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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 7

Greg Bear

  "Today is all the time you have." Nare headed for the creek and dove in like an otter. He didn't see her come up.

  For the next few hours, trying to ignore his hunger, Michael took each board and beam and pressed, poked and rubbed the surfaces until he found the removable pieces. At first he took the small pieces and tossed them aside, but thought better of it and gathered them into a small pile. - It became obvious that he could fit some of the pieces into holes in the planks, and use them to slide into notches in the beams. It reminded him of a wooden puzzle he had at home, only much more complex. When the sun was high, he had managed to assemble two planks and one beam, with no idea where to go from there. He didn't even know what shape the house would be.

  Spart, the Crane Woman with tattoos all over and the melodious voice, came to him from the hut and offered a wooden bowl. Inside was cold gruel, a piece of fruit and a puddle of thin milk. He ate it without complaint. She watched, one long arm twitching now and then, and removed the bowl from his hands when he was done.

  "When you have finished the house, you will go into the village and announce yourself at the market. They will allow for your food. Also, while you're here, you can carry messages for us, and otherwise make yourself useful." She glanced at the pile of wood. "If you haven't puzzled it by dawn tomorrow, it's not your wood any more."

  He stared at her tattoos. She didn't seem to mind, but she bent down and tapped the wood meaningfully. He set to work again and she walked back toward the house.

  "Is it safe to drink the water?" he called after her.

  "I wouldn't know," she said.

  By evening, with all his ingenuity he had succeeded in figuring out that the house would be square, about two yards on each side, without a roof or floor. He would apparently have to gather grass or something for the roof, and that discouraged him. He was ravenous, but no more food was brought out.

  "Maybe they'll feed me when I'm done," he thought. "If."

  He discovered the bark could be used for lashings. As the sun and sky went through the same twilight phenomena of the day before, Michael kicked a beam with one foot and held his hand out in front of him. "It's impossible."


  He knelt and picked out a square, thick beam whose use he hadn't discovered. He pressed along the grain and it fell apart in neat, almost paper-thin shingles. Then the plan seemed to come together in his mind. He assembled planks and beams, slipped tenon into mortise, lashed the wood together, and took five long, thin curved pieces to make the framework of the roof. When darkness was complete, he had almost finished putting on the shingles. He had one string of bark and two pieces of pressed-out wood left, yet the house seemed complete.

  Spart stood outside when he emerged through the low door. She looked at the string in his hand and shook her head. "Pera antros," she said. "If you had built it right, you wouldn't have any pieces left over."

  For a moment, he was afraid she might have him dismantle the hut and start all over again, but she pulled a bowl from behind her back and handed it to him. His meal this time was vegetable paste and a thick, doughy slice of dark bread. She squatted down next to him as he ate.

  "There are many languages among the Sidhe," Spart said. "Some are very ancient, some more recent. Nearly all the Sidhe speak Cascar. It would be an advantage to learn as much Cascar as you can - and you need all the advantages you can get."

  "Some speak English," Michael said.

  "Most speak it because it is in your mind. In-speaking. And English was spoken in the last lands many of us inhabited on Earth, English and other tongues - Irish, Welsh, French, German. We also speak Earth languages you wouldn't be familiar with, all old, most dead. Languages come easy to the Sidhe. But no human tongue can replace Cascar."

  Not being hungry made Michael bolder. "How old are you?"

  "There are no years here," Spart said. "Seasons come and go at the whim of Adonna. How old are you?"

  "Sixteen," Michael said.

  She stood and took his empty bowl. "Tonight, in the dark, one of us will test you. You will not be able to fend us off, but how you react will shape the way we teach you. Sleep or not, as you will."

  Chapter Seven

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  Inside, the house was drafty and small and the floor was no comfort, but it was better than nothing. He sat in a corner, trying not to sleep, awaiting the promised test.

  There wasn't much he could do to prepare. He wondered if they would hurt him. He had never been much of a fighter; it had always taken him too long to get angry. Consequently, he had little experience with his fists.

  Not having slept the night before, he couldn't keep his eyes from closing. He groaned as he realized he was falling asleep. His head fell against his knees -

  And jerked up at the sound of hooves. It was still dark. Something splashed in the river. He heard a horse nicker and sneeze.

  He was so tired. Being tired and alert at once gave the experience a surreal edge, as if things weren't bizarre enough already. He had to decide whether to stay in the house - and perhaps have it knocked down around his ears - or go outside.

  He stood. The roof was a bare half-inch above the top of his head. All his life he had been slow to act, thoughtful, predictable. Perhaps being unpredictable would give him an advantage…

  Hunkering down, he bunched his leg muscles to spring through the doorway. If he could run fast enough, perhaps he could get away.

  He leaped through the door, keeping his head down, and ran headlong into someone tall and solid. He rebounded and fell back, clasping his hands to his head. A Sidhe stood over him, wearing bright silver chain mail and sporting a long, wickedly pointed pike. Michael's vision swam; he barely saw the Sidhe lower the pike and prod his sternum.

  "Vera ais, sepha jan antros pek," said the Sidhe in a low voice. Michael regained his breath and looked around frantically. A few yards away, a Sidhe horse stood relaxed, pale gray blankets wrapped around its neck and withers, with a silvery saddle and no stirrups or reins. "Vas lenga spu?" The pike pressed harder, drawing blood. Michael squirmed and cried out. "Vas lenga?"

  "Let me alone!" he shouted. He grabbed the pike but it seemed to have sharp edges all around and cut his fingers.

  "You don't belong here," the Sidhe growled. "Do you know who I am?"


  "I am Alyons, Wickmaster of the Blasted Plain and Pact Lands. Some call me Scarbita Antros - Scourge of Men. How did you get here? Why are you living in a house of wood?"

  "I was sent here," Michael said. His fear melted any anger he felt, but seemed to heighten his perceptions. Even in the dark he could see Alyons in detail: a spectral face and long, blood-red hair; huge eyes with reverse epicanthic folds; long-fingered hands gripping his pike, their nails trimmed to metallic points; boots made from the same silvery-gray material as the saddle; pearl-gray cape hanging loose around his shoulders to his calves. "Quosfera antros, to suma antros."

  "The boy is in our charge."

  Michael recognized Nare's acid voice. She stood to one side, between them and the Crane Women's hut, and Spart stood on the other side. Michael couldn't see Coom. Alyons made no move, but his hands applied an ounce more pressure to the pike. Michael felt it scraping bone and tried not to squirm again. "What is he doing here?" Alyons asked, eyes still on Michael, like a hunter unwilling to release his prey.

  "I have told you," Nare repeated. "He is in our charge."

  "He's human. You don't train humans."

  There was a rapid exchange in Sidhe between Spart and the Wickmaster. Alyons' face filled with deep-set lines of hate, turning his smooth chiseled features into a mummy mask. He lifted the pike a hair's breadth. "If I kill the boy, I remove a burden, no?"

  "Probably," Spart said. "But what would we do to you, in turn?"

  "You're t'al antros," Alyons said contemptuously. Coom stepped from the shadows behind him.

  "We are very, very old," Spart said, "and the Sidhe of the Irall come to us
to ask questions. Would you like your name mentioned when we respond - horsethief?"

  The lines of Alyons' face deepened, if that were possible. "It wouldn't upset me," he said. He lifted the pike a hair.

  "And when Adonna's priest comes for temelos?" Spart asked.

  Coom cropped a hand on Alyons' shoulder and pulled him roughly away, dragging his face down to her level. "Ours!"

  "Then take him," Alyons said with great calmness. He shrugged her off and walked to his horse, seeming to glide on rather than jump. "But I will go to the Arborals and question the grace of wood."

  "They brought it," Nare said.

  "You are a crude and foolish fricht," Spart said.

  "Ours," Coom repeated.

  Alyons leaned forward and the horse seemed to turn to smoke, every curve blurring and smoothing. Then, in silence, they were gone. Michael lay on the dirt, his chest bleeding sluggishly, his hands bloody from contact with the pike. The Crane Women were gone, as well.

  He got to his feet and made for the shelter of the house. Inside, he tried to keep his lungs from heaving and held his mouth with his bloody hands to stifle sobs. He wasn't sure what had just happened - whether the Crane Women had tested him, or he had actually been visited by Alyons. The Sidhe's voice still haunted his ears, rich and deadly as venom.

  Even now, Michael could hardly keep awake. There was a vibrant chirping nearby, repeated several times - birds? - and that was the last thing he remembered until his arm was grabbed. "Get out of my house," he said groggily.

  "Jan antros." Coom leaned over him, the light of dawn through the door outlining the side of her head. "Not eyes-full! We promise test…"

  He didn't think he was dreaming - dreams seemed to have no place in the Realm - but he wanted to believe he was. "Go away," he said, "please." And he was alone in the hut.

  Morning came and went, and the day, and it was near evening again when he awoke, stiff and still exhausted. He felt his chest. The blood had clotted and the wound had been smeared with white paste. It was tender but didn't ache. The cuts on his hands had scabbed over.

  There was a bowl of mush and fruit by the door. He ate slowly with his fingers, his head full of fog. He was past all thought. The temptation to throw it in was strong, congruent with the pain in his body and the tiredness clamped to every muscle.

  When he finished eating, he rolled over and looked at the dirt floor. Idly, he drew a line in the dirt with his finger, then wrote a line of words, and another, half-purposefully, until he had scrawled a poem.

  The scraping on the roof at night -

  Chitin or nail or stiff, hot hair -

  In dark of August, summer's heat

  Constructs a limb of dust and air.

  If you step out to watch the clouds,

  Silent lightning will prance and grin.

  While on the roof the summer waits

  And if you try to go back in…

  Why, Hello! The season is a spider.

  Half the time, when he wrote a poem, he had no idea what it meant. The back of his head seemed disconnected from all present circumstance, as though facts and images seeped in slowly and were jumbled along the way.

  But the menace was obvious. He was scared clear through, and he had no way to fight his fear. Not yet, perhaps not ever.

  He stood by the door of his house and watched the sun go down, hands in his pants pocket. Nare came out of the hut and strode toward him. When they were face to face, she took his hands in hers and peered at the palms, then pulled apart his blood-stained shirt and examined his chest.

  "How did I do?" Michael asked with an edge of bitterness.

  "You are no good to us asleep. You were to go to the market today, get yourself a card."

  "I mean, how did I do last night?"

  "Terribly," she said. "He would have killed you. And later… you are a terrible warrior."

  "I never wanted to be a warrior," he said incredulously.

  She held out her twiggish fingers and shrugged elegantly. "The choice is to be one, or die," she said. "Your choice."

  Coom and Spart crossed the stream and entered the hut.

  As Nare stood motionless beside him and Michael waited nervously, the stars twirled into view. Coom and Spart emerged with eight long torches and began staking them in a circle between the house and the stream. They lighted the torches by cupping their hands behind the wick and blowing on them. Sparks and flame shot up into the night and an orange circle of light shimmered within the perimeter.

  "Time is difficult to measure in the Realm," Spart said, approaching Michael and taking him by the hand. The sensation of her long, strong fingers around his own quelled any protest. She led him into the circle and motioned for Coom to join them. "You will learn our functions now," Spart said. "Coom is an expert in what the Sidhe call isray, physical combat. Nare is versed in stray, preparation of the mind. And I will teach victory, the avoidance of battle as a means to victory. Tonight, since it is the simplest and easiest of the three, you will learn from Coom the beginnings of how to survive a fight with human or Sidhe."

  Coom walked around Michael slowly, with high, almost prancing steps. Nare and Spart watched from outside the circle of torches. Michael regarded Coom warily, hands at his sides, head inclined slightly. He jumped as she reached down and grabbed a leg to reposition it. "Don't fall over," she said. "Like stool. One leg to be like two." She continued her circling. "Morning, you run to Halftown, run back. Tonight, you just stand up." She shot out one arm and pushed him. He promptly fell on his butt and scrambled to his feet again. She reached out and shoved once more. He stumbled but stayed upright. She circled and shoved from another angle. He toppled forward on his face. "Like stool," she repeated. She shoved again, and again, but he remained standing.

  His face was flushed and his jaw hurt from clenching his teeth, but he was surprised at how calm he felt. The methodic circling, shoving, went on for an hour until he kept his balance no matter what angle Coom attacked from.

  The torches guttered. "Ears," Coom said. Nare and Spart extinguished the feeble flames. Clouds obscured the stars now; except for the feverish orange glow from the hut windows, there was no illumination. He couldn't see any of the Crane Women. He listened to the sound of their feet moving, trying to guess how many circled him. A hand pushed hard on his back and he went to one knee, then got up quickly.

  "Ears," Coom said again. He sensed a footfall nearby and braced himself instinctively in the opposite direction. The blow came, but he kept his balance. j Another hour passed. He was groggy and his legs ached abominably. His shoulders were sore and swollen. For a time he rotated in the darkness, until he realized he couldn't hear their footfalls any more. He was alone. The Crane Women had f returned to their hut.

  He felt his way to his house and collapsed in a corner. He couldn't sleep. He rubbed his arms and shoulders and contemplated past gym classes, where he had never performed enthusiastically. It wasn't a matter of being weak or gimpy; he could run well enough, and his frame was sound. Michael had just never cared that much, and the gym teachers had seldom in spired confidence in those who didn't profess to be jocks.

  Inspiration wasn't the issue here. Whatever he thought, however miserable he was, tomorrow he would run until he dropped - which he was sure he would. No protests, no complaints.

  After the incident with Alyons, Michael fully appreciated his position.

  Obviously, things could get much worse.

  Chapter Eight

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  "The Sidhe do not use swords," Spart told Michael. They squatted on the ground outside his house, legs crossed, facing each other.

  "But Alyons has a pike-"

  "That is his wick. He uses it only against humans."

  Michael nodded and looked away, resigned to the ambiguities. Spart sighed and leaned toward him.

  "You are supposed to wonder what Alyons does with his wick."

  "Act wicked?" Michael said, trying for a smile. S
part leaned back and narrowed her eyes to even tighter slits. "Okay," he gave in. "What does he do with it?"

  "The wick is his symbol of rank. It confers his power of office, of labor. It signifies that he has the strength to guard the Blasted Plain and the Pact Lands, and to uphold the pact made between Sidhe and the Isomage."

  "So why did he stab me with it?"

  "He hates humans, like many Sidhe."

  "Do you hate humans?"

  "Tal antros," she said, tapping her chest with her finger. "I am half-human."

  "Why don't Sidhe use swords?"

  "They have no need. A Sidhe warrior is frightening enough without. And there is honor involved. Death is final for a Sidhe; there is nothing beyond except being pressed into a tree by the Arborals. That is not even half a life. So it has been established that the Sidhe may combat each other only by means dependent on their own skill and power, by which we mean magic and strength of will."

  "I'm going to learn magic?"

  Spart shook her head. "No humans ever conquer Sidhe magic. You'll have to learn how to flee, how to be inconspicuous. You cannot hope to best a Sidhe in grand combat. Your only chance is that a Sidhe will consider combat with a human shameful, worth only small effort. Take advantage of that. In the rare instances where you might be called into grand combat-" She slapped her hand against the dirt. "You will simply die. Dying in the Realm is as permanent for humans as death anywhere for a Sidhe. So do not provoke a warrior."

  "I don't understand-"

  "You will, in time. Now you will go to Halftown, do our errands. After, you will run. There is an order of grains to be delivered here, and you will-"

  "I know. Ask for food for myself."

  Spart regarded him with infinite patience, blinked slowly and turned away.

  Halftown was quiet, matching the somber, overcast morning. Michael tried being cordial to the Breeds, but they returned no greetings; curiosity about him seemed to have lapsed. They were like ghosts intent on some irrevocable task; only a few of the women had any obvious hint of life and joy in them.