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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 12

Greg Bear


  The Crane Women walked down the opposite side of the hill. The horse followed, walking under Michael more than being directed by him. He had no idea how to give it directions, and he didn't feel now was the appropriate time to ask. Alyons and two coursers paced their animals about a hundred yards from them, both groups heading toward the edge of the Pact Lands and the smoggy region beyond.

  The Crane Women paused at the border. The green grass stopped along a geometrically perfect line, to be replaced by the glistening black and umber sand of the Blasted Plain. Nare bent to scoop up some of the sand; it trickled between her fingers as lifeless as the dust in a vacuum cleaner bag. She brushed her hand off on her pants, face creased with distaste.

  "We'll walk close to you, to the horse," Spart said. Coom inspected the horse's flanks closely.

  "Is it the dust that protects us? I mean, the sani."

  "Part," Coom said. She, too, kept an eye on Alyons and the coursers, who had stopped at the border about sixty yards to the north. Alyons eyed them coldly, caressing his golden horse's shoulder with sure, smooth strokes. Michael wondered why the Wickmaster wasn't acting more boldly.

  Nare was the first to cross. The horse followed reluctantly, its flanks rippling. "Forty miles," Spart said, pointing east. "Desolation. Ruin of war. Good training ground. But you should be careful. Adonna buries its mistakes; dig or blast deep enough beneath the ground of the Realm, and you'll find them again."

  The tortured spires of once-molten rock rose on all sides, some bending back on themselves to form loops and arches. The ground opened up in cracks and chasms, emitting sulfurous wisps and acrid mists. Scattered over the terrain were pools of churning yellow-orange liquid like pus-filled wounds. Michael's eyes smarted sharply until Spart told him to bend down and administered a dark viscous cream high on each cheek. There was nothing she could do for his sense of smell, however. His nose ran constantly, and whatever dignity he gained by being on horseback was lost in snuffling.

  Michael worried that they weren't carrying food and water. If they stayed for any length of time, the oversight would be unfortunate; they would find no sustenance on the Blasted Plain.

  The dust billowed thick and irritating around them. Michael took a strip of cloth from Coom and tied it over his nose and mouth; the others did the same.

  By dusk, they had made it to a flat pan of rock topped with smaller, sharp-edged boulders. Michael dismounted to help them clear a space about four yards across, lifting and tossing the boulders carefully to avoid cutting his hands. Then Coom took a small wood wand from her pouch and drew a circle in the dirt around the clearing. "Rest here," she said.

  "Will that line keep things out?" Michael asked, thinking of pentagrams.

  "No," Coom said. She didn't elaborate on its purpose. Twenty yards behind them, Alyons and his coursers halted but did not bother to dismount.

  The orange light was oppressive. Michael was anxious to move on and suggested they do so but Nare shook her head firmly. The Crane Women sat within the circle and Michael stood near the center. The horse stood beside him with its head lowered, eyes half-closed. It looked very tired. "Are we resting for the horse's sake?" he said, his voice muffled by the scarf. The Crane Women had also lowered their heads. None of them answered. "I get it," he said. "Something saps the horse's strength when it's here, but it protects us…" They neither affirmed nor denied his theory.

  A heavy brown cloud moved in over their heads, riding a pseudopod of gray-orange mist. Each liquid particle in the mist was as large as a drop of rain but did not fall. The mist swung around the circle but did not enter.

  Alyons and his coursers were outside the periphery of the cloud. They stared intently at the Crane Women and Michael, who fancied he could feel Alyon's hatred even at this distance.

  An hour later, Spart and Coom stood up abruptly. Michael shook his head; to his surprise, he had fallen asleep standing up.

  He offered the horse to Nare, who mounted without comment. Spart broke the drawn circle with her foot and they continued east. The Sidhe followed not far behind.

  Darkness was coming, and the Crane Women hastened to leave the Blasted Plain before nightfall. Michael's feet kept getting stuck in the dust, much worse than sand at a beach; he was soon exhausted and regretted giving up the horse.

  With sunset - transformed by the orange haze into a sinister ritual of darkening brown sky and ribbons of ascending tan and ochre - they neared another sharply defined border. What lay beyond wasn't clear; the air thickened at that point, revealing only shadowy presences that could have been tall boulders, or trees.

  The horse picked up its pace and they had to run to keep up. Michael did his best, but was the last across the border. For a second, he had a terrifying notion that if the Crane Women left him behind, he might not be able to cross by himself; but there was no noticeable force to prevent him from stepping over.

  "Welcome to the Realm, proper," Spart said.

  Trees! Huge, spreading leafy canopies rose before them, muting the last of the daylight into green murkiness. The air was clean and sweet. Even the Dust which had accumulated on their skin and clothing sloughed off, leaving them hot and sweaty, but not besmirched.

  The horse cantered to a grassy glade to crop an emerald-green dinner. Nare hopped off her mount and sauntered up to a tree, which she patted with her long-fingered hand, grinning broadly. Michael stretched out his arms and inhaled, soaking up the coolness and greenness and peace.

  For as far as he could see in the dusk, the trunks of trees rose in well-spaced disorder. Between them were shrubs thick with red and purple berries, tall lilies with white flowers delicately fringed blood-red, patches of blue flowers abutting the glades.

  The forest was more than Earth-like; it was surreal, too perfect. After a few minutes, Michael became uneasy again. He looked back to the border, with its abrupt transition to orange haze, to see where Alyons and the coursers were. They were not in sight.

  Spart approached him with both hands behind her back. Her grin was more subtle than Nare's. Coom sat on the lowest limb of a tree, watching him like a bird.

  Withdrawing her left hand, Spart revealed a flower. It didn't belong to any of the flowering plants he had spotted - it was translucent, as if made from a soft glass. It could have been plastic except for the delicate tracery on its petals. She seemed to be offering it to him, so he reached out to accept. She snatched it back and hid it behind long, fanned fingers.

  "What color is it?" she asked.

  "Yellow," he said. She pulled away her hand. The flower was bright blue. "Okay, blue, but it looked like-"

  "The Realm is not like Earth. On Earth, all things sit on a base of chaos, as here, but the foundations are much finer. The foundations of the Realm are coarse. Everything is much more open to suggestion. On Earth, the chaos is hooked into stability by a law which says you can never win… you understand?"

  Michael shook his head, no.

  Spart held the flower closer. "Earth is a much more accomplished creation. In the Realm, everything is more fluid. Look. What color is the flower?"

  "Still blue," he said, but as he said it, he realized the flower had been yellow all along. "I'm…I'm sorry. It's yellow."

  "Since you cannot win even betlim, a small combat," Spart said, "you must be like the flower. Suggest! Take advantage of the fluidity, the seams of the Realm. Magic may be beyond your reach, but not suggestion." She held the yellow flower out to him. This time she let him hold it, but as her fingers released it, Spart herself vanished. Nare and Coom and the horse as well were gone. Michael fumbled the flower and it fell to the long green grass, landing on three dew-flecked stalks.

  The flower was pink.

  He sat, then lay back on the grass, puzzled over what Spart had just told him. Nearby, the flower wavered on its tripod of grass stalks in a lazy, rich breeze. He smelled the mingled scent of tea roses and jasmine. Night was falling rapidly and the sky above had turned deep blue, with subtle highlights of mage
nta. The woods were almost black. Wind soughed between the trees, waving the shadow limbs back and forth hypnotically. Michael felt his eyelids closing. . ..

  "We have company."

  He jerked awake. Nare squatted beside him with another stalk of grass held in her lips. She pointed to a group gathered around a small, bright fire about forty feet away.

  "They're Sidhe!" Michael said. But they weren't Alyons and his coursers, who were still not to be seen. Five males with long hair and beards, dressed in gorgeous metallic reds and greens and blues, circled the fire, glancing into the darkness in the direction of Nare and Michael. A sixth appeared, younger than the others; his suit was white with black checks. Whether their clothing was armor or thick garments, Michael couldn't tell, but the portions limned by the fire were dazzling.

  He turned his head and saw Coom to one side of the group, conferring with a white-haired, white-faced Sidhe wearing velvety black robes. When the Sidhe moved; Michael saw rich gray patterns in his robes - or rather, suspended just above the "fabric, for they seemed to float and changed with every motion.

  "Who are they?" Michael asked.

  "They are from the Irall," Nare said. "They've chosen an initiate, and they bring him to us for training."

  "Why to you?"

  "Because we're older than most Sidhe. We know the old ways, the old disciplines." Her expression spoke volumes to Michael: At last, the Crane Women had someone interesting to train, someone worth the bother.

  The younger Sidhe detached himself from the fire and walked to the perimeter of the encampment. He braced against the smooth massive trunk of a tree and let himself slide down on his haunches. He peeled a piece of fruit, seemingly unaware that Nare and Michael were just a few yards away.

  "What is he being initiated into?" Michael asked.

  "The young one is entering temelos, the circuit around priesthood. He is in for some rough times, very rough indeed. The priesthood is not easily arrived at, nor easily kept."

  "What's his name?"

  "Biridashwa," she said. "We will call him Biri."

  Michael looked back toward the border and the brown darkness of the Blasted Plain. He could make out distant red glows like lava fissures creeping up the spires of rock; flitting green balls; and high above the plain, a small lone sphere of lightning, silently flashing.

  Then he spotted another fire glowing deep in the woods. Its light was broken by three shapes: Alyons and his coursers.

  "What do they want?" Michael asked, gesturing. "They keep following, waiting."

  Nare shook her head. "The Wickmaster wishes to speak to the Sidhe of the Irall. He won't get a chance."

  "Why?"

  Nare smiled a crooked smile like the one she often used to express her opinion of Michael's abilities. "Why do you think Alyons is Wickmaster of the Pact Lands, and not of his own circuit in the Realm proper?"

  "I don't know," Michael said. "Why?"

  'Too many questions," Nare said, and kept silent for the rest of the night.

  I

  Chapter Fifteen

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  Fog drifted through the trees and over the camps, leaving a glistening layer of drops on the grass, flowers and Michael. He came awake to the sound of heavy bootsteps nearby and rolled onto his back, alarmed. The young Sidhe stood two steps away, white and black against the gray, face pale in the early morning.

  "I am requested to see you are awake," Biri said. He looked tense, unhappy. The forefingers and thumbs on both his hands rubbed together.

  "I'm awake," Michael said, getting to his knees. He was a little in awe of the young Sidhe. His companions seemed so different from Alyons and his coursers. At that thought, Michael tried to penetrate the fog and see where the Wickmaster was, but there was only bright silver and great tree shadows. He brushed the dew from his face and arms and shivered.

  "They haven't taught you hyloka?" Biri asked.

  Michael shook his head. "Whatever that is."

  "I'm told we will train together. Perhaps we can help each other."

  "You're going to be a priest."

  Biri looked at the ground "My guardians will leave soon. I'll cross the Blasted Plain with you. Where are the Geen Krona?"

  "What?"

  "The Crane Women."

  "I don't know. Not far, I'm sure." But he was never sure about the Crane Women.

  Three tall figures came out of the mist, approaching the camp. Michael stood quickly. He immediately recognized Al-yons' slender, powerful shape. They passed within five or six paces of Michael and Bin, ignoring them, and stopped just beyond the Sidhe camp. Bin backed up and whispered to Michael. "They followed you here?"

  Michael nodded. "Alyons doesn't like me."

  The Wickmaster spoke in Cascar with the guardian dressed in black. The coursers stood motionless to one side, in casually defensive poses, while the guardians looked upon them with unconcealed distaste.

  "He's asking for a new audience with the Darud," Bin said.

  "Who's that?"

  "The chief of the Maln, the Black order. That's Tarax - the one in the black sepia. Alyons used to be a member, but he committed some crime. He was punished by being sent to the Pact Lands to oversee humans and breeds."

  "What are they saying now?"

  Tarax had half-turned from Alyons and approached one of the coursers. A few words were exchanged and the courser backed away, bowing slightly.

  "Tarax has told Alyons to be thankful for what he has. I think Tarax berates the courser for some error in ritual before a member of the Maln."

  Michael watched Tarax closely, fascinated by the movements of the white-haired Sidhe. "Is he older than the others?"

  "A human might think so. Age doesn't matter much to the Sidhe, give or take a few thousand years. Especially here."

  "Well, is he?" Michael persisted.

  "I don't know," Bin said. As if suddenly aware he was speaking to a human, Biri stiffened and took a step away. Alyons bowed to Tarax and turned, gesturing for his Sidhe to follow him away from the camp. His eye caught Michael's and held; Alyons' face showed no expression, but Michael felt a flash of hatred nonetheless.

  "He's very angry now," Biri said. "I think the Crane Women have been talking with Tarax. Alyons was hoping for leniency. Tarax told him there is no such thing among the Sidhe."

  "Great," Michael said. "Now he'll really get down on us."

  "I don't think so," Biri said. "Not so long as I'm here. The Crane Women have an honored status, especially when they train a novice. They are no longer just old Breeds. Alyons doesn't dare displease them."

  "And when you're gone?"

  Coom descended the trunk of a nearby tree and jumped to the ground with a thump. She brushed bits of bark from her clothing and squinted at Alyons and his coursers as they vanished into the fog. Nare walked up behind Michael and Bin, carrying fruit in a newly-plaited grass mat.

  "Breakfast," she said, laying it between them. "Eat well. We cross the border this evening, and it's best to be nourished, but not full, when we do so. This is our last meal today."

  "Why this evening?" Michael asked. "Isn't it more dangerous?"

  Coom snorted. Nare tossed him a blue fruit similar to the one he had seen in the between-house. He caught the fruit and turned it in his hands. Half of it was furry and soft like a peach, though colored pale sky-blue. The other half was dark blue, apple-hard and shiny. At no point on its surface did it show a stem or other blemish. "Eat," Spart said, standing a few yards away, near a sapling.

  At mid-day, the Sidhe brought their horses forward and mounted. Tarax approached Spart and handed her a packet of sani; there would be no horse to protect them on the return trip. Instead, they would have to rely on Bin's pure Sidhe magic, undeveloped as it was.

  Tarax held his hands out and Bin clasped them. The looks that passed between them was one of long acquaintance, even dedication, but no apparent affection. Tarax broke the clasp first. Before departing, he turned to Micha
el and surveyed him coldly. "So this is the Flesh Egg's favored, is it?" he said, his voice deep and level. "To be trained with my Bin, by the oldest of the Breeds."

  Having delivered these few obvious words, Tarax returned to his group and they mounted. The shadows around the trees seemed to double and shift - and horses and Sidhe were gone.

  Bin sighed. "You are the first human he has spoken to in centuries. The last one… best not to describe what happened to him."

  When the shadows of the trees were long and the sky was changing hue, the Crane Women led Biri and Michael from the forest, moving south to cross the border at another point. Michael paced steadily behind Spart as they traversed a brief, emerald-azure savannah. Beyond the high, moist grassland stood an orderly row of waxy brown rocks, shining in the sunset like polished wood. The highest was about thirty feet, the lowest barely a stepping stone. Where the rocks crossed the border, they became blackened and cracked, tumbled to one side or the other. Nare took the giant slabs one by one, climbing to the highest and jumping from rock to rock, the others following until they stood on the border, which plainly divided one boulder about ten feet tall.

  Beyond the border, dust piled up on each side of the rocks. Biri crossed first, staying upright as he slid and ran down an incline of dust. Coom and Nare followed. Spart tapped Michael on the shoulder, urging him ahead. He tried to imitate Bin's grace but ended up sliding down the incline on his butt. They quickly ran ahead to avoid the acrid clouds they had raised.

  "Now we move as a group," Spart said. "Close together." Biri brought out the bag of sani and sprinkled a little on each of them, muttering something in Cascar as he did so. They walked due west until the dusk settled into darkness, and then halted. Michael looked around at the orange band of fading light on the horizon, at the dust now inky black, at the gluey arches and spires to the north, and shivered.

  "Why are we stopping?"

  "Because we won't be able to see much longer," Spart said. This time it was Biri who removed a wand from his white-and-black checked coat and drew a circle around them. Where the lines joined, he sprinkled more sani, then stepped back.