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«The Jester at Scar», E.C Tubb

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Chapter One


In the lamplight, the woman's face was drawn, anxious. "Earl," she said. "Earl, please wake up."

Dumarest opened his eyes, immediately alert. "What is it?"

"Men," she said, "moving outside. I thought I heard noises from the street, screams and the sound of laughter." The guttering flame of the lamp threw patches of moving shadow across her face as she straightened from the side of the bed. "Cruel laughter, it had an ugly sound."

He frowned, listening and hearing nothing but the normal violence of the night. "A dream," he suggested. "A trick of the wind."

"No." She was emphatic. "I've lived on this world too long to be mistaken. I heard something unnatural, the noise of men searching, perhaps. But it was there; I didn't imagine it."

Dumarest threw back the covers and rose, the soft lamp light shining on his hard, white skin and accentuating the thin scars of old wounds. The interior of the hut was reeking with damp, the ground soggy beneath his bare feet. He took his clothes from the couch and quickly dressed in pants, knee-high boots and a sleeved tunic which fell to mid-thigh. Carefully he fastened the high collar around his throat. From beneath the pillow he took a knife and sheathed it in his right boot.

"Listen." said the woman urgently. The lamp was a bowl of translucent plastic containing oil and a floating wick. It shook a little in her hand. "Listen!"

He tensed, ears straining against the ceaseless drum of rain, the gusting sough of wind. The wind slackened a little then blew with redoubled force, sending a fine spray of rain through the poorly constructed walls of the shack. More rain came through the sloping, unguttered roof and thin streams puddled the floor. Among such a medley of sounds it would be easy to imagine voices.

Relaxing, Dumarest glanced at the woman. She stood tall, the lamp now steady in her hand. Her eyes were set wide apart, deep beneath their brows; thick, brown hair had been cropped close to her rounded skull. Her hands were slim and delicate, but her figure was concealed by the motley collection of clothing she wore for warmth and protection. Beyond her a few embers glowed in an open fireplace built of stone. Dumarest crossed to it, dropped to his knees beside a box and fed scraps of fuel from the box to the embers. Flames rose, flickered and illuminated the woman's home.

It wasn't much. The bed where he'd slept was in one corner of the single room which was about ten feet by twelve. A curtain, now drawn back, split the single room in half during times of rest. The woman's couch rested in the far corner beyond the curtain. A table, benches and chests, all of rough construction, completed the furnishings. The walls were of stones bedded in dirt; uprights supported the sagging roof. Against the dirt and stone, fragments of brightly colored plastic-sheeting merged with salvaged wrappings from discarded containers.

Smoke wafted from the burning fuel and made him cough.

"Quiet!" warned the woman. She turned to Dumarest. "They're coming back," she said. "I can hear them."

He rose, listened and heard the squelch of approaching footsteps.

They halted, and something hard slammed against the barred door.

"Open!" The voice was flat and harsh. "We are travelers in need of shelter; open before we drown."

Lamplight glittered from her eyes. "Earl?"

"A moment." Dumarest stepped quietly forward and stood beside the door. It would open inward and away from where he stood, giving him a clear field if action should it be necessary. His hand dipped to his boot and rose bearing nine inches of razor-sharp steel. "Don't argue with them," he said softly. "Just open the door and step back a little. Don't look towards me. Hold the lamp above your head."

She glanced at the knife held sword-fashion in his hand. "And you?"

"That depends." His face was expressionless. "If they are genuine travelers seeking accommodation, send them on their way; or take them in if you prefer their company to mine. If they are besotted fools looking for something to entertain them, they will leave when they discover there is nothing for them here. If not…" He shrugged. "Open the door."

Wind gusted as she swung open the panel, driving in a spray of rain and the ubiquitous smell of the planet. From outside grated a voice, harsh against the wind.

"Hold, Brephor. No need to knock again. You there, woman, your name is Selene?"


"And you sell food and shelter. That, at least, was what we were told." The voice became impatient. "Step forward and show yourself; I have no wish to talk to shadows."

Silently she obeyed, moving the lamp so as to let the guttering light shine on her face; she remained impassive at the sound of sharply indrawn breath.

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