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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 5

Greg Bear

  Michael went back down the road he had taken the day before, his heart pounding and his hands cold. A small crowd gathered at the village outskirts to watch him leave.

  He neither saw nor met any Sidhe riders. He saw nothing moving, in fact; neither animals on the ground nor birds in the air. The sky was a pale enameled blue above, and on the horizon greenish-brown mixed with patches of orange, similar to a layer of smog. The sun was warm but not very hot, not very bright in fact - he could look at it almost indefinitely without hurting his eyes.

  Yard by yard he returned to the house, feeling as though he were enclosed in a transparent bowl that prevented the Realm from reaching in and making itself real to him, and likewise prevented his thoughts from reaching out to encompass what he saw.

  Near the path leading to the house, his vision narrowed. He focused on the front door, which was half-open as if he were expected. He walked down the path.

  Pausing on the porch, he took a deep breath. The bowl seemed to keep even the air from his lungs. He breathed again, with little better result.

  His room. His books. Saturday afternoon movies on TV. Mother and Father. Golda Waltiri with a tear running down her cheek and more swelling up in her eyes. Michael felt hollow, full of echoes.

  He heard horses coming. The door opened and a thick arm reached out to grab him, pulling him inside before he could react. Lamia's grip was painfully strong. She let him go, then took hold of his coat collar and lifted him to her head level, looking at him intensely through her tiny eyes. "Into the closet!" she whispered harshly. She half-dragged, half-pulled him across the floor and opened a narrow closet door behind the grand staircase, thrusting him inside. He fell back against soft dusty things and tried to hold back tears, shaking so hard his teeth chattered.

  Through the closet door, he heard footsteps. The front door shut with a click, as if just enough energy had been expended to bring it completely closed, and no more.

  He heard Sidhe voices again, commanding and melodic, speaking in a completely unfamiliar language. Lamia, her tone softened, subservient, replied in English. "I've felt nothing." Another voice continued at some length, fluid and high-pitched but distinctively masculine.

  "No one's been here, no one's passed through," Lamia said. "I tell you, I felt nothing. I don't care what's happening in town. They're all fools, you know that better than I."

  Michael reached out in the darkness to get leverage to stand. His hand touched rough fabric, then something soft and smooth which he couldn't identify, like leather but thinner and supple as silk.

  The Sidhe voices took on a snake-like threatening tone.

  "I remain at my station, I watch," Lamia said. "You force me to stay here, you keep my sister at the gates; we are your slaves. How can we defy you?"

  Michael picked out one word in a rider's response: Clark-ham.

  "He has not come here," Lamia said. That ended the conversation. The front door swung open and a sound resembling wind announced the rider's exit. Michael felt for a doorknob. There was none.

  Greg Sear

  Lamia opened the closet. "Come out," she said. He blinked and took a step forward, tripping over something soft and tough. Before he could look back in the closet and see what it contained, she whirled him around and slammed the door shut. "They'll raid the town tonight, looking for somebody. They won't raid Halftown; they never do. So I'm sending you there. First, though, listen to me and answer some questions."

  Michael shrugged out from under her hand and backed away. "I have questions, too," he said.

  "By what right? You've come here, you should know as much as there is to know."

  "But / don't!" His voice ended in a high wail of frustration. The tears came freely now. "I don't know anything, not even where I am!"

  "In Sidhedark," Lamia said, turning from him. "Come with me," she continued, more gently. "In the Faerie Shadow. The Realm. You are no longer on Earth."

  "I've been told that. But where is this place?"

  "Not on Earth," Lamia repeated. She walked ahead, her bulk rippling.

  "Can I go back?" he shouted after her.

  "Not this way. Perhaps not at all."

  Suddenly deflated, Michael followed her down a broad hallway, into the burnt-out wing of the house.

  Chapter Five

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  "Years ago, there was a war here," Lamia said. "The entire plain was scourged. The river turned to steam, the trees became serpents and crawled away, the land cracked like open wounds, revealing all of Adonna's past indiscretions, its abortions. And in the middle of it…" She paused, swinging her thick arms to take in the ruined wing. "In the middle of it, this house stood alone. The Isomage lost everything, almost. But he escaped,'and he still had enough power to threaten them with great harm if they didn't make a pact with him. For their part, the Sidhe were to create a liveable territory within the Blasted Plain, and gather all humans here, all those who had crossed over and were being persecuted. The Sidhe were not to harm them, but would tend them. For his part, the Isomage would go far away and work no more magic in this part of the Realm." She turned her tiny eyes on him and Michael saw a gleam of defiance and strength that seemed out of place in the massive doughy face. She closed her eyes and hardly seemed human. "I was young then." She took a deep, quivering breath and let it out through her small, narrow nose with a low whistle.

  They stopped by a long charred table with fragments of chairs scattered around it. In the rubble which covered the table, Michael could see glints of tarnished silver plates, bent and melted forks and knives, slumped metal cups and shattered glassware, all dusted with fine gray powder and chunks of wood and plaster. The smell of smoke was still thick in the air.

  "Years ago. Ages," Lamia said. Moving one columnar leg at a time, slow and ponderous as an elephant, she swung around to face him and pointed with her quivering left hand in his general vicinity. "You crossed over with something powerful on your person. I know you did. Are you aware of it?"

  Michael shook his head.

  "You'll know what it is, soon. This is a strange place; take nothing for granted. And above all, obey." She growled the last word and advanced on him, stopping a yard away when he began to back up. "You still have a book. I told you to hide it. The Sidhe don't like human words, any more than they like human song. Why didn't you obey me?"

  "I don't have anyplace safe to hide it."

  "You doubt whether I should be obeyed?" Her voice was not any more menacing than usual, but he felt a tremor up his back nonetheless. He said nothing.

  "I am the second guardian. Did you meet the first?"

  "I don't know."

  "You would know, my boy. Believe me, you would know."

  He thought of the figure in the flounced dress. "I think so."

  "Were you afraid of her?"

  He nodded.

  "You're less afraid of me, that's obvious. And yet…" She smiled, the curve of her mouth barely shifting the great flaps of her cheeks and jowls. "I am the one who controls the other. Is that clear?"

  "If nobody ever comes this way, why are you here?" Michael asked. Lamia tittered, holding one hand over her mouth and pretending coyness in a way that made his stomach uneasy.

  "Now," she said. "There are a number of things you must do. You're new, you can't know half what it takes to simply stay alive. And believe me, you don't want to die here. To keep alive, you'll have to be trained."

  "I don't want to stay. I want to go back." He clenched his hands. He still couldn't believe the situation was irreversible.

  'To go back, you must move ahead," Lamia said. "There's only one person with the power to send you back. He's a great distance from here, and to reach him you'll make an arduous journey. That's why you must be trained. Do you understand me now?" She leaned over and peered at him. "Or are you stupid as well as young?" • "I'm not stupid," Michael said.

  "Parts of the Realm are quite beautiful, though few humans cross the Blasted Plain
to see them. The Sidhe appreciate beauty. They leave the ruins for humans."

  "Are you human?" Michael asked.

  Lamia's white skin purpled slightly. "Not now."

  "Are you a Sidhe?"

  "No." Her laugh was a deep grumble in her massive torso. "Now you have had your questions. Any more and-"

  "If I don't ask questions, how will I learn?"

  Before he could flinch, her arm struck out like a scorpion's tail and her hand slammed against the side of his face. He spun across the charred floor and fell into a mound of ashes, raising a cloud. She pushed through the cloud and grabbed him with both hands by the shoulders, lifting him clear and dangling him over the floor. Gentle, almost sweet, her voice reached him through the haze as if she were miles away.

  "You'll go to Halftown. You'll take instruction from the Crane Women. Got that?"

  "The hotel-"

  She shook him once, making his bones pop. "You don't deserve the luxury. The Crane Women are called Nare, Spart and Coom. Tell me their names."

  He couldn't remember.

  "Again, then. Nare, Spart, and Coom."

  "Nare, Spart…"



  "They're expecting you. They'll teach you how to survive. Maybe they'll teach you how to see and hear and remember, how to judge situations better. Think that's possible?" She held him with one hand and brushed him down with the other. Her touch was feverishly warm. She set him down near the table and looked up longingly at the burnt-out rafters.

  "It was the middle of a banquet," she said. "They took us by surprise. We used to have parties here often. It was beautiful."

  Michael tried to control his trembling but couldn't. He was terrified and furious. He wanted to kill her.

  "Go," she said. "Tell the innkeeper and his wife that Lamia no longer needs their services. Take yourself over to Halftown. The Crane Women. What are their names?"

  "Nare, Spart and Coom."

  She grunted. "Go, before the Sidhe return."

  He fled from the ruined wing, through the hall and across the entry to the front door. Book bouncing against his hip, he ran down the road to Euterpe until his lungs were about to burst. His face was streaked with tears of rage. He stopped by a cracked, glazed boulder and pounded on it until his hand bled. "God damn you, God damn you!"

  "Better be quiet," the wind whispered. He jumped and whirled around. Nobody.

  "Remember where you are."

  He screamed. Something luffed his hair and he looked up. There, translucent as a spider's web, was a narrow and colorless face. It rotated and vanished.

  Cupping his hands over his mouth, smearing blood on his chin, he stumbled and ran the rest of the way to Euterpe with little concern for his lungs or his legs.

  Risky accepted his explanation with seeming indifference. Brecker nodded and accompanied him upstairs to the room. "You didn't come here with anything, so there's no luggage for you to pick up," he said. "But you can help me clean it." They swept the floor in silence. Michael was confused by the token labor.

  "It's not my dirt," he said. "I've only been here one night."

  "We all do our bit," Brecker said. "It's what keeps us going."

  "Even when there's nothing to do?"

  Brecker leaned on his straw broom. "Where'd you get that bruise?"

  "Lamia hit me."


  "I don't know why," Michael lied.

  "For asking dumb questions, likely." Brecker resumed his sweeping. "It's a hard land, boy. Wherever you came from, it seems you led an easy life among reasonable people. Not here. Mistakes cost." He held a pan down for Michael to sweep dust and mica flakes into. "Mistakes cost dear."

  Savarin was climbing the stairs as they descended. Michael passed him with a shrug. "Moving already?" Savarin asked, peering after them.

  "To Halftown," Michael said.

  "Might I accompany you?" Savarin asked. Michael shrugged again. "This could be most useful."

  "The road to Halftown stretched to the east of Euterpe for two miles.

  "We call it east, anyway," Savarin explained, walking beside Michael. Michael kept his hands in his coat pockets, one wrapped around the book of poems. "Where the sun rises, you know."

  Michael said nothing, staring at the ground as they walked.

  "Where did you get the bruise?"

  "Lamia hit me for asking questions."

  Savarin pursed his lips. 'Tough customer, Lamia, I hear. Never met her myself. What sort of questions?"

  Michael looked suspiciously at Savarin. "What do you know?"

  "You might have gathered by now that when new people show up, I am their tutor. I know as much as any human here, I suspect - with the exception of the Isomage, but he's been gone for decades now."

  "Where the hell is this place?"

  "Some people claim this place is hell, but it is not. I would venture a guess that it is the legendary land of Faerie, which some consider the place of the dead; but none of us trapped here died on Earth, so your guess is probably as good as mine. Ask Adonna. Adonna made it."

  "Who's Adonna?"

  "The genius loci, the god of the Realm. Most of the Sidhe pay obeisance to it. From what I gather, it's not in the same league as whatever made our universe. Much cruder." Savarin winked. "But be careful to whom you speak when you make such critiques."

  "So we're in a different dimension?"

  Savarin held up his hands and shook his head. "Not to be quoted. Scholar that I am, and as hard as I've researched, I'm still remarkably ignorant. Facts are hard to obtain. Frankly, I was hoping you could provide a few."

  "Who are the Sidhe?"

  "The mortal enemies of humankind," Savarin said, his face suddenly grim. "There are all kinds of Sidhe, not just the ones who bear a passing resemblance to us. There are the Sidhe of the Air, called Meteorals by some-"

  "What do they look like?"

  "Translucent, drifting creatures, resembling spirits. There are the Sidhe of the forests, called Arborals; they are green as grass. Umbrals will always be found in shadow, and at night can be very powerful. Pelagals are reputed to be ocean-going, but we only have rumors of a distant ocean here. Riverines live in streams and rivers. Amorphals can be a different shape each time you see them. Most of the Sidhe, however, belong to the kind called Faer - like Alyons and his coursers. The Faer resemble you and me and we can even interbreed, but they're a very different race, ages older than the current stock of humanity."

  "And what is Halftown?"

  "Where the Breeds live. Born of female Sidhe, sired by human males, most often."

  "They won't live with humans?"

  "They're a sad lot," Savarin said. "They're reputed to live forever, like the Sidhe, and like the Sidhe they have no souls. But like humans, they change - their peculiar way of aging. Humans don't accept them. Sidhe isolate them, but find them useful now and then. Many know Sidhe magic." They walked on in silence for a few minutes. "Who's to watch over you in Halftown?"

  "The Crane Women," Michael said.

  Savarin was impressed. "Very powerful. Ugly as sin, and they wouldn't mind my saying so. They're the oldest Breeds I've heard of. Was it Lamia who sent you to them?"

  Michael nodded. "I don't go anywhere on my own. I mean, I don't have any choice."

  "Maybe that's something to be thankful for. Less mistakes made that way."

  "Is Lamia a Breed?"

  "I don't think so. There are many stories about her, but nobody really knows what she is. I suspect she was human once, but did something the Sidhe didn't like. She was at the Isomage's house when I came here."

  Beyond a rise, the road bisected the Breed settlement, which was laid out in an irregular circle. Halftown covered about ten acres, brown and dun and weathered gray buildings arranged along concentric half-circle streets, the ends of each street letting out on the main road. The land around Halftown was hummocky, as if ploughed by a giant and careless farmer, and the ground was poorly drained. Sta
nding pools and puddles lay in the hollows and the air had a marshy green smell. A branch of the river flowed past the other side of the village, little more than a creek.

  "Observe the structures," Savarin said, stopping to tie a string on his cloth shoes. "What would you say of them?"

  Michael examined the buildings and then,to make sure he had missed nothing, examined them again. "They're shacks," he said. "They look like the houses in Euterpe."

  Savarin straightened. "You're still not observing. See with what you already know." He pointed to the barren landscape: grassy shrub, hammocks and puddles, low bushes and scattered boulders.

  "Jesus," Michael said under his breath. "They're shacks. Made of wood."

  "Wood," Savarin emphasized. "See any trees?"


  "That's how you tell Halftown from Euterpe. Breeds have Sidhe relatives, and that means connections with Arborals. Arborals control all the wood in the Realm. Humans are only allowed sticks and wicker and grass."

  Michael felt dizzy. He still hadn't accepted that the Realm was real - yet every moment it became more and more complex.

  "There aren't any trees here at all?"

  "Away from the Blasted Plain, there are forests everywhere, but no wood for you and me. Very few humans leave the Pact Lands. Sidhe traders bring in goods every fortnight, in accord with the Isomage's pact, but even they face danger on the Blasted Plain."

  Michael saw his first Breed as they came within a hundred feet of the outer circle of huts. The Breed was a male, slightly taller than Michael, with long, lank red-brown hair and a powerful build. He stood in the middle of the road, a staff in one hand and a bored expression on his face. He held out his staff to stop them.

  "I recognize you, Teacher. I know this young fellow, too. Lamia sends word about him - but not about you."

  "I come here often," Savarin said defensively.

  "The coursers came last night," the Breed said. "No more humans allowed in Halftown. Except, of course…" He pointed his finger at Michael.