The Wooden Spaceships
by Bob Shaw

PART I
Gathering Shadows

Chapter 1

Lord Toller Maraquine took the bright sword out of the presentation case and held it in such a way that the foreday sun flamed along the blade. As before, he was captivated by its lucent beauty. In contrast to the black weapons traditionally used by his people it seemed to have an ethereal quality, akin to sunlight striking through fine mist, but Toller knew there was nothing unearthly about its powers. Even in its simplest, unmodified form the sword would have been the best killing instrument in history—and he had taken its development a step further.

He pressed a catch which was concealed by the ornamentation of the haft and a curved section sprang open to reveal a tubular cavity. The space was filled by a thin-walled glass vial containing a yellowish fluid. He made sure the vial was intact, then clicked its cover back into place. Reluctant to put the sword away, he tested its feel and balance for a few seconds and impulsively swept it into the first readiness position. At that moment his black-haired solewife, using her uncanny ability to materialise at precisely the wrong time, opened the door and entered the room.

“I beg your pardon—I had presumed you were alone.” Gesalla gave him a smile of sweet insincerity and glanced all about her. “Where is your opponent, by the way? Have you cut him into pieces so small that they can’t be seen, or was he invisible to begin with?”

Toller sighed and lowered the sword. “Sarcasm doesn’t become you.”

“And playing warriors doesn’t become you.” Gesalla crossed the floor to him, moving lightly and silently, and put her arms around his neck. “What age are you now, Toller? Fifty-three! When are you going to put notions of fighting and killing behind you?”

“As soon as all men become saints—and that may not be for a year or two yet.”

“Who’s being sarcastic now?”

“It must be infectious,” Toller said, smiling down at Gesalla, deriving a pleasure from merely looking at her which had scarcely diminished in the long course of their marriage. Their twenty-three years on Overland, many of them hard years, had not materially altered her looks or thickened her gracile form. One of the few discernible changes in Gesalla’s appearance was the single strip of silver which might have been applied to her hair by a skilled beautician. She still adopted a long and flowing style of dress in subdued colours, although Overland’s burgeoning textiles industry was as yet unable to produce the gauzy materials she had favoured on the old world.

“At what time is your appointment with the King?” Gesalla said, stepping back and examining his clothing with a critical eye. It was sometimes a source of contention between them that, in spite of his elevation to the peerage, he insisted on dressing like a commoner, usually in an open-necked shirt and plain breeches.

“At the ninth hour,” he replied. “I should leave soon.”

“And you’re going in that garb?”

“Why not?”

“It is hardly appropriate for an audience with the King,” Gesalla said. “Chakkell may take it as a discourtesy.”

“Let him take it any way he pleases.” Toller scowled as he laid the sword in its leather case and fastened the lid. “Sometimes I think I’ve had my fill of royals and all their ways.”

He saw the fleeting expression of concern on Gesalla’s face and was immediately sorry he had made the remark. Tucking the presentation case under his arm, he smiled again to indicate that he was actually in a cheerful and reasonable mood. He took Gesalla’s slim hand in his own and walked with her to the front entrance of the house. It was a single-storey structure, as were most dwellings on Overland, and had few architectural adornments, but the fact that it was stone-built and boasted ten spacious rooms marked it as the home of a nobleman. Masons and carpenters were still at a premium twenty-three years after the Great Migration, and the majority of the population had to make do with comparatively flimsy shelter.

Toller’s personal sword was hanging in its belted scabbard in the entrance hall. He reached for the weapon and then, out of consideration for Gesalla, turned away from it with a dismissive gesture and opened the door. The precinct beyond glowed so fiercely in the sun that its walls and pavement seemed to be light sources in their own right.

“I haven’t seen Cassyll today,” Toller said as heat billowed in past him. “Where is he?”

“He rose early and went straight to the mine.”

Toller nodded his approval. “He works hard.”

“A trait inherited from me,” Gesalla said. “You’ll return before littlenight?”

“Yes—I have no wish to prolong my business with Chakkell.” Toller went to his bluehorn, which was waiting patiently by a spear-shaped ornamental shrub. He strapped the leather case across the beast’s broad haunches, got into the saddle and waved goodbye to Gesalla. She responded with a single slow nod, her face unexpectedly grave.

“Look, I’m merely going on an errand to the palace,” Toller said. “Why must you look so troubled?”

“I don’t know—perhaps I have a premonition.” Gesalla almost smiled. “Perhaps you have been too quiet for too long.”

“But that makes me sound like an overgrown child,” Toller protested.

Gesalla opened her mouth to reply, changed her mind and disappeared into the house. Slightly disconcerted, Toller urged the bluehorn forward. At the precinct’s wooden gate the well-trained animal nuzzled the lock actuating plate, a device Cassyll had designed, and in a few seconds they were out in the vivid grasslands of the countryside.

The road—a strip of gravel and pebbles confined by twin lines of rocks—ran due east to intersect the highway leading to Prad, Overland’s principal city. The full acreage of Toller’s estate was being cultivated by tenant farmers and therefore showed different shades of green in strips, but beyond his boundaries the hills had their natural uniformity of colour, a rich verdancy which flowed to the horizon. There were no clouds or haze to soften the sun’s rays. The sky was a dome of timeless purity, with only a sprinkling of the brightest stars and an occasional meteor showing up against the overall brilliance. And directly above, gravitationally fixed in place, was the huge disk of the Old World, looming but not threatening—a reminder of the most momentous episode in all of Kolcorron’s history.

It was the kind of foreday on which Toller would normally have felt at peace with himself and the rest of the universe, but the uneasiness caused by Gesalla’s sombre mood had not yet faded from his mind. Could it be that she had a genuine prescience, intimations of forthcoming upheavals in their lives? Or, as was more likely, did she know him better than he knew himself and was able to interpret signals he was not even aware of giving?

There was no denying that of late he had been in the grip of a strange restlessness. The work he had done for the King in exploring and claiming Overland’s single continent had brought him honours and possessions; he was married to the only woman he had ever loved and had a son of whom he was proud—and yet, incredibly, life had begun to seem flat. The prospect of continuing on this pleasant and undemanding course until he silted up with old age and died filled him with a sense of suffocation. Feeling like a betrayer, he had done his utmost to conceal his state of mind from Gesalla, but he had never yet managed to deceive her for long about anything…

Far ahead of him Toller saw a small group of soldiers moving north on the highway. He paid them little heed for several minutes until it came to him that their progress towards Prad was unusually slow for a mounted party. In the mood to welcome any distraction, he took his small telescope out of his pouch and trained it on the distant group. The reason for their tardiness was immediately obvious—four men on bluehorns were escorting a man on foot who was almost certainly their prisoner.

Toller closed the telescope and put it away, frowning as he contemplated the fact that crime was virtually unknown on Overland. There was too much work to be done, few people had anything worth stealing, and the sparseness of the population made it difficult for wrongdoers to hide.

His curiosity now aroused, Toller increased his speed and reached the intersection with the highway shortly ahead of the slow-moving group. He brought his steed to a halt and studied the approaching men. Green gauntlet emblems on the breasts of the riders told him they were private soldiers in the employ of Baron Panvarl. The lightly built man stumbling along at the centre of a square formed by the four bluehorns was about thirty and was dressed like an ordinary farmer. His wrists were bound in front of him and lines of dried blood reaching down from his matted black hair showed that he had been roughly handled.

Toller had already decided that he had no liking for the soldiers when he saw the prisoner’s eyes lock on him and widen in recognition, an event which in turn stimulated Toller’s memory. He had failed to identify the man right away because of his dishevelled appearance, but now he knew him to be Oaslit Spennel, a fruit farmer whose plot was some four miles to the south. Spennel occasionally supplied berries for the Maraquine household, and his reputation was that of a quiet, industrious man of good character. Toller’s initial dislike for the soldiers hardened into straightforward antagonism.

“Good foreday, Oaslit,” he called out, advancing his bluehorn to block the road. “It surprises me to find you in such dubious company.”

Spennel held out his bound wrists. “I have been placed under false arrest, my…”

“Silence, dung-eater!” The sergeant leading the company made a threatening gesture at Spennel, then turned baleful eyes on Toller. He was a barrel-chested man, somewhat old for his rank, with coarse features and the glowering expression of one who had seen a great deal of life without benefiting from the experience. His gaze zigzagged over Toller, who watched impassively, knowing that the sergeant was trying to relate the plainness of his garb to the fact that he rode a bluehorn which sported the finest quality tack.

“Get out of the way,” the sergeant said finally.

Toller shook his head. “I demand to hear the nature of the charges against this man.”

“You demand a great deal—” The sergeant glanced at his three companions and they responded with grins. “—for one who ventures abroad unarmed.”

“I have no need of weapons in these parts,” Toller said. “I am Lord Toller Maraquine—perhaps you have heard of me.”

“Everybody has heard of the Kingslayer,” the sergeant muttered,, augmenting the disrespect in his tone by delaying the correct form of address. “My lord.”

Toller smiled as he memorised the sergeant’s face. “What are the charges against your prisoner?”

“The swine is guilty of treason—and will face the executioner today in Prad.”

Toller dismounted, moving slowly to give himself time to assimilate the news, and went to Spennel. “What’s this I hear, Oaslit?”

“It’s all lies, my lord.” Spennel spoke quickly in a low, frightened monotone. “I swear to you I am totally without blame. I offered no insult to the baron.”

“Do you mean Panvarl? How does he come into this?”

Spennel looked nervously at the soldiers before replying. “My farm adjoins the baron’s estate, my lord. The spring which waters my trees drains down on to his land and…” Spennel’s voice faded and he shook his head, momentarily unable to continue.

“Go on, man,” Toller said. “I can’t help you unless I know the whole story.”

Spennel swallowed audibly. “The water lies in a basin and makes the land swampy at a place where the baron likes to exercise his bluehorns. Two days ago he came to my house and ordered me to block the spring off with boulders and cement. I told him I needed the water for my livelihood and offered to channel it away from his land. He became angry and told me to begin blocking the spring without further delay. I told him there was little point in doing so, because the water would find another way to the surface… and it was… it was then that he accused me of insulting him. He rode off vowing that he would obtain a warrant from the King for my… for my arrest and execution on a charge of treason.”

“All this over a patch of muddy ground!” Toller pinched his lower lip in bafflement. “Panvarl must be losing his reason.”

Spennel managed a lop-sided travesty of a smile. “Hardly, my lord. Other farmers have forfeited their land to him.”

“So that’s the way of it,” Toller said in a low hard voice, feeling a return of the disillusionment which at times had almost made him a recluse. There had been a period immediately following the arrival of mankind on Overland when he had genuinely believed that the race had made a new start. Those had been the heady years of the exploration and settlement of the green continent which girdled the planet, when it had seemed that all men could be equal and that their old wasteful ways would be abandoned. He had clung to his hopes even when the realities of the situation had begun to become obtrusive, but eventually he had reached the point of having to ask himself if the journey between the worlds had been an exercise in futility…

“Have no fear,” he said to Spennel. “You’re not going to die on account of Panvarl. You have my word on that.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you…” Spennel glanced again at the soldiers and lowered his voice to a whisper. “My lord, is it in your power to free me now?”

Toller had to shake his head. “For me to go against the King’s warrant would prejudice your case even further. Besides, it is more in accord with our purpose if you continue to Prad on foot—that way I can be there well ahead of you and will have ample time in which to speak to the King.”

“Thank you again, my lord, from the bottom of my…” Spennel paused, looking oddly ashamed of himself, like a merchant pressing for an advantage which even he conceded was unfiar. “If anything should befall me, my lord, would you be so… would you inform my wife and daughter, and see to their…?”

“Nothing untoward is going to happen to you,” Toller said, almost sharply. “Now be at your ease as far as is possible and leave the rest of this sorry business to me.”

He turned, walked casually to his bluehorn and hoisted himself into the saddle, feeling some concern over the fact that Spennel, regardless of the guarantees he had been given, still half-expected to die. It was a sign of the times, an indication that not only was he no longer in favour with the King, but that his fall from favour had been widely noted. Personally he cared little about such things, but it would be serious indeed if he found himself unable to help a man in Spennel’s predicament.