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Suzy McKee Charnas

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  This book is for J.R., who reminded me

  that new stories have to be told

  in new ways;

  and for the many others who helped me

  to find the right way for this story

  and stick to it

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice






















  Copyright Page



  Alldera crouched tensely by the river, staring at tracks in the soft mud. The water was shallow here, and something had crossed to the far side; no, two things – two strings of tracks separated and came together again.

  She had not seen a living being in the months since her escape from her homeland, nor had she expected to – other than perhaps the monsters with which legend peopled the wild country, but she had not really believed in them. She looked fearfully back over her shoulder.

  There rose the valley wall and then the mountains, beyond which lay the strip of coastal plain men called the Holdfast – her country. In the bloody confusion of fighting there – men killing other men and their femmish slaves, over food – she had made her lone escape. It seemed she was alone no longer.

  No man of the Holdfast, no fem fleeing as she fled, had made this spoor. Trembling, she traced the shape of the deep prints with her finger. Something heavy walked on those round, blunted feet. The marks were crescent-shaped and as big as her fist, with a sharp angle sign in the middle of each. Monsters’ tracks.

  Weakened by months wandering as a scavenger in the Wild, she squatted there, fighting back her terror with its tinge of eagerness for contact with life, any kind of life. She tried to consider her situation clearly, turning her inner gaze back over the course of her flight.

  At first she had had some faint hopes of finding other runaways, the ‘free ferns’ of stories, whom she could join. That hope and the first fierce exhilaration at being free had soon faded into anxiety. Choosing to cross the borders of the Holdfast into the Wild, she had chosen new dangers.

  The Holdfast river, which she followed back into the mountains in search of the ruins of an Ancient shelter, unraveled into several streams. Not knowing which branch to follow, she missed the Refuge and its hoped-for stores of supplies and wandered deep into a maze of rock walls and slopes set between thorn-choked gullies.

  The roads of the Ancients, dissected and smashed by landslides and floods, were now only fragmented remnants of the broad, smooth, legendary ways and sketched connections between mere patches of rubble. She avoided the jagged shards of old walls standing in their fields of broken glass; there was nothing to eat there, nothing alive.

  Her food pack soon flapped empty, her stolen clothing exposed as much of her as it covered and clung in strips to her skin when there was rain. She began to realize, in bitter despair, that she was pregnant.

  In her mind she cursed the fetus for a rape-cub, unwanted seed of the masters whom she had escaped. Hunger made her bold, she tasted everything she could strip from standing plants or dig out of the earth, but it was never enough; how could she make milk for a newborn cub? Doomed from the outset, the cub nonetheless functioned as a hardy and efficient little parasite, stealing from her the nourishment of whatever she could find to eat. Her bowels were in a continual state of bloat and cramp. Sometimes she chewed on roots or leaves that made her sick for days, and she hoped that one of these painful episodes would kill the cub so that she could expel it and better her own chances of survival.

  But the cub seemed as tough as she was herself and would not die. She felt its heartbeat and its growing, living weight dragging at her body as she traveled. There were moments of intense pleasure at the thought that this cub, at least, the men would never have. Most often she thought, this cub will kill me, it is a weapon of the men planted in me to ruin my escape.

  At length the mountains smoothed to rolling waves of earth, and a day came when she looked down not into another brambly groin in the hills but across a wide valley, a soothing sweep of green and open country with a sparkle of water down the heart of it. This was not some new stretch of the Holdfast river flowing east to the sea but a broad, sunny water rambling north to southwest. The valley was richly embroidered with dark trees along its waterways, and it seemed endlessly long under a warm, quiet sky.

  Here was refuge of a kind. On the lower banks of the creeks feeding the river she found plants with sweet stems, and large-leafed vines yielding a pulpy fruit. The shining river smelled bad, though; close up she saw skeins of bright slime drifting in it and in the streams on the other side.

  Water was important to her. Pregnancy did not afflict her with nausea and moods, but it did make her sweat constantly and heavily. She was thirsty all the time. Staying on the clean side of the valley so that she could drink safely, she ranged farther southward searching out food plants that she recognized and trying to stay ahead of the full bite of the coming winter. No cold weather came but the rains stopped and food grew scarcer. Sometimes, resting from her endless foraging along the banks of a stream, she would bend to stare hopefully into the empty water; according to legend edible creatures had once inhabited the waters of the world.

  The water still only showed her – on this day, the day of the monster tracks – her own broad, bony face framed in a mat of dull, tangled brown hair. She glanced down at herself. The only rounded line to be seen was that of her belly. Her hands, feet and joints looked coarse and swollen, surrounding muscle having melted away. Her skin healed slowly or not at all where it was scratched or bruised. Her gums were tender. She could not pretend to be some proud free fem out of a song; the ferns’ tales of running off to make a life in the Wild were dreams.

  What was real were the monsters. Here was their excrement heaped on the ground like pungent dumplings – even shit reminded her of food, and rightly: without provisions she would die this winter.

  There was no choice but to follow and try to find the monsters, persuade them to help her. One way or another, it would end in food: they would either feed her or eat her.

  She spent a day following their tracks. She lost their trail, cast in circles for it, terrified of simply walking into them around some roll of the land. She kept stopping to catch her breath and to peer ahead as the day waned. She had to cross the river after them at the shallow place where they had crossed.

  Something red caught her eye. In surroundings which provided little now but greens, browns and the black of shadows, it was stunning, not some sly earth tone passing for red but a brash flare of scarlet.

  She crept closer. The red was a rag knotted around the end of some sort of bundle that was wedged into the crotch of a tree. With a stick she poked the bundle down; it was a large bag made of some supple fabric, closed with
a drawstring that ran through the stitched and puckered hem. She loosened the drawstring with difficulty.

  She was afraid to put her hand inside. Cautiously she raised the heavy end of the bag and eased some of its contents onto the ground: there were dark, hard lumps the size of her hand, a bundle of long, flat dried things strung together, and some smaller bags. One of the latter contained pine nuts like those she had gathered for herself from trees on the middle slopes of the mountains. The sight of the small, smooth shells spilling out onto her palm and the smell of resin on them made the unbelievable real: she had found some sort of food cache.

  She sat chewing and crying, fighting to keep from bolting so much that she would vomit it up again. She slept on the spot, hugging the bag with both arms.

  The next day, carrying some of the food with her, she continued westward on the monsters’ trail. They had followed a faint pathway that led west from the river up the slope of the valley to its rim. Beyond, there lay a desert.

  Alldera had seen smaller patches of such desolation back in the Holdfast, where it was said that they had been made by the Ancients’ methods of mining or of war. This desert was a seemingly limitless stretch of dark earth, all rucked up into long rows one after the other as if the fingers of a giant hand had been drawn parallel through loose dirt. Lonely hills rose sheer-sided to dilapidated peaks, windtorn, undercut, sometimes topped with a clutch of stunted trees. Swatches of green marked isolated groves. Puffs and veils of dust rising on the breeze were all that moved.

  The trail of the monsters led off the rim of the valley and angled down into the first trough of the desert. There the prints were lost in a drift of dust.

  Alldera dared not try to follow them. She retreated, and made a bed of branches where she had found the supplies. They had left food; they would come back.

  The nights grew cold as the moon turned through its cycle. There was no rain, the streams shrank. Her belly was bigger, she could not get around so easily; she was hungry all the time. A sun-warmed rock some distance from her sleeping place became her station; it was easier to withstand the urge to nibble more than her day’s ration if she removed herself from the food during the long, idle hours. She watched to the west for signs of the monsters’ return. She watched to the east, too, imagining other Holdfast fugitives finding the valley just as she had done.

  If others did come, she would have to either fight for her bit of food or run. She was growing too weak to fight, too weak to run. But she did not really believe that anyone would come.

  Sheel, scouting ahead of the other two members of the patrol, rode with one of her bows strung in her hand. She trusted only herself to keep fully alert, and besides, she liked riding apart, undistracted by conversation. It bettered her chance to be the first one to sight an enemy and kill him.

  She sat forward in her saddle, giving her mount a loose rein so that it could pick its own careful way over this stony, up-and-down country. Sheel’s eyes scanned the slopes, eager for a hint of movement, a track in the sandy soil among the thin scattering of trees.

  Riding the borderlands with light rations and three full quivers of arrows made her feel alive as nothing else did; here on the vulnerable outskirts of the plains she felt most strongly the rich vitality of the land she was guarding. Her senses were wide open to the sharp scent of pine, the grate of a pebble under her horse’s hoof, the long, sunlit lines of the foothhills advancing up the lower reaches of the mountains. If men had crossed from the Holdfast, she would know it.

  She had killed a total of seven men during a dozen patrols in her lifetime: four from a distance with a bow when she had been sure of her shot, three close up, bursting from cover on horseback to drive home her hunting lance. She hardly minded the chore of concealing the corpse afterward so that no man following could find it and speculate on the manner of his fellow’s death. Mystery was demoralizing to such fearful, aggressive creatures as men. They prowled in her mind, clumsy, angular beings, loud-voiced like horses so that you always expected them to be bigger than they were. She had tracked men for miles, listening to their desperately hearty voices, watching, sniffing their fear-rank breeze. They were truly the sons’ sons of those world killers, the desert makers of Ancient times; torturers and thieves by nature, wherever they went they left scars. The borderlands were disfigured by the stumps of the trees they cut, the pits they dug and left heaped all around with cast-up earth, the scattered charcoal of the huge and dangerous fires they lit to ease their fears of the dark. They did not even bother to cover their ordure.

  Sheel patted her pony’s shoulder and reined in at the foot of a slope. Dismounting, she loosened her saddle girth and tied her reins to the branch of a gnarled pine. Then, with a full quiver slung over her shoulder and her bow in her hand, she padded to the top of the ridge and lay down there to scan the wide, rippling country, breathing with pleasure its warm odors. The sun burned on her leather-clad back and legs and on her leather cap. Those rocks down below resembled the rocks in which she had buried her first kill.

  She had flayed the dead man’s arm to see what made his muscles bulge so unnaturally, and had come away dirty with his blood but no wiser. His sexual organs had seemed a ludicrous, dangling nuisance and hardly capable of the brutalities recounted by escaped femmish slaves. Having everything external and crowded into the groin like that must make walking more uncomfortable for a man than riding at the gallop with unsupported, milk-full breasts would be for a plains woman. A stud horse was better designed: a sheath held whatever penile length was not stored coiled within his body.

  What a perversity – a creature that would own her if she let it, yet it had nothing to boast of but a coarse strength that was still less than the power of one worn-out old pack mare. Men’s only good feature was that they were a peerlessly clever and dangerous quarry to hunt. Their terror at the end, when you came up and waited a little way off for the dying to be done with, was wide-eyed and bestial.

  Movement caught Sheel’s eye, there on a hillside she had already passed. It was her two companions, following after her. She did not want them to catch up with her yet.

  She ran back down the slope, tugged her girth tight, caught up her reins and mounted to ride on ahead.

  Alldera thought about her cub. It took many days’ thinking. Her mind, sluggish from starvation, turned slowly now.

  She was not surprised that the cub was still alive in her starved body. The hard lives of Holdfast fems over generations had made tough dams and tough offspring.

  She remembered the cold table to which the Hospital men, masked and gowned and stinking with terror of ‘femmish evil’, had strapped her when she had had each of her two cubs – both ferns. Each cub had stayed with her till weaning and then been sent down into the kit pits to live as best it might with its peers, until it was grown enough to be trained by men to work and to serve.

  This cub would never live that life. It would never live any life. Alldera’s body had swelled with the months, but her breasts stayed slack, emptied by privation or by disease, she had no way of knowing.

  Suppose the cub were male? This idea stirred up a mist of rage and fear that stopped all thought, except for the simple knowledge that she could not keep any cub alive after its birth.

  She decided that when it grew large enough to be taken hold of, she would try to do the massage that fems knew to detach a fetus from its hold so that it would be aborted. She though wretchedly of the pain. The creature would not easily be twisted from its life-sustaining hold. It would be no readier to give up and die than she was herself – that thought gave her a pang of grim pride.

  One night – in her fifth or six month, she could not tell, so starved and bloated was she – she dreamed of the cub: born plump and bloody, it was laid on a fire to cook. Then she ate it, ravenously taking back into her own body the substance of which the cub had been draining her all this time.

  The dream woke her. She walked slowly in the valley by the moon’s light, hugging herself ag
ainst the cold. Waking at night was bad; it was too chilly for her to fall asleep again.

  On her way back to her camping place just after sunrise she crossed fresh tracks. The monsters, returning, had paused near her camp and then gone on toward the desert.

  It was months since she had first found their footprints. By the time they came again, no matter how strictly she rationed her food, the bag would be empty and she and her cub would both be dead.

  She hung the bag over her shoulder and followed them up to the western rim of the valley, glad to be moving and doing, even though she was perhaps pursuing her own death; that was better than just waiting for it, like a slave.

  The desert was just as she had first seen it, a huge washboard that ran beyond sight in all directions. Once more the monsters had simply plunged down the steep slope leaving a dark line of disturbance in the loose soil, but this time their tracks showed fresh and plain in the fine dust of the trough floor.

  She adjusted the bag so that it would not flap on her shoulder, and she scrambled awkwardly down.

  Water had cut rough gullies across the furrows, making passes in the ridges between the troughs; using these gaps the monsters were bearing westward through the desert. Alldera threaded the maze on their trail but could make no speed. She was too weak, her joints hurt, the cub’s weight dragged her down.

  There was a stark, dreamlike beauty to the place. The dark soil seemed to soak up sunlight and burn with it. Tufts of grass sprouted here and there in the shadows of rocks. There were even a few spindly trees, or older ones with thick, stunted trunks. Occasional red twists of Ancient machinery protruded from the dirt: thin shells rusted out to nothing, great lumpish cores of which the more delicate and projecting parts had long since fallen away. In the deeper ravines there were reefs of debris trailing out from undercut walls – flood sign. Where water stood it was laced with green slime, and the monsters themselves did not stop to drink it. The filth in the valley’s river must come from streams draining this poisoned place.