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The Shortest Way

Before I sent off my first story, I told myself that someday a story of mine would be published. After that first sale, I decided I'd like to sell another so that I wouldn't be a one-shot author.

Let me tell you, selling stories is an addiction. The need just gets worse.

I did well enough in law school that I was offered a place on the Duke Law Journal at the beginning of my second year. The upperclassman describing the journal told me that if I was really lucky, in my third year I might be able to publish a one-paragraph Note under my own name. "It's a real thrill to see your name in print!'' he said.

And I thought, "You twit. People pay to put my name in print!''

But that wasn't true: August Derleth had paid to put my name in print, and he was dead. I was going to have to find another market if I hoped ever to sell again.

Two professional magazines in 1971 published some fantasy. I sent Fantastic a story which vanished utterly, an event perhaps concerned with the problems that later got the editor a felony conviction for drug dealing. After that experience, Fantastic was no longer a potential market for me.

And there was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an excellent periodical which at about that time published a heroic fantasy novella by a writer with a high literary reputation. (It wasn't a very good story per se, which should have warned me.)

I wrote "The Shortest Way" and submitted it to F&SF with a covering letter that said, "I know you don't publish much heroic fantasy . . . .'' It came back with a nice personal rejection from the editor, Mr. Ferman, agreeing that they didn't publish much heroic fantasy though this was a good story.

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. And indeed, my friend Karl had an even closer brush: one of his heroic fantasies ("The Dark Muse") came back from F&SF already copyedited. Mr. Ferman had decided very late in the game not to publish.

"The Shortest Way" is based on the Sawney Beane legend. I'd heard of Sawney Beane many years before, but I first got the details when I read The Complete Newgate Calendar in the Duke Law School library. (I didn't like law school, but there were compensations.) The road itself is a real one in Dalmatia, torn up in the third century BC for reasons archeology can't determine. And I used the same two characters for the story as I had in "Black Iron": I'd started writing a series.

Stu Schiff—Stuart David Schiff, DDS—started Whispers magazine in 1972 with the stated intention of replacing the Arkham Collector (which had died with Mr. Derleth) as a home for new fantasy-themed fiction, poetry, and articles. (Stu would've used the title Whispers from Arkham if Arkham House had agreed. They didn't.) He bought the story and published it in the third issue of the magazine, with a wonderful Lee Brown Coye cover illo.

At the time I wrote "The Shortest Way," I wasn't sure "Black Iron" would ever be printed. (It finally came out in 1975 as part of an anthology Gerry Page put together for Arkham House, using all the material Mr. Derleth had acquired before his death, filled out by the considerable amount Gerry himself bought for the volume.) The stories don't have to be read in any particular order; they're just part of the same world.

Even so, the decision to write these stories in series probably had something to do with me a little later writing a second story about a group of future mercenaries called Hammer's Slammers. That was the choice that got me started on a real career writing, though I didn't know it at the time.


The dingy relay station squatted beside the road. It had a cast-off, abandoned look about it though light seeped through chinks in the stone where mortar had crumbled. Broken roof slates showed dark in the moonlight like missing teeth. To the rear bulked the stables where relays for the post riders stamped and nickered in their filthy stalls, and the odor of horse droppings thickened the muggy night.

The three riders slowed as they approached.

"Hold up," Vettius ordered. "We'll get a meal here and ask directions."

Harpago cantered a little further before halting. He was aristocrat enough to argue with a superior officer and young enough to think it worthwhile. "If we don't keep moving, sir, we'll never get to Aurelia before daybreak."

"We'll never get there at all if we keep wandering in these damned Dalmatian hills," Vettius retorted as he dismounted. His side hurt. Perhaps he had gotten too old for this business. At sunup he had strapped his round shield tightly to his back to keep it from slamming during the long ride. All day it had rubbed against his cuirass, and by now it had left a sore the size of his hand.

The shield itself galled him less than what it represented. A sunburst whose rays divided ten hearts spaced around the rim had been nielloed onto the thin bronze facing: the arms of the Household Cavalry. Leading a troop of the emperor's bodyguard should have climaxed Vettius's career, but he had quickly discovered his job was really that of special staff with little opportunity for fighting. He was sent to gather information for the emperor where the stakes were high and the secret police untrustworthy. There was danger in probing the ulcers of a dying empire, but Vettius found no excitement in it; only disgust.

Dama chuckled with relief to be out of his saddle again. He used his tunic to fan the sweat from his legs, looking inconsequential beside the two powerful soldiers. Though he was a civilian, a sword slapped against his thigh. In the backcountry, weapons were the mark of caution rather than belligerence. He nodded toward the still-silent building, his blond hair gleaming as bright in the moonlight as the bronze helmets of his two companions. "If it weren't for the light, I'd say the place was empty."

The door of the station creaked open, making answer needless. The man who stood on the threshold was as old and gnarled as the pines that straggled up the slopes of the valley. He faced them with wordless hostility. The last regular courier had passed, and he had been dozing off when this new party arrived. Like many petty officeholders, the stationmaster reveled in his authority—but did not care to be reminded of the duties that went with his position.

Vettius strode forward holding out a scroll of parchment. "Food for us," he directed, "and you can give our horses some grain while we eat."

"All right for you and the other," the stationmaster rasped. "The civilian finds his own meal."

"Government service," Harpago muttered. He spat.

Vettius began kneading one wrist with his other hand. The little merchant touched his friend's elbow, but Vettius shook him away. "I'll take care of it my own way," he said. His temper had worn thin on the grueling ride, and the stationmaster's sneering slovenliness gouged at his nerves.

"Old man," he continued in a restrained voice, "my authority is for food and accommodations for me and my staff. The civilian is with me as part of my staff. Do you dispute the emperor's authority?"

The stationmaster reared back his head to look the soldier in the eyes."Even the emperor can't afford to feed every starving thief who comes along," he began.

Vettius slapped him to the ground. "Will you call my friend a thief again?" he grated.

The old man's eyes narrowed in hatred as he sullenly dabbed at his bleeding lip, but he shook his head, cowering before the soldier. "I didn't mean it that way."

"Then take care of those horses—and be thankful I don't have you rub them down with your tongue." Vettius stamped angrily into the station, Harpago and Dama behind him.

"Food!" Vettius snapped. A dumpy peasant woman scurried to open a cupboard.

"I could have paid something, Lucius," the merchant suggested as they seated themselves at the trestle table. "After all, I came because I thought I could set up some business of my own here."

"And I brought you because I need your contacts," his friend replied. "The traders here won't tell me if they think the governor really is trying to raise money for a rebellion."

He paused, massaging the inside of his thighs where they ached from holding him into his stirrupless saddle since early dawn. "Besides," he added quietly, "it's been a long day—too long to be put upon by of some lazy bureaucrat."

Dama sighed as the serving woman set down barley bread and cheese."Not much of a meal anyway, is it?"he said."I thought the empire fed its post couriers better than this, even in the back country."

"And I thought we were going to get directions here," Harpago complained. "If we don't get to Aurelia before the fair ends we'll find all the merchants scattered—and then how are we going to learn anything?"

"We'll find a way," Vettius assured him sourly. He took a gulp of the wine the woman had poured him, then slammed the wooden cup back on the table. "Gods! That's bad."

"Local vintage," Dama agreed."Maybe I should try to sell some decent wine here instead of silk."

The older soldier swigged some more wine and grimaced wryly."Old man!" he shouted. After a moment the stationmaster came to the door. He limped slightly and his swollen lip was a blotch of color against his tight face.

The soldier ignored the anger in the old man's eyes."How far is it to Aurelia?" he demanded.

"By which road?" the other growled.

Vettius touched the pommel of his spatha so that the long straight blade rattled against the bench. "By the shortest way," he said testily.

"You have to . . . "the stationmaster began, then paused. He seemed to consider the matter carefully before he started again. "The shortest way, you say. Well, there's a road just past the station. If you turn north on it, it's only about twenty miles. But you'll have to look well, because nobody's been over that road for fifty years and the beginning is all grown over with trees."

The serving woman suddenly chattered something in her own language. The man snarled back at her and she fell silent.

"Could you catch any of that?" Vettius asked Dama under his breath.

The little Cappadocian shrugged."She said something about bandits. He told her to be quiet. But I don't really know the language, you know."

"Bandits we can take care of," Harpago muttered, one finger tracing a dent in the helmet he had rested on the table.

"How else can we get to Aurelia?" Vettius questioned, half-squinting as if to measure the stationmaster for a cross.

"You can keep on into Pasini, then turn back west on the Salvium road," the other replied without meeting the officer's eyes. "It's several times as long."

"Then we go by the straight route?"Vettius said, looking at his companions questioningly.

Harpago rose and reslung his shield.

"Why not?" Dama agreed.

The stationmaster watched them mount and ride off. His gnarled face writhed in terrible glee.

* * *

"What did they do, tear the whole road up?" Harpago asked. Even with the stationmaster's warning they had almost ridden past the junction. The surfacing flags and concrete certainly had been taken up. Seeds had lodged in the road metal beneath. They had grown to sizable trees by now, so that the only sign of the narrow road was a relative absence of undergrowth.

"The locals must have torn up this branch because it wasn't used much and they were tired of the labor taxes to repair it," Vettius surmised."They probably used the stone to fill holes on one of the main roads."

"But if this leads to the district market town, it should have gotten quite a lot of use," Dama argued.

"At least it'll guide us to where we're going," Harpago put in, plunging into the trees.

The pines grew close together and their branches frequently interlocked; riding through them was difficult. Vettius began to wonder if they should stop and turn back, but after a hundred yards or so the torn up section gave way to regular road.

Dama paused, looking back in puzzlement as his fingers combed pine straw out of his hair. "You know," he said, "I think they planted those trees on the roadbed when they tore up the surface."

"Why should they do that?" Vettius snorted.

"Well, look around," his friend pointed out. "The road is cracked here, too, but there aren't any trees growing in it. Besides, the trees don't grow as thickly anywhere else around here as they do on that patch of road. Somebody planted them to block it off completely."

The soldier snorted again, but he turned in his saddle. Dama had a point, he realized. In fact, the pines might even be growing in crude rows. "Odd," he admitted at last.

"Sir!" called Harpago, who had ridden far ahead. "Are you coming?"

Vettius raised an eyebrow. Dama laughed and slapped his horse's flank."He's young; he'll learn."

"Sorry if I seem to push," the adjutant apologized as they trotted onward, "but I don't like wasting time on this stretch of road. It's too dark for me."

"Dark?"Vettius echoed in amazement. For the first time he took more than cursory notice of their surroundings. The swampy gully to the left of the road had once been a drainage ditch. Long abandonment had left it choked with reeds, while occasional willows sprouted languidly from its edge. On the right, ragged forest climbed the slope of the valley. Scrub pine struggled through densely interwoven underbrush to form a stark, desolate landscape.

But dark? The moonlight washed the broken pavement into a metal serpent twisting through the forest. The trees were too stunted to overshadow the road, and the paving stones gleamed against the contrast of frequent cracks and potholes. Even the scabbed boles of the pines showed silver scales where the moon touched them.

"I wouldn't call it dark," Vettius concluded aloud, "though you could hide a regiment in those thickets."

"No, he's right," Dama disagreed unexpectedly. "It does seem dark, and I can't figure out why."

"Don't tell me both of you are getting nervous of shadows," jeered Vettius.

"I just wonder why they blocked off this road," the merchant replied vaguely. "From the look of the job it must have taken most of the district. Wonder what that stationmaster sent us into . . . ."

* * *

Miles clattered gloomily by under their horses' hooves. It was fell, wasteland, a wretched paradigm for much of the empire in these latter days. This twisting valley could never have been much different, though. The humid bottoms had never been tilled; perhaps a few hunters had taken deer among its drooping pines. For the others who had come this way—lone travelers, donkey caravans, troops in glittering armor—the valley was only an incident of passage.

Now even the road was crumbling. Although only a short distance had been systematically destroyed, nature and time had taken a hand with the remainder. The flags had humped and split as water seepage froze in the winter, and one great section had fallen into the gully whose spring torrents had undercut it. They led their horses over the rubble while the pines drank their curses.

The usual nightbirds were hushed or absent.

Even Vettius began to feel uneasy. The moonlight weighed on his shoulders like a palpable force, crushing him down in his saddle. The moon was straight overhead now. Occasional streaks of light pierced the groping branches to paint the dark trunks with swordblades.

It was dark now. No white face would gleam from the forest edge to warn of the bandit arrow to follow in an instant. Was it fear of bandits that made him so tense? In twenty years' service he had ridden point in tighter places!

Letting his horse pick its own way over the broken road, Vettius scanned the forest. He took off his helmet and the tight leather cap that cushioned it. The air felt good, a prickly coolness that persisted even after he put the helmet back on, but there was no relief from the ominous tension. Grunting, he tried to hike his shield a little higher on his back.

Dama chuckled in vindication. "Nervous, Lucius?" he asked.

Vettius shrugged. "The woman at the station said there were bandits."

"On an abandoned piece of road like this?" Dama laughed bitterly. "I wish she were here now. I'd find out for sure what she did say. Do you suppose she knew any Greek besides 'food' and 'wine'?"

"No, she was too ugly for other refreshment," Vettius said. His forced laughter bellowed through the trees.

After a short silence, Harpago said, "Well, at least we should be almost to Aurelia by now."

"Look where the moon is, boy," Vettius scoffed. "We've only been riding for two hours or so."

"Oh, surely it's been longer than that," the younger man insisted, looking at the sky in amazement.

"Well, it hasn't," his commander stated flatly.

"Shall we rest the horses for a moment?"Dama suggested."That pool seems to be spring fed, and I'm a little thirsty."

"Good idea," Vettius agreed."I'd like to wash that foul wine out of my mouth too."

"Look," Harpago put in, "Aurelia must be just around the next bend. Why don't we ride on a little further and see—"

"Ride yourself if you want to be a damned fool," snapped Vettius. He didn't like to be pushed, especially when he was right.

Harpago flushed. He saluted formally. When Vettius ignored him, he wheeled and rode off.

Vettius unstrapped his shield and looked around while the Cappadocian slurped water from his cupped hand. The adjutant was out of sight now, but the swift clinking of his horse's hooves reached them clearly.

"If that young jackass doesn't learn manners, somebody's going to break his neck before he gets much older," Vettius grumbled. "Might even be me."

Dama dried his face on his sleeve and began filling the water bottles. "It's something in the air here," he explained. "We're all tight."

The soldier began scuffing at a stump fixed beside the roadway. Decayed wood flaked away under his hobnails and the wasted remnants of a bronze nail clinked on the pavement. "They crucified somebody here," he said.


"These posts along the road," Vettius explained. "There were several others back a ways. They're what's left of crosses when the top rots away."

Around the bend the hoofbeats faltered and a horse neighed in terror. Vettius swore and slipped his left arm through the straps of his shield. Metal crashed on stone.

Someone screamed horribly.

The big soldier vaulted into his saddle. With one swift jerk Dama loosed the cloak tied to his pommel, snapped it swiftly through the air to wrap protection around his left arm. He scrambled astride his horse.

"Wait!" Vettius said. "You aren't dressed for trouble. Ride back and get help."

"I don't think I will," the merchant remarked, drawing the short infantry sword that was belted over his tunic. "Ready?"

"Yes," Vettius said. His spatha shimmered in his hand.

They rounded the bend at a gallop. Wind caught at their garments. The Cappadocian's tunic bulked out into a squat troll shape while Vettius's short red officer's cape flew straight back from his shoulders. When a man looked up at their approach, the soldier let out the terrible banshee howl he had learned from his first command, a squadron of Irish mercenaries, as they slaughtered pirates on the Saxon Shore.

One of the men in the road howled back.

Harpago's horse pitched wildly as two filthy, skin-clad men sawed at its reins. Startled by Vettius's howl, a dozen similar shapes in the middle of the road parted to disclose the adjutant himself. He lay on his back with his eyes wide open to the moon. One of the slayers was still lapping at the blood draining from Harpago's torn throat.

The bandits surged to meet them. A youngster with matted hair and a wool tunic too dirty to show its original color swung a club at Vettius. It boomed dully on his shield, and the bandit snarled in fury. Vettius struck back with practiced grace, felling the club wielder with an overarm chop, then stabbing another opponent over his own back as he recovered his blade. Dropping the reins, he smashed his shield down into the face of a third who was hacking at his thigh below his studded leather apron. Her rough cloak fell away from her torso as she pitched backwards.

Dama had ridden down one of the bandits. He was trading furious strokes with a second, a purple-garbed patriarch with a sword, when a third man crawled under his horse's belly and stabbed upward with a fire-hardened spear. The beast screamed in agony and threw the Cappadocian into the gully. He struggled upright barely in time to block the blow of a human thighbone used as a bludgeon, then thrust his assailant through the neck.

"Get Harpago's horse!" Vettius shouted as he cut through the melee to relieve his friend.

Dama caught at the beast's reins. A bandit, his mouth smeared with gore, clubbed him across the shoulders and he dropped them again. Stunned, he staggered into the horse. Before his opponent could raise his weapon for another blow, Vettius had slashed through his spine. Drops of blood sailed off the tip of the soldier's sword as each blow arced home.

Dama threw himself onto the saddle. As he struggled to swing a leg astride, the purple-clad swordsman who had engaged him earlier slipped behind Vettius's horse and cut at the blond merchant's face. Vettius wheeled expertly and lopped off the bandit's right arm.

The handful of surviving bandits fell back in mewling horror. Then a baby bawled from the darkness as his mother tore him from her breast and dropped him to the ground. The woodline crackled with frantic movement. Savage forms rushed from the black pines—children scarcely able to walk and feral women. In the hush their bare feet scratched on the stone. Their men, braced by their numbers, moved forward purposefully.

All looked bestially alike.

Vettius took the reeling bandit chief by the hair and thrust his blade against his bony throat. The ghoulish horde moaned in baffled rage, but hesitated.

Then one of the women snarled deep in her throat and rushed at the riders alone. Dama, reeling in his saddle, slashed at her. She ducked under his sword and raked the merchant's leg with teeth and horny nails. Dama hacked awkwardly at her back. The woman cried shrilly each time the heavy blade struck her, but only at the fourth blow did she sag to the pavement.

"Let's get out of here!" Dama cried, gesturing at the clot of savage forms. He could face their crude weapons, but the bloodlust in their eyes was terrifying.

Vettius was chopping at the bandit's neck with short strokes. At last the spine parted and the soldier howled again, flaunting his trophy as he kicked his horse into a gallop.

As they rounded the next bend, Dama glanced over his shoulder. Harpago's body was again covered by writhing men. Or things shaped like men.

* * *

A mile down the road they halted for a moment, looking to their wounds and gulping air. The merchant hung his head low to clear it. His face was still pale when he straightened.

Vettius had dropped his trophy into a saddlebag, so that he could grip the reins again with his left hand. He continued to rest the spatha on his saddlebow instead of sheathing it.

"We'd better be going," he said curtly.

* * *

The eastern sky was perceptibly brighter when their foam-spattered horses staggered into another stretch of dismantled roadway. The riders' skin crawled as they forced their way between the files of trees, but the passage was without incident. Beyond lay Aurelia, a huddle of mean houses surrounded by the tents of the merchants come for the fair.

Light bobbed as a watchman raised his lantern toward them."You!"he called, "Where did you come from?"

"South of here," Vettius replied bleakly.

"Gods," the watchman began, "nobody's come that way in—" The riders had come within the circle of lantern light and his startled eyes took in their torn clothes and bloody weapons. "Gods!" he blurted again, "Then the story is true."

"What story?" Dama croaked, his gaze fixed on the watchman. Absently, he wiped his sword on his ruined tunic.

"There was a family of bandits—cannibals, really—living on that stretch—"

"You knew of that and did nothing?"Vettius roared, his face reddening with fury. "By the blood of the Bull, I'll have another head for this!"

"No!"the watchman squealed, cringing from the upraised sword."I tell you it's been fifty years! For a long time they killed everybody they attacked, so it went on for years and years without anyone knowing what was happening. But when somebody got away, the governor brought in a squadron of cavalry. He crucified them all up and down the road and left them hanging there to rot."

Vettius shook his head in frustration. "But they're still there!" he insisted.

The watchman gulped."That's what my grandfather said. That's why they had to close that road fifty years ago. Because they were still there—even though all of them were dead."

"Lucius," the merchant said softly. He had opened his friend's saddlebag. A moment later the severed head thumped to the ground.

Rosy light reflected from eyes that were suddenly vacant sockets. Skin blackened, sloughed, and disappeared. The skull remained, grinning at some secret jest the dead might understand.

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