Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 6Greg Bear
"I think you'd better go," Michael told Savarin. "Thanks for helping me."
Savarin frowned at the breed. "Yes. I'm sure discretion is best. But I've never been barred from Halftown. I hope it's not permanent. This is where I get most of my information." He sighed, cast a sunny smile on Michael and turned around. "Learn quickly, friend. And come tell me what you've learned, if you can."
Michael accepted his outstretched hand. Savarin returned the way they had come, leaving him alone with the Breed guard.
A cool breeze rippled their hair and clothes. "So where am I supposed to go?"
"To the Crane Women. Come."
Michael followed him down the road. Through Half town, the thoroughfare was paved with brown brick and cobbles. The huts seemed cleaner though flimsier than the huts in Euterpe. Small plots around each house were filled with rows of healthy green plants; he couldn't see any flowers.
Other Breeds stared at him through windows and open doors. The men were almost as tall as the Sidhe Michael had glimpsed at the Isomage's house. The women were slender, noble-looking, though few were what Michael would have called pretty. Their faces were hard and sculptured, too much like the men's.
His escort led him out the other side of the village and away from the road, toward the creek. Across the water, perched atop a broad low mound, was a larger hut shaped like a half-deflated soccer ball, covered with sticks, dirt and thatch. Except for two round glass-paned windows and a stone chimney poking through the top, it could have been a yurt - one of the portable dwellings used by central Asian nomads. The yard around the hut was strewn with small boulders and piles of debris, sorted and categorized - a pile of pebbles here, sticks to one side, bones and animal skulls there, other mounds he couldn't identify. The smell was of ancient garbage, richer and more suggestive than dust, but not overtly offensive. Stakes marked the perimeter of the mound and scraps of fabric fluttered from them like sad decrepit banners.
"How do I get across?" Michael asked as they stopped at the water's edge. The Breed pointed out flat stones just beneath the slow-moving surface.
"They await you," he said, and began his walk back to Half town. Michael swallowed the tightness in his throat and stepped out onto the first stone. The water swirled around his shoes. He thought about falling into the water to force himself to wake up, stop dreaming, but if he hadn't been shocked out of sleep by the things that had already happened, the murky creek was unlikely to do the trick. Besides, he had no idea what lurked in the depths. He was sick of being afraid. He clutched his book tightly and stepped onto the second stone. He concentrated so hard on not falling that he failed to notice a figure standing on the opposite bank until he had crossed. He looked up with a start.
"Hello," he said quickly.
The figure was female in a bizarre sort of way. She still possessed a roundness in her elongated, leather-skinned limbs which demonstrated femininity, but her arms hung almost to her knees. Her face was oblate, wider than tall, with narrow long eyes beneath thin flat brows. She stood an inch or two shorter than Michael, slightly stooped. Her legs, clothed in ragged pants, were very long in comparison with her torso. She lifted one hand and wriggled spider-like fingers in front of her flat chest. The fingers were long and dark and tapered to thin black nails.
"Hello," he repeated. She looked him over slowly, nodding with a steady rhythm as if she were feeble. Her short-cut hair had the color and texture of goose down.
"Jan Antros," she said. "Just man-child." Her voice was a gnarly squeak with undertones of heavy wind.
Michael shook his wet feet and reached with one hand to empty his left shoe, then his right. He never took his eyes off her. The shoes squelched when he put them on again. "I'm Michael," he said, trying to be agreeable.
"You're a delicate, incredibly fragile, very frail indeed piece of tissue," came a melodious voice from the hut. Another woman with similar features leaned from one window. Her face was a puzzle of wrinkles and red and purple tattoos. "You don't look important."
Behind Michael, where she couldn't possibly have snuck up on him, a third woman stood on one spindly leg with the other tucked close to her chest. She had long dusty-red hair tied in a single braid which reached to her knees. "The Flesh Egg sends us a1 weak man-child. She expects us to process, train?"
"Are you Nare, Spart and… Coom?" Michael asked, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.
"I'm Nare," said the Crane woman standing on one leg.
"Spart," said the one at the window, and
"Coom," said the downy-haired figure who had first addressed him. "Want us teach?"
"I don't know what I want," Michael said, "except to get out of here."
The Crane women chuckled, a sound like leaves skittering over rock.
"Won't hurt you," Coom said, backing off a foot. "Much." Her hair seemed alive in the breeze.
"We don't mind man-childs," said Nare at his side, circling.
"But there's one thing you must want," said Spart in her beautiful voice from the window. She spat into a nearby pile of debris.
"To survive," Nare said.
"Live in Sidhedark."
"Fight to live."
"Fight to be human."
He could do nothing but nod. In the moment he turned away from the hut, Spart left the window and stood between Nare and Coom. She was the tallest of the three and had the longest, most Sidhe-like face. Tattoos formed an intricate tangle of leaves and branches and whorls wherever her skin was bare.
"You'll build a house on this mound, away from ours thirty paces," she said. "Wood will be brought to you this evening. Until you've built your own house, you don't exist."
"What'll I do now?" he asked. He had focused on Spart; he suddenly realized the other two were gone.
"Be patient." Spart's voice had much of the hypnotic quality he'd experienced while listening to Alyons and the coursers. "You can do that, can't you?"
"Go and sit where you want your house. Wood will come."
The Crane Woman returned to their hut, leaving him on the stretch of hard-packed dirt by the creek bank. He shifted from one foot to the other, then looked over the water to Halftown. He shaded his eyes and stared at the sky.
Not a cloud was visible. Enameled sparkling blueness stretched overhead, blending into the orange and green along the horizon. About thirty yards away from the hut, and an equal distance from the creek bank, two boulders nestled against each other, forming a natural seat about a yard wide and two and a half feet tall. Michael crossed to the boulders and sat on them, looking at the sky again. Sometimes it seemed to be made of cross-thatches of colors, hundreds of colors all adding up to blue. Yet it wasn't like a painting. It was very alive, disturbing in the way it seemed to shift, to bulge down and retreat up.
He felt drugged. Until now, alone, with no instruction but to wait, it was as if he had not seen anything clearly. Now the darity flooded down on him from the sky. The sky, by its very unreality, seemed to show how real everything was.
But this reality wasn't the same brand he had experienced on Earth. This was more vivid, more apparent and simpler.
He knelt beside the boulders and plucked a blade of grass, peeling it along its fibers, rubbing the ragged edges, smearing the beads of juice. He felt a tickle on his arm and saw a tiny ant crawling among the light, silky hairs. The ant was translucent, rainbow-hued like an opal. Until now, he hadn't thought to wonder if there were insects in Sidhedark. Not many, apparently.
What about birds, cats, dogs, cows? He'd seen horses, but… where did the milk come from?
He was tired. He leaned back on the rocks and closed his eyes. The darkness behind his lids was still and restful. Wind sighed over him.
He had slept. He sat up and rubbed elbows stiff from pressing against the rock. The sun was setting. There were no clouds yet, but unmoving bands of color hung above the horizon, pale pinks and greens at the highest and just above the sun's lim
b a particularly vivid stripe of orange. Michael had never seen a sunset like it.
He looked to the east. The sky there was an electric blue-gray. Stars were already appearing in the east, as sharp and bright as white-hot needle points. Instead of twinkling, they made little circling motions, as if they were distant tethered fireflies. Michael had sometimes used Whitney's Star Finder on summer nights to pick out the few constellations visible through Los Angeles' thick air. He couldn't recognize any now.
The air had cooled considerably. Orange light flickered in the windows of the Crane Women's hut. He had a notion to peer in and see what they were up to, but he rubbed the bruise on his cheek and thought better of it.
Only then did he notice that his wristwatch was gone. He grabbed for the key in his pants pocket, but it was missing as well. He still had the book.
He felt almost naked without the key. He resented the thievery; he resented everything about the way he was being treated, but there wasn't a thing he could do.
The last of the sun slipped behind distant hills, burning muddy orange through the smoky haze which he surmised lay over the Blasted Plain, beyond the boundary of the Pact Lands. Where the sun had been, a sharply defined ribbon of darkness ascended from the horizon and blended with the zenith; and then another to one side, and yet another on the opposite side, resembling the shadows of cloth streamers in a celestial wind.
Michael listened. The land all around was silent, but from the sky came a low humming, like wind stroking telephone wires. When the darkness was complete, the humming went away.
Then, starting in the east and progressing westward across the sky, the stars steadied, as if precipitating out of solution and pasting themselves against the bowl of the heavens.
There were stars in the dirt, as well. He pulled his feet up on the boulders and looked down. Things sparkled and glinted between the few blades of grass. Soon these glows faded and the land settled into night with a breezy sigh, as if all the Realm were a woman lying back on a pillow.
No, indeed, Michael thought; this is not Earth, whatever its outward resemblance.
He sat on the rocks for some time before he heard the voices. They came from the creek, but he couldn't see who was speaking; there was no light but the stars and the now-faint glow from the hut's windows. Concentrating on the source, forcing his pupils to their maximum dilation, he discerned a low-slung boat-shadow gliding down the creek, as well as a few figures standing on the prow. The boat nudged the bank and he heard footsteps coming toward him.
He stood up on the rocks. "Who's that?" he called out.
The hut door swung open. Spart stood silhouetted against the swirling, furnace-orange light. The approaching shadows passed through the shaft of light from the door and were outlined briefly. There were four, brownish-green in color - or perhaps solid green - and they were naked. Three were male, one female. They were obviously Sidhe, with the same elongated features and spectral grace, and each carried a broad, stubby log.
They surrounded Michael and at a signal, simultaneously dropped the logs from their shoulders into the dirt.
"Dura," said the female. The beauty of her voice made Michael shudder.
"Your wood, boy," the Crane Woman said from the hut door.
He turned and cried out. "What do I do with it?" . But the hut door closed and the naked Sidhe walked away. The female glanced back at him with some sympathy, he thought, but she said nothing more. They were absorbed in the blackness.
He remained standing on the boulder awhile, then sat. The four logs rested on their ends, each about a foot and a half wide and a yard tall. He was no carpenter like his father; he couldn't calculate how many board-feet there were in the logs, or how much of a house he could build with them.
Not a very large one.
He leaned back and closed his eyes again.
"Whose boy are you?"
He thought he was dreaming. He wiped his nose reflexively.
"Hoy ac! Whose house?"
Michael spun around on the boulders and looked in the voice's direction. There was only a log.
"Rup antros, jan wiros," said the voice, like that of the Sidhe woman but with a fuzzy quality. "Quos maza."
"Where are you?" Michael asked softly. The night air was quite chilly now.
"All around, antros. It's true. Your words are Anglo-Saxon and Norman and mixes from the misty north and the warm south. Ah, I knew those tongues once, at their very roots… affrighted many a Goth and Frank and Jute…"
"Who are you? Who?"
There was silence for a moment, then the voice, much weaker, said, "Maza sed more kay rup antros. It's strange to be broken for a human's house. Why so privileged? Still, all wood is passing; the imprint, must fade…"
The voice did indeed fade. Though it was still and quiet thereafter, Michael got no sleep that night.
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He was almost as cold as the rocks he sat on when the dew settled around him in the early dawn. The sky turned from black to gray and mist slid over the mound and creek in glutinous layers. Narrow vapor trails four or five feet in length shot through the mist with quiet hissing noises. Michael was too chilled to care.
He twisted his stiff neck around and noticed the logs were no longer standing around the boulders. Sometime during the night, they had fallen into jumbles of neatly cut beams and boards. The bark of each log lay folded next to its partitioned innards.
Michael wasn't encouraged. Like a lizard, he waited for the sun to come up and warm his blood. He hadn't resolved anything during the night - the hours had been spent in a cold stupor - but the conviction of his inadequacy had solidified.
The sun appeared in the east, a distant red curve topping a hill beyond the main branch of the river. Without thinking, Michael uncurled his arms and legs and stood on the rock to catch the first rays of warmth. His bones cracked and his legs almost collapsed under him, but he staggered and kept his balance. His clothes were soaked with dew.
The hut was quiet and dark, likewise the village. In a few minutes, however, just when he thought he might be catching some warmth from the new day, he heard activity from the Halftown houses. Curls of smoke began to rise from their stone and mud-brick chimneys.
He heard a woman singing. At first, he was too intent on just getting warm to pay much attention, but as the voice grew near, he angled his head and saw a young Breed female fording the stream on the flat rocks, barefoot. She wore cloth pants ending at the knees and a vest laced together with string. Her hair was raven black - uncharacteristic, he thought - but her face bore the unmistakable mark of the Sidhe, long with prominent cheeks and a narrow, straight nose. She carried four buckets covered with cloth caps, two in each hand. She glanced at Michael on her way to the Crane Women's hut.
"Hoy," she greeted.
"Hello," Michael returned. She stopped before the door, which opened a crack. A long-fingered hand stretched out and took two buckets, withdrew, then emerged to take two more. The door closed and the woman reversed her course. She paused, cocked her head at Michael, then started toward him.
"Oh, God," he said under his breath. He was just warm enough to shiver and he badly needed to piss. He didn't want to talk to anyone, much less a Breed woman.
"You're human," she said, stopping about six paces from the boulders. "Yet they gave you wood."
He nodded, arms still unfolded to catch the warmth.
"You're an English speaker," she continued. "And you come from the Isomage's house. That's all they say about you in Halftown."
He nodded again. Beneath all the cold and misery was a steady current of shyness. Her voice was disarmingly beautiful. He would have to get used to Sidhe and Breed voices.
"It will be warm soon," she said, walking toward the stream. "If you have time today, come to the village and I'll give you a card for milk and cheese. Everybody needs to eat. Just ask for Eleuth."
"I will," he said, his voice cracking. When sh
e had crossed the creek, he clambered down from the rock, walked some distance away, and knelt down to hide himself while he urinated. He felt like some animal, barely domesticated. A pet of the Breeds.
The door to the Crane Women's hut opened and Spart emerged carrying a roll of cloth. She stared at him balefully, unfurled the cloth and flapped it. An exaltation of tiny birds flew from its folds and circled the house, then headed north. Without explanation, Spart returned to the house and closed the door behind.
Massaging blood back into his legs, Michael looked doubtfully at the piles of lumber. He picked up the sheets of bark and discovered that they could be peeled into light, strong strips with a ropy toughness. He thought about how to put a hut together and shook his head. He'd need tools - nails, certainly, and a knife and saw.
Even as he speculated half-heartedly, he asked himself what the hell good it was, building a house where he didn't belong.
"You have a long way to go."
Nare stood behind him. Her eyes were large, like an owl's but mobile. Her long red-gray hair was an unbraided radiance, spreading to its widest point behind her knees. "Now that you have the grace of wood, what are you going to do with it?"
"I need tools."
"I don't think so. Are you aware what the grace of wood means?"
He thought for a moment. "Humans don't get much."
"Humans get scrap. Not even Breeds can get wood all the time. The finest wood is reserved for the Sidhe. Like as not they have ancestors in it."
"I don't understand," Michael said.
"The Sidhe are immortal, but if they die in battle or through some other faulting, the Arborals press them into tree. They dwell there awhile, then request oblivion. Arborals do then-work, and we have wood."
"I heard a voice last night."
Nare nodded. Bending over, she picked up a plank and held it out to Michael. One long forefinger pressed against the edge and a notch fell out. "Feel and press. Riddle how it all goes together. Wood was shaped into a house by the Sidhe that dwelled within. Just puzzle it. Maza."
"Today?" Michael asked.