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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 14

Greg Bear


  "Do you remember the color of the flower, boy?" Span asked, shuffling nearer to him and peering intently at his face. She grimaced, wrinkles distorting the snakes and vines tattooed in red and purple across her features.

  "I remember it changing," he said.

  "What advantage does die Realm give you?" she asked.

  "There are ways to change it."

  "What is magic, boy?"

  "I… I don't know. Yet."

  "Will you ever know?"

  He didn't answer. Coom came closer, her goosedown hair curling in the mist. Nare stood behind him; he could hear her breathing.

  "Some think the Crane Women will be here forever, training and teaching," Spart said. "Do you believe that?"

  Michael nodded. "I don't see why not."

  Spart chuckled in the back of her throat and pushed her wand into the dirt. "Biri is a curious novice. He made you see today. What do you think of the Sidhe now?"

  "Strange," Michael said, squinting in a stray shaft of sunlight.

  "Will you ever understand Sidhe, or Breeds?"

  "Probably not," Michael said.

  "Because you're human," Nare offered.

  "No, because you're Breeds… and he's Sidhe," Michael countered, uncertain what he meant.

  "At this stage, your mind is all confusion," Spart said, tying in to his uncertainty. "You don't think clearly. You are slack. You can't feel what we teach. You spirit is hike a limp sail on NebchatLen."

  "You have sailboats?" Michael asked.

  Spart sighed. "You see? Every breeze pushes you this way and that. No listen close. We have less time to teach you now. Other tasks await us." She looked at her companions. "Less time than you think. You must learn quickly. Remember the flower. Remember, the Realm works for you. And you…" She stood. "You have less time." She pulled a flower from her pouch and dropped it to the ground before him. "What color?"

  "Blue," he said. He looked up from the flower. The Crane Women were gone. He turned quickly, trying to catch some glimpse of them in the mist. They had deserted him.

  The flower was yellow.

  A deep, bass humming ascended and swept over the grass like the passage of a huge helicopter. The mist swirled and was blown away in translucent spirals. The grass began to fan out and wind scoured at his face.

  Michael walked a few steps backward and came up against a square-cut stone marker about as tall as he was. A few yards away, emerging form the mist, was another. Both had been carved with circled swastikas that faced each other over a stretch of fresh-cropped grass.

  The more the mist cleared, the more obvious it became that a kind of path was aligned between the markers; not a path traveled by horses, people or even carts, however. The grass had not been trampled - only neatly cut short.

  Again came the humming and the sensation of motion overhead. The hair on his arms erected and his whole body tingled.

  Something white wavered at the boundary of the mist, a few dozen feet down the path. It detached itself and swept along, a human-like figure from the waist up, a trailing blur from the waist down. As if Michael didn't exist, the figure passed by and vanished in the opposite haze.

  The Sidhe of the air, Michael thought - a Meteoral like the one he had seen on the road from Lamia's house. He picked up his stick and scurried to the edge of the path, where he squatted in the taller grass, shivering, trying to be inconspicuous.

  Several more flew by, the air swirling in their wake. They weren't immaterial but he could almost see through them. They cast only the vaguest of shadows in the muted sunlight. The tops of their heads floated a good eight feet above the ground, and they seemed in proportion to that height. At first he could not tell whether they had male or female features, but he soon realized they were all female, with slender, hard-edged faces and somber expressions. Soon, a steady stream of Meteorals came down the path, growing more and more distinct as the sun burned away the mist.

  At first, none of them paid him any attention. He tried to hide in the deeper grass, however, and stepped on a dry stick. It snapped loudly. He felt his heart convulse around his blood like a closing fist.

  The stream of Meteorals scattered in all directions. Michael heard whisperings overhead, then all around, as if they had regrouped and were lowering themselves in a surrounding canopy.

  Directly in front of him, the air glimmered and crackled.

  His skin tingled painfully as a rush of white filled his view. He caught a glimpse of a hideous, angry long face drawn into a scream, fingers shaped into claws. His cheek stung and he grabbed it with his hand. His fingers came away bloody.

  "Sed ac, par na antros sed via?" The voices came from all directions, from a hissing multitude, exhaled like a chill wind.

  "You are on a trod," came a softer, no less menacing single voice right next to his ear. He turned slowly to face a Meteoral stooping in the grass. The grass seemed to pass right through her. He could feel her breathing on him, the breath sweet as ether. "You are the human from the house of the Isomage, no?"

  Michael nodded. His legs froze and pins and needles traveled up his thighs.

  "You should not be here."

  'The Crane Women-"

  "Have no power over us." The face shimmered and stretched, becoming even more hideous. The eyes were large, the most substantial things in the face, completely white and without pupils. A hand rose to one side of his head and the fingers stretched and clenched. Blood from Michael's cheek dripped onto his jacket.

  "They brought me here. Talk to them-"

  "We despise Breeds as much as we despise you."

  The face vanished. Michael's legs were too numb to support him. He fell back into the grass and cried out through clenched teeth at the pain as the circulation returned to his legs. He looked down at the spots of blood on his shoulder and the front of his jacket, and saw that his clothing had been neatly sliced to ribbons. The leather of his shoes was in shreds, as well.

  "Help me," he murmured, crawling away from the trod. He left scraps of cloth behind. "Please help me. God, please take me back. . .."

  A long ribbon of pearly white formed over his head. He looked up, cringing, and saw a chain of meteorals swooping low above him, each face conveying some new expression of curiosity, anger, irritation, even humor. And with each passage, his clothes became more and more ragged. Their trailing arms drifted over him like smoke, silently slashing, flaying.

  He closed his eyes and leaned on his arms, lowering himself to the ground. He buried his face in the grass, certain he was going to die. He just didn't want to see it happen. Where were the Crane Women? Had they done all their work, the weeks of training, just to let him be sectioned like bologna in a deli?

  He felt a rush of cold air on his naked back. His jacket and shirt had completely fallen away. The first stab of pain hit him, slow, excruciating, as something moved along his back. No. He felt a burst of anger. God damn them all. Why did everyone have to be so cruel, so full of hate? He didn't hate them.

  Suddenly, he seemed to be sitting somewhere else, watching but not seeing in the midst of incredible stillness and calm. He had had the same feeling when poetry flowed from his pencil so fast he couldn't tell where it was coming from.

  It was a kind of looseness, in his hands as much as his head. He watched himself stand, sweep at the air with his stick, grimace. He seemed to be grinning back at the Sidhe hovering around him.

  The stick was little use. He'd have to take advantage of the chaos. Blue flower, yellow, really pink.

  Grass, actually, and air, right here.

  He ran, holding the stick before him, knees parting the hip-high grass smoothly. Part of himself had been left behind like a squid's decoy cloud of ink. Not magic, but interesting; the Meteorals didn't seem to notice where he really was.

  Naked, he ran through the sunlight and warm gentle breezes, legs pumping on their own, lungs drawing in and growing, heart strong and leonine. He imagined his heart growling, surrounded by a wind-tossed mane. He
imagined himself a glass gazelle, a Sidhe horse turning into a quicksilver blur. The grassland fled beneath him, afraid of his feet; he was the center and the Realm passed under, not the other way around.

  Meteorals flanked him. He dodged. Blue flower, pink.

  Here, he thought in a place below thought, you can reach down and use your mind to accomplish things impossible on Earth. Because Adonna is not a mature god, and the Realm isn't quite polished. Was that what the Crane Women wanted him to learn?

  He dodged, leaving shadows. The Meteorals were farther away, swirling around one of the shadows like a snow-devil.

  Long after he knew he had escaped, he continued to run. There was no body carrying him, only eyes. He could not feel his muscles, only the stick he held before him. He was the stick, and his body was the comet's tail of its flight.

  Michael Perrin fell down and rolled, stuffing grass and dirt into his mouth. The stick bruised his ribs. He came up squatting with legs and arms splayed. His head fell forward and his arms went out from under him.

  The whole world was suddenly filled with agony. His body wanted to curl up like ash, his muscles burned so badly. His vision was red and uncertain.

  And he was scared again. His heart was a small, tight snake, not a lion. "God," he gasped. "God please."

  "Quiet." Spart stood over him, hands on hips, arms elbowed out like bird wings. She bent down and felt his arms and back with a worried frown. He heard Nare and Coom conversing in Cascar to one side.

  "You did well," Spart said. "Much too well, actually."

  The agony and fear faded. Is it night?

  No.

  Chapter Seventeen

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  Did they want him dead? Why did they leave him between the markers - to put him out of the way, so they could concentrate on Bin? Or was there something else - a conspiracy, perhaps - of which Michael knew nothing?

  When he opened his eyes and stared at the roof of his hut, it all seemed like a dream. In the Realm, however, there was no dreaming… perhaps because one cannot dream within a dream. In the mind, anything can happen. Anything can be accomplished, given control of the milieu. Was that what the Crane Women were trying to tell him?

  Spart leaned over him and peered into his face, making him jump. He hadn't been aware she was in the hut.

  "I was good, huh?"

  "Survived again," Spart said laconically. "When you can do what do did at will, you will be acceptable."

  "What did I do?"

  "Out-seeing. In Cascar, evisa. You threw a shadow. Do you remember what it felt like?"

  He tried to recall the sensation, like picking out the muscles to make ears wriggle. He had never been able to make his ears wriggle, however, or his nose. On Earth, he had often dreamed of flying. It had been so simple to fly: Just by discovering and flexing a certain muscle in his neck and head, he could lift himself from the ground a yard, two yards, higher with more strain. Upon waking, he could never locate the muscle - nor could he now.

  "I'm awake," he said. Spart pulled her hand away from his chest. "Maybe I'll just do it when I really need to." He sat up on his elbows.

  "What if you do not know you need to until it is too late? You are just beginning. Don't get your hopes up."

  "What hopes? I haven't had any hope since I came to this place."

  "Ah!" Spart pulled her lips back from her black gums and long teeth. "You hope for those geen."

  "Who?"

  He felt weak and fell back. As he twisted his head, he saw Nare on one side of him, Coom on the other.

  "Ba (click) dan," Coom said. "Okay?" Nare bent closer to examine his limbs.

  "Other than being a little banged up, I'm fine," Michael said quietly.

  "Something," Coom said. "Did something."

  "What?"

  "Up. Outside."

  He stood awkwardly and realized he was naked. Spart pushed him through the doorway and they pulled him forward by his arms until he stood in the middle of the mound. "Do you feel anything?" Spart asked as they circled him. Coom made soft clucking sounds. "Anything odd?"

  "No. Nothing. Why?"

  "Be certain!" Nare snapped. "Where is it?"

  "On one of his limbs, probably," Spart said. "Hiding."

  "Daggu," Coom said. It sounded like a curse. He was filthy, stained with grass juice and blood, but he didn't feel badly injured. Still, the way the Crane Women regarded him, with tight narrow expressions, worried him. Coom glanced down at his calf and bent over. She held out her left hand, wriggling her fingers slowly, and suddenly snapped it down to his ankle, plucking something up and holding it at arm's length.

  "Do you see it?" Spart asked.

  "What?" He tried to make out what Coom was holding but was too nervous to approach close enough.

  "In the sun," Nare said. Something about two inches long glinted in Coom's long fingers. He squinted and traced its silhouette. It resembled a slender crab, translucent, almost invisible. In all the dirt and mess, he wouldn't have noticed it at all; he certainly hadn't felt it.

  "What is it?" he asked, shivering.

  "This night, while you sleep," Nare said, "it would kill you.

  It's a gift from the Meteorals. When they give one of these to another Sidhe, the bite produces mystic dreams. Humans can't dream here, so it kills them."

  "Jesus," Michael said.

  "Remember," Span said, her eyes fixed on his. "You cannot dream here. There are no dreams."

  Coom carried the tiny creature into their hut. "It will entertain us tonight… and then, we'll add it to our collection," Span said.

  Bin had watched all this from the door of his hut. The young Sidhe drew his reed curtain closed and Michael stood alone and naked, as hollow as a dead tree.

  Inside his hut, stashed in a corner, was a change of clothing. The pants, shin and cloth shoes resembled what the Crane Women wore but were even more ragged. Still, they were clean. He put them on. The fit was tolerable.

  Michael felt the by now very familiar sensation of apprehension and helplessness. He had survived. He had done something strange, something he wasn't sure he would ever be able to repeat; yet in the face of the Realm's mystery, he had not learned much.

  What he had learned was that the Crane Women cared little for his safety - or they were crazy enough to put him into situations where he could get killed.

  He came out of the hut again to see that the sky was brightening. He had slept all day after his ordeal. After eating the fruit and porridge Nare had left for him, he went to the stream to bathe. He scrubbed off all the dry grass and din stains, then poured water over himself. When he had shivered dry, he went to a relatively calm pool and peered at his reflection.

  His cheek was swollen and the scratches were pink and puffy, but they didn't seem infected. His forehead was bruised, as were his ribs and feet.

  Biri came up to him as he finished dressing. "What do you want?" Michael asked, looking off to one side.

  "They played games with you. Not the Crane Women - the Meteorals."

  "Everybody plays games with me."

  "If they had meant to kill you, you wouldn't have escaped."

  "Maybe they did try to kill me, and I'm just better than anybody thinks."

  Biri shook his head.

  "Dammit, nobody believes I'm worth a crap! Why can't I just do something right and be recognized for it?"

  "Do you know what you did?"

  "Yeah. I survived. We've been through all that."

  "The Crane Women were-"

  "I don't give a damn what they were doing. I'm not wanted around here. Tell them," he nodded at the hut, "tell them I'm going to spend the night with my own people. Not with Breeds." He hesitated. "Not with Sidhe."

  "I'll tell them. And after tonight?"

  "I'll worry about that later."

  "What will Lamia do?" Bin asked.

  "What do you know about her, or care? I don't want to be here, that's all."

  Bin watched as
Michael crossed the river and walked west. He carried his book in one frayed pocket; it slapped against his hip with every step.

  In Euterpe, Michael located the alley where Savarin had led him, turned left into it and at the end walked up the flight of steps to Helena's doorway. He knocked on the frame but received no answer. Standing for a moment, convinced his luck wasn't going to improve for some time, he descended the stairs and nearly walked into her.

  "Michael! What's happened to you?" She reached up and touched her fingers solicitously to his face.

  "I'm leaving the Crane Women," he said. "I want to live in town. I thought you might be able to help me find a place."

  "Maybe. Maybe Savarin can help you."

  "I thought…" He was too numb to consider finesse. "I thought maybe I could stay here."

  "Oh, I don't think so," Helena said, smiling broadly. She patted him on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's find Savarin."

  At the hotel, Risky told them the scholar was teaching classes. "Why did you decide to leave?" Helena asked as they walked through the streets.

  "Sick of it," he said. "I just want to find some way to go home."

  "So do we all," Helena said ruefully. "But most of us have learned to accept that there's no going back."

  "Someone could send us back."

  "That hasn't happened yet. What did they do to your face?"

  "They took me out on a hike and left me on a trod. I was almost killed. That's part of the training."

  Helena shook her head sympathetically.

  The school was in worse repair than most of the buildings in town. There were no windows in the brick frames and the door hung askew, allowing Savarin's dulcet tones to escape across the clear sunny morning.

  They waited for Savarin's lecture - conducted mostly in French - to end. The five townsfolk sitting on the brick pews got up and shuffled out, their expressions resigned. Savarin lifted his arms in greeting. "My flock," he said, pointing to the backs of the departing five. "Enthusiasm incarnate."