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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 10

Greg Bear


  He stood, legs wobbly and vision spinning. The river was down an embankment and about fifty yards away. He must have walked the distance; there was no sign in the unbent grass that the water had flowed so high as to carry him here. Or - the shadow had flung him clear.

  Had he encountered another kind of Sidhe - an Umbral?

  Shading his eyes against the cloudy glare, he looked from his elevated advantage across the plain. He stood on an island of grass in the yellow-green sea of mire. For as far as he could see there was nothing but the storm-soaked plain and the distant hills. No sign of Euterpe or Halftown; no sign of anyone.

  It seemed he was the only living thing besides the grass. Black curls of flood water still wandered from the low hills to the river. The river itself had returned to its channel, once more slow and sluggish.

  Michael sat. River-borne, he must have come from upstream, and that was where he would return when he was strong enough.

  His back prickled as if somebody watched. He turned stiffly to look in the opposite direction. Less than a hundred yards beyond the grassy knoll, the Pact Lands came to an end. He had almost been washed onto the Blasted Plain.

  The air beyond the border was thick and gray-orange. The river waters were a muddy gray-blue right up to the demarcation, then flowed turgid yellow-green and sickly purple, like PUS from a long-infected wound.

  The Blasted Plain itself was an expanse of black, gray and brown boulders spread across glistening, powdery umber sand. Through the murky air, he could see tall curling spires of rock like broken strands of glue left over from a badly managed patch job. The place was more than the sum of its parts; it was more living than dead, but nothing alive was visible. It was malevolent, made of things long buried, hard emotions long suppressed, mistakes covered over.

  Death, despair, foulness and horror.

  Michael shuddered and the shudder turned into shivers of delayed shock. He descended the knoll as quickly as his unstable legs allowed and began his march over the grassland, upriver to Euterpe and Halftown - or so he hoped - and away from the desolation of a war he could hardly imagine.

  After a few minutes, he began to draw on reserves he had built up during the past weeks of training. He walked for the hour or so remaining until dark, then slept fitfully under the open night sky, and resumed at dawn. He would not die. He would not starve.

  He had survived; and in that simple fact, Michael found a dismaying, pleasurable pride.

  Thick swaths of fog shouldered in over the plain, driven before the sun's warmth. Michael followed the sandy river bank, crossed the shallow ox-bow where the river rippled and glittered over rocks and pebbles, and climbed another hill to get his bearings.

  The roofs of Halftown were about two miles away. He broke into a run along a trail of hard, clayey sand.

  In Halftown, things seemed to be carrying on as usual. There was rain and wind damage to several of the buildings, and Lirg's market courtyard had nearly been flattened, but the Breeds went about their business as if the night before had been commonplace.

  The hut of the Crane Women was unscathed. Nare wove reeds into thick sitting mats, squatting between two piles of animal bones, holding a long reed in her teeth and plaiting steadily. Coom was nowhere to be seen. Spart, he discovered, was walking behind him as he approached the mound. Michael grinned at her over his shoulder.

  "Worried about me?" he asked. Spart's eyes widened and she bared her black gums.

  "It wasn't you they were after, nor any human," she said.

  "I got that impression," Michael said. He stopped before his house and lifted one foot to scrape mud from his shoe. "What happened?"

  "There was a raid on the Breeds," Spart said. She walked toward the door of the hut with jaw working as if chewing cud. She hardly seemed glad to see him.

  "I took care of myself," he said.

  "You were very, very lucky." She turned at the doorway. "You escaped Umbrals and Riverines. They're branches of the Sidhe who worship Adonna most fervently. Adonna needs Sidhe blood to do its work, but it cannot touch the pure Sidhe. So it comes for us. We're adequate for its needs, and few care if a Breed is lost. You were lucky, man-child, not skilled."

  Michael looked between the two Crane Women, his face reddening. "I survived," he said. "God dammit, I survived! I'm not just some piece of garbage everybody kicks around! I have my rights and I… I-" But he was speechless. Spart shrugged and entered the hut. Nare cocked a glance at him, smiling around the reed in her teeth. She removed the reed and spat into the dirt.

  "You survived, boy," she said. "But you did not help anybody else. Three Breeds were taken last night, including Lirg of the line of Wis."

  "What will happen to them?"

  "Adonna has its uses for them. We said that, boy. You don't listen."

  Michael suddenly felt exhausted and discouraged. He had never lived in a place so cruel and unpredictable. The thought of continuing to struggle seemed to pull wool around his brain. He sat before his hut and held his chin in his hands. "What about Eleuth?" he asked a few moments later.

  "She was not taken," Nare said. "She is only one-quarter Sidhe. Her uses would be limited."

  "Do they always attack on a night of Kaeli?”

  "Not always. Often enough."

  "So why so you still hold them out in the open?"

  "We are still of the Sidhe," Nare said. "We must keep the customs, even when it is dangerous."

  Michael pondered that for a time, and decided it didn't really make sense. But he didn't want to pursue that line of questioning. "I'm going to run now," he said. Nare didn't react. He wanted to get into Euterpe and talk with Savarin, find out what happened to the humans. At least with Savarin, he could ask questions and not be ridiculed.

  He started off at a gentle lope, hoping to ease the exhaustion and funk from his body. As he approached Halftown again, he slowed. Glancing behind to see if he was watched, he took the path leading through the village.

  Eleuth swept debris from the courtyard as Michael approached. She glanced at him without slowing her broom.

  "I heard," Michael said. "I'm sorry."

  "He serves the god now," Eleuth said. Sad, her voice was even more beautiful.

  "Are you going to work the market alone?"

  "I'll try."

  He opened his mouth, but decided he really had nothing to say. He bent down to pick up a piece of timber.

  "Put it in the pile," she said, gesturing with the broom end to a neat stack of ruined boards.

  "If I can help…"

  She regarded him with a calm, still expression, though her cheeks were wet. He had never seen a Sidhe or a Breed cry before. He filed the information away; perhaps it was because she was three-quarters human.

  "I mean, anything I can do," he said awkwardly.

  She shook her head and continued sweeping. As he turned to walk away, she said, "Michael."

  "Yes?"

  "I will take my rest later this day. May we visit then? I'll be better."

  "Sure. I'll be back by my place at-"

  "No. Away from the Crane Women."

  That suited him. "I'll meet you here."

  Though every muscle ached, it was the sort of pain he felt might be driven away by exercise. Once outside Halftown and on the road, he picked up his jogging pace, slowly increasing speed as ache gave way to exertion.

  Twice now his life had been threatened. Such things seemed to be expected in the Realm. The Crane Women, each time, had treated his horrible experiences as just another minor hurdle. Michael couldn't accept that.

  He wasn't sure he could trust the Crane Women to help him to his goal; he knew he couldn't trust Lamia. Even the humans had little altruistic interest in his fate; Savarin probably cared for Michael only so long as he gathered information. Only Eleuth accepted him for what he was, and desired his company. He ran even faster.

  Whatever else he thought about them, one thing was obvious: the Crane Women were doing him no harm by training him. He
felt better, stronger; on Earth, he might have been laid up for a week after nearly drowning and being roughed up.

  Euterpe had come through the storm with little damage. Some of the walls were water-stained, and one or two had been shored up after the dissolution of a few bricks, but little more. Obviously, what Nare had said was true: the Umbrals and Riverines sought Breeds, not men.

  Michael made his way through the streets, walking quickly to avoid curious onlookers. Even so, he was heckled a few times. He hunched his shoulders and felt the helpless anger build.

  He shook his head to clear his thoughts and crossed a narrow, cheerless triangle adjacent to a large, low one-story ochre brick building.

  There were no signs announcing the fact, but Michael supposed this was the dreaded Yard. He circled die building, found Savarin's school on the opposite side, a square, low-roofed structure with a clumsy steeple rising over one comer. As he climbed the brick steps, he heard a high-pitched warbling wail from the depths of the Yard and the muffled slam of a heavy door.

  Savarin stood near a wicker lectern in the empty single classroom, leafing through a small pile of gray paper. The teacher looked up as Michael entered, his eyes widening at the bruises on his face and the state of the boy's clothing: muddy grass-stained pants, torn shirt and jacket. "You look more like a savage every day," Savarin said. "Was I right about last night - more man a storm?"

  "A - what did you call it? - a raid."

  Savarin nodded, circling Michael and touching his jacket solicitously. "Grazza, similar to the Arabic grazzu, you know. My God. I knew Halftown was hit-"

  "Right in the middle of Kaeli," Michael said. "They took three Breeds, including the market manager. How often do these raids happen?"

  "Often enough to make me suspect Alyons cares little for the Breeds, and that the Pact does not fully apply to them. Yet they follow Sidhe customs-"

  "He doesn't give a damn for them," Michael said, surprised by his anger. "I'd like to kill that sonofabitch."

  Savarin looked Michael over solemnly for a moment. "I hope your memory of the events was not affected."

  "I remember well enough," Michael said. "The Crane Women even let me understand Cascar for a while."

  Savarin's face betrayed almost comic envy. "Then tell," he said. "Do tell all."

  For an hour and a half, Michael reconstructed the Kaeli and me events after. Savarin grabbed his sheaf of gray papers and scribbled notes frantically with a sharp stick of hardened charcoal. "Marvelous," he said several times throughout. "Names I've never heard before, connections made! Marvelous!"

  When Michael finished, Savarin said, "I suspect Adonna would have done with us all, Breed and human. But it acts very slowly. A god's time must be different from ours. In its moment of hesitation, we might fit our entire history in the Realm…"

  "What happens to the Breeds they took?"

  "I've heard the Umbrals and Riverines share them in their temples. Work magic with them. I know little beyond that. Perhaps some are taken to the Irall."

  "What's the Irall?"

  "Adonna's greatest temple, ruled by the Faer but accessible to all Sidhe. How many did you say were taken?"

  "Three."

  "Then it might not be an even split. Perhaps the raiders had a tiff of their own, dividing the captives."

  Michael didn't like the word, divide. It sounded entirely too accurate.

  "As for Kaeli songs, I've heard some outlines before but never so many details. You help me assemble many separate elements. A shame Lirg didn't have time to tell more about Elme. I suspect some very important history is connected with her." He put his notes on the lectern and sat beside Michael on the classroom's front bench. "Questions are going around town. Why are you here, and why are you with the Crane Women and not your own kind? The townspeople resent you because they fear Alyon's displeasure. Our position is precarious, and you introduce an element of uncertainty."

  "Is there anything I can do?" Michael asked.

  "Perhaps." Savarin smiled, then frowned as he inspected Michael's bruises. "You should be resting, not up and about."

  "I'm fine. Tell me more about the Crane Women." Come on, teacher, he thought. Teach. "Why are they so old… and how old are they?"

  "I'm not positive," Savarin said, "but I believe they date back to the time of Queen Elme herself. For all I've heard, they're Elme's daughters, but that hasn't been substantiated, and of course they'll never tell. Sometimes the Sidhe send their priest initiates, or their most promising young warriors, across the Blasted Plain to the Crane Women for training."

  "Well, I'm no warrior and certainly no Sidhe. The Crane Women make me feel stupid. If the Sidhe hate humans and Breeds so much, why is Alyons supposed to be protecting us? Does he protect anybody, really?"

  "Yes," Savarin said, scratching his nose between two fingers. "Somewhat. Things here would be much worse without him, much as I have a difficult time saying it. But he hates us. He makes sure we stay put, and between whatever protecting he does, he harasses. Makes life miserable."

  "He wanted to kill me."

  "I'm sure you go against everything he holds dear," Savarin said, chuckling. "You are being treated in a most unusual way - like a Sidhe in many respects."

  Michael looked down at the hard-packed dirt floor. "I must have a million questions, and nobody knows the answers, or will tell me if they do."

  "If the Crane Women haven't told you by now," Savarin said, "perhaps being ignorant is part of die training." He stood. "Ignorance loves company. I've someone I want you to meet… if you're free, that is."

  "I'm free," Michael said with a touch too much defiance.

  Chapter Twelve

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  "The last person to arrive in the Realm before you was - is - a young woman." Savarin led Michael down a narrow alley. Their feet squelched in the still-damp mud. "She's been here two years, counting by days - which is more reliable than counting by seasons. I've told her about you, and she wishes to meet you. She is from your country, the United States."

  "Where in the United States?"

  "New York."

  "Savarin, how long have you been here?"

  "Perhaps thirty, thirty-five years."

  "You don't look old enough," Michael said, astonished.

  "Here, we get old to a point, then no older. Our souls are aware there is no place for them to go, and so they take better care of our bodies. Aging stops, even for old Wolfer."

  Michael was silent for a moment, letting that sink in. "What's her name?"

  "Helena." Savarin turned left and waved for him to follow. At the end of an even narrower, T-shaped alley, a door was set into a mud-brick wall. The T's extensions branched to the right and left, ending in blind walls. Within the doorway a flight of steps led up into shadows. The feeble glow of a candle in a sconce at the top of the stairs lit their way as they climbed.

  Savarin straightened Michael's coat collar and tugged his shirt collar out around it, shook his head at the hopeless task of making him presentable, then turned to a fabric-covered wicker door and lightly rapped it with his knuckles.

  "Yes? Who is it?"

  "I've brought a visitor," Savarin said, winking at Michael.

  The door opened with a dry scrape and a young woman, not much older than Michael, stood in the frame. She smiled nervously and glanced at Savarin, smoothed the lower half of her blouse with her hands, and glanced at Michael. She wore a short skirt made of the same dun-colored cloth most of the human and breeds had to make do with. Her blouse, however, was white and cottony, cut short around her shoulders. Her face was broad, with generous black eyes and wide full lips. Her hair was dark brown with hints of red. She was well-formed, slightly plump, but as tall as Michael and able to carry her figure well.

  "Helena Davies, this is Michael Perrin." Savarin waved his hand between them.

  "Hello," Michael said, offering his hand. Helena took it - her fingers were warm and dry, slightly callused - and
stepped back.

  "Please come in. Savarin's told me about you."

  The apartment was separated into two rooms by a plastered brick wall, the door between hung with curtains made of pieces of hollow twig strung on twine. Two chairs of woven cane stood in opposite corners, covered with tiny gray pillows. In another corner, a washbasin sat on a stand made of sticks, much like the one in the inn room Michael had first shared with Savarin.

  "I'm brewing herb tea," Helena said, showing them to the seats. She pulled out a bedroll and went behind the curtain to retrieve a white ceramic pot and three mugs. She set them down on a second wicker stand and pulled the bedroll close to Michael's chair, then sat on it, serving the tea and handing them their mugs. She stood abruptly, her hands going this way and that as she searched for something with her eyes. She said, "Ah!" and walked briskly to a box on the window ledge, from which she withdrew honeycomb wrapped in waxed cloth. "Honey for your tea?"

  "Please," Michael said. She broke off a bit of comb and handed it to him. He dropped it into his mug. Realizing his mistake, he started to fish out the melting bits of wax, then gave it up. Helena laughed, but not unkindly, and sat down again.

  "I'm so nervous," Helena said to Savarin. "Henrik tells me you didn't come here the way the rest of us did." didn't want to repeat what was becoming, to him, a tiresome story. "How did you get here?" he asked.

  "Helena was a budding concerto pianist," Savarin said. She shrugged with false modesty and held her mug to her lips, looking at Michael over the rim.

  "Prokofiev," she said.

  "Pardon?"

  "I was playing Prokofiev. I'd been practicing the Piano Concerto Number Three for a month, preparing for a recital. I was very tired. Up in the morning with Bach, and around all afternoon with Prokofiev."

  Michael waited for her to continue. She returned his gaze intently, then laughed and went on. "My hands felt all numb, so I decided to take a walk. The music was in my head. I could feel it. In my body, too, especially my chest and arms." She touched a spot above her right breast. Her breasts swung enticingly free beneath the blouse. "Like I was having a musical heart attack, you know?"