Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 3Greg Bear
He had crossed over. But to where?
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His next thought was how to get back home. He walked cautiously to the gate and peered over. There was no alley, only a broad bank leading down to a gray slow-moving river about a hundred yards from shore to shore. The river flowed hazy in the early dawn light through a hilly landscape devoid of trees, the banks lined with scrubby weeds.
He turned around and surveyed the field before him. It had once been a vineyard but was now overgrown with weeds. The weeds themselves weren't faring too well. The vines had died, leaving thick gray stumps tethered to tilted stakes, surrounded by dead dry leaves and dirt.
As the smoky dawn brightened, he saw that the garden was in the rear of a blocky rectangular mansion. He walked through the dead vineyard, squinting to make out details within the mansion's dark outline. The sun was rising behind the mansion; he couldn't see it clearly until he was about a hundred yards away.
It wasn't in very good repair. One whole wing had been ravaged by fire, leaving only masonry and charred timbers. Michael was no expert on architecture, but the design seemed European, like a chateau in France. It could have been anywhere from a century to three centuries old, even older. There was no sign of life.
He felt he was intruding. He was cold, he hadn't the slightest idea where he was, and now he was getting hungry. For the time being, his only option was to go to the house, see if anyone lived there and try to get his questions answered.
He found a narrow path through the weeds and dead vines.
The house was even larger than he had thought; it was three stories tall. The bottom story was inset five or six feet. Five broad corbeled stone arches supported the overhang; as he approached, he saw that a yard-wide chunk had fallen from the middle arch.
The air of desertion and decay didn't encourage him. The path led up to the central arch, where Michael stopped. A dark oak door was set into the wall beneath, two mirror-image whorls occupying the top and bottom frames, surrounded by intertwining serpents. Two bronze lanterns jutted from the stone beside the door, their glasswork broken and jagged.
Michael made a fist and knocked on the rough, cracked wood. Even after several episodes of heavy pounding, there was no answer. He backed away a step. To each side of the door were bricked-up windows, and beyond them more alcoves in the stone wall. He moved to the next on his right and found another door, again without an exterior handle. He tried prying it open with his fingers but it wouldn't budge. The last door on die right had been plastered over. He returned to the second door and tentatively pushed at it with one hand, feeling the smooth rolls of the serpents beneath his fingers. It swung inward with a whining creak.
He looked behind him anxiously. He was still alone, unobserved, though he couldn't quite help wondering what might be hiding in the ruined vineyard.
With a stronger shove, the door swung all the way open, rebounding with a hollow thud from the wall. He stared into a dark hallway. Back-scattered morning light allowed him to see a couple of yards into the gloom. The walls were simple brickwork, without ornament or furniture. He advanced slowly. About fifteen feet in, the hall turned a corner, and a bar light slanted across the floor from that direction.
Michael peered around the comer. Beyond lay a large and exceedingly abandoned kitchen. He stepped forward gingerly, his feet displacing great wafts of felt-like dust. Yard-wide iron pots and brick-based stoves and ovens filled a chamber at least seventy feet long and sixty wide. Light shafted down through a long, narrow horizontal window about twelve feet above the floor on the opposite wall. Apparently the kitchen was in a .kind of basement; from the front it lay below ground level.
The hall through which he had entered flanked a brick enclosure which might have been a storage locker or refrigerator. A white-enameled metal door hung ajar on corroded hinges, revealing only darkness within.
On the south side of the kitchen a stairwell rose into more shadow. He crossed the cluttered floor between the iron-grilled stove and the enclosure, feet striking mounds of broken crockery and heavy, smaller pots beneath the smooth rivers of dust. He climbed the stair.
Swinging doors waited at the top, one knocked from its hinges and propped against the wall, the other kicked and splintered askew. He pushed the leaning door aside and stepped into a dining hall.
Three long dark wood tables filled about half the space, chairs upended neatly on the table edges. Beyond the tables, the carpet gave way to wooden parquet flooring. The room could have held a respectable-size ball, and stretched to the front of the house, where tall arched windows afforded a view of the rising sun. Morning light smeared silvery-gray across the table tops.
The room smelled of dust and a rather bitter tang of flowers. He looked to both sides and decided to try the broad door on the right.
That took him into an equally decrepit and impressive foyer, with modem-looking overstuffed couches spaced along the walls beneath more tall arched windows. A demolished grand piano cluttered a small stage like a crushed beetle. At the opposite end of the foyer was an immense staircase, transplanted from a castle or luxury liner, with gold banisters mounted on turned pillars of black wood. He looked up. A balustrade ran from the staircase across the length of an upper landing.
"Ne there! Hoy ac!"
The largest woman he had ever seen leaned over the stone and metal railing of the balustrade, directly above him. She pulled back. The creak of the floor allowed him to trace her footsteps as she approached the stairs. Through the rails her shapeless body appeared to bulk in at least five hundred pounds; she stood six and a half feet tall, and her arms were thick as hams and like in shape, covered by the long sleeves of a black caftan. Her face was little more than eyes and mouth poked into white dough, topped with well-kept long black hair.
"Hello," he said, his voice cracking.
She paused at the top of the staircase and thumped her palm on the railing. "Hel-lo," she repeated, her tiny eyes growing almost imperceptibly larger. He couldn't decide whether to stay or run. "Antros. You're human. Where in hell did you come from?"
He pointed to the rear of the house. "Outside. The vineyard gate."
"You couldn't have come that way," the woman said, her voice deepening. "It's locked."
He took the key-holder from his pants pocket and held it up. "I used this."
"A key!" She made her way down the stairs slowly, taking each step with great care, as well she should have. If she fell, she was heavy enough to kill herself and bring the staircase down with her. "Who gave that to you?"
Michael didn't answer.
"Who gave that to you?"
"Mr. Waltiri," he said in a small voice.
"Waltiri, Waltiri." She reached the bottom and waddled slowly toward him, her arms describing archs with each step to avoid the span of her hips. "Nobody comes here," she said, vibrating to a slow stop a few feet from Michael. "You speak Cascar or Nerb?"
He shook his head, not understanding.
"I speak a little French," he said. 'Took two years in high school. And some Spanish."
She tittered, then abruptly broke into a loud, high, sad cackle. "French, Spanish. You're new. Definitely new."
He couldn't argue with that. "Where am I?"
"When did you get here?" she countered.
"About half an hour ago, I think."
"What time was it when you left?"
"Your home, boy," she said, some of the gravel tone returning.
"About one in the morning."
"You don't know where you are, or who I am?"
He shook his head. A slow anger grew alongside his fear.
"My name," the huge, corpulent woman said, "is Lamia. Yours?" She lifted one arm and pointed a surprisingly delicate finger at him.
"Michael," he said.
"What did you bring with you?"
He held out his arms. "My cloth
es, I guess. The key."
"What's that in your coat pocket?"
She nodded as best she could; her head was almost immobile on the column of her neck. The effort buried her chin in flesh. "Mr. Waltiri sent you. Where is he?"
She cackled again, as if that was something ridiculous. "And so am I. Dead as this house, dead as a million dreams!" Her laughter scattered off the walls and ceilings like a flight of desperate birds. "Can you go back?"
"I don't know," he said. "I want to."
"You want to. You come here, and you want to go back. Don't you know how?"
He shook his head.
"Then you're dead, too. You're stuck here. Well, at least you have company. But you must leave this house. Nobody stays here come night."
By this time he was trembling, and angry at himself for being afraid. It was all made worse by the way the woman stared at him, saying nothing. "Well," she said finally. "You'll learn soon enough. You'll return to this house tomorrow morning."
"It's only morning now," Michael said.
"And you'll need the rest of the day to straighten out your situation. Come with me."
She walked around the staircase and opened a large door at the front of the house. He followed her shimmying form down a long flight of stone steps to a rocky field, then across a narrow path to a dirt road which wound its way through more low, treeless hills.
"There's a town - a human town - about three miles up this road, beyond the field and over a bridge. Go there quickly. Don't loiter. There are those who have no great love for humans. There's a very ramshackle hotel in town, bed and board; you'll have to work for your keep. They stick together in the town. They have to. Go there, tell them Lamia wants you put up. Tell them you'll work." She stared at the book bulging his jacket pocket. "Are you a student?" she asked.
"I guess so," he said.
"Hide the book. Full morning tomorrow, come back and we'll talk."
She turned without waiting for any reaction and labored up the steps to the door, shutting it behind her. Michael looked this way and that, trying to squeeze meaning out of the barren hills, ruined old house and rocky front yard.
It was all quite real. He wasn't dreaming.
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Michael had not reckoned with feeling scared, being hungry, or facing the acid realization that he had no idea what to do. He had nothing to fall back on, no reasonable guide; he had only Lamia's words. Lamia herself, whatever she had to say, was hardly reassuring. Her brusqueness and her almost certain insanity made Michael all the more desperate to find a way home. He decided to try the gate again, to climb over it if need be; perhaps the river and the countryside beyond the gate were illusory. Perhaps he could just jump and find himself back in the alley…
Back with the figure in the flounced dress and broad hat.
That thought stopped him halfway across the field, behind the ruined mansion. Fists clenched, he turned and trudged back between the dead vines and over the rocks and clods. He was on the dirt road again, following Lamia's directions, when he heard hooves pounding. A group of five horses and riders galloped along about half a mile behind him, raising a small plume of dust. He hid behind a boulder and watched.
The riders approached the narrow path leading to the house and slowed to confer with each other. Michael had never seen horses or men like them. The horses were large and lean, so tightly muscled they looked as if they had been flayed. They were a uniform mottled gray, all but one, a dazzling golden palomino.
The men were tall and thin, with a spectral quality most strikingly evident in their faces. All of them had reddish blond hair, long narrow jaws without beards and square large eyes beneath formidable brows. Their clothing was pearly gray, differing from the horses' coloration only in the way it diffracted die early morning sunlight.
Done conferring, they took the path to the house and dismounted near the steps. The horses kicked at clods of dirt as their masters entered the house without knocking.
Michael squinted from his awkward advantage. He decided it would be best for him to leave the area and get to the village as quickly as possible.
The walk took about forty-five minutes. All the way, he kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure the riders weren't coming up behind him.
His wristwatch wasn't working, he noticed; the sweep-second hand was motionless. The dial read one-sixteen. But he could judge time by his growing hunger.
The village first appeared as an irregular line of brown blocks set against the horizon. The closer he approached, the less impressed he was. The outskirts consisted of small mud-brick houses with thick thatched-straw roofs rising to conical peaks. Tiny columns of smoke crept up from most of the houses. In the still air, the smoke gradually settled into a thin, ground-hugging haze. Beyond the mud-brick houses, larger two-story buildings connected by stone walls presented a unified dreary green-brown exterior.
A low unguarded gate led through the walls into the village proper. He walked between the gateposts, kicking up wisps of moist smoke and ground fog. A sign neatly painted on the gate, arch, facing toward the village rather than out, proclaimed:
Glorious Capital of the Pact Lands
A few people were about in the mid-morning, women carrying baskets and men standing and talking. They all stared at Michael as he passed. He stuck his hands firmly into his pants pockets and returned their stares with furtive glances. The women wore pants or brown, sack-like dresses. The men were dressed in dust-colored pants and dirty tan shirts. Some walked from house to house carrying bundles of dried reeds.
To Michael's discomfort, he was attracting a lot of attention, though nobody advanced to speak to him. The place had a prison's atmosphere, quiet and too orderly, with an undercurrent of tension.
He looked for a sign to show him where the hotel was. There were no signs. Finally he gathered up courage and approached a pale round-faced man with thinning black hair, who stood by a wicker crate to one side of the narrow stone-paved street.
"Excuse me," Michael said. The man regarded him with listless curiosity. "Can you tell me where the hotel is?"
The man smiled and nodded, then began speaking swiftly in a language Michael couldn't understand. Michael shook his head and the man made a few motions in the proper direction, lifting his eyebrows.
"Thanks," Michael said. Luckily, the hotel was nearby and rather obvious; it was the only place that smelled good. There was no sign in front, but the building was slightly more elegant than its neighbors, with a pretense of mud bas-relief ornament over the door and windows. The odor of baking bread poured from the first floor windows in billows. Michael paused, salivating, then walked up the front steps and entered the small lobby.
A short, bulky man wearing a gray kepi and coveralls sat behind the counter. All the furniture was made of woven wicker or - like the counter - of small close-fitting bricks. The carpets in the lobby and hall were thin and worn, and the coarse cloth upholstery on a wicker couch placed near the door was tattered, barbed with feathers and fibers.
"Lamia told me to come here," Michael said.
"Did she now?" the man asked, his gaze fixed on Michael's chest. He seemed unwilling to admit anyone was taller than he.
"You speak English," Michael said. The man agreed with a curt nod. "She said I should work for some food and be put up this evening. I should return to see her tomorrow."
"Did she now?" he repeated.
"She wants me to work."
"Ah." The man turned to look at the rack of keys mounted behind the counter - baked clay keys, bulky and silly-looking. "Lamia." He didn't sound pleased. He wrapped his fingers around a key but didn't remove it from the hook. He stared again at Michael's chest. Michael leaned over until the man could look into his face, and the man beamed a broad smile. "What kind of work?"
"I… anything, I guess."
He removed the key and looked at it longingly.
"She never sent anyone here before. You a friend?"
"I don't know," Michael said.
"Then why's she looking after you?" the man went on, as if Michael had answered in the negative.
"I don't know much of anything," Michael said.
"Then you're new." He stated it nonchalantly, then frowned and peered at Michael's face more closely. "By God, you're new! How'd you meet Lamia if you're new? But-" He lifted his hand and shook his head. "No questions. You are under her charge, or you wouldn't say so, believe me. Let it stand at that. Since you're new, you'll go in with the teacher." He came around the counter. "Double up. It's a small room and my wife'll work the skin off your fingers and the kink out of your arms. You'll eat plain like the rest of us." He chuckled. "There isn't anything fancy, believe me. This place is quiet at night, you'll sleep on cotton-grass, and when the alarm rings-"
At that instant, a bell clanged loudly. The sound seemed to issue from all directions. "My name," the stout man said, "is Brecker, and we'll be going downstairs now. That's the alarm. Risky!"
Michael thought he was assessing the situation, but he called out, "Risky!" again and a thin worried-looking woman about the same age as Brecker leaped down the stairs, her bandy legs taking them three at a time.
"I heard," she said. Michael looked through the lobby's smoky windows and saw people hurrying about in the streets.. "It's Wickmaster Alyons and his coursers again. They must have been at the Isomage's house, and now they're here." Michael followed them down stone steps into a dirt-walled cellar. They squatted by the wall closest to the steps, among large bottles of brown liquid and straw baskets filled with potatoes. Brecker patted the floor beside him and Michael sat.
"Why the alarm?" Michael asked.
Risky tossed her lank hair and spat into a corner. "The riding of the noble Sidhe against the race of man," she said, her voice thick with sarcasm. She appraised Michael with a cool eye. "You're new," she said. "Where's Savarin?"
"Probably watching them from upstairs," Brecker said. "As usual."