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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 21

Greg Bear

  The Crane Women obviously didn't feel the need of locks. So what - if anything, or anyone - did they have guarding the hut? The thought didn't give him much pause; he was beyond practical concerns.

  The sunward window cast a shaft across the room, illuminating shelves stacked with bottles. The contents of one of the bottles wriggled pinkly in the beam. His eyes adjusted slowly to the gloomy corners. In the center of the room was a cylindrical brick oven, reaching almost to the roof, with four mouths opening around its circumference. A ceramic platform surrounded the oven, shiny white and indented with a regular series of pestles. A few mortars lay on the table, and small piles of powder of differing colors and roughness. The fire was out, but the oven still retained heat; he could feel it on his face and outstretched palm.

  Across the room from each other were two sets of shelves, both packed tight with bottles full of teeth and small fragments of bones. Other bottles contained roots and vegetable matter. A bottle with a forked root had been the first to catch his eye; even now, the root squirmed.

  Yet another shelf was devoted to bottles of dusts. None of the containers were labeled. If they had discernible uses, only the Crane Women knew what they were.

  Beyond the closest set of shelves was a partition made of wooden boards, on which thin sheets of tough, pearly tissue had been stretched between pegs to dry. Below the sheets hung the skeletal forearm of a small clawed animal. The claws appeared to be made of gold.

  On the other side of the room, partly hidden behind a drape of gray cloth, a glass box sat on a table. In the box were pieces of frosty crystal finely carved into abstract shapes. Each crystal had a single clear facet like a peephole. Michael pulled the drape aside with forefinger and thumb and opened the lid of the box.

  The temptation was too great; he removed a crystal and held it up to his eye. Like a slide viewer, the crystal contained an image. Green rolling hills and a wonderfully vivid sky appeared to Michael. He was about to put it down and pick up another when a woman walked over the hills. With a shock, he realized she was a much younger Coom. Her name, the crystal informed him in no obvious way, was Ecooma. She smiled and swung her arms, her long, shapely legs outlined beneath a wind-blown red dress. Her face resembled Eleuth's, but was even more comely. She passed out of range of the crystal eye, prompting him to turn with it to follow her, but to no result. The crystal maintained one steady point of view.

  A second crystal showed a high mountain pass. Swift clouds threw shadows on a snow-covered slope beyond. The naked female standing on a rock, undaunted by the obvious cold, was called Elanare. She stretched her arms out to the wind, long red hair trailing behind her. In her youth, Nare had been even more lovely than Ecooma,

  He picked up a third crystal. Spart - Esparta - stood among a group of young human women, seated on marble benches in a small stone amphitheater. The women wore short white dresses tied around the waist; Spart wore a long black gown and her hair was tied up in a bun with sparkling gold thread. She was speaking to the women, and they laughed now and then as if surprised and delighted. Though her beauty was more subtle than that of Ecooma or Elanare, to Michael she seemed the most beautiful of all.

  Gone were their distortions of face and frame, rolled back by time. He gently laid the third crystal in the box and reached for a fourth. The one he picked revealed a man and a Sidhe female from the waist up, arms around each other. The man was ruddy-skinned, with a thick brown-black beard, wry intelligent eyes and a sharp short nose. The Sidhe's facial features were so evocative and familiar that Michael was sure he must have seen her before, however impossible that was.

  They were Aske and Elme, the crystal informed him, and there was good reason for their portrait to reside in the glass box. They were the mother and father of the Crane Women, and of seven other Breed children whose pictures resided in other crystals.

  He put the crystal down quickly, his arm hairs tingling with premonition. He quickly searched the rest of the hut for sani and spotted a pouch resting on a small wooden table near the door. He hastily sprinkled some of the contents into his palm and saw the unmistakable golden flakes he needed. He poured the flakes back into the pouch and re-tied the knot.

  Now that he had found what he needed, Michael felt a sudden tingle of panic. He looked around to see if he had disturbed anything, knowing there was no way to conceal his invasion from the Crane Women. Hopeless. They would catch him, and what would they do?

  He fumbled at the door latch and pulled it open sharply to leave -

  And jumped back with a yell. There stood Bin, covered with mud and blood, his eyes wild and mouth gaping wide as if in agony. Black blood oozed from the corner of his mouth and dripped from his hands, spotting his sepia. He made small whining noises deep in his chest like a hunted animal.

  Michael retreated into the hut, horrified, his throat constricting. Bin rolled his eyes back and twisted his head horribly.

  "Michael, oh, Michael," he groaned. "What have I done?"

  His body contorted and he raised his hands in supplication. Then he straightened and ran. Michael went to the door and looked after him as he leaped the stream and ran past the limits of Halftown.

  Nare, Spart and Coom walked onto the mound from the opposite direction, skirting the piles of rock and bone and staring at Michael in the doorway of their hut. He slipped the pouch into his pocket surreptitiously.

  Spart motioned for him to leave. She put her arm around his shoulder and walked him to his own hut, then stopped and turned him to face her.

  "Was he hurt?" Michael asked, swallowing. "What happened to him?"

  "You have witnessed Biri's shame," she said. "You must tell no one. He has survived his test."

  "What test? For the priesthood?"

  "Yes," Spart said, her expression unusually grim. "Tarax sent Biri's favorite horse across the border. Bin hunted it down and slaughtered it. When he recovers, he will be ready to serve Adonna." She focused her eyes on his and frowned, releasing his shoulders. "What you have, what you know… you will use it wisely?"

  "I will," he finally said after swallowing hard twice.

  The Crane Women entered their hut and shut the door behind them. Michael stared across the grasslands, tears on his cheeks, wondering if he would ever again feel like a whole person.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

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  The snow fell quickly, leaving behind a blank white page on which was lightly sketched the horizon, Halftown, the huts and. a few gray gaps in the clouds. The stream was dark and shiny gray, with a thin layer of ice projecting from each bank. Little ice-blades sliced the smoothly rushing water.

  Michael stood on the bank and watched the stream. The falling snow seemed to calm him. His discipline isolated him from the cold. His mind felt just as isolated from reality, aloof. If he had done wrong, he thought, it was through no fault of his own. He was involved in a situation for which he was totally unprepared, in the face of which he was of necessity immature.

  The pouch of sani rested in his pocket.

  Bin sat outside his own hut, head bowed. The Sidhe hadn't spoken once, hadn't eaten. Coom had washed his hands and face and wrapped a reed blanket around him.

  There had been some peremptory training for Michael that morning - a run with the stick across the fields, while Spart paced him and checked his skin temperature with long, black-nailed fingers. He had thrown a shadow for Coom, skilfully enough to delay her catching him by a few seconds. He had blanked his aura of memory well enough to prevent Spart from in-seeing. All this, as the snowflakes careened slowly down like drunken, frozen dandies, oblivious to the dark emotions around them.

  "I'm going to Euterpe," he told Coom, who squatted outside the Crane Women's hut, keeping an eye on Bin as she pounded a rock to powder with a harder rock. She nodded.

  He left the book in the rafters of his hut. He wasn't expecting trouble, but if any came, the book wouldn't help and he didn't want to lose it or see it damaged.
/>   The road seemed longer, extended by the whiteness. When he came to Euterpe the town was as private and closed-down as a sleeping face. He walked through deserted streets, glancing at brick walls and tile roofs, worn-out wicker baskets piled in a heap, carts carrying buckets of frozen human waste. He saw everything as if for the last time. The sensation of fatedness was strong, emphasized by his numbness.

  He took the familiar alley, approached the familiar entrance and stairs and climbed slowly and quietly. He reached for the bag. When he came to the wicker door, now draped with a cloth cover, he held his hand up to knock, then hesitated. He heard voices inside. Helena had a visitor.

  He felt, if such a thing was possible, even more more deeply isolated and sick at heart. He pushed the door. It became party to his stealth and opened with only a faint scrape. The voices continued. He pulled aside the curtain to the bedroom, knowing it was wrong to invade someone's privacy, but feeling his own grievance was stronger.

  Savarin and Helena lay on the narrow cot, covered mercifully by a dun-colored blanket. Helena saw him first. Her eyes widened. He lowered the curtain and backed into the front room, pulling the sani from his pocket and laying it on the front table. There was scuffling and creaking behind the curtain, and sounds of clothing hastily being put on. "Stay here," Helena said. "Don't come out. I'll talk to him."

  She emerged from behind the curtain, combing out her hair with her fingers, looking at him sidewise. Her face was white. "Michael," she said.

  "I brought it," he said, pointing to the wicker table. "What you need. What you wanted."

  "I'm sure you don't understand," Helena said, coming closer. "It's-"

  "Please," he said. "Enough. I'll go."

  "Let me explain!" The note of desperation held him. "It's not what any of us wants. Savarin can't have children. Before he left Earth-"

  "Please, enough," Michael repeated.

  "He's safe, don't you see? You're not. You're not safe. That's the difference." She repeated these words a few times, coming slowly closer, holding her hands up. Finally she stopped, hands circling to form small shields. She straggled for something more to say. "We need your help still."

  "You've had my help," he said. "You have the powder. I'll go now." As Helena called his name, louder and more frantically, he ran down the stairs and back to the street and out ot Euterpe.

  He was hardly aware of his running. His long stride carried him without apparent effort. He seemed suspended within his body, isolated from the exertion, his breath smooth, the machine running even better without his interference. He passed a woman clutching a cloak about her head and shoulders.

  As if on an endless cycle, he was going to Halftown. The awareness that it was all drawing to a close, that his adventure in the Realm was about to end, was very strong.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

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  Halftown was also quiet in the mid-afternoon snowfall, its half-circle streets covered with shallow drifts. Michael wasn't thinking clearly and it took several extra minutes for him to find Eleuth's quarters. He stood outside the door, his mind almost as blank as the fields of snow between Euterpe and Halftown.

  As he knocked, it occurred to him that not for an instant did he suspect betrayal behind the door. (Had Helena betrayed him? Or had she just done something which, in his youth, he couldn't begin to fathom?)

  The door opened. Eleuth examined his downcast face and took him by the arm, leading him inside without a word spoken. She sat him on the bunk and took the small stool for her own seat. Several deep, jerking breaths were necessary before Michael could say, "I have to go back now. There's nothing more I can do here."

  She nodded, then shook her head, and nodded once more. "Do you need my help?" she asked.

  "Of course I need your help. I can't do it myself, or I'd have done it already."

  "Then I'll help," she said. "We have to wait until dark, and we can't do it here. Somebody might see us, or feel what's happening. Until night, you'll stay here, have something to eat?"

  "I'm not hungry," he said.

  "You'll need all your strength," she said, pouring him a bowl of stew. After he finished eating, she took the bowl and pulled back the covers on the bunk. He sat down. She adjusted the pillow for him and he lay back with his eyes open. Deliberately, with another breath, he closed them. His face was rigid.

  Even when she was sure he was asleep, his face remained stiff. She sat watching him for some time as the snow fell faster outside and the wind rose. Then she went around the room, removing objects from the dresser drawers, from shelves, and from the low table. She assembled the articles in a cloth laid over her lap: white face cream, though it really didn't matter, she thought; a few twigs from a flowering tree beyond the Blasted Plain; some stones from the Plain itself, dusty to the touch; and the dead green beetle she had summoned from Michael's neighborhood. When she had pulled in the corners of the cloth and made a bundle by tying them, she sighed deeply, pulled back a few loose strands of hair with both hands, and stared out the window at a white world she doubted she would experience much longer.

  With darkness, the snow stopped and the wind died, leaving the Pact Lands in muffled silence. Michael awoke and ate more of the stew while Eleuth painted her face with the white cream. "It reflects the light," she explained.

  The inevitable unreality of everything was coming down on him now in an avalanche. Why should he be dismayed by betrayal? None of these people existed. They were all phantoms; to find his way home, all he had to do was enact some formula which would bring him out of his trance, his waking nightmare.

  He forgot all the proofs he had accepted in the past about the Realm's existence. They were dim, feeble things compared with his present pain. Eleuth tied a blanket-cloak around his neck, in case his discipline slipped in his distraction. Then she took his hand, lifting the bundle in the crook of her arm, and led him into the night. He followed her through the snow without speaking. Her grayish outline advanced into the darkness beyond Halftown and away from the road, the stream, the mound, taking him in a direction he had never gone before.

  The grass was frosted with snow that powdered with the brush of their legs and fell on their feet, melting into their cloth shoes until they were soaked. Only hyloka kept their feet from freezing.

  When they were far enough away from everything to suit her, she cleared the snow away for him to sit, laid out the cloth and arranged the articles and squatted opposite him. He could barely see her. Only a few stars peeped through rifts in the clouds. The cream on her face glowed slightly and he followed her movements that way.

  "You wish to go home," she said, her tone more stern than he had heard it before.

  "Yes," he said.

  "You wish to get there by Sidhe magic."

  "I do."

  "There is some risk. Do you accept that?"

  "Yes." He didn't much care.

  "Do you accept this gift from me, given out of love?"

  "I do." He felt a pressure in his chest. "I appreciate this very much, Eleuth."

  "How much?" she asked, almost bitter.

  He shrugged in the darkness. "I'm not worth much. I don't know why you feel so strongly toward me."

  "You acknowledge that love?"


  "Do you return it?"

  He leaned toward her dim features. "I love you, too," Michael said. "As a friend. As the only friend I have here. Wherever we are."

  "As a friend, then," Eleuth said, her tone less astringent. She laid the twigs out on the cloth in a circle, pointing toward the center. Near one of the twigs she laid the beetle. Next to another she placed one of the pebbles. The rest of the pebbles she piled on one comer of the cloth.

  "Is that all you need?" Michael asked.

  "That, and my training," Eleuth said. "I'm still not very good." She stood, took his hand, and made him stand in the middle of the circle of twigs. "For you, I wish I were a full-blooded Sidhe," Eleuth said, holding out her a
rms. She assumed the same pose he had seen in the crystal portrait of Nare. "But Lirg's blood is good and I rely on him, too. Wherever he is now." She danced lightly around him, spinning from one toe to the next. He turned his head to follow her. "Face straight ahead," she said.

  After a few minutes she stopped, breathing more heavily than when she had begun. "Did the Sidhe pass his test?" she asked.


  "Did he take his flesh, drink his blood?"

  "I think so."

  "He left the Crane Women this evening," she said. "He goes to his new home. Perhaps he will see Lirg."

  "I don't know."

  "Do you know what your friends in Euterpe are doing tonight?" she asked.


  "All the Breeds stay in tonight. We don't know either, but we have our suspicions." She resumed the dance, reaching now and then to brush his shoulders with her fingers. "Michael," she said, her breath harsh, spinning around him. "Look straight ahead. It is time for you to go home… very soon."

  Light sprang up around his feet. He glanced down and saw the twigs burning brightly from the outside in, like multiple fuses.

  "Out of love," Eleuth said. She formed her arms into a circle. Two circles of light leaped from the arcs of her fingers, rose and fell around him, stopping at waist level. The twigs burned to their ends. He stood in the middle of a radiance of fire that rose around his feet but did not bum.

  Eleuth stood rigid in front of him, arms held high, breasts pulled taut against her rib cage, stomach flat, heaving. Her hair was disarrayed and her eyes were closed. She twisted her head to one side. "I will guard," she said. "For as long.




  Her eyes opened. They were black, rimmed with blazing red. He felt himself falling toward them. His feet lifted from the cloth. The circles tightened around his waist like belts, cinching close. The fire spread to Eleuth, crackling and hissing, searing away the darkness until the land around them was bright as day. When the flames touched her naval, she flinched and screamed.