Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 32

Greg Bear

  Michael conjured back an image of tall figures around his bed on Earth, discussing him. You? he asked.

  "No, indeed," Tonn said, pulling up a block from the stone field with the palm of his hand and sitting on it. "Not even the Maln, or the Council of Delf. The Council of Eleu chose you, I and they would be very distressed to know I concur. But before any of our plans can be carried out, some obstacles must be cleared away. Some old greeds. We do not precisely agree, but each of us has a use for you."

  Then I have no will of my own?

  "You have all the will you'll ever need. And you won't need this." He held up the black book. It faded from his hand. "Nor will you need Death's Radio. Time now for forgetting…"

  The stone field's blackness intensified and smeared up to take in the sky and clouds, to sweep around Tonn and obscure him.

  Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings - stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again.

  The cloud of creation was back in its place. The receding blackness sparkled and churned.

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Contents <> - Prev <> / Next <>

  Michael walked and whistled tunelessly, caught himself whistling and stopped abruptly. He looked around warily, his armhairs tingling. Then he frowned and sat down, wondering why he was still alive. He had been in the Irall.

  He felt for the book. It was gone. He looked around frantically, pushing aside the grass to see if he had dropped it. Everything in his memory was jumbled.

  The broad river flowed nearby, noisy as it rushed slick and turbulent over boulders. A few hundred yards beyond the river was one wall of a canyon, and much closer - overshadowing - the opposite wall. Both were gray stone streaked with rusty red, jagged and scarred as if the river's gouging had been neither gentle nor discreet. Each wall rose at least five hundred feet and stretched for as far as Michael could see. Trees clustered in fives and tens along the banks, leaves swaying in a /cool, persistent breeze - a canyoned river of air to complement the river of water.

  "What happened?" he asked, taking a step one way, then back, then another. He remembered meeting Death's Radio, a tall fellow in a kilt and tabard… but who had that been? He remembered being told certain things, but he couldn't recall what the things were.

  Tarax he remembered quite clearly, and he shivered.

  "Michael! Michael!"

  Two figures clambered down a rugged trail in the canyon face nearby.

  "Nikolai!" he shouted. His difficulties were temporarily driven out by joy. "You didn't make it back to the city!"

  "And you did?" Nikolai and Bek ran across the river sand, skirting patches of grass. Michael and Nikolai embraced and Michael was surprised and embarrassed at how good Nikolai's warm, strong body felt in his arms. Bek stood to one side, smiling faintly at the reunion.

  "I was captured," Michael said.

  "We were filtered out, then… by the Ban," Nikolai said. They laughed and embraced again. "We were sent here. And so were you. By the Ban? Did she rescue you?"

  Michael explained as much as he remembered, which wasn't very helpful. He described the interior of the Irall, the ride below the Realm, and the cylinder above the Mist. "After that… I think I was dreaming."

  "Here? Most unlikely," Nikolai said. "Whatever it was, it must have been real."

  "My book was taken away. I've forgotten some things." His face fell. Thinking of the book automatically sent his mind back to "Kubla Khan." He couldn't remember past the first few lines.

  "But you survived! No one has ever come out of the Irall alive - no human, anyway."

  "And no Breed," Bek said, running his hand through his silky blond hair. "Nikolai told me you were special. Now I believe him! A special antros."

  Michael was ready to be offended by the word used so often as a curse, but he probed Bek deftly and found no animosity. Bek returned the probe and met Michael's instant shield. The Breed smiled broadly and shook his head in appreciation and wonder.

  By evening, they had gathered dried sticks and grass for a fire. They ate from Nikolai's foraging of the day before - some fruit and roots - and rested, saying very little. Nikolai cast proprietary glances at Michael now and then.

  The fire became smoke and ashes and a few crackling embers. Bek and Nikolai slept. Michael felt as if he had slept an age and might never sleep again. He sat with his arms wrapped around his knees and looked at the drifting smoke, wondering how he could feel so good when he had lost the final thing of importance to him, when he had no future and no foreseeable prospects. When he was still in the Realm.

  He was alive. That was enough. So often he had resigned himself to death - or worse. He thought of the weightless graveyard and the acrid dust.

  Even if Clarkham turned out to be useless to him - and vice versa - even if he was a pawn -

  He heard a rustling in the grass. What he saw, beyond the sandy oval where Nikolai and Bek slept, made his back go rigid.

  Bin stood in the grass, dressed in a black robe with red shoulders and arms. He stared fixedly at Michael and held out his hand, beckoning.

  Michael stood and brushed sand from his travel-stained pants. He followed Bin away from the camp until they were out of earshot, their conversation covered by the river's tumult.

  "Is this some sort of crossroad?" Michael asked, his voice almost failing him. He cleared his throat.

  "No crossroad. I've brought something that may still be of use to you. It is yours, by law. You have survived your punishment, and it has been imprinted." He gestured to a copse of trees. There, visible in the light of the pearly band, was the blue horse. It nickered and walked forward. Michael reached out to it hesitantly. It nuzzled his palm.

  "I've gone through a lot because of this horse," Michael said. "This isn't another trick?"

  Biri shook his head. "Tarax was furious not to find you back in the cylinder, dead. He released the horse, but not in the same place he was commanded to release you."

  "What are you doing here?"

  "Fulfilling Adonna's ruling."


  Biri looked down at the ground. "Because of Adonna, I have no horse. Because of Tarax, I have no faith in Adonna or the Irall. All my training has been for nothing. My people are dying. We are withering inside. I blame Adonna." The look he gave Michael was almost pleading. "I went to the Ban of Hours. She and her attendants are the only ones who seem to know something has gone wrong in the Realm."

  "The Council of Eleu," Michael said.

  "Yes. What do you know of them?"

  "Not a great deal."

  "Would you like to know more, as much as I know?"

  Michael nodded. If Clarkham was an unreliable savior, then the Council of Eleu might be able to help.

  "Ride with me, then… or rather, since I have no horse, allow me to ride with you. While your companions sleep."

  "Where to?"

  "Not so very long ago, I would have thought it an accursed place and shunned it. Now I am much less certain. It is not far, if we ride."

  Michael looked back at the camp and the sleeping shapes of Nikolai and Bek. He knew Nikolai was asleep, but Bek…

  "Why shouldn't they go with us?"

  "The human has never undergone discipline. He would not survive. The Breed…" Bin shrugged. "It would not matter to him. He is without a people, a loner. He does not care that he is a Breed, otherwise it might have some importance to him."

  Michael considered briefly. "Lead on."

  The blue horse allowed both of them to mount, this time, unlike with Gwinat, Michael riding behind and Biri in front. "I was in the Irall," Michael said.


  "Did you see me?"


  "Why didn't you help?"

  "No one interferes with Tarax. Besides, you were going to Adonna. Even initiates know the futility of trying to cross Adonna."

  Michael urged the horse forward. Then, fully aware of the consequences, he gave
the Sidhe animal a chance to run… and to fly. "Tell us where to go," he told Biri as the horse's body blurred and silvered under them.

  "South," he said.

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Contents <> - Prev <> / Next <>

  For a time the horse followed the river and canyon. Michael couldn't tell if they were flying or running, or even precisely where they were. Everything was disarrayed. With a twist of his head the world became a different place, filled with streamers of light and rushing clouds.

  "Abana," Biri shouted. "Tell the horse abana."

  Michael repeated the word, and what was left of the Realm dissolved. The night became twilight, the streamers and clouds oriented to form a gray-blue heaven. Below, city lights moved across the grassland like water flowing on a wrinkled cloth. "It looks like Earth!" Michael shouted. The wind tasted electric on his tongue.

  "It is one of many Earths," Biri said. "The Earths between your world and the Realm. Where the horses go when they aband."

  The city lights coalesced into streets and buildings, tilting and swaying far below. Everything was greenish, a very memorable tint indeed - the tint of the Between where Lamia's sister stood guard. "How many Earths are there?"

  "Far more than can be counted," Biri said.

  "And the horse crosses over?"

  "We are only visiting. We are not actually there unless we fall off. The horse grazes the surface, skips along the Earths surrounding the Realm."

  The city lights vanished and everything became mixed and indistinct again. To Michael's hand, reaching around Biri and grasping, the horse's mane felt like cold fire. The horse turned to look back at them. Its eye was cold and deadly blue, like a ball of ice lit from within. Its lips drew back and its teeth were as sharp and long as a tiger's. Between the Realm and the Earth - or Earths - it was a very different beast indeed, a true nightmare.

  "We're getting near," Bin said.

  The horse shivered and the swirl became less intense. He could feel the horse's muscles tighten beneath his legs, preparing to run instead of aband.

  The Realm returned. The horse galloped over a rocky field studded with tiny trees. The night air returned, cold and dry. The sky was filled with sharp white stars.

  Michael brought the horse to a stop. "How far did we travel?"

  "Too far to walk," Bin said, sliding off the horse to the left. "We cannot ride the horse into the protected circle."

  Michael dismounted and they walked across the field, stones driving hard into Michael's soft-shod feet. Ahead, vaguely outlined in starglow, was a dirt and stone mound, very much like the barrows Michael had seen in history books.

  "We have those on Earth," he said.

  On one side of the mound was a arch stone blocked by a circular slab half-buried in the ground. Biri reached to the left of the slab and withdrew a round boulder about six inches across. As if the boulder were clay, he scooped a hollow in it and shifted it from hand to hand. With one finger he planted a fierce white glow in the hollow. "A lantern," he said.

  On the right-hand edge of the slab was a series of notches. He placed the fingers of one hand into certain grooves, then touched others in different sequences. The slab sunk into the ground with a grumble.

  "Now we enter," he said.

  The stone lantern showed a dank, root-lined tunnel stretching about ten yards into the mound. The floor was cut stone. The air smelled musty and chill. Biri led the way.

  In the center of the mound was a chamber about thirty feet in diameter. The chamber's stone walls shone with damp. Silvery-white beard-like fungus hung from the wet surfaces.

  Surmounting a stone bier in the middle were two transparent quartz coffins placed within a few inches of each other. In each was a skeleton. Biri stood on one side of the bier and Michael walked slowly around to the other, peering through the crystal sides.

  "Do you know who they are?" Biri asked, his voice soft in the echoing chamber.

  "I don't think so," Michael said. The bones in the left-hand coffin resembled translucent ivory and were draped in a diaphanous white gown; in the right-hand coffin, the skeleton was opaque and brown with age and wore nothing but dust and rags. In one hand it clutched a polished wood staff with a bronze head.

  Michael completed his circuit and stood beside Bin. "Most of my people reviled her," Biri said, touching the quartz with the tips of his fingers. "When we returned from the stars, we were too weak to destroy your kind. Some Sidhe, including the Mage, revealed themselves to humans as gods and tried to hinder their development, but your kind was not always reverent. They grew and matured and found their own skills anyway. Your kind even used the lies and dreams the false gods revealed, like a flower uses manure.

  "She thought we should live in peace with you, but at first, her ministers refused to carry out her plans. She was queen; she had guided us home, and she was a powerful sorceress; they couldn't fight her openly. But she began to wander the Earth, trying to find a solution. In time her ministers were able to convince most of the Sidhe that the queen was mad, that she had succumbed to the stresses of the journey, that - as often happened then - her powers had broken her mind.

  "So she gathered together her own followers, and formed the Council of Eleu. While other Sidhe tried to control humans, the Council spread knowledge among them. While the mage, Tonn, spent centuries portraying your gods Yahweh and Baal, and others, the queen opposed him, and tried to encourage humans to develop their own finest qualities. Tonn was stronger.

  "And, finally, the queen declared she had fallen in love with a human. She rejected the cold and heartless union with her own males." Biri's face betrayed no irony, or even awareness of self-criticism. "Sometimes, even now, her followers believe she truly was mad at that time, but she did indeed love the man, and when he died, as mortals will, she placed his body here. Then, for a thousand years, the Council of Eleu worked with the queen to raise humanity to a level where other Sidhe might be able to accept them as equals. But her enthusiasm had died with her husband; in time, the queen herself died, and was placed beside the one she loved, instead of in a tomb of honor or in a tree where she might pass on her wisdom.

  "Tonn founded the Black Order to oppose her wishes, and put Tarax in command. The Black order, the Maln, fought every action of the council of Eleu. To this day they oppose each other, and the Council of Eleu must work in secret."

  "This is Elme and Aske," Michael said. Biri nodded.

  "Adonna is a corrupt god," he continued, "growing more and more senile with time. I cannot serve him. I must serve those who oppose him, and oppose the Maln."

  "You want to help humans?"

  "It seems I must, doesn't it?" Bin smiled grimly.

  "The Crane Women are Elme's daughters?"

  "Elme and Aske had forty children, the first Breeds. Twenty of their offspring married humans, and had children by them___"

  "How long ago?"

  "As far back as nine thousand years on Earth, and as recently as eighty years. Those with less than an eighth Sidhe heritage revert to mortals again, but can still work some magic. Their children spread around the Earth, and many of them lived for thousands of years, surviving many generations of descendants.

  "Long, long ago, Elme held court in a beautiful garden, surrounded by high stone walls. She sought the advice of the Serpent Mage, the last of the original humans."

  Michael's eyes narrowed.

  "Do you know of it?" Biri asked, regarding him curiously.

  Michael stared at the skeleton in the radiant gown and didn't know how to react. Finally, his eyes welled up, as if all his life he had heard just parts of a wonderful and sad story, and now it had been completed for him.

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Contents <> - Prev <> / Next <>

  They returned the way they had come. Michael hardly noticed the pyrotechnics; he held on to Bin and the horse and turned his thoughts inward.

  He had learned things no history class on Earth could ever have taught him. He
suspected there were far more things of which he had heard only partial truths, or no truth at all.

  The horse stopped on the ledgetop overlooking the camp and pawed the ground with its hoof. Its fangs were no longer apparent and its eye was gentle. Michael swung down from the horse and looked up at Bin.

  "I don't trust you," Michael said. Bin returned his gaze with expression unchanged. "Oh, I think you've told me the truth about Aske and Elme, and what you know of Sidhe history. You'd have no reason to lie to me about that. Perhaps you know I've heard a lot of the story from others. But I don't necessarily believe you've abandoned Adonna."

  Bin smiled ironically. "You'll entertain the thought, however?"

  "I'll consider it as a possibility," Michael offered. "But everything is going too smoothly. Everybody wants me to go to the Isomage. Only the Ban of Hours told me I was a pawn, caught between two forces - the Council of Eleu, and the Maln. I trust her, I think."

  "She is a worthy female," Bin said, nodding his respect.

  "I think it's time I acted on my own," Michael said. "I want to return to the Pact Lands."

  "They no longer exist," Bin said. "Your people and the Breeds have been moved, put in new communities."

  "Camps, you mean," Michael said. "Take me to one of the camps."

  "They are closely guarded. Tarax wants no more like you to come to the notice of the Council of Eleu."

  "You and I together, we can-"

  "I have forsaken Adonna," Biri said, shaking his head firmly, "but I will not fight my own kind."

  "Yet you want to serve the Council. You can do that by helping humans."

  Biri said nothing.

  "I'm not sure that going to the Isomage isn't what the Maln would have me do. They released me from the Irall, and that makes me suspicious."