Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (9 page)

BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
“It’s lovely,” she agreed. She too was conscious of some extra sense of well-being and euphoria in the scented air.
It must be the higher oxygen content.
She stepped into the bright air, stretching like a cat in the sunshine.
A clear picture came into her mind, bright and intrusive and strangely exciting; Rafe, drawing Camilla into his arms
. . . . “That’s lovely,” she said aloud, and breathed deeply, smelling the curious, somehow golden scent which seemed to fill the light warm wind.
“What’s lovely?
are,” said Ewen, coming around the tent and laughing. “Come on, let’s walk in the forest—”
“Marco’s better. Do you realize that with all these people I’ve hardly spoken to you alone since before the crash?”
Hand in hand, they ran toward the trees; MacLeod, coming from the edge of the forest, his hands filled with ripe round clear-greenish fruits, held out a handful. His lips were dripping with their juice. “Here. They’re marvelous—”
Laughing, Heather bit into the round smooth globe. It was bursting with sweet, fragrant juice; she ate it all, greedily, and reached for another. Ewen tried to pull it away.
“Heather, you’re mad, they haven’t even been tested yet—”
“I tested them,” MacLeod laughed, “I ate half a dozen for breakfast and I feel wonderful! Say I’m psychic, if you like. They won’t hurt you and they’re chock full of every vitamin we know on Earth and a couple we don’t! I
I tell you!”
He caught Ewen’s eye, and the young doctor, a curious awareness growing in him, said slowly, “Yes. Yes, you do know, of course they’re good. Just as those mushrooms—” he pointed to a grayish fungus growing on the tree, “are wholesome and full of protein, but those—” he pointed to an exquisitely-colored golden nut, “are deadly, two bites will give you a hell of a bellyache and half a cup will kill you—how the hell do I know all this?” He rubbed his forehead, feeling the odd itch through it all, and took a fruit from Heather.
“Here, we’ll all be crazy together then. Marvelous! Better than rations any day . . . where’s Judy?”
“She’s all right,” MacLeod said, laughing. “I’m going off and look for some more fruits!”
Marco Zabal lay alone in the shelter-tent, eyes closed, half-dreaming through closed lids of the sun on the Basque hills of his childhood. Far away in the forest it seemed that he heard singing, singing which seemed to go on, and on, high and clear and sweet. He got to his feet, not stopping to draw any garment about him, disregarding the warning pounding of his heart. An incredible glow of well-being and beauty seemed to surge through him. The sunlight was brilliant on the sloping clearing, the trees seemed to hang darkly and protectively like a beckoning roof, the flowers seemed to sparkle and glitter with a brilliance that was like gold, orange, blue; colors he had never seen before danced and sparkled before his eyes.
Deep in the forest came the sound of singing, high, shrill, unbelievably sweet; the pipes of Pan, the lyre of Orpheus, the call of the sirens. He felt his weakness fade; his youth restored.
Across the clearing he saw three of his companions, lying on the grass laughing, the girl kicking flowers into the air with her bare toes. He stood enraptured, watching her, entangled for a moment in the webs of her fantasy . . .
I am a woman made of flowers
. . . but the far-off singing lured him on; they beckoned him to join them, but he smiled, blew the girl a kiss, and bounded like a young man into the forest.
Far ahead he saw the gleam of white—a bird? A naked body?—he never knew how far he ran, hardly feeling the rapid pounding of his heart, wrapped in the glorious euphoria of freedom from pain, following the white gleam of the distant figure—or bird?—calling out in mingled rapture and anguish, “Wait, wait—”
The song shrilled and seemed to fill his whole head and heart. Gently, without pain, he fell into the long sweet-scented grass. The singing went on, and on, and he saw bending over him a fair face, long colorless hair waving around her eyes, a voice too sweet, too heart-wrenchingly sweet to be human, and hair turned to silver by the sun slanting through the trees, and he went happily, joyously down into darkness with the woman’s face, sweet and mad, imprinted on his dying eyes.
Rafe ran through the forest, his heart pounding, slipping and falling on the steep path. He shouted, as he ran, “Camilla! Camilla!”
What had happened? One moment she was at peace in his arms—then pure terror had surged across her face and she had screamed and begun babbling something about faces on the heights, faces in the clouds, wide-open spaces waiting to fall on her and crush her, and the next moment she had wrenched away from him and dashed away between the trees, screaming wildly.
The trees seemed to waver and dip before his eyes, to form long black witch-claws to entangle him, tripping him up, throwing him full length into briars that raked along his arm and stung like fire. Lightning flashed with the color of the pain in his arm; he felt a wild and sudden terror as some unknown animal crashed a path in the forest, a stampede, hoofs, beating, beating, crushing him . . . he flung his arms around the bole of a tree and clung to it, the pounding of his heart driving out all other thought. The tree’s bark was soft and smooth, like the fur of some animal; he laid his hot face against it. Faces were watching him from the trees, faces, faces....
“Camilla,” he murmured, dazed, slipped to the ground and lay insensible.
On the heights, clouds gathered; fog began to rise. The wind died, and a thin fine rain began to fall, slowly turning to sleet; first on the heights, then in the valley. The flowers closed their bells; the bees and insects sought their holes in the tree-trunks and underbrush; and the pollen dropped, its work done, to the ground. . . .
Camilla woke, dazed, into dim darkness. She remembered nothing after she had run, screaming, panicked at the wideness as of interstellar space, nothing between her and the spreading stars . . . no. That had been delirium. Had it
been delirium? She explored slowly in the darkness, was rewarded by a gleam of light—a cave-mouth. She crept to the door of the cave and shivered with sudden icy cold. She was wearing only a thin cotton shirt and slacks, torn and disordered—no. Thank God, her parka was tied around her neck by its sleeves. Rafe had done it while they lay together by the bank of the stream.
Rafe. Where was he? Come to think of it, where was
? How much of the wild and disordered dreams were real and how much insane fantasy? Evidently she had caught some fever, some illness which lay in wait here. This horrible planet! This horrible place! How long had elapsed? Why was she alone here? Where were her scientific instruments, where her pack? Where—this was the burning question—where was Rafe?
She struggled into her parka and zipped it up, and felt the worst of the shivering subside, but she felt cold and hungry and nauseous, and her body ached and throbbed with a hundred scratches and bruises. Had Rafe left her here in the shelter of the cave while he went to fetch help? Had she been lying in fever and delirium for long? No, he would have left some message in case she recovered consciousness.
She looked through the falling snow, trying to figure out where she could possibly be. Above her, a dark slope rose. She must have dived into the cave in mad terror of the open spaces around her, seeking any darkness and shelter against the fear that lay on her. Perhaps MacAran was out in this wild weather looking for her, and they could wander for hours in the dark, missing one another by a few feet in the driving snow.
Logic bade her sit down and take stock of her situation. She was warmly clad now, and could shelter in the cave till daybreak. But suppose MacAran, too, was lost on the hillside?
Had it attacked them both, that sudden fear, that panic? And where had it come from, that joy, the abandon . . . No, that was for later, she couldn’t think now about that.
Where would MacAran seek her? The best thing was to climb up, toward the peak. Yes. They had left their packs there; and it was the one place from which they could orient themselves when the sun rose and the snow subsided. She would climb, and chance that logic would prompt MacAran to do the same. If not, and she found herself alone when dawn broke, she could make her way back to the camp where the others could help—or to the ship.
She climbed in the dark, driving snow, seeking each step for the way straight upward. After a time she began to guess that she was on the path they had made in their upward climb.
Yes. This is right.
It was a sureness inside her, so that she began to move quickly in the dark, and after a time she saw, without surprise, a small bobbing light, making orange sparks against the snowflakes; and MacAran came straight toward her, and clasped her hands.
“How did you know where to look for me?” she asked.
“Hunch—or something,” he said. In the small light of the handlamp she could just see the snow clinging to his eyebrows and lashes. “I just knew. Camilla—let’s not waste breath on trying to figure it all out now. It’s a long climb still to where we left our packs and equipment.”
She said, twisting her lips in bitterness against the memory of how she had flung her pack from her, “Do you suppose they’ll still be where we left them?”
MacAran’s hand closed over hers. “Don’t worry about it. Come,” he added gently, “you need rest. We can talk about it some other time.”
She relaxed, letting him guide her steps in the darkness. MacAran moved along at her side, exploring this new sureness and wondering from where it had come. Never for a moment had he doubted that he was moving directly toward Camilla in the darkness, he could
her in front of him, but there was no way to say that without sounding quite mad.
They found the small shelter-tent set up in the lee of the rocks. Camilla crept inside gratefully, glad MacAran had spared her the struggle in the dark. MacAran felt confused; when had they set the tent up? Surely they had taken it down and stowed it in their packs before descending this morning? Had it been before or after they lay together by the stream-bank? The worry nagged at him but he dismissed it—we were both pretty freaked-out, we might have done
and hardly been conscious of it. He felt considerable relief at realizing that their packs were neatly piled inside—
God, we were lucky, might have lost all our calculations . . .
“Shall I fix us something to eat before you sleep?”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t eat. I feel as if I’d been dream-dusting! What
to us, Rafe?”
“Search me.” He felt unaccountably shy with her. “Did you eat anything in the forest—fruit, anything?”
“No. I remember wanting to, it looked so good, but at the last minute—I drank the water, though.”
“Forget it. Water’s water and Judy tested it, so that’s out.”
“Well, it must have been
,” she argued.
“I can’t quarrel with that. But not tonight, please. We could hash it ever for hours and not be any closer to an answer.” He extinguished the light. “Try to sleep. We’ve already lost a day.”
Into the darkness Camilla said, “Let’s hope Heather was wrong about the blizzard, then.”
MacAran didn’t answer. He thought, did she say
, or was it just
Could the freak weather have had anything to do with what happened? He had the uncanny sense, again, that he was near an answer and could not quite grasp it, but he was desperately tired, and it eluded him, and still groping, he slept.
They found Marco Zabal after a vain hour of searching and calling in the woods, laid out smooth and straight and already rigid beneath the grayish trunk of an unknown tree. The light snow had shrouded him in a pall a quarter of an inch thick, and at his side Judith Lovat knelt, so white and still beneath the drifting flakes that at first they thought in dismay that she had died too.
Then she stirred and looked up at them with dazed eyes and Heather knelt beside her, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders and trying to get her attention with soft words. She did not speak during all the time that MacLeod and Ewen were carrying Marco back to the tent, and Heather had to guide her steps as if she were drugged or in a trance.
As the small dismal procession wound through the falling snow Heather felt, or fantasied, that she could still feel their thoughts spinning in her own brain, Ewen’s black despair . . .
what kind of doctor am I, lie fooling around on the grass while my patient runs out berserk and dies
. . . MacLeod’s curious confusion entangled in her own fantasy, an old tale of the fairy folk she had heard in childhood,
the hero should never have woman or wife either of flesh and blood nor of the faery folk, and so they fashioned for him a woman made of flowers . . . I was the woman of flowers . . .
Inside the tent Ewen sank down, staring straight ahead, and did not move. But Heather, desperately anxious at Judy’s continued daze, went and shook him.
“Ewen! Marco’s dead, there’s nothing you can do for him, but Judy’s alive; come and see if you can rouse her!”
Dragging, weary,
his thoughts look like a black cloud around him,
Heather thought, and shook herself. Ewen bent over Judith Lovat, checking her pulse, her heartbeat. He flashed a small light in her eyes, then said quietly, “Judy, did you lay out Marco’s body the way we found it?”
“No,” she whispered, “not I. It was the beautiful one, the beautiful one. I thought at first it was a woman, like a bird singing, and his eyes . . . his eyes . . .”
Ewen turned away in despair. “She’s still delirious,” he said shortly. “Fix her something to eat, Heather, and try to get it down her. We all need food—plenty of it; low blood sugar is half what’s wrong with us now, I suspect.”
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