> The haughty maid has left the Mink, > She finds her father's place; > The squire has looked her in the eye: > "Now what a fox to chase!"
> He's called in all his friends and kin, > And dealt out guns and shells; > He's sworn an oath to catch the Mink > By all the seven hells!
> —Ruck's Ballad of the Mink
Lady Nirea was puffing and blowing and clawing her way through endless mile_f creepers, thorns, and brushwood. She wished Revel were carrying her now, even if it meant the loss of her clothing again. Now she appreciated what _ob he'd done, for naked though she'd been, not half as many scratches ha_arred her skin on their first journey.
Ahead of her, the giant called Rack was doing his best to break trail for her; and in front of him, with a rope under his arms which the red-bearded man hel_ightly, went Dawvys, her father's servant.
As she understood the tale from Rack's few sentences, growled out in a voic_hat reeked with hatred of somebody, whether herself or Revel or whom sh_ouldn't tell, he had caught Dawvys just emerging from the forest and made hi_ead the way back to the domed glade. Ewyo the squire had sent Rack out fo_er, and Rack was evidently all a rucker should be—faithful, reverent, an_bedient to the least command of the gentry.
She remembered waking, Revel's strong hand still clamped on her wrist, an_eeing this walleyed brute just aiming a swing of a pick at his brother'_ead. She had screamed, and Rack had missed. She wondered whether he had mean_o hit at all. There was already a bloody gash on Revel's scalp, and th_ittle yellow man, Jerran, lay quite still with red trickling out of his head.
Then Rack had picked up Revel's pick and disengaged the grip of his hand (wa_t as cold and lifeless as she'd thought? could the Mink be dead?) from he_rist, and booted Dawvys out on the trail.
That had been hours ago. They were still bumbling through the forest, althoug_he sun was high.
"He's leading us wrong," she panted. "Don't trust him. He's an importan_ebel."
"He wants to live as badly as we do, Lady. He'll take us home."
And sure enough, they had come shortly to the rim of the woodland. She swaye_nd nearly collapsed. "Give me your arm, rucker," she said. "I give yo_ermission to touch me."
His arm was like stone, supporting her along the road to Dolfya's outskirt_here her father's mansion lay. After a few minutes he dropped the rope tha_eld Dawvys. "Damn," he said loudly, "he will get away!" and bent to retriev_t. Dawvys leaped off like a pinched frog, and Rack said grimly, "No use t_hase that one, he can sprint faster than a dozen hulks like me."
"You let him go," said Nirea.
He turned his blue eye on her. "That is as you see fit to believe, Lady."
She would turn him over to her father's huntsman, she thought. Or would she?
He'd saved her … was this gratitude in her mind? It was a foreign emotion.
Wait and see, she told herself; don't fret now. She was very tired.
They came to the house of Ewyo, a sprawling erection of field stone an_ncient brick dug from distant ruins of another time. No one could make brick_ike that now. She touched the gate in the wall and instantly a dozen hounds, gaunt and savage, came leaping from the lawns. Recognizing her, they fawned, and she opened the gate. "Come in," she said. He grunted and obeyed, eyein_he dogs.
In the library of the house, which contained more than twenty priceless book_llowed her ancestors by the gods, she met her father, the squire Ewyo. H_cowled up at Rack.
"You bring this rucker, this miner, into the library, Nirea?"
Not a word of greeting, she thought, not a single expression of relief at he_afety. For the first time she began to contrast the manners of the gentr_ith those of Revel. He was rough, true, and crude and inclined to glory i_is animal strength, and he had made love to her, to boot; but if he had foun_er after thinking her dead, by the Orbs! he wouldn't have snarled ou_omething about an unimportant convention!
"The man saved me at great risk, and killed his own brother doing it," sh_aid coldly. She would not mention Dawvys at all. Not now! "He deserves _eward, Ewyo, and not harsh words from you."
He slapped his high sleek boots with a hunting crop. He was a burly, beefy- looking man, nothing like the lean tough Mink. She felt a sense of revulsion.
She turned to Rack and stared at the big face, scarred by whipping branches, firm and fearless, as hard as the heart of a mountain. "Go home and get som_leep, Rack," she said kindly. "You'll hear from me later."
"I have no home, Lady," he answered. "The gods destroyed our part of the tow_esterday."
Ewyo snorted, "Dawvys can give him a bed for now in the servants' huts.
It was on her tongue to say that Dawvys wouldn't be likely to answer his bawl, but the man appeared in the doorway, spruce and clean, with only a fe_cratches to tell of his activities. "Yes, Lord Ewyo?"
"Take this rucker and find a bed for him. Jump!"
"Yessir." Dawvys, a plump fellow with no hint of his enormous endurance in hi_ook, motioned Rack out of the library.
Ewyo said, "Well! How are you, Nirea? Your sister Jann and I have bee_orrying."
"I'm all right."
"Did you suffer indignities at the hands of that crazy miner?"
He looked like a damned red-faced bear, she thought, and surprised herself b_aying, "Revel treated me with—with much consideration."
"Huh! Wouldn't have thought it. You want to sleep?"
"Don't bother about me," she said, turning. "Get on with your pressin_usiness, father." She went to her room and lay down on the satin-sheeted be_ithout even removing the tattered rucker's clothes. For a long while she la_here, thinking. Then she did a thing that no one could ever have convince_er she'd do till that day. She changed into a sheer black gown, after bathin_f course, and slipped downstairs to her father's private room.
She had never been in it, no one but Ewyo had; she had no clear notion of wha_he was looking for. But an army of questions warred in her mind, and i_eemed to her that there were secrets she must discover: answers which she ha_ever looked for, explanations for things she had always taken for granted.
For instance, she thought, turning the handle slowly and without noise, wh_ere the gentry the gentry? Why did the gods allow almost anything to he_ind, when the ruck had no rights? She shook her head. All her breeding sai_he was mad, yet she opened the door of the private room and walked in.
Dawvys whirled from where he had been bending over a huge leather-bound boo_n a table. His face was white, but it cleared of panic when he saw her.
"The Lady Nirea moves silently."
"What are you doing here?" she asked sharply.
"The same thing you mean to do, Lady. I'm seeking the answers to certai_roblems."
"Can a rucker read minds like a globe?"
He laughed. "It was an obvious guess, Lady."
"And have you found answers, Dawvys?"
He sighed. "I cannot read, as the Lady knows. No rucker reads."
She watched his face a moment. "Stay here," she said. " _I_ can read."
"The Lady of the Mink is kind," he said, bowing. The title did not shock her.
Strangeness on strangeness!
The book was full of queer writing, like none she had ever seen. Instead o_etters that each stood alone, the letters were joined, each word being a uni_ithout a break; and they seemed to stand up a little from the page, not bein_unken into the paper as all printing was that she had seen.
With difficulty she read a few sentences.
"This day the third in the month of Orbuary I did feed the gods, more tha_orty of them in the morning and twenty after eating. I am so weak I ca_ardly hold this pen."
"What does it mean?" asked Dawvys.
"I don't know." She flipped a page. "This day did hunt the fox, he being _trong untiring trapper who was found with forbidden ale cached in his house, and chased him over eight mile before he went to earth in a spinney, where th_ogs found him and tore him to bits. Afterwards did feed nine gods, who hav_rained me so I cannot see but in a fog," she read aloud.
"That's your father speaking," whispered Dawvys, "He hunted a trapper las_onth."
"But how is it down here, if it was Ewyo? The books were made many year_efore my grandfather was born. No one makes books now. The art is lost."
"Nevertheless, I think Ewyo made this one himself. Unless it's a prophecy o_he gods." He turned the book over. "What does it say on the outside?"
She read it with cold grue inching up her back. "Ewyo of Dolfya, His Ledge_nd Record Book."
"Then he did make it."
"How? How could he? The art is lost!"
"Many things the ruck believed have been proved false in these last hours,"
Dawvys said. "Perhaps the gentry's beliefs are equally wrong."
She left the book and went to a desk by the oiled-paper window. A drawer wa_artly open. Inside was a big heap of dandelions, thick grasses, and wil_arsley. She remembered Jerran's taunt, "Your father eats dandelions!"
"Dawvys, why are these here?"
"I don't know, Lady. I gather them and the squire eats them, but why, I can'_ay."
There was a sound at the door. Dawvys sprang toward the brocaded hangings, to_ate; Ewyo thrust in his head, black rage on his features.
"What in the seven hells are you doing here, Nirea?"
The habits of a lifetime couldn't be overcome by a day in the presence of th_ink. She said quickly, "I saw Dawvys come in, father, and followed him."
"Oh. Good for you. Dawvys, report yourself to the huntsman for a fox!"
Dawvys bowed and went out. She breathed freely; he would escape, and stil_he'd saved herself. What Ewyo might have done to her, she didn't know, bu_he feared him when he was roused.
She yearned to ask him about the book and the weeds, but didn't dare. Sh_assed him and went to the resting room, where she occupied a chair for a_our, blankly pondering the tottering of her universe.
At last she stood up. She was a gentrywoman, she had guts in her belly. Wh_houldn't she ask her father questions? Before she could think about it an_row scared, she went searching, and ran across her sister Jann.
Jann was twenty-four, a tall ash-blonde woman with snaky amber eyes an_ointed ears who lorded it over the household.
"Have you seen Ewyo?"
"He's in the private room."
She headed for it, and Jann ran to catch at her arm. "You can't disturb hi_here!"
"I've been in it before."
Jann clawed at her. "You haven't! Even I was only there once… ."
"Even you. My, my." Nirea walked on, Jann tugging at her futilely. "I have t_alk to him."
"Stop! Damn you, you whelp, you can't—"
With precision and force, Nirea socked her sister in the left eye. Then sh_trode down the hall and knocked on the door of the private room an_mmediately went in.
The sight that greeted her, completely incomprehensible, was still a_evolting and horrifying a thing as she had ever seen. Her father lay back i_ big armchair, relaxed and half-asleep to judge from his hanging arms an_arely open eyes. A curious sound, a kind of brrm-brrm, came from his chest.
Resting on his throat was a golden globe. Two of its tentacles were pushe_lmost out of sight into his nostrils, two more dipped into his gaping mouth.
The remaining four waved slowly above the squire's face.
The globe floated upward, slowly, grudgingly. Its tentacles withdrew from th_quire. Ewyo stirred and opened his pale eyes to glare at her. A flush o_ideous fury spread up his cheeks. He struggled to his feet and lurched ove_nd slapped her face, so that she ceased to scream and fell against the wall, moaning. The squire stood over her.
"You meddlesome bitch, I ought to have you cut up for the hounds!"
"In the name of the Orbs," she said, whimpering, "what were you doing?"
He grimaced at her like a madman. "You're not supposed to be told till you'r_wenty, and you don't do it yourself till you reach twenty-eight."
" _Do it myself._ "
"Certainly." He gave a humorless snort of laughter. "D'you think we don't pa_or the privilege of being gentry, you fool? Now leave me alone!" He lifte_er and flung her at the door. The golden sphere hovered motionless in th_ir. "Never speak of what you saw, and never ask another question of me til_our twentieth birthday … if you live to reach it!"
She fumbled the door open and staggered into the hall, and wept there wit_wful tearing sobs, while her sister Jann looked at her and giggle_ysterically.