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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 8

Greg Bear

  Michael followed the curving market street, which branched from the main road near the center of Halftown. The lone market consisted of a house (in Cascar, a caersidh, pronounced roughly "ker-shi"), round like most of the others, and a covered courtyard twice the area of the house itself. The courtyard was filled with tables and shelves stacked with provisions - foods in one corner, housewares, liquors (in bottles which looked suspiciously like the ones in Brecker's cellar in Euterpe) in another, and the simple types of clothing in a third. The middle of the courtyard was the counter, and there the market manager held sway.

  Spart had said his name was Lirg. He had a daughter, Eleuth, the one who had delivered milk to the Crane Women's hut. Lirg never took cash - the Sidhe abhorred money, which seemed a bit strange to Michael, considering the legends of pots of gold and such - but kept careful track of Halftown's balances. Michael gathered the economy was loosely based on fulfillment of assigned tasks and dispersal of goods according to need.

  Not unlike the simpler forms of communism he had learned about in Mr. Wagner's class at school. Allotments of supplies were brought across the Blasted Plain. As Michael skirted the courtyard, three large, big-wheeled wagons, each drawn by two Sidhe horses, lumbered in from the opposite end of the market street.

  The wagons were filled with food and supplies. A Sidhe driver sat on the lead wagon, tall and aloof, dressed in iridescent browns, the cut of his clothes not substantially different from that of Alyons, except he wore no armor and carried no wick. The horses were lathered as if they had been driven hard, and a peculiar golden glow lifted from the backs of the wagons like sunlit dust. The glow dissipated, leaving a sweet-bitter scent in the air. Lirg stepped down from his counter and directed the unloading of the supplies. The Sidhe driver took down his tailgates and several passersby pitched in to help. Few words were exchanged. The supplies were either carried into a covered shed in the fourth corner of the courtyard, or placed directly in the market stalls. There was no rush to inspect the goods; they differed not in the slightest from those already available, and assured only continuity, not variety.

  Michael watched until the wagons had been unloaded and pulled aside, then entered the courtyard, reluctant to make himself obvious. The driver shut the tailgates and smoothed the wood with his hands, leaving trails of golden glitter on the boards. He then walked around the horses and patted each on the haunch with more precision than affection. Everything he touched was left with a sparkle.

  Lirg was back at his counter when Michael approached The Breed fastened him with a steady gaze, one eye dark and the other half-shut by a scar. Lirg's hair was more brown than red, and his skin tan instead of pale. "Your needs?" he asked, leaning forward on thickly muscled arms.

  "I'm here to pick up grain for the Crane Women. And to be put on your list."

  "What list?" He examined Michael intensely, then nodded. "The card. I see. Food only… that is all we can spare, even for pets of the Crane Women."

  "I'm not a pet," Michael said gritting his teeth. "I'm a student, and I'm doing what they tell me to do." Lirg grinned at that, and Michael blushed.

  "I see. Daughter!"

  Eleuth emerged from the house with four sacks of grain. She put two of them by Michael's feet and hefted the other two onto her shoulders.

  "I can carry them all," Michael said.

  "I've told my daughter to help you," Lirg said. That seemed to settle it. Eleuth gave Michael a look suggesting he not argue. Michael picked up his two sacks.

  "Am I on your list… on the card?"

  "You are," Lirg said. He turned to a Breed customer and Michael left the courtyard, Eleuth following a few steps behind.

  "What are they teaching you?" Eleuth asked as they approached the creek.

  "They're trying to make me stronger," Michael said.

  "Why don't you just stay in Euterpe? They have their own allotment. You could do well there."

  "That's not the way things worked out," he said. "I suppose I'm being trained so I can go home again. I hope that's the reason, anyway. I have to find the man who can do it."

  "A Sidhe magician could send you home," Eleuth said. Her voice was extraordinary; he didn't want to look at her for fear of being unable to look away again. "I think one could, anyway. That's what Lirg says, that the priests of the ball could send humans home again if they really wanted to. There's something mysterious about that, I can't help thinking. Because, you see, the humans are still here."

  Michael considered her words for a moment, then started to cross the stream. "Anyway, I have to learn how to live here."

  Eleuth nodded. "If you're new, there's a lot to learn, I guess."

  They set the sacks down outside the door of the Crane Women's hut.

  "Where's your mother?" Michael asked. Humans didn't live in Halftown; he knew that much.

  "I don't know," Eleuth said. Her face was simple and composed. "Most of us have Sidhe mothers, and our fathers are missing - or in Euterpe. We never know who they are. So I suppose I'm unusual, second generation Breed… my father a Breed, my mother human."

  He knocked on the door and Span opened it. She peered at Eleuth, Michael and then the sacks and said, "Fine." She closed the door again.

  "Does that mean you're free today?"

  He shook his head. "I have to run to Euterpe and back." He walked to his house.

  "You built that yourself?" Eleuth asked, following.

  "Sort of."

  "Like a Sidhe warrior. Must build his own dwelling… but very clever, really, for a human."

  Michael glanced at her; Eleuth's expression was still composed and simple. She wasn't ragging him. "Thanks for the help," he said. He felt very awkward.

  She looked around the mound with an expression of awe mixed with distaste, then smiled at him and said good-by. As she forded the creek, Michael watched the way her legs moved. They were long, graceful. His face flushed. She was pretty in a way; no, not just pretty (perhaps not pretty at all) - but beautiful. But then, how did he know what passed for beauty in the Realm?

  An attraction to a Breed, he was sure, could be perverse and would only complicate his life more.

  "Man-child!" Nare came toward him, carrying two thick sticks about seven feet long. "Run to Euterpe. Hold this over your head going and in front of you returning." She gave him a stick. He hefted it and groaned inwardly.

  "Then what?"

  "When you are strong enough, you learn how to use the stick." With the other stick, she lightly tapped his own just outside one hand's grip. "Or I break all your fingers. Now go."

  Michael began to run. He crossed the stream without slipping and congratulated himself on his newfound coordination. Leaving wet shoeprints, he took the first hundred yards in stride, though the stick made his arms ache. Within a half mile he was still going strong. It was in the third quarter of the first mile that he was sure the stick would drag him down, and that once on the ground, he would die.

  He tried to remember how to breathe when running: steadily, without letting his legs pound the air from his lungs.

  His mouth was dry and his lungs began to feel as though they'd been sprayed with acid. His arms were twin upright pillars of pain, and his knees wobbled; still, he was determined to keep going. He'd show them he was good for something. He had had enough humiliation -

  His toe caught a rock and he sprawled headlong in the dirt. The stick bounced end-to-end and rolled ahead of him. He picked dirt from between his teeth and felt his bruised lips and nose, trying to control his agonized gulping for air.

  A half-hour later, he stood with his hands on his knees before the outskirts of Euterpe, his face beet red and his legs liquid. He dropped the stick on the ground beside him. He wasn't sure he would ever be able to lift it again. "Christ," he said. "I'm nothing but a wimp. He might as well have killed me."

  It took him a couple of minutes to become aware of the small crowd standing nearby, just outside one of Euterpe's small pedestrian gates. They watched him cur
iously, saying nothing at first. He tried to stand upright and winced. The auburn-haired woman he had last seen at the hotel dinner stepped forward. "What are you doing back?" she asked, voice thick with anger. "Breeds not good enough for you?"

  He regarded her from under his brows, breath ragged.

  "They're getting me in shape," he said. He didn't want anybody to be angry - why should humans be mad at him?

  "Why do you need to be in better shape?" a man asked from the back of the group.

  "I don't know," Michael said. He picked up the stick, his fingers barely agreeing to close on it, and turned around to start back.


  Savarin came through the gate. Michael leaned on his stick, grateful for a friendly tone and an excuse to rest a bit longer. His chest now felt as if it were filled with water. He coughed and wiped his forehead.

  "You're in training?" Savarin asked. Michael nodded and swallowed. "Well, that can't hurt."

  "Oh, yeah?"

  "They are teaching you… how to fight, perhaps, how to fight Sidhe?"

  He shook his head. "They're teaching me how to run away from Sidhe."

  Savarin scowled. "When can you get back here? There are people I'd like you to meet."

  "I don't know. They're going to have me run more errands for them. Maybe later."

  "If you can, come to the schoolhouse - it's on the other side of the street from the Yard. In the middle of town. I teach languages, things like that, besides teaching newcomers. Come see me."

  Michael agreed and pointed with the stick. "I have to get back now."

  "Look at that!" a high-pitched masculine voice shouted from the crowd. "They give the bastard a fortune in wood!"

  "Shut up!" Savarin cried, waving his arms and advancing on the crowd. "Go home, shut up, shut up!"

  Michael tried to pick up his pace again, what little he had had in the first place. Halfway, the agony began to subside and the run became easier. He had heard of second wind but had never experienced it before. His body seemed to resign itself to the situation and make the best of things.

  It was late morning when he came to the creek and crossed it, then clumped to where Spart was standing on the mound. Spart took his stick and called to the other Crane Women with a sharp whistle.

  Coom emerged from the hut to inspect him. She palped his legs and arms and shook her head violently, tossing her dust-gray hair. "Usgal! Nalk," she said, pointing to the stream. "You stink."

  "That's not fair," he said, frowning resentfully.

  "Things won't be fair again until you've bathed," Spart said. "Then follow Coom away from here and you'll keep on working."

  "But I'm exhausted."

  "You didn't run without stopping," she said. In the hut, Nare cackled and withdrew her face from the window.

  Michael dragged his feet to the stream and removed his clothes. He was down to his underpants before any notion of modesty occured to him. He glanced back at Spart, but she was on her haunches plaiting reeds into a mat. She paid him no attention. He kept his underpants on and dipped a foot gingerly into the water.

  Of course, it was freezing. He closed his eyes. They would think him an idiot or a coward if he always hesitated. He stepped back and then ran forward, plunging in feet first. The shock was considerable; when he surfaced, he could hardly breath and his teeth chattered like expert telegraphy. Still, it was better to bear the hardship than put up with more ridicule.

  As he rubbed the silty, mica-flecked water over his skin, he once again noticed the pungent herbal smell. Apparently that was the nature of water in the Realm. He crawled out of the creek - which was about four feet deep in the middle - and shook his arms and legs, scattering ribbons of water across the bank. Still damp, he put on his clothes, but held the jacket by its yoke and carried it to where Spart was plaiting her reeds. I

  She turned her attention away from her work to look him up and down and shook her head pityingly. "Only a fool would dive into water so cold."

  Michael nodded without argument. That was their game; he could go along with them. "Thanks," he said.

  And so it went for the first five days.

  Chapter Nine

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  The Crane Women ran Michael around the level grasslands, with the stick and without it, sometimes one or two of them pacing him and giving directions. They seemed tireless. When he was near collapse from exertion, they wouldn't even be breathing hard. After a while, Michael suspected Sidhe and Breeds just didn't get tired. He asked about that once, and Nare simply smiled.

  He learned the Pact Lands within the vicinity of Euterpe and Halftown quickly. There wasn't all that much to learn - grasslands, the curve of the river, one fork and an oxbow beyond the fork.

  He asked about the Blasted Plain, but Spart told him that part of his education would come later. He could see the haze beyond the perimeter of the Pact Lands, and occasionally make out black spires rising through orange-brown clouds, but his radius was never more than six miles from Halftown, and the Pact Lands, he surmised, extended at least ten miles on all sides.

  Sometimes, his exercises seemed ridiculous, designed to humiliate him.

  "Five times you have missed the mark," Nare said, standing over him. Her shadow bisected four concentric circles drawn in the dirt ten feet from where he squatted. He had been set to tossing pebbles, trying for the central circle. After an hour he had only hit the center three times.

  "I've missed more often than that," he said.

  "You miss my words, too," Nare said. "You fail to understand anything we've been showing you. Five tests." Michael tried to remember the times he had been tested in any meaningful way. "Not a good sign," she went on. "Don't you see the truth behind the tests? Must we explain in words? Words are so beloved to you!"

  "They're clear, at least," Michael said. "What do you want me to know? I've done everything I can to cooperate-"

  "Except use your head properly!" Nare grabbed his arm and hauled him to a standing position. "This is not a bullseye. These are not pebbles. You are not training, and this is no series of useless games."

  "Funny," Michael said. He regretted saying it immediately; he had vowed that whatever the pressure, he would not behave like a smartass.

  "You're a crack-voiced child, and worse, jan viros. What have you learned?"

  "I think… I think you're trying to teach me how to survive by thinking a certain way. But I'm not a magician."

  "You are not required to be one. How would we have you think?"

  "With confidence."

  "Not that alone. What else?"

  "I don't know!"

  "If we tried to turn you into a magician, we'd be even more doltish than you. You're not special. But Sidhedark is not like Earth. You must learn how the Realm is special, how it supports and nurtures us. You cannot be told. Words spoil the knowledge. So we must torment you, boy, to make you see. The Sidhe returned language to humans thousands of years ago, but they never explained how language can destroy. That was deliberate."

  "I'm trying to cooperate," Michael said sullenly.

  "You cooperate so you can show us you aren't a fool." She smiled, a hideous and revealing expression which didn't reassure him at all, and probably wasn't meant to. Her teeth were cat-sharp and her gums were black as tar.

  "In betlim, little combat, warriors not kill. Best," Coom said. They circled each other with the sticks held before them in broad-spaced hands. "Lober, not hurt. Win. Strategy."

  Michael nodded.

  "One thing very bad," Coom said. "Rilu. Anger. Never let mad control! Mad is poison in betlim. In great combat, rilu is mord. Hear?"

  He nodded again. Coom touched his stick with her own. "Disarm you now."

  He gripped his stick tighter, but that only made his hands hurt more when, with a whirl and a flourish, she whacked his stick straight up in the air, parallel to the ground. He caught it as it fell, wincing at the pain in his wrists.

  "Good," Coom said
. "Now you hear why you learn. Hear that stick is wick; you are Sidhe given power of pais where you stand. I take wick and take land from you. Stop me - maybe stop me. Hear how I move. Take control of air. Of Realm."

  Then she did an amazing thing. She leaped up, braced her feet against nothingness, and sprung at him with her stick. He retreated, but not before receiving another bone-rattling blow. She hung before him a moment and landed on her feet. "Good," she said. "Stronger."

  She disarmed him again, this time whacking the stick out of his reach before it came down. He walked over to pick it up and turned to see Coom standing where he had been.

  "Gave up ground," she accused, looking disgusted.

  "You took away my stick."

  "Didn't take away most important weapon." She threw down her stick and backed up a pace. "Come at with kima."

  He didn't hesitate. She reached around with one spider hand as his stick came down on the spot where she had stood, grabbed hold and slammed it to the ground.

  He could feel the bones in his back pop before he let go.

  "Little defeats teach potential," Coom said. "Not to waste my time, you will train with this." Spart came from the hut carrying a headless mannequin with bush-branch arms. It held a smaller stick, tied to leafy "hands" with twine. Michael groaned inside, then resigned himself to the indignity.

  "Take this off thirty paces and hammer it into the ground. Then fight with it," Spart said.

  He did as he was told, clutching the cloth, straw and wood mannequin and using his stick to pound it in like a stake. He assumed a stance before the mannequin, imitating Coom and feeling foolish -

  And it promptly swung up its stick and knocked his to the ground. The mannequin vibrated gleefully, twisted on its stake and became limp again.

  When the hair on his neck had settled, Michael retrieved his stick and resumed his stance, a little farther back. They sparred for a bit, the mannequin having at least the two disadvantages of being staked to the ground and using a shorter, flimsier stick. Michael wasn't encouraged.

  He had no illusions that the fight was fair. He got his lumps.