THE AIR WAS THICK and the heat oppressive. Outside the flap of canvas that covered the doorway, a vast range of beige desert overlaid by a scattering of scrub ran to the horizon. The line of dust raised by the approach of the caravan hung motionless in the air, stretching south from the oasis into a cluster of low hills. Max dropped the flap, turned, and descended the short flight of steps, his eyes still smarting from the desert sun. Each stair had the solidity of rough board, reassuring after the sands of the past few days, except for the bottom one, which yielded under Max's foot in a very unstairlike fashion. He rocked back and squinted down. The stair shifted in the gloom and became a man dressed in loose dark clothes sprawled out on the floor, burbling pleasantly from somewhere in a comprehensive stupor. By the look of him, he might be burbling still when the caravan passed through the next time, heading south again at the end of its run. That probably meant the local rotgut was either very tasty or very dangerous. Max stepped across the man and proceeded across the room.
At the other end of the room was a bar, on which Max rested an elbow.
The room itself occupied a natural gully in the rock next to the oasis, covered over with a heavy canvas tent. Cables ran from eyebolts driven into the rocks up to timbers that supported the canvas roof.
Another caravan had been parked at the oasis when Max had arrived, but most of its crew had not been in evidence. They were certainly missing no longer. Gently reeling forms were propped in chairs and on tables, and piled in low mounds on the rock floor. An arm wrestling match was in process at one side, deep in the shifting green haze from a half-dozen guttering candles. The bartender emerged from a shadow behind the counter and pushed a mug at Max. "You know any good ruins around here?" Max said to him. A hefty growl from the other end of the bar drowned out any reply. The man behind the growl, Max discovered as he turned to eye him, was about seven feet tall, and waving a trestle table over his head with one massively corded arm. "You want another drink?" Max said. "I'll buy you another drink."
The guy growled and hefted the table. "Okay," Max said, "no drink." It was just as well, as the bartender had managed to conveniently disappear from sight. Behind the counter, framed by several large boulders, was a cave containing stacks of large kegs. The upper lip of the cave formed a narrow ledge overhead. Dangling in front of the ledge over the bar was a line of additional kegs, lashed together in threes and suspended by cables from pulleys. The cables ran down to a rack of marlinspikes in the rock at the end of the bar, just on the other side of the counter from Max, in fact. The giant swung the table again and took a bead on Max.
"Don't be ridiculous," Max said. "It's too hot for this kind of nonsense." The man reared up with the table. "All right, then," said Max, "have it your way." Max leaned over the counter, selected one cable, grasped it firmly with his right hand, and sharply cocked his right wrist. A blade sprung out of his sleeve below his palm and slashed the rope. Max rose swiftly into the air as the trio of lashed kegs at the other end of the bar equally swiftly descended. The kegs struck the waving table, the table overbalanced as its wielder lost his grip, and with one loud thud and a trio of lesser thuds the table hit the giant's head and the kegs again hit the table. All collapsed in a clatter and small cloud of dust.
A final two shards fell to the floor, there was a moment of silence, and then the unmistakable sound of a contented snore arose from deep within the heap.
Max swung from the rope onto the ledge over the bar and seated himself. He sipped at his drink, which he had retained in his left hand, and slid the knife back into its spring-loaded sheath. "Fortunately for you," he said down at the pile of wreckage, "it is far too hellish out here to get involved in serious exertion." After another week at the outside the caravan would be clear of the desert, he thought, and then it was a straight shot across the plains to Drest Klaaver, where at last report Shaa was hiding out. He was looking forward to seeing Shaa again. If Shaa didn't try to kill him on sight, that is.
The bartender had reemerged from his hiding-place. "So what about the ruins?" Max called down.
"Ruins?" the man said, looking out at the room. "Whaddaya need more ruins, what you did here isn't enough for you?"
The large moon was up, too, along with some of the small fast ones.
Max dangled his legs over the tailboard of the rear wagon, watching ground pass in the pale light. A large shaggy form loped around the wagon and hoisted itself next to him. "I still say you should have hacked him into little pieces," the shaggy hulk said. "If you could have waited for me, I would have hacked him into little pieces."
"All the time with you, Svin, it's fight, fight, fight, hack, hack, hack," Max said. "I'm not going to say your philosophy may not be superior, and it certainly has the virtue of simplicity, but by the same token -"
"It is the course of honor, the only true path for a warrior born," Svin said with a note of finality.
"That's fine as far as it goes," Max said, "but not all of us are warriors born. Some of us subscribe to the possibility of old age instead."
Svin thought that over. Shadows passed over the large moon - three circling dwarf buzzards, moonlight shimmering on their feathers. The smallest one swooped down to have a look at them, its ten-foot wingspan draping a darker black over the rocks. "Look at that thing," Max said, waving his hand at it. "It's got a body to feed, but it manages fine without a lot of hacking and slashing. I don't know how much of a goal in life those things have, but they seem to get by pretty well on a more passive lifestyle."
"Where do you think it finds enough to eat?" Svin, perhaps because of a Northern metabolism honed in the icy wastes, was perpetually hungry.
"There's always carrion around somewhere, if you know where to look for it and you're willing to do what you've got to do."
Svin shook his head. "Carrion, Max, is for lesser beings. We will die in battle, as a man should, and go triumphant to meet the gods."
Max, who had met some of the gods, had not been impressed. "Watch out for remarks like that, Svin, you never know who's listening."