Most of Simak’s stories tend to follow one of two themes; this is one of his quest-type stories.
Duncan is the scion of the venerable house Standish and lives a comfortable well-to-do life in a feudal world full of misery and woe. He is given an extraordinary manuscript to guard. The manuscript is a first-hand account of the worshipped but still mysterious Jesus. It is thought that if the manuscript can be authenticated it may prove to be a salvation for the world so Duncan is sent off to an ancient and wise scholar who can do this.
The time is the 1970s but the world has been kept, possibly deliberately, in a feudal condition. The world is plagued by something called The Horde which completely destroys everything and everyone when it moves into a new area. And it seems, to some, to target a place or person where change is potential. This manuscript might be the change that is needed to drive back the evil Horde; but only if Duncan can survive the journey.
As with any good quest-type Simak story, Duncan picks up companions as he travels. He begins with his best friend, Conrad, his war-horse, Daniel, and his great Mastiff, Tiny. After an unpleasant encounter with raiders, they seemed to pick-up the sometime-company of a bee-keeper and the enmity of the raiders’ leader. They meet a hermit in the woods who feels he is a failed hermit and might fare better as a Soldier of the Lord; he attaches himself to the troupe along with a Ghost. About the same time, they make the acquaintance of a lovely woman warrior riding a Griffin. Despite their initial misunderstanding over ownership of a field of cabbages, Duncan believes her to be a force for good who might possibly aid him. Or, it could just be wishful thinking since he’d like to see her again. She did save them all from a zombie-type creature of The Horde, probably sent out as a scout. And she did tell them she was searching for a trace of long-dead wizard who was buried in a Christian cemetary. She was gone by the time they found the tomb and the talisman entombed with the remains. Duncan came to believe the Talisman kept The Horde from attacking them.
The next companion who joined them was Snoopy, the goblin. Being one of the “little people,” goblins and the like are thought to be the same evil as The Horde. But they have as much fear and hatred of The Horde as anyone. Their history tells of the arrival of The Horde some 20,000 years earlier. Snoopy is interested in helping them and offered to travel with them as a guide. Andrew, the hermit, is particularly hostile to the idea as he’s spent his life convinced the little people are evil. Sometime later, they come across a decrepit old witch. The Horde had burned her out of her home but thought her so harmless, they didn’t even spend the time to kill her. A bit of disrespect in her mind, to be treated so as she did think that she’d a bit of evil in her, albeit she was an honest witch.
As they traveled, encountering enchanted bits of forest and werewolves, they had not seen either Snoopy or the Ghost, who was supposed to be scouting for them. When the two finally rejoined the troupe, they brought with them a Banshee, Nan. And just in time, as the group had determined to camp for the night in a very, very bad place. Snoopy was able to convince them to leave. They thought they’d found safety to spend the night but by morning they encountered a very human evil the raiders they had met much earlier had been following them, convinced they were hunting for a treasure. But their rescuer was unexpected, the little bee-keeper traveling with the raiders. They managed to get away in the night but without any supplies and, more importantly, without the talisman. But in the distance, they heard sounds of a struggle and screaming. With few other options, Meg, the witch, offered to creep back and report on what happened. With her report that all were dead, they carefully returned in order to regain their supplies and possession; including, of course, the talisman. Duncan kept wondering if they would ever see Diane, the warrior riding the Griffin. Her help would have been welcome.
As it turned out, Diane showed up just in the nick of time as they were besieged by The Horde in an open meadow with nothing but castle ruins in view. And Snoopy loudly warning them away from the ruins; as if they could be more dangerous than the approaching Horde. So when Diane appeared and urged them to run to the castle ruins, they saw no other recourse. Shockingly, once they touched foot on the castle grounds, they were amazed to see a fully appointed castle and beautifully landscaped grounds. The castle was the last bastion of the last wizards and enchanted, of course. Diane was the descendant of wizards although not one herself. And Snoopy wasn’t wrong to warn them once they crossed the enchanted border, they’d never be able to leave. And while that didn’t seem so bad to the hermit and witch, it wasn’t acceptable to Duncan who would never be able to get the manuscript to the scholar. While he mulled over their newest dilemma, he made the acquaintance of a captive Demon in the castle. As with others in his troupe, the Demon wasn’t all bad and didn’t really like being a Demon anyway. The Demon assured him that should they be able to escape the enchantment, he’d be able to guide them out of the woods. While in conversation with Diane, he explained their quest to find a scholar to authenticate the old manuscript. Duncan was crushed beyond belief when he learned the old scholar had already died; it seemed that all they had suffered was for naught.
Things did work out so that when the enchantment ended, they were able to flee and since The Horde was still encamped by the ruins they had to take the Demon’s guidance; unfortunately, that took them through a fen to an island the island of wailing women. As the legend went, these women wailed for all the misery in the world. The truth, as Duncan discovered, was a bit more grim. The women actually collected the world’s misery to revel in, like rolling in carrion. The Horde actually provided much misery for the three hags to feed from. Duncan couldn’t leave them fast enough.
But The Horde continue to threaten them and when finally cornered, Duncan thought to use the talisman as a weapon but it was Andrew, the hermit, who took the talisman and rushed into The Horde. When he was destroyed, Duncan had to admit the talisman wasn’t what he thought it was. (That should have seemed obvious when The Horde murdered the raiders who were in possession of the talisman at the time.) And that’s when it occurred to him that the real talisman was the manuscript. In desperation, he took the manuscript and threatened The Horde causing it to completely disintegrate. So, even without the scholar’s authentication, it was obvious the manuscript was authentic and carried the real words of Jesus. The implication at the end was that the world was now free of misery engineered by aliens; with only normal human misery to slow down progress.
This was not one of his best quest stories. It was a longer one than most and the characters were engaging; especially Andrew the hermit. And Simak handled the plot fairly well; giving us enough world building at the beginning and then giving up small bits of information to provide the picture of alien conquest without calling it so. But there was much that didn’t track well; especially what happened at the end what exactly happened to The Horde? And there was a particularly bothersome plot point involving what was obviously the Sword of Excalibur that really irked me. Interestingly, I remembered this one most fondly; I loved it years ago. It just didn’t age well. ~~ Catherine Book
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