Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Voyage of the Minotaur - Chapter 8 Excerpt


It was mid-afternoon when Terrence stepped back out of the tent and back into the marketplace of Nutooka. He paid no attention to words of goodbye from Oyunbileg. As it always did afterwards, the color seemed to have drained out of the world and it now looked as monochrome as a picture from a photographic plate. And just as they always did afterwards, sounds seemed far more intense than usual, and he felt as though he could pick out individual voices from among the crowd of native merchants and their customers. He pulled off his slouch hat to mop the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, and then started as two women brushed past him. They were two women from the Minotaur, and seemed too engrossed in their conversation to notice him.
He recognized both women. One was Professor Calliere’s red-haired assistant. The other was a dark-haired woman, about two inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, who was a female medical doctor. Her name was something that started with a ‘k’ sound—Cleves or Keeves or something. Terrence stood and admired both women as they walked near the edge of the stall selling bolts of cloth in many colors. Both were women of class: dynamic, intelligence, determined. They were both the kind of women that he could have seen himself courting, in another life.
He was still watching the two women when the sounds of a great kafuffle somewhere on the other side of the market reached his ears. No sooner had this registered than seven or eight mounted men rode into the market near the two women from the Minotaur. These riders were dressed in various clothing of tan, brown, and white, but each had a red sash wrapped around his waist, and each wore a red hood completely covering his face, with only two holes cut out through which to see. The most remarkable thing about these mounted men though, wasn’t the men themselves, but their mounts. Terrence knew that horses were unavailable on Enclep, but it was still a shock to see riders upon huge, ferocious-looking birds. The birds were as tall as a horse, though unlike that noble steed, they ran on only two massive legs, and had tiny useless wings. Their clawed feet were almost two feet across and the massive beaks upon their mammoth heads looked as though it could easily clip off a man’s arm, or disembowel him in a moment. They were mostly covered with brown feathers, though there were black and white details on some of them. The men had them saddled, and though they squawked incessantly, they seemed to be under firm control.
One of the men on bird-back, reached down and scooped up Professor Calliere’s assistant as though she were a shapely bag of wheat. Another grabbed the female medical doctor. Still another grabbed a native woman from nearby. Two or three had already appropriated women from somewhere else in the market and two more tried to grab nearby native women only to be thwarted by their intended victims diving behind market stalls. The entire flock of riders raced to escape the market and the city, which led them down the path directly toward Terrence Dechantagne.
With one deft motion, Terrence pulled both his nickel-plated forty five revolvers from their shoulder holsters. He fired first one and then the other in rapid succession emptying all twelve cylinders. The first rider fell to the ground, hit several times, as did the great bird that he had ridden. The second rider, shot through the neck, tumbled to the ground. The woman that had been his captive plopped unceremoniously onto the dirt. The rest of the riders turned their birds, in a way that would have been impossible in the confined area had they been riding horses, and headed for the far side of the pathway between stalls, leaving their dead fellows and a single noisy giant bird behind.
Quickly popping the cylinders of his revolvers open and reloading them, Terrence barely noticed the short red-head at his side. He tasted the metallic cloud of gunpowder smoke that hung in the humid air. By the time he had finished reloading the guns though, the mounted men had turned the corner and vanished, and he had time to take notice that it was the professor’s assistant whom he had rescued from the second rider.
“Are you alright, Miss?
“Lusk, Egeria Lusk. You’re going after them.” She said. It was more a command than a question.
Not taking time to realize that it was an employee of an employee, as well as a woman, who was now ordering him about, Terrence just nodded, stuffed his two guns back into their holsters, and taking a running jump, leapt into the empty saddle of the now riderless bird. The bird turned its head around almost one hundred eighty degrees and snapped its mighty beak, taking off one of his shirt pockets and a little bit of chest hair. Terrence balled up his fist and punched the creature in the head as hard as he could, then grabbed the reigns and kicked the bird in the flanks, just as he would have done a horse. The monstrous avian, apparently now satisfied as to just who was boss, shot off through the marketplace.
The trail of the kidnappers was not difficult to follow. They had created a great deal of disturbance as they raced through Nutooka with their captives. The first problem was that the people of the town had filled in the pathway behind the riders: people here, as anywhere else, wanting to see for themselves what all the commotion was about. The second problem was that Terrence had never ridden a bird before. He had ridden horses, mules, and once, when drunk he had even ridden a pig, but never so much as a chicken until now. Even though he was firmly seated in a saddle, it seemed as though the saddle was constantly about to slip off the rear end of the swaying animal. The net result was that even though they were many and he was only one, and even though they had the additional weight of their captives, these men, these apparent kidnappers were leaving him behind.
Following a narrow but distinct dirt pathway, the trail of the band of riders on their giant birds swept down a few nearby streets and then out of town and into the jungle. This pathway was one of the frequently used corridors through the dense jungle from Nutooka to outlying farms and villages in the area. Even to Terrence, relatively unskilled at tracking, the evidence of their passage was plain. Broken branches on the edge of the road, as well as large and distinctive footprints in the dirt, kept him on the right track.
Seven or eight miles from the city, Terrence heard the sharp crack of rifle fire and the whiz of bullets as they passed by his head. He pulled up sharp on the reigns of the great bird and tried to see where the shots had come from. He spotted two riflemen high in the jungle trees, just as they fired for a second time. One was to the right of the path and one was to the left. Both wore the scarlet sashes around their waists and the scarlet hoods of the gang that he was following. A shot went straight through his mount’s head. The monstrous bird reared back then fell; leaving Terrence on his back, with his left leg pinned by the avian’s neck. Pulling out both revolvers, he pointed one in the direction of each of the riflemen and fired six quick shots, three from each pistol. He was rewarded with a cry of pain from the rifleman to the right and saw the man plummet from the tree. He turned both pistols on the left rifleman and fired the remaining six shots. The second rifleman fell from the tree too, but he fell without a sound.
Still lying on his back, Terrence reloaded his guns. He expected to be shot at again at any moment, but no more gunfire erupted from the jungle. The gang of kidnappers had left only two of their members to deal with him. While he had to admire their ability to climb jungle trees and shoot rifles from their perches, Terrence was glad that they had underestimated him. He kicked his leg free of the giant dead bird, and stood up. Then he retrieved his hat which had fallen off. He had a decision to make. Did he continue on foot, not knowing how many miles lay between him and those he was pursuing, or did he go back for help? Did he abandon a woman from the Minotaur to some unknown but undoubtedly horrible fate?
The sounds coming from the trail behind him relieved him of the need to make such a difficult decision. The unmistakable hiss and chug of a steam carriage was clearly audible before the vehicle itself appeared in the road. Driving was Augustus Dechantagne. Sitting next to him was a man that Terrence had never seen before. The two wizards, Dudley Labrith and Suvir Kesi, sat in the back seat. The vehicle came to a stop just in front of Terrence, who hopped up onto the passenger side running board.
“There you are, old man,” said Augie. “Heard you were having trouble. Miss Lusk told me what happened and I grabbed some help and here I am.”

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