Ka dar oakley in the rui.., p.12
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       Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, p.12

           John Crowley

  “If you don’t go,” Kits said, “we won’t know what happened, will we? And why, and what for, and all that.”

  She said it as though she’d heard those words from him, not once before but many times, and as though that was endearing but annoying, too. He felt it as a challenge, but not one that could be met, and he didn’t try. With the feeling of tearing a primary from a wing, he left her and the young. Kits called the call Watch out after him like a sharp dag from her black bill.

  He flew till he reached where Fox Cap was, and went out above her, banking and turning gracefully in the air. Kits was right: he stood for something as much as he was something, a Crow; it was what he had to give to the People for what the Crows had got. When the line of them passed under trees, he went to join a few other laughing Crows there who’d also gone off on this adventure; then he took a perch right on the cart’s rails, clinging as it rolled, to show he wasn’t afraid—though the younger Crows would do no such bold thing. After a time Fox Cap tired of the jolting and climbed out and went walking on, marking her steps with a long staff.

  Before the summer sun was down, those in the lead called a halt, and made fires. The fires would signal to those far behind on the path: Here we are. Warriors on a raid would never light fires, Fox Cap told Dar Oakley, but she wanted the ones in the old settlement to know they weren’t coming in darkness for war or to steal things. And on the third day they saw riders on a rise far off daywise, who watched them for a time and then faded away: scouts, come to see and to report.

  On the fifth day they came in sight of their old settlement. Keening and cries of mourning arose from the old ones among the walkers to see it. There was a squat tower on a hill above the dwellings, which Dar Oakley took at first for the stump of an enormous fallen tree. A palisade taller than the Lake People’s, many of the posts holding skulls, dead enemies now made into sentinels. Smoke of many fires. Dar Oakley could see—though the People couldn’t yet—that the People who lived outside the walls were driving their animals toward the gates of the palisade, and hurrying inside.

  “This was ours,” Fox Cap said to Dar Oakley, though no one else knew whom she spoke to—she was known to speak often with unseen ones. “It’s greater now, the old ones say. Those are strong ones who live there, who pushed us out. Stronger than us.”

  “But you drove them away in the battles. Killed many of them.”

  “Because they came where we made new homes. It’s our ground.”

  Dar Oakley thought Crows would understand that. He wondered if the skulls on the palisade might have belonged to Fox Cap’s People.

  Horns and drums. Out from the gate came mounted People. Fox Cap raised her hand to stop the Lake People from going farther, and when they were all gathered there on the edge of the planted land, she set out alone with her staff to meet the warriors coming toward her. The Crows who had followed the People went to the trees, calling to one another in anticipation.

  But there was no fighting. Dar Oakley wished he could tell the restive People what he could see and they couldn’t, that Fox Cap had gone down through the fields and the grasses until the riders could see her, and then sat down on the ground there and crossed her legs like a child, the child she had long ago been, and waited for the riders. Her tall staff showed them the place. They came around her. Dar Oakley was afraid to get too near them, but he could hear the jingle of their iron. And she began to speak to them.

  Near sunset the riders went away. Fox Cap went on sitting. The Crows called to one another; they went to find food while there was light, and a roost for the night. The People brought food to Fox Cap, and a mantle to keep her warm.

  That was the first meeting. Through the next day they all waited. Fox Cap’s staff, standing alone in the field, made Dar Oakley think of the sticks that the first two People he had ever seen had planted in the earth above the lake. The sun was low when the riders came again, with a Bigger among them (it was easy to tell), and a cart that bore a child in wrappings of green, who carried a freshly broken branch of Oak. The People couldn’t see that, but Dar Oakley could; and he could see Fox Cap’s eyes turn from the child and the riders up to where Dar Oakley perched in the trees. He saw her sly smile, as though she were playing a game here.

  There was more talk, and then Fox Cap was lifted into the cart with the boy in green, and they all went toward the settlement and the palisade, and disappeared inside.

  That was the second meeting.

  By then the Crows of that region had got wind of these invader Crows, and gathered to drive them away from their demesne, their groves and hunting grounds. Get, get! Greatly outnumbered, Dar Oakley’s band retreated, and turned homeward. So the only fighting that day was among the Crows. Dar Oakley’s gang heard no more of what happened at the old settlement until the People came home.

  When they did, they came bearing their old dead. They had got what they wanted.

  The Lake People who had stayed behind in the settlement came out, and some went far along the track to hail the returning ones and their burdens. Crows came too, as was right—Dar Oakley told them—and flew above, calling. First came their banners thrashing in a rising wind, then the warriors and strong ones carrying pots and improvised carriers, bones gray and brown heaped on them with care, some wrapped in bright cloths. Other bones wrapped in the cloth of their own blackened skin. Old female weeping as she walked, carrying a child’s relics. Earth-stained skulls darker than their teeth, carried in the carts that before had carried the Biggers, now honoring these. No horns, no drums: they walked in silence. There was Fox Cap, and with her the boy dressed in green, holding her hand.

  “What do they want with bones?” Cuckoo’s Egg said, looking down. “I thought they thought the dead People go off to live somewhere else, and leave this refuse behind.”

  “No, no,” said Two Mates. “You don’t get it. They think the bones and what’s stuck to them are alive, and can feel the honor. I’m sure I heard that.”

  “You’re both right,” Kits said. “Don’t ask me how.”

  “They’re that and not.”

  “They’re here and there.”

  “They’re where those alive can’t go.”

  “And don’t want to go.”

  They laughed loud, the three Crows.

  The world would be changed by what Fox Cap had done. She’d won back the dead; they’d now be put with songs and keening and the aromatic smoke of fires into the upside-down houses to rest there forever. She’d done it by yielding to the greater strength of those who’d seized the old settlement, by offering that her People would be the lesser of the two, if only they could have these remains, to lie here where People they had known, or their descendants, now lived. For that the Lake People would give the new possessors of their old home place honor and deference, not raid their cattle or burn their crops as they had done before, but pay tribute instead.

  “So there will be no more battles now?” Dar Oakley asked her.

  “Oh there will be. Not with those, maybe. There are greater ones coming from far off, stronger even than those ones. That boy knows it.”

  “But all of you together, you’ll be strong. Who could push you out?”

  She held up a hand toward where the sun was rising over the lake. It made him think of the Singer, raising his hand: as though it could by itself draw from the world the thing he held it out to. “They aren’t our kind,” she said, “and they’ll come from where we have never been. Their fighters are many, many more than all our fighters, and they will kill all our fighters. There’s no way to stop them, not for long. It may be many seasons before they come, but they’ll come.” She smiled at her old friend. “You’ll be well fed, Crow.”

  She turned away then, looking out over the water, but not as though she sought something. Dar Oakley waited.

  “There is a cauldron,” she said at last, not to him. “It can be set on the boil, and slain fighters can be put in, who come out alive and well, all their cut-off limbs put on
them again.”

  “What,” Dar Oakley asked, “is a cauldron?”

  “It lies over the sea,” she said, “and we can’t have it.”

  “What is the sea?”

  “I don’t know.”

  The People had been a long time at work in their old home place, digging up their dead: now winter was near.

  “Better than a cauldron,” she said, “is a thing such that, if you have it, you would never die at all. Not ever.”

  “What sort of a thing would do that? What would it be?”

  She didn’t answer. She rose, restless. He saw that she had a piece of an Oak branch: the one the boy had carried, he guessed. “They know where it is,” she said. “The ones we brought home. When we gathered them from where their bones and flesh had been cast—in the fields, left in the forests, in the roadways underfoot—it woke them, and they were grateful. In the night while we rested on the way, they talked about it. I heard them.”

  “About this thing.”

  “A precious thing,” she said. “The most precious thing.”

  Dar Oakley felt a strange tug at his mind and heart. What she said made no sense to him, not here. But he felt that if she kept talking he would soon be here no longer, but where she was, in Ymr.

  “It’s a long way to go to find it,” she said. “Or short. Short and hard. It lies far to the North, I think. We’ll have to find the right path, and keep to it. We’ll go neither to the right hand nor the left. Unless the right way is wrong.”

  It was how People lived in the world: for them the world was made of paths, and turns in those paths; the past was where the path had led them from, the future was where it went on to. The turns and forks of paths were where their lives were lived, and were named for their two hands.

  “We?” he said.

  “Come winter,” she said. “That night, the night when the light side of the year changes to the dark. That’s when there’s a path that opens for us.”

  “But I don’t want this thing,” Dar Oakley said. “It’s not for me. Is it? Not for Crows.”

  “No. I guess not.”

  Dar Oakley thought of his own precious things, which once he had shown her, in the rocks beneath the thornbush. “Why should I go? Why do you want me to?”

  She pulled tighter her mantle, but didn’t cease shivering. They were naked as hatchlings their whole lives, People were, without pelt or plumage, and it left them in harm’s way in the dark side of the year. You could fear for them then, if you cared to think about it.

  “Because,” she said, “I’m afraid.”

  Nothing was stranger to Crows than this: how People thought that only by their own actions would the seasons be made to turn, the days grow warm after winter and the green things grow up that they planted. They thought the sun was a person like them, and did what it pleased; on the longest of winter nights, they must fire a great pile of dry brush on a hilltop to cause the sun to wake and rise rather than remaining below the daywise edge of the world. The Crows knew the world had no edge, because they flew, and could see the steady arising of it up from the far-off, tree by hill, and then beneath them and away—but the People didn’t know it and wouldn’t have believed the Crows if the Crows had told them.

  But People knew the day on which the season of the long sun changed into the season of the short sun; they knew when the moon would brighten and when it would darken, and for how long: and about those things they were never wrong.

  “I have a journey to take,” Dar Oakley said to Kits. “I don’t know how long. I’m sure I’ll return.”

  “You might or you might not,” said Kits.

  The winter roost was thickening at evening with Crows young and old. The noise was terrific. Somewhere in the black moving mass were Dar Oakley and Kits’s young, full-grown now.

  “When I do return,” Dar Oakley said, “maybe—I don’t know, but it might be that many seasons will have passed.”

  “Oh?” Kits said, not as puzzled as Dar Oakley thought she would be. Maybe she hadn’t understood him. He hardly understood himself. “And where are you going, Dar Oak-by-the-Lea? And can I not come with you, I and others? Not good to be alone.”

  Kits’s teasing eye was on him. How could he say, Because the place I go to may not exist—may not exist even if I go there? “I’m going with one of the People,” he said. “The one called With the Fox Cap, far billwise, in search of something.”

  “What something?”

  “She wants my company. I don’t know why.”

  “What something?”

  “Something precious, that People need or want.” He spoke softly, so as not to be heard amid the jabber. “It’s to keep People from ever dying. They say.”

  Crows are never still, if they aren’t asleep, or cold in deep winter: but Kits was still then.

  “If you’re gone long enough,” she said at last, “I might be here when you come back, and I might not.”

  “I know.”

  “Lots of reasons.”

  “I know,” he said. It was a plain fact, but it seemed suddenly dreadful. “Maybe you can come. Would you really?”

  She still regarded him, though she seemed, he couldn’t say why he felt so, to have ceased to see him. “I’ve traveled,” she said.

  Which was likely to be all the answer he was to get.

  “For life,” he said, a little desperately. “You and I.”

  “Life is short, Dar Oak-by-the-Lea,” she said, and turned away, and lifted her great beautiful wings in that slow beat that was like no one else’s, and went away toward where other Crows were calling.

  “It belongs to us, this thing,” Fox Cap said to him, stepping along a track invisible to Dar Oakley, marking her steps with her long staff as though it led and she followed. “Not to them.”

  “Because they don’t need it,” Dar Oakley said. “They’re already dead.”

  “They are more than dead, these ones,” she said. Her eyes were straight ahead. He rode her shoulder; her mantle was stained with his droppings. They went always billwise, North, which he always knew, and he could point her that way: to the sea, though neither of them knew that. “They were great and brave, and when they lived they had lives far longer than ours, and they’ve been so long beyond life that they’ve grown out of being dead, and have a new life. It may be they never died at all.”

  “They aren’t dead?”

  “They live. Not lives like our lives. You’ll see.”

  He rode on a ways in silence, gripping her rolling shoulder, thinking that she really did mean to go where she had said she would: as though it were not hard but easy. “They are the ones who stole your cap long ago,” he said.

  “Not those ones. Those you could put your hand right through; if they came forth at night, they melted away at cockcrow. These are living.”

  “What do they live on?”

  “Fear and homage.”

  Darkness came down, and thus a new day began—because the days of Fox Cap’s People, unlike ours or Crows’, began at sunset. They had set out on the first day of winter, the day the year turned to the dark side. Now the moon had grown, and would go on growing till the night when it was round, and the dark half of the month began. In the blanket looped over her right arm were meat and bread; on the staff she carried, the days till full moon were marked with cuts, and could be counted off. She didn’t know how far in the North was the place they went to, and she wanted to keep on walking on this bright night. Dar Oakley wouldn’t.

  “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t fly at night.”

  “You can ride,” she said. “And there’s light.”

  “It’s not the right kind.”

  She laughed, but she soon stopped for his sake, without saying so. He slept, head on his breast, feet locked around a branch. When his eyes opened, he could make her out in the pale placeless light, folded up on a broad rock in the open, awake, fearless. Because of him? He couldn’t think so.

  On the last day of the waxing m
oon they came to the North. She said that was where they were, though he didn’t know how she knew. To him North wasn’t a place but a way you went. They were at the edge of a leafless forest, above a plain. It was shadowless noon. Far off, almost farther than Dar Oakley could see, there was a strange white glitter of light: it was the sea.

  A long, high mound crossed the plain, seeming to have been laid down on the earth rather than grown up out of it. In fact it looked—Fox Cap said—like a great sleeping body, stretched out on its side, head on its arm. Dar Oakley couldn’t feature that. They could see dwellings strung out along its base, brown tops and whitened walls. And sheep, browsing where Fox Cap said she saw the body’s grassy knees drawn up; a dog barked, clear in the noontide.

  “It’s a barrow,” she said, “where great fighters lie down deep. Think how long they’ve been within it.” She pulled her wind-tugged mantle around her. “It’s so worn away. It could be anywhere.”

  Dar Oakley thought it probably was anywhere, but he felt also that he wanted to go no farther toward it. She told him to stay while she went down to those dwellings and asked for a guide to take her up where she had to go. They would know, she told him; many had come here, she said, as they two had.

  She set off. Dar Oakley watched her go, then went to find something to eat. By day’s end he had swallowed several fat green caterpillars extracted with care from a prickly bush; the remains of a Red Squirrel left perhaps by a Hawk but containing still a few bits of worth; something he didn’t recognize but that on inspection turned out to be tasty; undigested meat he dug from the scat of a Wolf, or more than one, dropped days ago along a Wolf-way. From time to time he went out toward the hill to see if Fox Cap had appeared, and late in the day there she was, following an old man and a boy upward along a track Dar Oakley hadn’t perceived. He flew high over their heads, and Fox Cap pointed upward to him, and the other two paused to look up; then they went on.

  Where they led her to was a depression in the center of a rise toward the daywise end of the barrow. Stones had been set around the edge of this depression. They left her with a small basket of food and went away quickly.

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