IT WAS Bran the Wanderer who found death.
Literally, death: the reason why men must die.
He did not understand what it was he found, at first. Few men would, for it was only a metallic machine set in a city so old its stones turned powdery to the rub of his big hand over them. The machine hummed a little, very faintly, and it was warm to the touch. It appeared to do nothing else.
Bran marveled and walked on.
He had been walking on for several years, ever since he had found the tele-doors, traveling across the wastelands of the star worlds, appearing from out of nowhere on Costair or Uristhinn or Moorn, planets which dotted the crown of Empire which was flung across deep space. He never stayed long in any place. His feet itched for distant sands, for the waters of unseen planets and their high places that only Bran seemed able to find.
After a while he became something of a legend. And then he went to Makkador . . .
He came walking into Makkamar City of its desert sands toward sunset of a day when shadows were at their longest and their blackest and his own shadow, moving in rhythmic stride before him, showed a big man with deep chest and wide shoulders. There was a lean, hard look about him, all over. The dust of the Akkan planets lay on his leotan furs and yellow hair, on the black leather holster of his a-gun. Streaks of dried salt on his boots showed where he had splashed through the waters of half a dozen shallow streams.
A moment he stood on the rim of the gray sands where Makkamar City begins and fingered his belt pouch for the dice he carried always with him. They were strange dice, carved with cats and ships and dragons on solid onyx of a peculiar red color; he had found them in his wanderings; he rarely took a step without rubbing them with the thumb of his right hand and tossing them high.
He did that now, catching them with a side-wise swipe of the hand and opening his fingers to grin down at the twin ships that ran before an onyx wind.
“A lucky symbol, the Kriil ships,” he chuckled.
There was a gold coin and three silvery speds in his pocket pouch beside the dice, enough for a feed and a comfortable bed for one night. Bran the Wanderer was wealthy only in his freedom of movement. He had no other riches.
He could eat and sleep with that money. Or–build himself a stake in some space-stews dive. His belly was empty but he had been a gambler too long not to feel a tug from the felt covers he would find on a tavern gambling table.
He needed money, right now.
Why, Bran? To go on roaming to forget Peganna?
Some men found Lethe in the bottoms of their liquor mugs; others, in the women who flocked to the stews. Bran found his in far travels. The sandy world of Conchavar. The great green seas that roll eternally on Slithstan. The high rock mountains of Klard. He had touched them all.
And yet, he wanted more. To see the marsh fires dance their blazing saraband on Duheel. To stare when the copper skies come down on Boharel and kiss the metal trees that are unlike any other trees in the known universe. To walk in the caves of Rann. To climb the Tors on Vomarr. A corner of his mind told him he was a fool, that other men had built new lives from the wreckage of the old. His lips twisted bitterly. None of them had ever known Peganna of the Silver Hair or held her in his arms under the seven moons of Kuleen while wearing the white uniform of Interstellar Fleet Commander.
He snarled low in his throat. “Sure, it's all behind me now. I'm no longer a commander with all his pretty gold braid and precious medals–but a nobody.”
A dog ran out of the shadows formed by two buildings where they leaned toward the setting sun as if for a last bit of warmth against the coming cold of night, and barked at him. It was a scrawny yellow hound, a breed called lannx by the men of Makkador, and it looked half starved. As I do myself, Bran thought.
He moved on away from the dog, along a narrow alleyway that twisted halfway across the edge of Makkamar City to its spaceport and the stews that formed a stinking crescent around its launching pads. There would be a thousand taverns in the stews with felt-topped gaming tables. All he had to do was choose one.
At the intersection of two twisting, ancient streets–Makkador was an old, old planet long since lost sight of by Time–he heard the low throb of a star-ship sliding into a vane-down. Bran looked up and felt the breath catch in his throat.
Gods! That gray metal hull had the look of a–but no. The Lyanir design had been copied by some trader, probably. There was no device on it at all, as far as he could see.
Bran shrugged. It was no concern of his, that ship.
He walked under creaking signs swinging on rusted chains in the wind, their painted wood surfaces worn to bareness in spots by the abrading sands of the deserts. One need not be able to read to understand those signs, for each was carved for men to know its meaning, in the shape of a shoe, of a loaf of bread, of a tankard.
He made his choice outside a neatly kept tavern where the cobblestones were broomed and the windows, spotless. A freshly painted pair of benches and a solanthus-wood door told him the food and liquor might be worthwhile investigating.
It was dusk now and the lights were on inside as he laid his palm to the door and thrust it open. The first diners were at the table, the early drinkers were crowding the bar. There was even a handful of men at the low gaming boards. Bran stood a moment on widespread legs sniffing at roasting meat, at tart wine as it flowed from ewers into pewter cups.
On impulse he walked to the green felt table and laid a silver sped on its edge. “One throw of your dice,” he said to a bearded wheen miner. “A sped against five you can't make your point in as many rolls.”
The miner grinned and threw. He threw again and three more times. With a growl he tossed coins to Bran. The Wanderer winked and said, "I'll give you a chance to win them back when I've put meat and wine in my middle.”
He rested his rump on a wooden bench and signaled a serving wench to him, ordering meat with gravy and vegetables and a beaker of mead. To his pleased surprise, the food was tasty and hot. He ate slowly, with relish. The meal cost six speds. He had his gold auroch and two speds left with which to gamble. Twelve speds, all told, enough with which to build a new stake for his travels. He gave the serving maid a pinch on the rump and a kiss on her lips with a promise of twin speds if he proved lucky this night. She told him to keep an eye on the dice of the fat man in the work-clothes of a driller; there were some who said he put weights in them by a method no one had been able to detect. Bran laughed. He had seen all manner and makes of dice in his travels; there were few that could fool his sensitive fingers. But he thanked the girl and unfastened his food pouch, giving it to her to fill with bread and meat and a small task of wine.
Then he moved on the gaming tables.
It took him ten minutes and the loss of his golden auroch to detect the trick of the dice. They totaled seven on adjacent sides so that on a pad roll the sixes faced one another and prevented craps. Once he learned their secret, he built a pile of speds before him until the piles became two in number and then three.
Voices growled around the table. Bran laughed and tossed the crooked dice to the fat man, bringing out his own. He passed them around the table and let the players examine them. He used them until his speds were doubled.
A great crowd had gathered around the boards to watch Bran match his luck with that of half a dozen men. They laughed and made comments between throws but when the dice were rattling around in the leathern cup that one gambler had made Bran use after a while, they held their breaths.
The cup rattled and dipped and the curiously marked dice came rolling across the green baize flashing their queer symbols. “Two dragons of Moorn,” shouted Bran and put out a brown hand for the piled coins in the center oval.
“With your luck you ought to try the well of Molween,” a half-naked stevedore grumbled.
Bran looked up, intrigued. "Now what do you know of the well? Have you ever seen it?"
The man looked embarrassed. “Someone was asking about it a little while ago, over at the bar. I told him it was a myth, along with that of the six gods of Nomaar, but he insisted it was true.”
“Did he now?” Bran asked softly. “And where is this man with the tongue that wags about Molween?”
The stevedore grinned. “Oh, he's gone now. He left when I pointed you out to him and told him only Bran the Wanderer knows where the well is hidden.”
“You spoke true words,” Bran admitted. “I do know the well. But it's far and far away from Makkador. Across eighty thousand light years of space.”
Someone hooted, “No man can go so far in one lifetime, not even with the trans-dimensional drive.”
“I can,” said Bran and there was truth in the sound of his voice. Men looked at one another and drew back from the table a little. Gossip said Bran was not quite human, that there was an alienness about him, a form of humankind put on to hide a nightmare intelligence from an unknown world. Some men believed the tale.
A brass lamp suspended on its chains from a blackened ceiling beam swung to a cool draft moving through the smoke-filled room as a door opened. A zusthin-skin drum throbbed in the shadows where a crouched changeling drew elemental harmonies from its tightly stretched hide head. A girl sobbed softly in those same shadows, caught up in kleth-induced dreams that shook her ripe body. The swinging lamp laid black shadows on the green felt as Bran leaned over it.
“Well? Does my talk of the well frighten you like little children? Will no one bet against Bran and his lucky dice?"
The brass lamp hissed and the moaning girl quieted. Suddenly the tavern was hushed, for these were the Forbidden Hours of the Serpent on Makkador and only men and women whose lives were as nothing against their lusts and hungers were abroad in the stews. A wind blew the tangy scents of desert weeds in through the barred windows, and with them the smells of old stone buildings and the swill that dotted the cobblestone streets beyond the tavern door.
Bran shook the dice so they made a hollow sound in his cupped palm. “I've won enough for one night, I suppose. Enough to take me off Makkador to some other planet where men will risk a sped or two for an evening's pleasure. Ah, well. It isn't exactly a wasted night, I suppose, with a thousand speds to show for my time but I'd hoped for another roll or–"
“I will play against Bran and his dice of Nagalang."
Silken stuffs rustled in the wind that swirled close to the solanthus-wood door and there was an illusion of bare legs whispering together as they walked. Then a white hand came into the lamplight, a slim hand with green nails. Its fingers opened and three scarlet pearls came rolling across the green felt pad of the gaming board.
A woman stood smiling at Bran. “My flame pearls against your life, Wanderer.”
Men drew back before the figure in the spun silk chlamys whose face was hooded against their stare. Eyes sought to probe the cloth edged with purple. Only Bran pretended not to see the gentle curves of hidden hips. He straightened slowly until he towered above the woman and gestured at the leathern cup holding the dice.
His hand was shaking with unaccountable excitement, Bran knew. His heart slammed in its rib cage. The voice that had spoken had come across the void of years–how many years make sorrow in a man for the might-have-been?–and whispered now to the memories in his brain.
Long ago he had heard this voice, long ago and far away in another life. The ripe red mouth that had spoken them he had kissed to breathlessness. The elation in him grew until he was the only man in the room and she the only woman.
Only the senses know reality. His ears and his eyes screamed the truth at him and his hands itched to move out and touch. He controlled himself and made his voice a mockery of what lay deep in his heart.
“My life? What's that against three flame pearls?"
She laughed with melody in her throat, like a sweet charm to give a man dreams. “Those pearls are beyond price. Is your life so valuable?”
A little man with a pockmarked face looked up from the felt pad and the three crimson pearls he had been studying. His bright eyes were feverish with green as he whispered, “Long ago I was court jeweler to Kraad of Palisthan. Once I advised him to buy a flame pearl once worth only half one of these–yet it was the finest gem in all his great collection! With those beauties a man could buy a star system.”
Bran did not take his eyes from the features he could see only dimly in the shadow of the white silk hood. “You named the stakes, si'ilar,” he smiled, giving her a royal title. “If my life is worth so much to you, so be it.”
Mocking laughter came to him from the hood. “I choose what you value least, Wanderer. If I win, the manner of your living is mine to name.”
He fumbled for the cup, held it out to the white hand with the green nails. “Roll, then."
Her head shook almost imperceptibly. “Yours the first roll, wanderer. Yours is the luck I mean to beat.”
Without taking his gaze from the slant eyes that brooded at him from beneath the silken hood, he moved the cup around in his hand, tumbling the dice back and forth inside it. He asked, “How many casts to win?”
“Three. Your point in that time or–you're mine!”
Bran shook his head. “A poor bargain.”
But he turned to the green felt and made the dice spin out across its surface so that they glowed with iridescent fires in the lamplight. They showed the dragon crests of Tarrn and the ships of Kriil and then the cats of Bydd. When they stilled on a trio of stars and the banner of the Rim worlds, men sighed.
A wheen miner whispered, “The lost stars of Murd and the banner. A bad roll.”
“Bad aye!” laughed Bran. “But–for whom?”
His fingers gathered the dice and dropped them one after the other into the cup so they made hollow sounds. He stared deep into the hood, hunting the pale features hidden there and he sighed and rolled again and now the dice showed only a cat and a Kriil ship. Another poor roll. Only with twin dragons could he hope to recoup bad fortune.
“Twin dragons are only an angle away from the cat and the boat,” he told the woman, and threw again. The dice gleamed redly in the smoking lamps, red and somehow–evil. They came to rest.
The woman said gently, “The cat and but one dragon. Hand the cup to me, Bran.” He started suddenly and half opened his lips to speak but no sound came out; only the breath scratched in his throat to reveal the thoughts tumbling through his brain. He looked down into the leather cup and scowled.
“Eight years ago I was a Fleet Commander in the Empire space navy. I captained the greatest fighting force the Empire ever built. I took Star Force 97 out to meet the Lyanir and smashed them in three battles. They pinned so many medals on my chest for that, I could hardly stand upright.”
He held the cup out to the woman whose green-nailed fingers closed about it gently. Bran said, “I rid the Empire of the Lyanir threat. For what I did they took away my command and sat me down behind a desk to handle paper work. All because of a woman.”
He heard her sigh. “What woman, Bran?”
“Her name was Peganna. Peganna of the Silver Hair,” he murmured as his eyes appeared to hunt beneath her hood.
“Was she so much ill fortune to you?”
He only shook his head, not speaking. She gave a little sigh and turned to the gaming board. The dice rattled in the cup and then she threw and all men watched the rolling Nagalang dice until they settled. Two dragons showed and the woman clapped pale hands.
“I've won, wanderer. That single throw alone was all I needed to own your life.”
The hands with the green nails drew the chlamys tighter about her body so that her hips showed round and firm. Fingertips arranged the cowl and now even less of her face could be seen.
The little man with the pocked face; he who had been court jeweler to Kraad, put out a hand toward the dice but Bran was faster. He scooped them up and tossed them high so they winked in the red lamp flames. He caught them deftly, rattled them in his hand, then slipped them back into his belt pouch.
“When do I die, si'ilar?” he wondered.
“Who spoke of dying, Bran? I want you alive. Dead, you're of no use to me. You belong to me now, to me alone.” Laughter trailed up from the cowl. “Follow at my heels.”
There were some who looked to see the Wanderer explode with rage but he only chuckled low and nodded. “At your heels, highborn. Like a hound.”
She moved on through the shadows cast by the wall torches, turning to stare back at him from the solanthus-wood doorway decorated with figures of satyrs and running maidens carved onto its hardwood surface. Bran stood for a moment with the red light playing over the white fur of his kilt and brown leather jerkin, his lips twitching into a grin.
“Maybe the dice didn't do me such a bad favor, after all. Maybe the luck they promised is just beginning.” He glanced down at the fame pearls on the green tabletop.
“Pick them up. Keep them,” said the woman.
He picked them up one by one and held them on his palm, his eyes widening at their ethereal beauty. Living fame was imprisoned in crimson milkiness in those jewels. No man knew whence came the fame pearls or the manner of their making. Here and there, on this planet or that, a man would find one and if he reached a civilized spaceport alive, he sold it for a fortune. These three pearls made the Wanderer the richest man between Earth and Senorech.
The irony of it made him laugh. “To be so rich–yet to be no more than a slave! The humor of the thing tickles my fancy.”
His shoulders brushed men aside as he came out of the circle of onlookers around the table. As he stepped close to the woman he saw that the top of her head came to his heart. Eyes watched them, this man whose skin was the color of dull bronze and this woman of whom nothing could be seen but the faint imprint of hips against silk. Bran put out a hand and the door opened. The woman stepped out into the night with the Wanderer at her heels and the door swung shut behind them.
Three moons made bright silver of the fat red surface of ancient Makkador. Pale light flooded the cobbled streets and where it touched the bricks and masonry of the buildings in the su’udar stews, they gleamed as with glowing fire. In the distance, summoning the faithful who worshiped Kronn to the dawn service, a bell tolled mournfully. The wind that had swept the red deserts to the north all night long was dying now in fitful little gusts that powdered the empty streets and stark gray walls of the stone buildings with scarlet dust.
The woman walked swiftly with a feline stride that ate at distance, yet seemed as effortless as the padding of a panther. Bran aped her stride, stalking slightly behind her, a giant of a man whose long yellow hair was caught in a platinum torque in the fashion of the Akkan outlanders. His a-gun thumped its leather holster against his thigh as the white fur kilt swung to his every step.
He waited until the tavern was behind them by five hundred paces. Then he asked, “Why did you come back into my life, witch-woman?”
She walked on until she came to a fountain that had been dry for centuries, turning there and putting back a fold of the cowl to look up at him. “I knew a man once, a man who said he loved me. Yet he believed the lies they told him on Earth and never came back to me as he said he would. I came after him, instead.”
His hand went out to her shoulder, caught it through the silken chlamys and held it firmly. Though his clasp must have hurt, she did no more than shiver.
“You violated your agreement. You moved your people off Kuleen.”
“And why shouldn't I? You told me to.”
“Not I,” he said soberly. “You and I knew our agreement. You were to keep the Lyanir on Kuleen as token of your friendliness while I did what I could to induce the Empire to accept you into its hegemony of races.”
There was a troubled quaver in her voice. “I kept possession of the 'gram you radioed me. It was signed by you. I knew you well enough–in those days–to recognize your signature.”
His sigh was bitter. “Then someone forged it. I sent no 'gram. I was fighting–and winning–a battle to get Empire to give you living room on the Veil planets, empty worlds no one's ever colonized because they're pretty far off the normal trade routes. They'd have been ideal for the Lyanir, far enough from everybody else to give both your people and mine time to get accustomed to the idea of integration without causing incidents by daily shoulder-jostling.”
“What happened, Bran?”
His laugh was raw with suppressed anger. “One of the ambitious boys at headquarters got jealous. Evran Dallish, or Alvar Dexter, or David Uronogian. Or–someone else. They were all Commanders, as I was.”
“I–I don't understand?”
“What's to understand? One of them decided I was getting too big for my britches. He forged my name and sent the 'gram. When the Lyanir moved off Kuleen to Yvrilis, it was made to look like an attempt to force a quick acceptance of my plan. Empire doesn't like to be threatened. The powers that be decided I'd make a fine teacher for wet-behind-the-ears cadets. They offered me a superintendency of the Academy. I didn't want it and resigned.”
“You ran away,” she accused.
“I went to find you,” he pointed out. “I didn't.”
They were standing so near in the shadow of the fountain her thigh pressed into him. The hand that had held her arm so tightly was stroking it now, up to her shoulder and behind her throat, fingers clamping the hood so he could drag it down away from the white face and green eyes and silver hair of the queen of the alien Lyanir. His hot black eyes searched first the red mouth and straight nose and broad forehead where the moonlight touched them. Her long-lashed eyes misted in tears as they stared up at him. When the hood came fully away, her silver hair, long and soft and seemingly filled with pallid fire, was a cloud about the loveliness of her features.
“Peganna,” he whispered.
In his memory he tasted the soft moist flesh of her mouth and felt her arms enclosing him as once they had done, so long ago. She stood proud in her white beauty there under the three moons of Makkador while she studied the hard lines on his face with pitying eyes. We could have had so much, he and I, had not Subb of the Hundred Hates thrust his will upon us! Sighing gently, she raised the white hood with its fretwork of purple dye and rearranged it about her face.
Eight years before, a race of humanoids who called themselves the Lyanir had swept in toward the Border planets of Earth Empire from the outer stars. In a thousand great star-ships they had crossed the voids between the Tucanae cluster and the Rim planets. Even moving through inter-dimensional space, the voyage had taken them centuries. They were hungry for fresh air, for sunlight, for fresh foods grown in normal dirt and for the taste of natural meat, not its manufactured equivalents.
They had come in peace, contacting the Rim world of Keshabar. In panic, the Keshabar forces had opened fire. The Lyanir shot back. There had been no attempt at negotiation, to arrive at a meeting of human and humanoid minds. Two fleets of the Empire Interstellar Command went out to meet the invaders and were swept into powdery nonexistence by strange rays that acted as does a vacuum on certain metals.
Empire sent its youngest Commander, Bran Magannon, out to meet the Lyanir. Commander Magannon gathered up what he could of the powdered hulks of those first two fleets and ordered the powder analyzed. By driving his Ordnance experts day and night he evolved a metallic compound that the Lyanir rays could not harm.
Once able to get his cruisers within missile range of the alien ships, he wrecked them in a running fight between Keshabar and Kuleen. The name of Bran Magannon was half a legend, already; it had been Captain Magannon who had destroyed the growing power of the sikals on Ceti-21; as Commander Magannon he had shattered the power of the Pumars a million miles outside Fomalhaut. With this latest victory he stood next in line to become Fleet Admiral. His name was a by-word from Earth to Moorn, his fame a toy for small boys to play at winning.
Such success will breed jealousy among both equals and superiors. While Commander Magannon was meeting with the young queen of the Lyanir, Peganna, to discuss surrender terms, Empire officials were making moves behind his back aimed at reducing his stature in the star worlds. It is not easy to smash an idol who has saved a people from defeat in such a way that their money boxes are scarcely opened. Commander Magannon was too fabulous a hero to be destroyed. The best anyone could hope for was dislodgement from his pinnacle which was bathed by stellar spotlight.
The surrender parley went on and on, while Commander Magannon and Peganna of the Silver Hair touched mouths under the skies of Kuleen, dancing nightly above the waters of the Loranian Sea or sipping chilled vinoral on the marble balconies looking out over the Tors. Lost in a world where only his love made sense, he gave his enemies time to perfect their moves.
When Commander Magannon came back from the stars with his Lyanir Treaty worked out to the satisfaction both of himself and young Peganna, his career rivals went to work. Lies and rumors were circulated. His love and friendship for Peganna were distorted into a plot to raise up the Double Ax banner of the Lyanir and create a new empire in the stars, an empire that would see Bran and Peganna become its rulers, an empire which would rival Earth. Forged documents were presented for study to the Tribunal judges even as a raging Bran Magannon lung outraged denials in the teeth of his accusers.
So great was his reputation, so much love had the common people for him, that he might have snatched victory out of threatening defeat had not the Lyanir lifted off Kuleen planet where they had contracted to remain during the treaty negotiations, and gone to Yvriss.
Yvriss sent back word it was being attacked.
No attack was ever made. There had been no bombs dropped or rays beamed down on the peaceful cities of Yvriss. Turned away, the Lyanir fled back into dimensional space, no man knew where. They faded out of existence, seemingly.
Some men said Bran Magannon had ordered their withdrawal, their flight. But there was no proof of this; the Tribunal judges accepted for consideration only the actual facts. They gave Commander Magannon the Solar Cluster and the Star-flare medal, but they put him down on Earth and told him to teach Spatial Warfare at the Academy. In his pride he turned in his resignation, put his uniform and his medals in mothballs, and went out to the stars as a civilian. Somewhere between Earth and the Rim planets, he had disappeared.
Only later, much later, did tales and rumors drift back to his home world of a wanderer who walked alone among the star worlds, who worked at one trade or another until he had enough money to travel on. After a while even those stories faded out; there was gossip that the Wanderer had found a strange and unique way to cross the voids between the stars. He never needed to go by spaceship any more. An archaeology team might sight him on unexplored Dravakian or barren Kaltal, but no one ever saw his spaceship or understood the manner of his coming and his going. He began to play the gaming tables with an odd pair of dice he had found in some forgotten ruin.
The myth of Bran the Lucky had been born.
Now under the three moons of Makkador, he stood once again beside Peganna of the Lyanir. Her voice as she whispered to him was a dirge for the might-have-been, lost in the night around them.
“We could have had so much, so long ago.”
She turned on a heel and walked more swiftly toward the spaceport where twin control towers made a pattern of chrome and glass against the starred sky. Bran went after the white silk of her chlamys as it whipped to her stride in the last few gusts of wind of the desert.
At the edge of the black tanbark, she halted.
“Bran–look!” she cried out, pointing.
He saw the sleek star-ship he had glimpsed hours before, standing bright and silvery in the moonlight. Grouped about its base were men in the white uniforms of the Star Fleet, weapons at the ready.
His arm drew her back into shadows. “Somebody alerted them that yours was a Lyanir star-ship They've put it under guard. They're waiting for you to come back.” He felt her shiver against him.
“What does that mean?”
“Officially, you're an enemy of the Empire. I'm a traitor for consorting with you.” At that in her pride, she would have pulled free of him but he would not let her go. “Easy! Be easy, girl. I've no intention of letting them come at you. We'll go somewhere else.”
“Where, on Makkador? When I don't return to the ship they'll send out searching parties. They'll invade every tavern, every house in Makkamar City. Then they'll start hunting from the air, in Zads. There's nowhere on Makkador for us to hide.”
His teeth showed like those of a wolf baring its fangs. "We'll go off Makkador, then–to safety.”
She was so startled she cried out as she turned to look up at him. “But how can we, with the spaceports closed? With my ship under quarantine?”
“There are ways I know.”
She looked at him queerly but went willingly enough to the tug of his hand at her elbow. They moved back along the narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs that made the su'udar stews a labyrinth of hiding places. Within the hour dawn would flood these cobbled streets and armed details of Fleet soldiers would be patrolling them, hunting the queen of a lost people and the man who loved her.
By dawn, the Wanderer wanted to be far away.