16th Side: A Robbery
From out of the surrounding hills came a ringing silence that was only deepened by the plodding of the pack ponies' hooves on the turf and the flirting of their tails against their sides. Above, the sky was a clear pale blue, but the breeze was strong.
There were four members of the Geological Survey Team: Malc, Tim, Dave and Caro. They'd left the 21st that morning at eight, coming through the Tube to the 16th, where the plan was to spend four days. None of them had ever been so far from home before, and they often looked back at the Tube. It was their only way back.
It was when they lost sight of the Tube among the folds of the hills that trouble arrived.
Three horses, with riders, picked their way down the hillside toward them. The horses were all black and thickset and shaggy, with manes and tails hanging almost to the ground. The riders' helmets had been blackened with soot and grease, to keep them from rust, or covered with sheepskin so they looked like hats. Their other clothes were all buffs and browns, blending into the buffs, browns and greens all around them. Their long leather riding boots rose over the knee. On they came with a clumping of hooves and a jangling of harness, carrying eight-foot-long lances with ease.
"It's all right," Malc said. "Don't worry. They're just coming to check us out."
"There's others," Caro said. There were men on foot, about eight of them, running behind the riders.
The riders reached them first, and circled them, making the geologists crowd closer together, while still clinging to the halters of the pack ponies. The riders' lances remained in the upright, carrying position, but this wasn't reassuring.
Up came the men on foot, and the riders reined in to let them through. The footmen were all bearded and longhaired, and had long knives and clubs in their hands. A couple had pikes. Without any preamble, they laid hands on the ponies' halters and tugged them out of the geologists' hands.
"Don't argue," Malc said. "Dave, let it go. Let them have whatever they want."
Two of the riders dismounted, handing their reins to the third--a boy of about fourteen--who remained on his horse. They had a look of each other, the riders, like brothers. The first to dismount, his lance still in his hand, was probably the eldest. He was bearded, but no older than about twenty. He went straight up to Malc and began to pull the backpack from his shoulders.
"I thought they'd agreed not to rob us anymore," Caro said, taking off her own backpack as the other dismounted rider came toward her."Just don't annoy them," Malc said.
As Dave and Tim shrugged out of their backpacks, one of the bearded footmen called out something' in a speech that sounded like coughing and snarling. His companions all laughed.
The geologists looked anxiously at each other. They didn't understand the joke, and were afraid of how far it might be taken.
The second dismounted rider suddenly caught Tim's hand and pulled his arm out straight. For a moment Tim looked into an almost beardless and strikingly pretty face--and then the young man was dragging at his wristwatch, pulling the expandable bracelet off over his hand. He stared Tim in the face for a moment, and then snatched off the geologist's spectacles before moving on to Dave and grabbing at his hands too. Dave took his wristwatch off and gave it to him. Malc and Caro, catching on, quickly took off their wristwatches and handed them over.
The first rider--the bearded one handling an eight-foot lance as if it were a pencil--seemed not to like the pretty one having all the watches, and a coughing, snarling argument started between them. While it went on, Malc caught sight of Caro's face, set in a grimace of fright. The other two looked much the same, and he supposed that his own face also reflected his painful uncertainty and fear.
Copyright Susan Price. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. All rights reserved.
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