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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 60

Greg Bear

  They found another chasm when they crested a hill and looked across a broad, sparsely forested savannah. Within the chasm, an island tens of miles long - carrying a mountain on its broad back - had pulled away and wobbled ponderously. Chunks office several hundred yards wide hung without support near the island.

  "Were you born in the Realm?" Michael asked.

  "Yes," Shiafa replied.

  "But you've never been to Earth."

  She shook her head when he glanced back at her. "My father has been telling me about it recently."

  "What do you know about magic? About lengu spu, for example - in-speaking."

  "I know only the basics," Shiafa said. "Only from one to one. Not to spread wide."

  "Can you feel me broadcasting?"

  He allowed her to draw the meaning of that word from his own memory. "Yes," she said. "Like standing before the sun."

  "Do you know the three disciplines of combat - isray, vickay, stray?"

  "I know of them," she said. "Sidhe females are not always trained in those things. The Mafoc Mar have other defenses for us to learn."

  Michael suddenly realized that he could not train this female the way the Crane Women had trained him. He could use very little of their instruction, in fact… because they had trained him as a male. He had no idea how to train a female Sidhe. Shiafa would have to guide him… student leading the teacher.

  "Do you know how to throw a shadow?"

  "Yes. We have many kinds of shadow. There is the shadow preparatory to birthing - given out before we are bom, to carry away all illness and malformation. That shadow is taken and disposed of by the Ban Sidhe. We do that instinctively. And there is the shadow before mating and the shadow of motherhood."

  "That's all you know?" Michael asked facetiously.

  "It is not," Shiafa said, slightly indignant. "When women fight, we spin shadows like webs to confound our foes-"

  "And you know how to do that?"

  "No. That you must teach me."

  Jesus, Michael thought. "I'm not sure why your father thinks I can train you."

  "Nor am I," Shiafa confided. "But he does, and you must."

  So be it.

  They rode until the quick evening, then set up a temporary camp. In the darkness, they ate a few pieces of overripe fruit from a withered copse of trees.

  As the evening lengthened, there was once again a discontinuity, and all locations and directions changed - but this time to their advantage. Michael sensed that the humans were much closer. The next morning, he directed the horse again, and they traveled across another, much wider savannah of emerald grass.

  "I think we are near the Chebal Malen," Shiafa said. "Can you smell the snow?"

  Michael sniffed the air but could not. "It's a little colder," he said. "That might be the seasons changing again."

  "1 don't think so," Shiafa said.

  At the end of that day, they came across the nearly empty basin of what had once been a huge lake, perhaps fifty miles wide and as much as a mile deep, with scattered ponds of water glistening green and stagnant at the basin's bottom. "NebchatLen," Shiafa said.

  "Someone once described this to me as a sea," Michael mused, rubbing his cheek with one finger. "I wonder what drained it…?" Then he shook his head and grinned. "1 think I know. The Pelagals lived here, didn't they?"

  "Here, and in the brazen ocean at the edge of the world," Shiafa said.

  "I think most of them are on Earth now. They crossed over in a cataract."

  "You saw that?"

  He nodded. "Why haven't all the Faer left the Realm yet? Many are already on Earth."

  "You are the teacher," Shiafa said quietly.

  "That means you don't know."

  "It means I don't know."

  "All right. We travel around the lake, across the forest called Konhem - am I right? - and after that we'll find the Chebal Malen, the Black Mountains. And somewhere in the Chebal Malen is the Sklassa, the fortress of the Maln." He drew his brows together and reached out again to feel for the humans. His heart sank. Beyond any doubt, that was where they were being detained. "We'll have to go there," he said.

  "That is not wise. There may not be time, and it is very difficult to reach the Sklassa. It is protected." The emotion in her voice went beyond caution. For the first time, Michael detected unease in Shiafa.

  "Nevertheless, that's where we're going," Michael said. "That's where all my people are being held. Have you been there?"

  "No," she said. "I was raised in Inyas Trai and the Irall."

  "What sort of difficulties can we expect to find there?"

  "You are the teacher," Shiafa said, somewhat forcefully.

  "But you do know," Michael persisted.

  "I am not supposed to know."

  "What does that mean?"

  Shiafa turned her eyes away, and an odd, defiant expression - chin outthrust, eyes narrowed - crossed her face. "When I was a child, I listened to the Mafoc Mar when I was not supposed to. They were talking with each other about the Sklassa. It is not a place for young Sidhe."

  "But you're Tarax's daughter," Michael reminded her.

  "It is not a place even for me."

  "Somehow, I doubt that," Michael said. "What are the difficulties?" ;

  "I cannot tell you."

  "I am your teacher," Michael prodded.

  Shiafa's eyes widened, and her mouth became a tight, thin line, "We will learn them together, then," she said.

  Michael shook his head and smiled. Beginning of the discipline, he thought. Rattle the student, the initiate, and strip away preconceptions. Ultimately, terrify her. That's what the Crane Women had done to him. But who was rattling whom?

  If Tarax's daughter was worried by the thought of going to the Sklassa, then what should his own attitude be? Michael started the horse on the long journey around the drained basin of Nebchat Lent uncertain now whether they could keep up such a torturously slow pace - or whether they would have to use the horse's erratic talents again.

  "Perhaps we should hurry," Shiafa said an hour later.

  He sighed, then squinted at the empty blue sky. "I agree," he said. "Are you prepared to aband?"

  "Anything," Shiafa said nervously. "You are the teacher."

  "Teacher asks you not to say mat any more." Michael leaned down. "Hang on." He whispered in the horse's ear, "Abana!"

  This time, the ride was much worse.

  They rested in the shadow of a rock overhang, the horse breathing heavily and trembling, its eyes half-closed. Shiafa had collapsed on her side, and Michael had sat down heavily beside her; they had not moved in an hour. "Next time, we'll just try the gallop." Even speaking was a chore. With an effort of will, all his muscles protesting, Michael finally stood and walked out into the glare. Shading his eyes with both hands, he turned toward the black rock of the lower slopes of one of the mountains of Chebal Malen. There were no foothills, no gradual ascent to the peaks beyond; the Chebal Malen began abruptly as huge, jagged black monsters, mottled with snow up their sides and capped with solid sheets of snow and ice, partly hidden in clouds dipping and wheeling like huge gray and white birds.

  "The Sklassa is on the opposite side of the Chebal Malen, isn't it?" Michael asked, as he stepped back under the overhang.

  Shiafa rolled over on her side, head weaving slightly, and said, "Yes."

  "We're closer to the Stone Field on this side, aren't we? Where male initiates are taken to be trained."

  She nodded.

  The Sklassa was where he had instructed the horse to go; obviously, it had been unable to comply. So one could not simply aband into the fortress of the Maln. He doubted that the horse could make such a climb by galloping, however miraculous an epon's gallop could be.

  Worse, he could not feel the human auras; he had lost them totally since the last abana. "We don't have time to climb the mountains," he said. "And we don't have time to go around them, that's for sure. I don't think we should try to aband again."

bsp; Shiafa sat up and crossed her legs. "No."

  "Any suggestions, then?"

  She simply looked disgusted.

  Her reaction dismayed Michael. "I've never been here, either," he said. "It's obvious we've run into one of those barriers you mentioned. If you can't tell me what the barriers are, then-" He stopped himself and shook his head vigorously. "This whole stunt is ridiculous. Your father must be a fool."

  Shiafa continued to stare at him.

  "So how do the Maln get there? A password, specially bred horses? A secret path? A stepping stone?"

  Still no reply. Michael paced angrily, then sat on his knees and closed his eyes, feeling, thinking, reaching out to their surroundings. Again he could sense the borders of the Realm inexorably closing in. They had a few days, at best, and toward the end, time would be uncertain.

  "All right," he said. "Now is as good a time as any to begin your training. Come with me." Shiafa followed him onto a patch of snow that had filled a shallow, narrow canyon. The black rock reached to twice his height above the snow on each side; at the end of the canyon, about a hundred yards beyond, the walls met in a V.

  "What do you think Sidhe magic is?" Michael asked her, taking a stance two paces in front of her, arms folded.

  "We all learn that. It is putting yourself in synchrony with the Realm. When your thoughts breathe in, they should match the breathing of the world."

  "What if the world isn't so cooperative?"

  "You mean, the Earth?"


  "Then magic is more difficult, but not impossible."

  "Is it impossible for humans to work magic?"

  "I do not know. They are not known for being magicians."

  "But I'm mostly human. There's some Sidhe blood in all humans by now. So is it necessary to be a Sidhe?"

  Shiafa shook her head, unsure.

  "Obviously not. But Sidhe, even Breeds, would like to keep humans in their place. And the humans who come here - or who have been brought here - are deliberately kept in the dark. I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter what you are. Concentration is the key, and seeing without preconceptions. Do you have preconceptions?"

  "I must," Shiafa said, all too reasonably. He had expected some youthful bravado, but then he remembered: she was three times older than he was.

  "I certainly do. I believe I'm weak. That makes me weak. I believe in things being a certain way, and they are. Each time I truly break through…" He smiled. He was formulating thoughts heretofore scattered and unorganized. Teaching was also learning, or at least realizing. "Each time I break through my preconceptions, I dare something new. Sometimes I suceed I gain a new ability." There were no flowers nearby. He stooped to pick up a rock the size of a golf ball. "Sidhe dislike casually written words. Writing fixes reality and creates stronger preconceptions. It's dangerous. But any language involves preconceptions. Any communication. That's why words are powerful - they convey the thoughts of others. And the thoughts of others can get in your way." He opened his palm. "What is this?"

  "A rock," she said.

  He closed his palm… trying something he suspected the Crane Women had used on him… and opened it again. She smiled at his legerdemain. The rock was a butterfly.

  "And what now?" He opened and closed his palm again. His powerful evisa seemed to impress her no more than a child's toy.

  "A rock," she said.

  "Do you know how to be a butterfly and remain a rock?"

  "I cast a shadow."

  "I'm going to attack you," Michael said abruptly, standing back from her half a dozen paces. It was time to discover what she was capable of. Shiafa was starting out substantially more sophisticated than Michael had been. "No other warning. Prepare yourself."

  Shiafa stood, hands hanging at her sides, head lowered slightly. She was still a little woozy from the abana. Fine, he thought. Jerk her up out of her uncertainty, just as the Crane Women had done to him.

  Suddenly, there were five Michaels surrounding her. She looked from one to the next, turning, raising her hands. One Michael moved in toward her; the next seemed ready to send a sharp probe in her direction; and the next began to circle, grinning. "You can't predict humans," all five said. Then, one by one in the circle, "They're dangerous that way."

  "They don't know the discipline."

  "They don't know magic, and they have all the guile and unpredictability of the weak and fearful."

  "They have emotions even they are not aware of."

  "They can become angry in a flash. Some are ill-trained and ill-educated, and because of that they are underprivileged, and that makes them vicious."

  "They can turn on you without warning. I imagine even a few Breeds won't miss a chance to take revenge on you."

  "And some Breeds know the disciplines. They can assault you with magic."

  "Humans and Breeds may join forces to hunt you down. When you go to Earth, that's the way it could be - hard and bitter times."

  "Especially when humans find out their real history. No mercy. No style, no dignity. Just revenge."

  "Are you ready for that?"

  "No," Shiafa said, facing the shadows one by one. They closed in on her.

  "Which one of us will you fight first?"

  "The real one," Shiafa said.

  "How will you fight the real one?"

  She shook her head, agitated.

  "Think," the shadows intoned together.

  "What purpose is this?" she demanded. "I have told you I do not know how to defend myself."

  "I think you do," Michael said.

  She frowned and bore down hard with a single probe - aimed at a shadow. The effort seemed to exhaust her. She shook her head and made a weak probe at another shadow She had wasted her energy by making the first probe too strong. She should have feather-touched the entire circle in one sweep, as if politely in-speaking for an item of information, something Sidhe did all the time by instinct. Instead, she had panicked.

  Michael considered probing her at this weak moment, breaking through whatever personal barriers she might have set up and taking the information he needed about the Sklassa. He would have been justified; a great many lives were at stake, and as Shiafa had stated repeatedly, they had little time. But he did not. The shadows continued to move in, a step at a time, menacing her.

  There was something deeper, stronger, far below the surface of her exhaustion and youthful inadequacy. He could sense it without probing. She was Tarax's daughter… And if he could get her to reach that far down, he might be the one to learn a lesson.

  She straightened. "You are not going to hurt me," she said. "You are a teacher, not an enemy."

  There! He had it. A strong preconception. One of the shadows turned black as coal and swung a long, night-colored swath at her from shoulder-level. The swath wrapped around her head. She struggled to tear it away. It was soaking up her breath. Michael could feel her discomfort. It was not wrong for a teacher to inflict discomfort on a student; it was wrong, however, not to share the discomfort. The Crane Women felt all my pain when they trained me, and all my confusion and fear, he realized. They did what I am doing now when they left me under the path of the Amorphal Sidhe.

  Shiafa was genuinely afraid. She could not breathe and she was close to fainting. "Come on," Michael said under his breath. "Dig deep."

  She cried out, her voice muffled. Michael felt faint himself and had the urge to run to her and tear away the veil. Then something snapped within her. There was nothing animal within the Sidhe to be unleashed, since they had never been animals, but there were deeper and more primitive layers of Sidhe-ness. Shiafa reached down into one of those layers to perform instinctive magic that - he now knew without doubt - had once been the common heritage of all peoples.

  She left a shadow-self wrapped in the black veil and stood outside the circle of Michael's shadows. Lightly, swiftly, she probed the remaining figures and located him. She then reversed the black shadow's net and shot it toward him, tinged
red with her own anger.

  Michael dodged the veil - but just barely - and dissolved his shadows. They stood facing each other across the snow. "Your feet are cold," he said. "Bring up your hyloka."

  She fell to her knees. Her cheeks and neck were flushed. "Why?" she asked, her voice harsh.

  "Did you feel your strength?" he asked, reaching out to help her stand again.

  She did not look at him for a long moment. He had given her a scare. "I felt something…"

  "That's where we have to begin. You have it in you. It's closer to the surface than it was in me. You have to find it and make it yours. It's like an epon. You must impress it."

  He led her back beneath the overhang and watched her closely as she sat and controlled her energy levels. Her normal skin color returned.

  There was hardly any time to bring out her talents and train her, even less time than the Crane Women had taken with Michael. He had to play with an even more delicate balance, between the trust, or at least respect, necessary between teacher and student and the harsh techniques urgency required.

  Within hours, they stood on the steps of the largest stepping stone Michael had ever seen. It rose from the floor of a broad rocky valley, at the head of which glowered an immense wall of ice; he could not tell if it was a glacier or something else unique to the Realm. The stepping stone itself was fully a hundred yards wide, circular, with two obelisks positioned beside a twenty-yard-wide slab of white marble at the center. The obelisks were square prisms, featureless and ancient. Drifts of snow formed crescents on the surface of the larger stone.

  They crossed the expanse on foot.

  Michael climbed the steps to the white slab and stood there with hands extended, hair blowing in the freezing wind. He advanced slowly, feeling for the gate. He passed between the obelisks and turned to look at Shiafa, still standing by the steps. "Nothing," he said. "It's closed."