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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 17

Greg Bear


  "They keep trying to kill me," Michael said.

  "Who, the Crane Women?" Lamia tittered, a dead dry sound of rolling pebbles. She motioned for him to come closer. He hesitated and she made as if to reach out with one hand and strangle him. "Closer!" she growled.

  He moved one stride. She edged a few inches along the railing, making it creak beneath her weight. Her arms bounced in slow, oily waves beneath the fabric of her gown. "They are teaching you how to stay alive."

  "I can stay alive on my own, in Euterpe with all the others."

  "You will not stay in the town. The town is for fools, cowards too afraid to make their own way."

  "I'm not too afraid."

  "You're too stupid to succeed, then." She lowered her voice and pushed back from the railing, tottering for one awful moment. "You require tempering." Michael retreated two steps in case she fell; he saw her as a poorly balanced sack of venomous fluids, about to topple and burst. But Lamia kept her balance. "Come with me," she said. "We have to talk alone."

  She wobbled and thumped through a doorway leading to a second floor hallway. This part of the house seemed in better condition than the ground floor; as far as he could tell in the twilight, the walls were unmarked, and the floor was carpeted, muffling her ponderous steps. She reached out with her left hand and pushed wide a door, motioning for Michael to enter first. He sidled past her and stood in a broad empty room. Lighted candles were placed high on all four walls in sconces at intervals of several feet. The floor was hardwood, brilliantly polished. A second Lamia labored upside down in the depths of the wood as she followed him. She closed the door and leaned against it, breathing heavily.

  "Are you sick?" he asked.

  She shook her head. Her small eyes, enclosed in scaly flesh, saddened as she looked beyond him at the empty room.

  "You have a duty, boy," she said distantly. "Have you learned more about this house, about the Realm?"

  "A little," Michael said. "Not nearly enough."

  "You know that the Isomage lived here?"

  He nodded, "I don't know who he was. . ..Was he David Clarkham?"

  "Is, boy. He is." Her lips formed an upward-tilting curve suggesting a smile. To each side, the skin of her cheeks separated in fine cracks. "You know that he wishes to save us?"

  Michael shook his head. "Why isn't he here, then?"

  'He was driven off by his enemies. I told you. The battle that destroyed this entire plain. They forced all the humans in their control to live here afterward, in desolation and pain. I've never been to the town; I cannot leave this house. But from this house I have a… small influence. In my cursed condition, I can help. Do you understand?"

  "No." There was pleasant defiance in his ignorance. It warmed him.

  She rolled her hips and dragged her legs to the middle of the room. He caught a whiff of her odor, unpleasant and dead sweet, like decaying flowers. "You must not defy the plan," she said. "The Sidhe opposed to us simply wait for their chance to…" She shook her head and the skin of her neck crackled.

  "Then why do they give you any power at all?" Michael asked.

  "They cannot hurt me more than they already have. There is a treaty over this land, over the plain. We suffer our punishment, but if they make any further moves against us, the treaty crumbles… and a power buried deep in the land is unleashed against the transgressors. There is a stalemate. To the Sidhe, it seems we are defeated. Perhaps we are… and perhaps not. But should humans break the treaty…" Her voice trailed off again.

  "Why am I so important?"

  "Important?" She spat on the floor, then walked to the spot where her spittle beaded on the polished surface and with infinite pains, bent down to wipe it with the hem of her gown. Her skin crackled again as she returned to her upright posture. "You are not crucial. You are simply a messenger. But to help at all, you must survive. You must continue to train with the Crane Women."

  "Do I have any choice?"

  Lamia turned her back on him. "I have some influence over the Wickmaster; but only some. If you do not return to the Crane Women, he will take charge of you. What he'll do with you, I don't know."

  "No choice, then."

  She swiveled slowly, in grotesque parody of a pirouette. Michael looked at the far wall and saw a long, horizontal bar mounted beneath the candles - a practice bar for dancers. "May you never know how cruel life is," she said. "Or what can be lost… and yet remain alive. Go back to the Crane Women. Resume your training."

  Michael stood silent in the candlelight, then turned and left the room. He descended the stairs and stopped before Alyons, who let the rope fall free from one hand.

  "Jakap?" the Wickmaster asked. The rope unwound like a struggling snake.

  "Lamia orders me to go back to the Crane Women."

  "She orders nothing," Alyons said. "I am Wickmaster."

  "You can't hurt me," Michael said.

  The Sidhe leaned over, bringing his face level with Michael's. "You are right, man-child. 1 can't hurt you if you do as she wishes. But step out of line, just once…"

  "Wickmaster!" Lamia stood by the balustrade, limned by the faint glow from the dancing room. "Obey the Pact."

  Michael dodged the Sidhe's grasping hand and walked out the door. "I'll ride back," he said, trying to conceal the tremble of anger and fear in his voice.

  "On which horse?" Alyons asked, closing the front door with a solid thump. "Where is your horse?"

  "Your horse," Michael said.

  Behind him, Alyons barked a short laugh. "My horse. Such a beautiful and golden horse, such a temptation, my horse… even for humans. Mount then, Antros, show us your skill."

  Michael touched the golden Sidhe horse delicately, then mounted as he had been instructed. He wondered idly if it were possible to steal the horse, and decided that would be very unwise. But his feet kicked out of their own volition, gouging the animal in the flanks.

  The landscape, locked in long, gray twilight, suddenly blurred around him. The horse's flesh became like flowing steel under the saddle and between his calves, and Michael felt an incredible pulse of power as they streaked along the road. His body seemed to melt and he grasped the horse with his arms and legs in sheer terror, shouting for it to stop. His words were drowned in the wind.

  Michael had an impression the coursers were right behind him, but when he tried to turn and look, the landscape made such bizarre gyrations that he closed his eyes.

  Suddenly, everything settled. He clung to the back of the horse to keep from sliding off. They stood on the mound, the horse's breathing shallow and steady. It jerked its head and shivered. He slid from the saddle and barely managed to land on his feet.

  Alyons' mount rejoined the coursers standing around the Crane Women's hut. The horses' skins gleamed in the furnace glow from the window; the Wickmaster's cape reflected the myriad tiny glimmers in the dirt of the mound as he dismounted from a borrowed animal. The courser without a horse ran gracefully and swiftly over the road and across the creek, stopping at the edge of the mound.

  Banners of dark glided up from the horizon, announcing night.

  Spart emerged from the hut, glanced at Michael without comment, and turned to Alyons. They spoke in Cascar for several minutes. Michael shivered in the river of cool air flowing from the south. The coursers murmured among themselves.

  Nare called to him from the window. He walked unsteadily to the hut. The Crane Woman's luxuriant hair was animated by a current of warm air flowing through the window and caught the inner glow, forming a golden nimbus around her face.

  "To Lamia?" she asked. Michael nodded. "Is she different?"

  "She's sick, I think. Her skin's all patchy." He was relieved. Apparently he was not going to be chided for running away. "I didn't want to come back," he said, the words tumbling out all at once.

  "Of course," she said. She closed the window.

  Alyons glided aboard his horse and the coursers moved off slowly into the dark. For a moment, Michael stood by the
hut, then returned to his own shelter. Biri was nowhere to be seen. There was no one to talk to, not even a target for defiance.

  He thought of Eleuth and Helena. He hoped Helena wasn't worried - and then hoped she was. He pondered his own neutral feelings. All emotion seemed to have drained out of him.

  "Wait and see," he said again and again until sleep overtook him.

  That night, before sleep, the darkness behind his eyelids roiled with thoughts of home, the Isomage's mansion, the flaking rims of Lamia's eyes. He awoke before dawn and listened to the humming sky. As the humming faded, he peered out his door to see a pale band of gray on the horizon. Clouds had moved in during the night, and though the air wasn't exceptionally cold, flakes of snow were falling. The flakes melted as soon as they touched the dirt.

  Eleuth came from Halftown about an hour later, wrapped in a light shawl and wearing knee-high boots. She carried four buckets of milk, as on the day Michael had first seen her. He stood in front of his hut but she barely looked at him as she walked past. Biri watched both of them from his door. When the buckets had been deposited outside the Crane Women's hut, she began her return trip.

  "Eleuth," Michael said. She stopped, still not looking at him. "I couldn't come yesterday."

  "So I heard."

  "I want to thank you." Those words sounded particularly callous, as if his need to say them belied their meaning.

  "Are you all right?" she asked. "I heard Alyons took you from the human town."

  "I'm fine. I'll try to see you today."

  She finally turned to him and nodded. Biri regarded her with seeming disinterest. To Michael's surprise, a flash of hatred crossed Eleuth's face. She ran across the stream.

  Spart stood beside him, holding a cup of milk.

  "Where does the milk come from?" he asked, sipping.

  "Always questions."

  "Always."

  "From herds of horses beyond the Blasted Plain. It is brought into Halftown and Euterpe twice each month. It keeps well, and it nourishes." She sighed. "But I remember the fine milk of Earth, rich and full of the taste of the plants cows and goats ate." She smacked her lips and took the empty cup. "You kept the Breed woman company?"

  Michael nodded. He wasn't embarrassed; he saw no reason to worry about appearances in front of the Crane Women.

  "The Sidhe never eat meat?" Michael asked. The question had waited for weeks. Spart jerked and turned slowly to look at Bin's hut. The door cover was drawn and all was silent within. "No," she said. "Even in-speaking the thought is painful. Never eat flesh. Only humans eat meat. It is the sign of their defeat."

  "All Sidhe are vegetarians?"

  Spart looked him firmly in the eye. "Always and ever. That is why we have magic and you do not."

  "Never?" Michael pursued, sensing something unsaid.

  Spart moved away, shaking her head. "The subject is not fit for discussion."

  "What do they sacrifice to Adonna?" He thought of Lirg.

  Spart turned on him and advanced until her nose was close to his chin. "Always forbidden, on occasion mandatory," she said. "Do you know that law?"

  "I don't think so."

  Spart glanced at Bin's hut once more, then walked back to her own.

  "Can't we even hold a discussion longer than four sentences?" Michael called out after her. "Jesus." Out of habit, he began his warm-up exercises. Tiring soon of that, wondering when his training would continue, he entered his hut and lay on the reed mats, clearing a space to reveal bare dirt. He picked up one of the pieces of wood he hadn't fitted properly into the framework and drew a line in the dust. "I'm a poet," he said to himself, quiet but firm. "I'm not a soldier. I'm not a God damn jock. I'm a poet." He closed his eyes and tried to think of something. Surely he could write about what was happening to him. About Helena, Eleuth. About what Bin had told him.

  But it was all a tangle. Their faces came and went, bringing no words with them, not even suggesting. Instead, he began to recall things about Earth. The sadness almost overwhelmed him. His missed his father and mother, the school - he even missed the ridicule and being a dreamy kid in a world of jocks and New Wave robots. He felt like crying. He was being asked - no, forced - to think and behave like an adult, to make life-and-death decisions, to choose, and he was not at all sure he was ready to give up childhood.

  Michael had always been mature, in the sense of being able to think things out for himself. Given time enough, and equanimity, he could puzzle through most things and reach a conclusion others might regard as advanced for his age. But confronted with love, violence, sex - miscegenation - what could he conclude?

  Only that home was better. Safer. How could one ask for more than warmth, food, peace and quiet, a chance to learn and work?

  "There's no place like home," he murmured, and snickered. He tapped his heels together. Oz was a National Park compared with Sidhedark. He had never read much fantasy, outside of what he found in poetry, but the Realm was like nothing he had ever heard of. It was something out of a history lesson, not fairy tales - something out of World War II. Internment camps - the Pact Lands. The Blasted Plain, like some bizarre crater from an even more bizarre bomb, filled with mutated monsters. The Crane Women - drill sergeants. Surely he could write about that.

  The stick began to move. He applied it to the dirt and was pleased with the old, familiar feeling of tapping Death's Radio, the source of poetry. In Orphee, a film he had first seen at age thirteen, Death had come for the modern beat poet Orpheus in the form of a woman in a large black limousine. The limousine's radio played nothing but provocative nonsense phrases… which impressed Orpheus with their purity and poetic essence. Michael sometimes felt he was tuned in to Death's Radio when the poetry came pure and clean.

  Here she comes

  Bottle in hand

  To the mike

  Swaying now

  Gravel voice

  Filmy gown

  She will die

  Her singing

  Will kill her

  We will all

  Listen, her

  Blood and boozy breath

  On our savage ears.

  The wood came to a halt and he tapped it on the final period, the tiny hole in the dirt which concluded the poem. He had written a similar poem a year ago, after seeing Ricky Lee Jones in concert. But that poem had been flowery and melancholy-sweet, like bad Wordsworth, and this version was lean, essential - almost too spare for his tastes. No masterpiece, but a rugger. He frowned.

  Sometimes he had the impression that he wasn't really the author of a poem, that Death's Radio allocated poems by queue number and not personality. But this was a particularly strong sensation. He hadn't written this poem. Somebody, somewhere, had heard his in-speaking and transformed it for him.

  His hand reached out and scrawled Just ask beneath the poem. Ask what?

  Gnomisms. Puzzlements.

  Names are but the robes of fools,

  And words the death of thought.

  Your realm lies not in matter's tools

  But in what song has wrought.

  He dropped the wood. The letters had gathered all the dirt's sparkles into their tiny valleys and banks. They blazed in the hut's gloom. He hadn't written them; it was more as if he had been conversing with someone.

  "Man-child!"

  He left the burning words in the dirt and backed away from the bare space. He pulled open the reed door-cover. Spart stood before his hut. "Yes?"

  "You will not be trained today," she said.

  He stood with the chill draft circulating around him. "So?"

  "You are not a prisoner. Just don't attract Lamia's attention again, and don't say you plan to run away. The Wickmaster has enough chores." Her face briefly pruned up into a grin. "When you are not training, you are free to leave the mound. Without our company." She paused and looked around meaningfully. "After all, where will you go? Not far. Not far."

  "I could cross the Blasted Plain, like when we went to meet Biri," he sai
d. She laughed.

  "I think you are too smart to try that. Not yet."

  That was certainly true enough. "What will you do with Biri today?"

  Spart shook her head and held her finger to her lips. "Not for humans to know." She walked off and he dropped the door cover, then looked back at the words in the dirt, now dark. He reached out with his foot to erase them, but thought better of it and pulled the book from its hiding place under the rafters. It opened in his hands to Keats' long poem, "Lamia," which he had first read a few years before and forgotten. It didn't illuminate his situation, nor did it shed much light on Lamia; it did, however, raise his curiosity as to why she was called that. No part of her was serpentine.

  Except that she was shedding her skin. He closed the book and put it in his new-sewn pocket. Outside, the mound seemed deserted. For a second he had a crazy notion to search for the Crane Women and Biri, observe them secretly - but that was as unlikely as escaping across the Blasted Plain alone.

  He set out for Halftown.

  As he approached the market square he heard a commotion. Three tall Breed males - including the guard who had first met Savarin and Michael on the outskirts of Halftown - stood at the gates to the market, glaring at a small crowd gathered around. The discussion was in Cascar and it sounded heated.

  Eleuth stood to one side, head bowed. Michael walked up to her. "What's going on?"

  "The market is no longer mine to manage," she said. She tried to smile but her lips wouldn't cooperate. "Since Lirg was taken away, I haven't been running it at all well. So the Breed Council claims."

  Michael looked at the guards and the crowds and felt his face redden. "What will you do now?"

  "They'll assign me a new house and find a new manager. I'll move."

  "Can't you fight it?"

  She shook her head as if shocked by the idea. "No! The council's decisions are final."

  "Who's in charge of the council?"

  "Haldan. But he takes direction from Alyons, who oversees everything in the Pact Lands, especially in Halftown."