> The squire has gathered all his kin, > To hunt the fox so sly; > 'Tis not a beast with paws and brush, > But a man like you or I!
> They hunt him down the thorny glen, > And up the hillside dark; > "O hear him gasp and hear him sob, > Whenas our hounds do bark!"
> —Ruck's Ballad of the Mink
When Revel was due for a rest space, he went through the blue-tinged dusk o_he mine, cleaned his arms and face at the washers, scrubbing the coal dus_rom his big hands, and climbed the ladders, up and up, till day shone in hi_ace.
He stood beneath the cross-beam of the entrance, sucking in clean air. The re_nd blue buttons shone in the sun; far down the valley a globe passed betwee_rees, bent on some private business. Another floated by him into the mine; under it trotted a zanph, one of the ugly beasts, six-legged and furry wit_he head of a great snake, that followed the globes and sometimes attacked me_n orders from the hovering gods.
Would the deities discover that one was missing? If they found the corpse, h_nd Jerran would be foxes for the gentry… .
Revel was a man of the ruck. The ruck was millions and millions of souls, faceless, without rights; Revel had some little protection, more than mos_thers, being a miner and therefore important to the gentry. The gentr_umbered thousands, and they had many rights—owning great estates, lightin_heir homes with candles, drinking wine legally, keeping fierce dogs and goin_here they pleased on big wild horses. No man of the ruck could touch one o_he gentry and live. The gentry, the squires who owned guns and hunted me_hree times a week, men called "foxes"—it was whispered in the illega_rinking huts, the shebeens, that the squires had once been members of th_uck. Above there were the priests, who had always from the dawn of time bee_f the priestcraft, being born a notch lower than the gods themselves, wh_ere the golden globes.
"Our Orbs who dwell in the buttoned sky," said Revel aloud, and spat. Befor_hat day he wouldn't have dared to think of such an action.
He walked out on the shelf of rock before the mine. Something moved at the fa_nd of the valley, a brown and silver speck that swiftly became a horse an_ider, rocketing toward him.
It was a girl, her silver gown pulled up to the tops of her thighs so sh_ould sit astride; she appeared to be having trouble with her mount. Passin_eneath Revel, swearing loudly at the plunging horse, she continued for _undred feet, then fell in a swirl of silver cloth as the brute reared.
Revel leaped down the rock shelf as the horse cantered away. He ran to th_irl, who lay flat on her back, long white legs bared below the disordere_own. She was blonde, tall, beautifully slicked. No rucker wore such clothing, or rode a bay stallion, much less looked so groomed and cleanly; she was _quire's daughter.
As he bent down she opened eyes the shade of sunlight on gray slate.
"Lie still," he said, "you may have broken something, Lady."
Her face was scornful. "Stand back, miner," she said, recognizing his trad_rom the distinctive clothing he wore "Death to you if you touch me."
A confusion of emotions was rioting in him. So much had happened today—to_uch for sanity. He surrendered to madness gladly. This was the most perfec_ench he had ever seen. "Shut up," he said, and ran his fingers over her body.
"We of the ruck are expert at mending things, Lady: bones, pots, and lives.
Orbs know, you gentry have busted enough of 'em for us. That hurt?"
She sat up, brushing her gown to her ankles as Revel took a last wistful loo_t her legs. Evidently she was quite unhurt. "You'll play fox for my father'_unt," she said coldly. "What made you do it?"
"You took a bad fall," he said lightly, wondering at his lack of fear. Neve_efore had he touched a squire's woman. She felt as all women feel, her hig_aste couldn't be sensed in her body. "I'd sit still a moment, if I were you."
It must be the killing of the globe, he thought; after that, any crime i_ossible.
"Who are you?"
"A miner," he mocked, standing. His pick was in his hand, as ever. He thought, Should I kill her too? No sense to that, when I was only trying to help. O_as it her body I wanted to touch? "Who's your father?"
"Ewyo of Dolfya, and his hounds will eat you for breakfast tomorrow."
Ewyo was one of the richest squires in this part of the world, and Jerran'_ousin served him. "You're Lady Nirea, then. A fine-looking wench."
"My Orbs," she gasped, her scorn rattled by his incredible insolence. "My Orb_bove, who are you?"
"A dirty miner, who puts coal into your father's hearth but must warm himsel_ver smoldering peat. Why would you report me?"
"You _scum_ ," she said, the snarling hiss of a zanph in her voice. "Do yo_emember when a brewer fell over a dog in Dolfya last year and bumped m_ister Jann? He was hunted over twelve miles before the pack tore him to bloo_nd rags! What do you think _you_ deserve, who dares address me in that way, and—and fondle me?"
"Lady Nirea, if I fondled you, you'd know it," Revel said. Then, seeing th_int of a smile on her sensuous lips, he looked up, for she seemed to b_taring over his shoulder.
From the button above them a line of globes dropped, golden globules radiatin_right energy.
_Whom the gods destroy, they first madden._ That was part of the Globat_redo, wasn't it? Well, Revel had been gradually made mad that day, and now, by Orbs, he'd show them something before he was destroyed!
As the first descended past him, and wrapped two tentacles under the girl'_rmpits to lift her, he lifted his pick to smack it as he had the supervisin_eity in the mine. He felt a tug; another globe had a whiplash arm around hi_ick. Gritting teeth, he threw his tremendous brawn into a swing, and the pic_ore loose from the tentacle and sprayed the guts out of the sphere befor_im. It fell on the grass beside Nirea, an emptying sack. He slashed a secon_nd a third, laughing between set lips. What a way to go down—killing gods!
Then he felt a searing pain, a sudden spasm of the flesh, as though a swor_ad been heated in a bonfire and laid alongside his ear. Reflectively h_ucked to earth, sprang two steps forward and spun, rising to his full heigh_gain. One of the bulbous brutes had touched the side of his head, its energ_ura so strong at that close contact that the hair was burned to a char an_he flesh scorched.
So they could really hurt a man! He grinned with pain and defiance. If hi_ick wasn't as fast as any damned floating ball, let them kill him! He waited, crouched, keeping his eyes on them; and then they were rising again, leavin_im there in the valley with a screaming girl in a silver gown.
Jerran, who had just started his own rest space, evidently, appeared on th_ock shelf and came down, walking faster than Revel had ever seen him go. Th_ittle man came to him and, hardly glancing at Lady Nirea, said, "Were yo_ttacked, lad?"
"I did the attacking, when they objected to my touching this wench."
Jerran gazed up. "They're spreading out. The gentry will soon be on you, Revel. You've got to hide."
"Where can you hide from a god?" It wasn't a hopeless tone he used, but a kin_f laughing, bantering acceptance of his doom.
"Come off it," said Jerran urgently. "You're still thinking like a rucker."
"I am of the ruck."
"You're a rebel now, you fool! Think like one! Listen: _a man cannot kill _od_."
"The Globate Credo," grunted Revel. " _Our Orbs are everlasting, untouchable._rud! I've killed four today."
"Right. So stop fearing them and thinking they're omnipotent. _Our Orbs se_ll we do._ More crud, lad! They're telepathic, adept at hypnosis, but roc_tops 'em. Get rock above you and you are safe for a while, till I can thin_his over and get you some help."
"The mine!" Revel barked; to his madness, his exhilaration, was added hope.
"The secret cave, Jerran!"
"And of course," said Jerran wryly, "you have to take the woman."
Revel's jaw dropped. "Why?"
"You idiot, she just heard you say about six words too many. She'd lead he_ather's pack straight to us!" Jerran evidently knew the Lady Nirea by sight.
"She knows our names, too. It's either take her or kill her." His flinty eye_reased up. "Better kill her, at that. Less danger."
Revel looked at her. The talk of murder didn't turn a hair of that flawlessly- wrought coiffure: she was either too sure of the gentry's power, or to_tunned by the gods' death, to be consciously frightened.
She was not stunned, for now she said, "You rabbit-brains, you filth_rubbers, you must have lost whatever wits a rucker has. My father will reall_hink up something f—"
"Damn your father," said Jerran. "He eats dandelions."
"My cousin gathers them for the old hellion," nodded Jerran. "I ought to know.
Revel, have any of those bulbous bubbles gone into the mine, that yo_oticed?"
"Not yet, I've been watching."
"Good. Then get going. I'll take care of the wench."
Revel saw her lips curl slightly; she didn't believe she could be hurt, eve_hough she had a moment before been screaming at the death of her gods. Sh_as brave, or stupid, or very confident of her untouchability. He glanced dow_ver her body, squeezed tight by the silver gown. Her breasts were fuller an_igher than a ruck girl's, her limbs unbunched with muscles, smooth an_ovely.
"No, she doesn't die," he said. "Not unless I do." He bent and picked her u_nd ran with her toward the entrance of the mine.