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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 9

Greg Bear

  Chapter Ten

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  As the pre-dawn light filtered through the plaited reed door cover Spart had given him, Michael scrawled another poem in the dirt floor.

  Night's a friendly sort

  Oh yes likes to throw a

  Fright now and then - when

  The wind hums - but after

  You're dead will gladly

  Share a glass of moon.

  Nothing more than exercise, he thought - not worth recording even if he had the means, which he did not - no pencils or writing implements of any sort but the stick, no paper but what was in his black book. And he hardly considered his work worthy of going in the book.

  The Crane Women usually arose fifteen minutes before sunrise, which gave him a short time of being alone and at leisure - time more important than sleep. He used the time to read from the book or write in the dirt, or just to savor not having anything in particular to do,

  Fie heard the door to their hut creak open. He took the book, zippered it into his jacket pocket and wrapped it in the folds before hiding it in the rafters overhead.

  "Man-child! Jan wiros!"

  He came out of the house and saw Coom approaching, with Nare two paces behind. They looked like hunters unsure of their prey - and he was their prey. The Crane Women were masters at unnerving him. He could never predict their moods, attitudes. He should have been a nervous wreck, but he found himself adapting.

  "More run," Coom said. "To Euterpe and back. With kima."

  He grabbed the stick without hesitation and ran. Behind, Nare called out, "This evening is Kaeli." She said it as if some special treat were involved. Michael hefted the stick before him and crossed the creek. He did not see the watery hand which rose up, grasped at his ankle and missed.

  He could make it to the town without collapsing now. He took some pride in his improvement. For the first time in his life he felt the exultation of the body in sheer activity, the meshing of breath and legs, the matched, almost pleasant ache in all his muscles.

  At first, he stayed away from the outskirts housing, not wanting to bring on another confrontation. But he was curious what Savarin was up to, what the teacher had meant the last time, that there were people he wanted Michael to meet. He decided to enter Euterpe and go to the schoolhouse - and the populace be damned. He had his stick and he felt a little cocky.

  He was up to the main gate when he almost bumped into the teacher. They laughed and Michael put down his stick, breathing deeply and wiping sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve.

  "I thought I might catch you during your morning constitutional," Savarin said. "And warn you. Best stay out of the town for the next couple of days. Alyons has been harassing us since your arrival. The townspeople are upset. They're liable to strike out at you without being aware of what they're doing."

  "I haven't hurt them," Michael said.

  "No, but you've brought trouble. Things here are marginal, at best. Alyons threatens to reduce our allotment if anything else happens to upset him." - "Is that why they shouted at me the last time?"

  "Yes. I still have people for you to meet, but later. And I also wanted to tell you… something's planned for tonight - the Halftown Kaeli. Have they invited you?"

  "Nare mentioned it before I left. I don't even know what it is."

  "It's very important. Kaeli is when the Sidhe get together to tell stories, usually about the early times. I'd like you to listen closely and pass on what you hear. I've only heard one - and that from a distance. I was hiding in tall grass. Now, with the Breed guards so tense, I don't dare. Nobody is allowed near Halftown now - - -That's what makes me think something is afoot."


  "Best not to ask for trouble yet. But a grazza, perhaps. A raid by Riverines and Umbrals. Keep an eye out, and be careful."

  "You want me to come back and tell you about the Kaeli?”

  "Of course," Savarin said, his eyes brightening. "But a couple of days from now, when things are more settled." He looked around nervously. A few faces peered from nearby windows, and two men loitering by the gate cast glances at them. "Until then," the teacher said, gripping Michael's hand and releasing it with a wave as he made for a different gate. Michael picked up the stick, held it over his head, and began the return leg of his run.

  His body took over almost immediately and he forgot Savarin, forgot the Kaeli, forgot almost everything but the sensation of distance covered.

  The Breeds of Halftown marched in double file over the grassland, dressed in dark brown and gray cloaks, conversing casually in Cascar and calling to those farther forward or back in the lines. The air was still and cool; the sun touched distant hills and the ribbons of evening cascaded slowly to the hazy horizon, revealing the stars with their tiny circling motions.

  Behind the lines marched the Crane Women. Michael walked abreast of Spart, wearing his jacket. (The book rested in its nook in the tiny house, as secure as he could make it.) He had washed his clothes in the creek earlier, as a concession to formality; they were still slightly damp even after drying near a fire Nare had kindled. Holes revealed his knees and the shoulder of the jacket had separated at the seam.

  The Crane Women wore short black coats that emphasized the length of their legs and the shortness of their torsos. They walked with arms folded, jutting elbows making them look more then ever like birds. They seemed to carry more of an ancient reserve with regard to Kaeli than the other Breeds, and didn't talk.

  Those assigned to choose the site had gone on ahead during the late afternoon. Now a bonfire blazed a few hundred feet down the path, squares of peat and dried brush-wood providing the fuel. Circling the bonfire was a perimeter of poles, each topped by a leafy green branch. When the Breeds had gathered within the circle, Lirg came forward and paced around the fire. Michael sat beside the Crane Women, crossing his legs on the grass stubble and dirt.

  Lirg spoke in Cascar for a few minutes. Michael understood little of what was said; he had difficulty even picking out the meanings of individual words in the long discourse. There seemed to be many words in Cascar with the same or subtly shaded meanings, and the syntax varied as well.

  Spart leaned forward from behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. "You haven't learned the tongue, have you?" she asked.

  "I've only been here a couple of weeks," Michael said defensively. Nare blew out her breath. The Crane Women looked at each other, then Spart sidled forward and placed both her hands around Michael's head.

  "Tonight only," she said, "You have a boon. It won't last." She removed her hands and Michael shook a buzzing out of his head. When the dizziness passed, he listened to Lirg. The Breed was still speaking Cascar but the words were limpid; Michael could understand all of them.

  "Tonight," Lirg said, "We invoke the sadness of the time when we were grand, when the Sidhe marched between the stars as easily as I circle this fire." He passed around to the other side, his words piercing the crackle of the flames. "Each will share the tale, the part of his ancestor, and as conclusion, I will tell of Queen Elme and her choice."

  First to pick up the thread was a tall brown-haired Breed who announced himself as Manann of the line of Till. As Manann spoke, Michael was enchanted by the way the language adapted to poetry - half-singing, half-speaking, until he could no longer tell the difference.

  The Earth, home to us all, has spun A thousand polar dances since The war called Westering, won First by men, who decreed that none

  Of the race called Sidhe should possess Souls beyond the border of Death. Unwitting, the Mage who made us less, Who imposed this inward emptiness,

  Gave to the Sidhe life without end.

  And then time came for the wheel to turn

  Again. The Sidhe thus damned did send To defeat the vain and gloating men

  Who had in cruel and thoughtless rage Robbed us of life beyond matter. The Sidhe bid the responsible Mage To work their own vengeance and engage

  His power
to transform men to beasts. Triumphant Sidhe in sweet passioned Irony watched mankind decreased. Yet in the shape of the small, the least

  Of claw-foot, scruff-fur animals, None who had once been men could tell How to once more open the portals Of shadowy death; how immortals

  Could reclaim the boon of a soul.

  Holder of the Wick of Battle, Ysra Faer of the line of Till Confined men-beasts and all allies - Also made beast, and beast-form still - On Earth, walled-in like cattle.

  "How many races were there?" Michael whispered to Spart, uncertain whether he was speaking Cascar or English. She turned her dark eyes on him and answered, "More than four… we do not know for sure, now. Much has been forgotten. Many of the animals of Earth were once exalted beings, kin of the Sidhe and humans of old."

  Manann sat and another stood, a young woman with beefy arms and a face squatter than usual. "I am Esther of the line of Dravi. I take the challenge of the end-rhymed song, but I correct Manann of Till…" Laughter rang through the circle. "He forgets my line's honored form, and I follow that now."

  All tribes, brothers and sisters hand in hand, In glory Sidhe set out to march the stars. Through this spacing, histories multiplied As numberless as the shore's sea-ground sand. Yet in swifting time, all progress died.

  All glorious rise swings back to fall, sure As the new-born Sidhe on time's cruel road Came to their doom by chance or anger's blade. Exaltation turned to slow decay, the pure And good demeaned, ideals not lived but played.

  Lacking worthy goals or adversary, Star-marcher Faer in easeful ways declined. None took on the hard discipline of the Sidhe. Mere sibling strifes trained the warrior wary; Tribes found bitter freedom in their jealously.

  From the line of Dravi, Wickmaster Sum Foresaw the impending doom; in darkness Deeper than ever known, against the races Of the Great Distance he warred, to come To glory, to draw in battle traces

  Of pride and courage lost since war with Man. The Great Distance breeds minds unlike our own, With unfamiliar thoughts of foreign Shape. Of this war called Quandary none can Recall the tale, only the outcome, when, worn

  From victory more costly than defeat, Destroying what sloth, misrule and ease Had not already, the wasted Sidhe Swung Earthward the ravaged Faerie fleet. Among their dead: Wickmaster Sum, of Dravi.

  Having long since beaten humanity, The last drops from the river of Sidhe Thought Earth to be their choicest Harbor, refuge for a well-earned rest.

  Esther of the line of Dravi took her seat, and Fared of the line of Wis continued.

  By way of right succession, Krake Of the line of noble Wis did take The Wick. As Wickmaster of Sidhe, Krake brought us home from the endless sea

  Of dark-storied, sinister space. Yet on Earth, no peace, for the race

  Of resourceful, unquenchable Man Had crawled, across an age's span

  Up from beast by nature's road Of Change and Pain, with Death's sharp goad. While Sidhe declined in sibling strife, Man struggled back to conscious life.

  Though new-born Man was then quite young, Krake knew on human history hung The fate of his weary, worn Sidhe, Too weak for one more victory.

  Nizandsa, of Serket's family, Now extinct, made this plea: "We must find the one called Mage, Imprisoned as serpent this long age.

  "He has the knowledge to restore our Souls, whose lack has caused a dour Decline. Perhaps a trade of liberty Can return to us the essence of Sidhe!"

  But Krake, we are told, did not agree. "In Man old or new I cannot see Any answer for our many troubles. With human help, a problem doubles!

  "Power to men, releasing the Mage,

  Can only resurrect the rage

  Felt in their dread animal fall.

  No power to Man! That would end us all."

  Nizandsa's faithful lost this debate. Krake, unhappy still, filled with hate, Ordered his coursers to halt all Dissent. In Great Combat, the pall

  Of disgrace again gloomed over us. Nizandsa's murder ended all trust Between the branches of the Sidhe, The third curse of a trinity.

  Lirg stood now and walked around the fire again. "The new breed of men," he began, voice low and almost devoid of song, "had regained their former shape, but not their past glory. They could not keep what had made the men of old the grand enemies of the Sidhe. And the Sidhe, themselves, had long since lost what made them great." He came to the side of the fire where Michael sat between the Crane Women, and looked acrosss the Pact Lands over their heads. "I tell the story now of the family to which we all belong, the line of the mage Tonn's Bream-daughter, Elme.

  Assuming the wick from father Tonn, Queen Elme defied the scorners of Man, brought Sidhe to new-found Harmony, and against the will of God-like sire, loved and married -

  A distant keening sound carried over the plain, interrupting Lirg and causing the Breeds to stir for the first time in half an hour. Nare, Spart and Coom were on their feet and out of the circle before Michael could blink twice.

  Clouds moved quickly across the sky. The keening faded, grew louder, and faded again as if carried on uncertain breezes. From farther away still came the sound of horns unlike any Michael had ever heard; homs that seemed to laugh and cry at once.

  As one, the crowd scooped up dirt and put down the bonfire. Michael stood aside, not knowing where he fit in, deciding it was best to keep out of the way.

  With the bonfire reduced to embers and smoke, seeing was difficult. A drop of rain struck his forehead, then another. Wind tugged at his jacket - or he thought it was the wind. A green veil of luminosity flashed behind the hills.

  "Man-child! This way!" Spart grabbed his arm and pulled him after. "Kaeli is over for tonight. Adonna sends its hosts!"

  The first burst of rain soaked Michael instantly. He followed the indistinct form of a Crane Woman across the fresh mud and bent, pummeled grass. Puddles were forming everywhere. The wind gusted and pushed him this way and that.

  "Where are we going?" Michael asked. The figure didn't answer, but kept running ahead, gesturing. He fell into a hole up to his knees in water, tried to balance and slid up to his thighs. Wiping his eyes, he splashed out of the hole and yelled, "Hey! Wait up!"

  The figure paused for him. It gestured again as he clambered after. Running was difficult; the rain was so thick he had to keep his hand before his mouth to keep from breathing water. Still, the figure's pace was relentless.

  Sheet-lightning flared again, throwing the landscape into gray brilliance. Michael stopped. He heard something roaring very close - the river, he thought, yet the figure ahead gestured again: Follow. "Where are we?" he cried out. No answer came. He stepped forward tentatively and lost his footing. He yelled in surprise and his mouth instantly filled with rain. Choking, he skidded on scrambling feet and butt down a muddy bank, over an edge and into rain-filled space.

  It took him a moment to realize he had passed from rain into flowing water. He kicked and thrashed about, trying to find the shore and grab hold of something, but currents wrapped around his feet and pulled him under. Pressed between thick powerful walls of water, he opened his eyes and felt the darkness of the night pass into blacker insensibility.

  His lungs were about to burst when he was propelled from the water like a salmon clawed by a bear. He hit the mud facedown and turned his head just enough to take a breath, inhaling both air and mud tossed up by the weakening rain.

  He rubbed his eyes clear. The lightning was continuous, silent and green. In the strobing glare he saw the rushing water a few feet away. Stretching from the water, trying to grasp his legs and retrieve him, were four transparent hands. He jack-knifed his legs and dug his fingers into the mud to pull himself farther up the bank.

  One shoulder and an arm struck a cold, solid mass - a boulder, Michael thought. He wrapped his arms around it… and the boulder shifted. Looking up, blinking at the remaining drops of rain, he saw a man-shaped piece of night towering over him. Its outline changed and he felt steely, bone-chilling hands lift him from the bank. He tried to scream for he
lp but a hard, cold palm clamped over his mouth, numbing his lips and jamming his tongue against his teeth.

  His head was immediately wrapped in a thick cloak.

  Then, feeling him roughly through the icy fabric, the shape hesitated. It pulled Michael's head into the open and he stared into a face as black as the bottom of the sea, with two star like points for eyes. Harsh breath like a freezer's charge of air prickled his nose.

  "Antros! Wiros antros!"

  With a cry of rage, the frigid shadow flung him aside. He rolled through space, rotating in a world of lightning and darkness, drops of water on his lips and mud in his eyes. The impact seemed to come after the mud, but everything was confused.

  Michael lay on his back, certain that every bone in his body was broken. Far away, and growing fainter, the keening wavered with the wind until both were gone, and silence covered the wet, tormented land.

  Chapter Eleven

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  Caught in a beam of sunlight, a drop of water hung from the tip of a blade of grass, more beautiful than any diamond. Round, filled with shimmering life, the drop grew until its freedom was assured. It fell in a quivering sphere and broke over his forehead, cool and gently insistent.

  Michael saw a glowing mist, golden above and blue to either side, surrounding the new droplet on the grass blade. He blinked and the mist resolved into sun half-hidden by clouds. Tall green grass rose on all sides. For a moment, he felt no need to do anything but stare. Indeed, it seemed that all his life he had been only a pair of eyes.

  But soon he remembered his hands and they twitched. There was some reason he was reluctant to remember his body, and when he moved his legs the reason became clear: pain. His torso, as he lifted his head and looked down on it, was surprisingly clean. Rain had rinsed the mud from his jacket. He tried to sit up, then gritted his teeth and fell back.

  Limb by limb, he took inventory until he was sure nothing was broken. Pulling back his jacket and shirt, he found a mass of welts on his side. His arms felt bruised beneath the sleeves, too - especially under his armpits, where he had been hoisted by the shadow. His teeth felt as if they were on fire. He vaguely remembered being slapped from the river, and the hands rising from the water to pull him back… the shadow with eyes like stars.