unnoticed.
Carrying his valise, he disembarked along with the crewmen, but when the little knot of spacers turned left out of the spaceport gate, heading for the huddle of taverns and bump-houses that catered to transients whose needs were pressing but whose standards were low, he turned right and climbed the rise into the town of Upper Pulluch.
This was a middling-sized community of one and two-story buildings, built of the dark-hued local stone and roofed in slate. Even in the wan sunlight of Bessan’s Star, it looked a stern and unwelcoming place, a town that had seen better days without ever having seen really good times. Kaslo hoped his business would be done and he off -world before he had to experience one of the frequent, month-long rains the freightermen had warned him against. They must turn Upper Pulluch into a grim setting indeed.
He inquired of a passerby and received directions to his destination, got lost anyway, but was steered aright in the end by another pedestrian. The Adelaine’s purser had bid him be careful in approaching Cheddlites—theirs was an uncommunal society, in which no man felt obliged to aid another, and they were quicker than most to take offense and to assuage their injured feelings by doing sudden violence.
But Erm Kaslo was the kind of man who could make even the quickest temper cool. He was not particularly large, but he was well-knit, with a hard-planed face and eyes as gray as winter. And today he had about him a purposeful air that invited the Cheddlites he encountered to offer him quick cooperation that would move him on and out of their lives.
He recognized the police prefecture by the blue light above the entrance. Inside was a small lobby with wooden benches around the drab walls, a strong door leading into the building’s interior, and a chest-high counter, above which was a metal grill pierced by a wicket. The window framed the head and shoulders of a mature man in a green uniform with rank markings on its sleeve. He was making notes on a sheet of paper, but looked up when Kaslo entered. He regarded the newcomer with a face that had long ago registered its last surprise.
Kaslo approached and presented a folded paper. He identified himself and said, “Here is an arrest warrant, signed by the Chief Constable of the Commune of Indoberia on Novo Bantry.” He brought forth another document. “And here is a certificate of deputization, authorizing me to act, in the execution of the warrant, as a special agent for the Constabulary.”
The policeman behind the wicket examined both papers in a leisurely manner. Finally, he said, “You will have to see Captain Maduc, the Deputy Prefect.”
“Then I will see him,” said Kaslo.
“He is not here.”
“Where is he?”
The policeman made a noncommittal gesture.
Kaslo said, “When will he return?”
Again, the man behind the counter silently implied that no definite answer would be forthcoming.
“Should I wait?”
“Then what do you advise?”
The other man gave it some thought. “Find accommodations and remain there,” he said after a while. “When the Captain is ready to see you, someone will come to collect you.”
Kaslo restrained himself. “Can you recommend somewhere?”
Again, the policeman appeared to consider alternatives. He said, “Are you wealthy?”
“Not in material terms,” said Kaslo.
The uniformed shoulders shrugged. “Then the Old Bastable will do you.” He gave directions, then it was as if Kaslo had ceased to become visible to him.
After the silence had lengthened, Kaslo pointedly cleared his throat. “My documents,” he said.
The policeman looked at the warrant and the certificate. “You’re sure?” he said.
Another shrug, and the papers were slid through the opening. Kaslo took them and folded them into an inner pocket. He saw that he had again ceased to hold the other man’s attention.
He left and followed the directions to the New Bastable Inn. It was in an even less appealing part of Upper Pulluch than the spaceport and the prefecture. The lobby smelled of stale beer and last night’s dinner entree. The clerk, who eventually emerged from the inner office to answer Kaslo’s repeated tappings on the bell, had neither bathed nor shaved for long enough that the results were easily noticeable.
Kaslo engaged a room with a bath and went upstairs. He did not bother to unpack his valise, but sat on a hard chair near the window that looked out onto the unswept street in front of the hotel. It was just after noon when he began to watch. It was near to sundown when a low-slung groundcar, with official insignia on the door, pulled up to the far curb. A fat man in civilian clothes got out, followed by a heavy-shouldered individual in prefecture green.
Apparently, Kaslo was not to be sent for. He wondered if his status had gone up or down.
The fat man looked up and saw the face in the upstairs window. His own face registered no expression. The uniformed man followed his gaze, and Kaslo saw what might have been a smile briefly touch his lips. Or it might have been a smirk.
The two men crossed the street toward the hotel and disappeared from view. Twenty seconds later, there was a knock on Kaslo’s door. He opened it and they came in, stood close together just inside the doorway. Both men gave Kaslo the looking-over that police on all worlds give to people they encounter in their line of work: the sizing-up that asks and answers the question, Are you going to be trouble?
“You’ve got a warrant for the arrest of Binnie Varshun?” said the fat one.
“I do,” said Kaslo. “Captain Maduc?”
The only answer he received was a grunt, and a hand extended in a gesture that said, Hand over the warrant. He did so, then waited as the fat man read every word of the document. The uniformed one used the time to fix Kaslo with a hard, unblinking stare, the kind policemen give to people they are trying to intimidate.
Maduc looked up from the warrant, and said, “And you’re some kind of deputy?”
Kaslo handed over the certificate and waited while it was subjected to the same detailed scrutiny. When the fat man had finished, he let his hands drop to his sides. Both papers fell to the floor.
“Well,” he said. “What to do about this?”
“That’s easy,” said Kaslo. “Assist me in serving the warrant.”
“You want to arrest Binnie Varshun?” said the Deputy Prefect. “And what? Take him back to this…” He looked down at the warrant, lying on the floor, and nudged it with his toe to turn it around so that he could spell out the name. “…In-do-be-ria?”
Kaslo did not look at the warrant, but straight into the fat man’s eyes. “Yes, I do.”
The two Cheddlites exchanged a glance. The door to the room had remained open. Now, the big one in the uniform used his bootheel to slam it shut.
The fat one sighed and said, “Maybe we could convince you that that’s not a good idea.”
“Binnie Varshun has committed fraud,” Kaslo said. “In the amount of two million Indoberian SDUs.”
The uniformed man spoke for the first time. “What’s an SDU?” He did not seem greatly interested in the matter, unless being interested included finding the situation faintly amusing.
“Sovereign Debt Unit,” said Kaslo. “Ours is a credit-cyclic economy. Varshun conducted a confidence scheme, selling shares in a mining venture—”
The uniform interrupted again. His smirk had reappeared. “What’s credit-cyclic mean?”
Kaslo ignored the question. He stooped and recovered the warrant and certificate. “Varshun raised funds for a mining operation that did not exist. He published a false prospectus, offered bank guarantees that turned out to be forged. These are crimes on Novo Bantry, and on Cheddle. My warrant is legally enforceable.”
The policeman opened his mouth to say something, but the Deputy Prefect forestalled him by raising one plump finger. To Kaslo he said, “Are you acting for yourself?”
“No, I am a licensed confidential operative.”
The fat man smiled. “An op? And your client is…?”
His client was Diomedo Obron, a landed aristocrat of Indoberia, but Kaslo saw no need to divulge that information. He said, “Someone who wishes to remain anonymous.”
“That may pose difficulties. Cheddlites are entitled to confront their accusers.”
“Produce Varshun and I shall confront him.” He straightened out the papers. It was clear, however, that his representations were having no effect on the fat man. “If the Upper Pulluch prefecture cannot help me, I will go to the federal police in your capital city.”
The fat man thoughtfully scraped his upper lip with his lower teeth. “In that case, there’s only one thing we can do.”
The uniformed one’s smile widened. His right hand had been shielded by the other man’s body since they’d come through the door. Kaslo stepped back, reaching inside his upper garment. But he was too late. He glimpsed something black and solid in the policeman’s hand, saw it emit a flash of dark light almost at the end of the visible spectrum.
Then he saw nothing.
Someone was toeing him in the ribs, none too gently. Kaslo tried to focus his eyes, his head still hissing with white noise from the policeman’s stunner. He saw a striated gray landscape stretching away into a blurred distance, a dark island just at the edge of his vision.
“I said get up!” The second kick came harder, and sent a jolt of pain through Kaslo’s side. His head jerked up and the dull landscape became a plank floor, dirt laid deep in the grain of the wood, the island an empty knothole.
He had been lying on his belly. Now he got his arms under him, fought down the trembling of the aftershock, and pushed himself onto his hands and knees. He paused to let his head catch up with his body’s motion, then levered himself back until he was kneeling, his buttocks resting on the backs of his legs. A wave of dizziness washed through him. He used his knuckles to try to wipe some of the film from his eyes.
A hand took hold of his upper arm, pulling him upwards. “Come on,” said the voice. “You’re in the way.”
He staggered to his feet, the room swimming.
Another voice said, “Put him over there. Somebody get him a cup of skreek.”
Shapes and motion around him. He felt other people’s footsteps through the loosely sprung floor, realized his own feet were bare. Now they had hold of both of his arms. He was led a short distance, then turned and sat down on a rough bench against a wall. He lowered his head into his hands, took a couple of long breaths, wiped his eyes again, and began to bring the world into focus.
He was at one end of a big room, no, a single-roomed building with windowless walls. Floor and roof-joists, all of unpainted wood, had gone gray with age. One side was lined with bunks that were little more than bare shelves, with rags for bedding. In one corner, there was a flat-topped, wood-burning stove, a long table made of greasy planks laid across trestles, and benches made of the same planks set on short, upended sections of tree trunk. Something in a blackened pot atop the stove was giving off steam.
And there were men, all of them dressed in tatters, shoeless like him, unbarbered and dirty, with grime deep in the seams of their faces. They crowded around the common pot, dipping in cups and bowls of battered metal, then took their food to the table, sat and drank whatever they’d got, inbetween tearing off chunks from a couple of huge, round loaves of coarse bread.
“Here.” Someone loomed in front of him, a hand offering a tin mug. He took it, sniffed the dark liquid it contained and took a sip. He found it hot and bitter, but as the brew bathed his tongue he realized he was desperately thirsty. He drank more, swallowing the liquid as quickly as its heat would let him.
He felt better now. He lifted his head. The man who had brought him the mug was standing, watching him. He was of average stature, dressed in the ruins of a commerciant’s single-suit, gifted by genetics with a receding hairline above a face made for mourning. He was examining Kaslo with eyes webbed by red veins.
“You all the way back now?” he said.
Kaslo took stock. “I think so.” In fact, the after-effects of the stunner were evaporating. His mind felt sharp, his vision preternaturally clear. A shimmering, shivering sensation ran through his limbs and made a lightness in his chest. When he took in air, his breath wavered pleasantly.
“That’s the skreek kicking in,” said the other man. You’d better go get something more in your belly ‘fore you get to twitching.”
He beckoned Kaslo toward the steaming cauldron, and led the way there. Kaslo copied his actions, picking up a bowl from a shelf beside the stove, dipping it into the thick liquid, and carrying his meal over to the table. They sat across from each other. The man tore off a big chunk of bread, pulled it apart and tossed one of the pieces to Kaslo.
There were no spoons. Kaslo sucked salty soup from the bowl, then put it down to spare his fingers the heat of the metal. He dipped bread into the pottage, chewed and swallowed. He looked down the table, saw a dozen unwashed scarecrows hunched over their bowls, jaws chewing, lips slurping, nobody talking.
The man who had brought him the drink said, “My name is Vanandaramatan. It used to be a significant name. Now it is not. Most people call me Van.”
“Erm Kaslo. What is this place?” he said.
“If you’re a poet,” said the balding man, “this is Sheol, Nifflheim, the Land Beyond the Dark River, the Undersphere.”
“I’m no poet,” said Kaslo.
Van scraped his bowl with a cob of bread. “Then it’s just the place where the crap ends up.”
Outside, a whistle blew. The men got up. “Come on,” said Kaslo’s sad-faced informant. “You can see for yourself.”
Outside it was just past dawn. Kaslo saw a fenced area on a piece of flat ground. On the far side of the open space, the ground rose and became a broad hill, covered by the same dense forest that surrounded the compound. Because the trees were of a kind that did not begin to sprout branches until their trunks were twice the height of a man, he could see a long way between the trees into the shaded space. The fence looked none too hard to scale, but it was hung in many places by loose pieces of metal that would make a noise if they were moved. There were no guard towers.
“Don’t think about it,” Van said. “The fence isn’t to keep us in.”
Kaslo looked questioningly at him.
The man went on, “Anybody dies, they put the body out there at sunset. At night, we hear the beasts fighting over it. Come morning, not even the bones are left. Sometimes a pack of them come sniffing around the perimeter. If they try to dig their way under, the alarms sound and the guards come out and crisp them.”
They crossed the compound from the barracks to a shed. A well-fed man with a club hooked to his belt unlocked its door. Kaslo saw two other guards in the open space. None wore a uniform, but one of them wore a garment he recognized.
“That one has my jacket,” he said. He had already noticed that he was dressed in filthy cast-offs: pants made of heavy cloth and a one-sleeved shirt that was stiff with dirt.
“A perquisite of guardhood,” said the balding man. “Another perk is that they can make us dance for their amusement.” He indicated the nearest warder’s club, and Kaslo recognized it as a neuromuscular inducer, illegal on most worlds. “So let us get tools and move out of here.”
The tools in the shed were basic: shovels, picks, a floatbarrow whose untuned gravity obviators made Kaslo’s teeth buzz when one of the men activated it, some long pry bars, and a couple of wide-bladed hoes. Some broken tools were piled in a corner.
Kaslo took one of the hoes and slung it over his shoulder, followed the barrow and the others to the far side of the compound and along a dirt track fenced in on either side. The land started to rise the moment they left the open space, and they climbed for a few minutes until the rough trail ended at a hole in the hill. To one side of the cavern, a squat machine sat on a framework of squared timbers.
No guards had accompanied them. Kaslo remarked on that.
“We don’t produce,” said Van, “we don’t eat. A simple system, but remarkably effective.”
The men filed into the hole, which revealed itself to be the mouth of a tunnel leading into the hill. Kaslo was no expert miner, but he saw that the passage seemed to be well braced with timber, and there was a wide air hose running along the floor to one side. As well, the darkness was partly dispelled by lumens set at intervals into the wall.
“It’s an old mine,” said Van, “abandoned years ago. Now someone has reopened it.”
“Someone,” said Kaslo, “who wants it worked on the shush.” The name Binnie Varshun hung unspoken in his thoughts.
The tunnel was almost tall enough for him to walk without stooping. He followed Van through the half-light, counting his paces. At just over a hundred, the passage widened and became a high-ceilinged cavern, the kind that underground streams carved out over millennia. The floor and roof were thick with stalactites and stalagmites.
There were two workplaces in the cavern, and the men divided themselves up, half a dozen going to each spot where the walls of the cave had been hacked away. Kaslo followed Van to one of the sites and the balding man explained the process.
He pointed out a narrow band of rock that was a different color. “It’s a vein, some kind of ore we don’t know the name of,” he said. “But when you get it out it looks like this.” He dug a pick into the friable rock and pried loose a pebble the size of a thumb joint. The piece had a dull metallic sheen to it where the pick had split it from the native rock.
“We fill the barrow, then take it out to the refiner and process it into something that looks like lead. I can’t imagine it’s worth much. At the end of the day, we deliver the goods to the guards and they feed us. Mid-day, they bring out bread and skreek.”
“Always the same guards?” said Kaslo. “How many of them are there?”
The other man gave him a considering look. “Oh, dear,” he said, “another strategist.”
“What do you mean?”
“If the guards think you’re going to be trouble,” Van said, “they put you outside the wire. Alive.” He applied his pick to the rock and broke off another piece. “Though not for long.”
Kaslo spent the morning scraping fragments of paydirt and valueless overburden into piles. A man with a shovel put the piles into the floaterbarrow and, when it was full, it was steered out to the refiner. The barrow lifted itself above the intake hopper and deposited its load. A man named Quai—the one who’d toed Kaslo in the ribs and given orders—threw a switch and the machine made noises. After a minute or so, a shower of grit issued from a vent at the side of the device, to land on an up-sloping conveyor belt that carried it beyond the fence and dumped it at the top of a conical spoil heap. Then a panel opened on the top of the refiner, revealing a recess in which sat a droplet of dull gray stuff about the size of a pea. Quai put it in a leather pouch he wore at his belt.
“Not very rich ore,” Kaslo commented, scraping another pile.
“Couldn’t tell you,” said Van, hoisting his pick. “You know anything about mining?”
“Some.” He changed the subject. “Might one of the guards have taken my boots?”
“Were they good quality?”
Quai said, “Less talk, more work.”They did as they were told.
By lunchtime, they had made five trips with the barrow, producing five gray peas of varying sizes. A carryall came along the track from the compound, two guards in the front, a bag of bread and a pot of hot skreek in the back. Before the guards would let them unload the meal, Quai had to turn over the morning’s production. The guard who had operated the carryall weighed the peas in his hand and grunted. He stepped back and let the prisoners get their rations.
The carryall turned and took the guards away. Kaslo chewed the tough bread and watched it go. The man who had received the metal was wearing his boots.
The bread was rudimentary fuel for the body; the skreek supercharged it. They went back to work and, by the time Cheddle’s short day was drawing to a close, they had made another seven little round ingots of whatever they were mining. By then, the effects of the skreek had worn off. Kaslo was tired, having spelled Van with the pick for the last two hours of the day—none of his fellow prisoners had much stamina.
They trooped back to the camp to deliver their gray peas, crowded into the shed to store their tools, and were allowed to go into the barracks. A pot of soup simmered on the stove and there was a heap of round loaves on the trestle table. No skreek, Kaslo noticed. They were expected to sleep.
“Do the guards patrol at night?” he asked Van.
The sad-faced man was nodding over his bowl, almost too exhausted to chew his bread. “They check the perimeter fence if they hear anything trying to dig its way in. Otherwise, they stay in their quarters.”
“Huh,” Kaslo said.
Van looked at him, bleary-eyed. “Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“I mean, we don’t even know where we are. We all arrived in the same condition as you.”
“You all crossed Binnie Varshun?”
The other man blinked at him. “Who?”
Van yawned and stood. He went to one of the rag-strewn benches, sat, then more or less toppled over until he was lying on his side. Kaslo followed him.
“How did you all get here?” he said.
Van was fading fast. “Taken up by the Upper Pulluch prefecture. Vagrancy, drunk and disorderly, mopery with intent to gawk. One of the guys when I first came was a freighterman who took on a skinfull and missed his ship’s departure. He got drunk again and woke up here.”
“No court? No judge?”
“Nope. And no time off for good behavior.”
“Where’s that guy now?” Kaslo said.
Van made a head motion that indicated the barracks wall and the fence beyond.
Kaslo was quiet for a while, thinking. When he said, “Hey, Van…” the only answer was the other man’s quiet breathing. He heard snores coming from farther down the room, and the first of many screeches and calls from the night forest.
Kaslo had always had the ability to wake when he needed to, and he came out of sleep after two hours. Before he’d allowed himself to drift off, he’d investigated the rags on which he’d made his bed. One of them was a sack of coarse material with a drawstring at its mouth. He’d worked the cord loose.
Now he eased himself off the sleeping platform and crept through the darkness to the door. It was solidly barred from the outside, as he’d expected, but he’d had to give it a try. By the residual heat of the stove he felt his way to its corner, testing the plank floor with his feet until he found the one that had squeaked when he’d stepped on it at suppertime, carrying his bowl of pottage to the table.
He knelt and felt along the wood until he located the end of the plank, which was raised up a quarter inch above its neighbors. Kaslo sat down cross-legged and took out the piece of broken hoe blade he’d rolled up in the waistband of his ragged pantaloons. He’d spotted it in the morning and made sure to collect it when he took his tool back to the shed.
The shard of metal was a little longer than his longest finger, and twice as broad, flat at one end and pointed at the other. It would have made a primitive knife, but it was better suited to the task at hand. He wrapped the sharp end in a piece of rag and slipped the broad end into the crack at the end of the plank. Then he began to pry.
The process took time, but he had plenty of it. The plank had squeaked because it was able to move, and it could move because the joist to which it was nailed had half-rotted away. Gradually, he got one end of it clear of the floor. Then he prised it high enough to fit his fingers underneath. He squatted and lifted, alternating steady pressure with short sharp tugs.
There was a screech as a nail came free of a joist, but the sound was lost in the cacophony of animal sounds from outside. He used the plank as a lever to lift the adjacent floorboard, and now he had room enough to slip through the floor and into the crawlspace beneath the barracks. He took his string and tool, and belly-crawled toward the open space and the fence beyond. He chose the part of the perimeter that was shielded by the barracks from the guards’ view in their hut.
He crawled to the base of the fence, and worked quickly with the piece of metal and his bare hands, scooping out a passage beneath the wire. He was careful not to touch the fence, and its hanging pieces of tubular steel and clappers that would jangle if disturbed. When he’d made a hollow big enough for a man to fit through, he attached his piece of string to the bottom of the fence a few feet away. Then he crawled back under the barracks and lay belly-down, facing out.
He pulled on the string. The tubular alarms jangled and gonged. He waited a moment, then tugged again. Waited, then another pull. From the end of the barracks, he saw a moving light. He backed farther under the building, out of the range of the hand lumen carried by the guard come to investigate the noise.
The man came down the line of the fence, the lumen’s beam playing on the wire and the ground beneath. It caught the shadow of the hole Kaslo had dug and stayed on it, the guard coming closer. He stopped at the gouge in the ground, shone his lumen around, looking for tracks, then directed the beam out into the forest. By the light that spilled round the lumen’s edges, Kaslo saw him use his free hand to scratch the back of his head.
By then, Kaslo had come silently out from under the barracks and crossed the short distance between them at a run. One forearm snaked around the guard’s neck, pulling his head back. The fingers of his other hand slid under his own arm, found the carotid sinus, and pressed. The man struggled an instant before his body went limp. The lumen fell from his grasp.
Kaslo lowered the unconscious man to the ground, took up the lumen, and shone its light on the guard’s feet. He grunted with relief when he saw his own boots—he wouldn’t have to do this a second time, let alone a third.
He placed the light on the ground and took hold of the heel of the right boot. A pull, a slide, and a twist, and the bottom of the heel came off, revealing a cavity filled with a small, flat, oblong object. Kaslo removed the concealed item and closed up the heel again. Then he dragged the unconscious guard over to the hole under the fence, laid him on his back, and pushed so that his head and shoulders went down into the hollow and partially up the slope on the far side of the fence.
He did not want to do it this way, but he could think of no other. He took up the light and shone it into the darkness under the trees. Several pairs of glowing orbs looked back at him, edging nearer. He set the lumen on the ground, recovered his string, and scooted back under the barracks. Moments later, he was back inside the building and pushing the floorboards back into place, the nails fitting neatly into the half-rotten wood from which he had pulled them. He dropped the piece of metal through a gap in the floorboards, then got back onto the sleeping platform in time to hear snarls and slaverings from outside. There was a short scream of terror as the guard regained consciousness, but it was cut off by a bubbling, choking sound.
Now came shouts and running boots, the snap of an energy pistol, then a stream of hoarse-voiced profanity as someone discovered what was left of the dead man. Another voice overrode the swearer’s, giving orders.
Kaslo heard the sound of a body being dragged across dry ground, and saw beams of light coming through chinks in the rough wooden walls and through gaps between the floorboards as the area outside was searched. Then the door flew open, and men with lumens and inducers in their hands stormed into the barracks and rousted the sleeping prisoners.
They were pushed and kicked outside, made to line up, and counted. The guards were angry, on edge, slapping and punching, but with many looks over their shoulders at the darkness under the trees. Finally, they shouted and shoved the ragged, frightened men back to their sleep, barred the barracks door, and went away. Kaslo heard the scrape of a shovel as someone filled in the hole he had dug.
When all was quiet, the exhausted prisoners back asleep, he removed the miniaturized device from where he had kept it, between cheek and molars. He twice-touched a stud on its edge and saw a red pinpoint light up in the darkness. After a moment, it turned green.
Good, Kaslo said, in the privacy of his mind. He slid open a hatch on the device’s side and pushed the stud beneath it. He waited, watching, for several seconds. Then the green light blinked three times. Very good, he thought, and closed up the hatch. He rolled the device up in the waistband of his pantaloons and lay down to sleep.
A far distance away, in the refuse receptacle behind the New Bastable Inn, Erm Kaslo’s valise was now wide awake, assessing its environment and beginning to make plans.
A Wizard’s Henchman is available in signed-limited and trade-hardcover editions from PS Publishing and as a $5.99 Kindle ebook from Amazon.
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