Authors: Janet Morris
Tags: #Fantasy & Sci-Fi
For Chris, as they are all for Chris.
This is a tale that has not happened yet, unless you believe that time’s passage is a mirage, and everything is truly happening all at once. But let us not quibble, so early on. The tale has not yet taken place, as most men reckon time. It begins on Earth and returns to Earth but it is not about Earth at all, except in that cautionary fashion implied by word “yet.” It has not happened yet, that man has gone out from Earth to live in habitations of his own creation under distant, variously colored stars. It has not happened that planets have become merely depositories of material, only anchors to swing man-created worlds around. It has not happened that these things have occurred in the now. But I do not mean to imply that they will
occur. After all, I have seen it. You take a look on your own, and tell me what you see.
: On the day after the killer frost took a ready harvest, a trio of cloaked enchanters came riding into Bolen’s town, New York, on froth-dappled black horses whose brasses shone like the sun.
There were plenty of folk to remark on the sight, lounging around on board sidewalks and split-rail fences with dour faces and bellies bloated from too much beer and too little food, as folk will when tragedy herds them together, and suddenly there is nothing left to do.
The three horses kicked up dust from one end of the single street in sere Bolen’s town to the other. The dust tickled the noses of the townfolk above their kerchiefs; the awkward seats and unfamiliar scarlet eagles blazoned on the black cloaks of the riders tickled their curiosity. And the fact that the dust did not seem to settle on the shiny black boots of the riders kicked up suspicion in one man’s mind that these must be the enchanters who had caused the demon frost to strike down their crops.
The suspicion, once voiced, spread through the ragged crowd like dust on the wind, touching one, touching all, uniting them in a heady rebirth of purpose.
These were the culprits who had brought the ill fortune, all agreed.
In a mass of nearly thirty, the people of the town advanced down its single street to Bolen’s inn, the ramshackle way station around which the town had grown up and its most imposing building, being possessed of not only a cellar, but an upper floor.
The three horses snorted and skittered as the rumbling crowd approached, but their riders had entered the inn, and their reins held them fast to the porch rail.
Inside the inn one of the enchanters, who was tall and well made yet somehow lissome in skin-hugging ebony coveralls relieved with scarlet, pulled back a curtained window. He said something that lilted through his black beard in a language neither fat Bolen nor the uncombed, pinch-faced girlchild waiting sullenly upon the strange ones’ table understood. The second man, whose presence it was that made the first seem delicate by the force of his impact and the width of his neck, answered and left the enchantress with whom he had been sitting to disappear through the door.
The enchantress furrowed her creamy brow, brushed an auburn wisp from it, and smoothed her coveralls down over her hips. Then she gave an unmistakable order to the lissome, slighter man, who looked displeased and scratched in his beard, but seemed to obey. At least, he approached the bar.
The barefoot serving girl, watching the first man cross the floor to where Bolen fastidiously wiped tankards behind the bar, tugged at her patched shift and straightened her shoulders in emulation of the regal woman with the shining, chestnut coif. She tried to imagine her black tangles magically straightened, shining like brass. She failed; she sighed.
“Is there another way out of here?” asked the bearded one of Bolen in a clipped, oddly accented voice as from without the rumble of the crowd grew louder.
“My pardon, gentle sir, but there is not,” said Bolen carefully, all his chins bobbing in agreement. Everyone knew the dangers of deceiving enchanters. But the crowd wanted this lot. Should Bolen deny them, this would be Bolen’s town no more and Bolen himself would be stoned alongside the strangers when they were caught. He was trying to figure out a way to claim their horses when the rumble turned to thunder and the windows shattered in a rain of stones and the door came bursting inward, all the town behind.
The lithe man at the bar whirled around, seemed to arch back like a mountain cat. But even as he did the woman went down clutching her bleeding head, and he hesitated, stunned disbelief giving him a moronic, slack-jawed mien. Then the ragged girl was pulling at him, babbling too fast in a tongue he had superficially learned, dragging him toward the kitchen whence she had first emerged.
A rock caught him as he ducked beneath the curtain, numbing his arm. Then her strong little fingers grabbed at his beard, pulling it violently, and he realized he had not been deciphering her words, only hearing another compendium of unintelligible sounds.
“Get down. Through here. Crawl. Oh, go on!”
“You first,” he said grimly, pushing her ahead of him.
He pushed too hard, so that she tumbled down, and he recollected the frail, knobby backbone he had felt through the shift, and the gray, maelstrom eyes pleading, even as he picked up a stained kitchen knife and prepared to take a few of them with him.
But as a toil-roughened hand clutched the curtain from beyond, another clutched his ankle, jerking desperately. Off balance, he went to his knees. The waif’s heart-shaped face gleamed out at him from the dim passage. “Please, please, or they will kill me too.”
Thrusting the knife through his belt, he crouched low. Wedging himself into the waist-high passage, he pulled shut the door.
Then there was nothing left but to follow the scuttling sounds ahead of him in darkness. Suddenly, there was a crack of light.
“Your horses,” the girl’s husky voice announced with obvious pride, “are yet waiting. Will you take me with you?”
“You cannot leave me to their mercy!” Full lower lip grew fuller as determination turned pout to accusation.
“They are your people,” he fended her off, fidgeting now that escape was so close. A ridiculous vision of this tangled, odorous primitive garbed in Kerrion flight satins made his grin flash in the semidark.
“Then I will make a diversion for you,” she offered dully. “Take which direction you choose and I will take another.”
From such selfless courage, Marada Seleucus Kerrion could not turn away.
He rubbed his elbow, flexing his arm which was no longer complaining quite so bitterly, and wondered whether he might not be still dreaming off last night’s revel and all this the wages of incontinence. “No,” he sighed. “Come on then, small person, and if we reach the horses we will head them both the same way.”
“Aieeee,” crowed the girl in triumph, lunging through the half-door into the dusty street.
Later, he thanked the clouds that on this benighted world never lessened, and the cover it threw over the racing sprite, all knees and elbows, who by the time he reached her had two pairs of reins free and was trying with no success to mount the tall, dancing horse.
He boosted her up and scrambled atop a second quivering snorter, while from Bolen’s inn came howls and crashings and one man’s tortured scream rose above the rest.
“Bolen,” the girl gasped, full lips blue with terror.
“Too bad,” said the man bleakly, for his eyes had seen his broken companion all askew on the steps. “That way,” he said pointing, and slapped his horse’s rump.
There followed a nightmarish interval of leaves slapping him and branches raking him and pine needles seeking to blind him as the horse plunged wildly through the thicket behind Bolen’s inn. By the time he had gained control, Bolen’s town was far behind. The thicket became a copse, the copse gave way to forest. It was not until then he looked around to see if the rat-haired waif yet followed.
She did. She rode badly, though perhaps not as badly as he, and when they had been awhile in the lofty, dank trees he called a halt more for her than for the horses.
So there he was, walking a sweating horse in an alien glen with a more alien child whose disposition was easily as much a problem as his own would be to his superiors when all this came to light.
He scraped foam off the horse’s neck and tightened the girth, watching her. She was painfully thin, except for her belly. Malnutrition? Her shoulders were sharp, boyish, a distinct contrast to wise, woman’s eyes that dominated a child’s face. Was that why he had succumbed, brought her along? No, she was not that pretty, or that pathetic.
She was humming as she rubbed her horse with dead leaves.
“How old are you?” While he spoke he prodded a bracelet on his wrist. It sang briefly. He took his hand away.
“Seventeen.” She spoke sharply in an impossibly low voice. A shift of the wind brought her pungent odor to him like a warning. But it was too late to heed it. He was committed. And she was lying.
“Truly,” he demanded.
“Fifteen.” She turned to regard him, letting the leaves fall from her hand. The horse snorted, nuzzling her. She patted its muzzle absently, looking up at him from under the ebon froth that framed her face. Grass and dust hung in its thicket. The eyes, below, said: “You can’t blame me for trying.”
“Was Bolen your father?”
“No,” very softly. “My parents are dead.”
“Where would you like to go? Do you have relations, perhaps in the city?” He made his play casually, hoping she would be content, would let him off, take the horse and some money . . .
“No relations. I want to go with you.” The pale gray eyes had thick black lashes. They came together, and the man found he had been holding his breath while she looked at him as if he could hold his thoughts withal.
“No, you do not. You do not even know where it is I am going.” How could he explain to her that in the Consortium he served, she would be an object of ridicule, an oddity at which people would wrinkle their noses and turn away. He wondered if the malodor was congenital, as the wind brought it to him again.
“I do not care. I have no place else to go,” she shrugged. “I will serve you as I served Bolen. You will be pleased with me.”
He did not want to think about how she might have been serving Bolen, or might think to serve him. “Time to ride,” he said.
“I can do some small enchantments,” she proclaimed.
“Then enchant yourself up on that horse.”
He mounted and in doing so felt the jab of the kitchen knife. He took it from his belt. It was low-quality iron, crudely smelted. He threw it down. It stuck, wavering point-deep in the sod.
His elbow, still tender, objected, and he tried to credit the evanescent pain with having caused the catch in his throat. But he knew it was something else, something composed of black iron and unceasing clouds and enchantments and little girls in rags who stunk. From this, the mighty Consortium which ruled the stars was sprung?
“What is your name?” he asked, turning the horse deeper into the forest at an easy walk.
“Shebat,” she said hesitantly, giving up a great secret.
“Marada,” he introduced himself, leaving out all the rest which she would not understand, which made no sense here in this forest of forgetfulness on the world of his private dreaming.
Marada had come home, across vast reaches of lucent space, despite the fair warnings and suddenly sensible restrictions that prohibited landfall on the planet Earth.
His older brother and his betrothed, Iltani, would never leave it. He remembered Iltani’s arch challenge: “How bad can it be?” She had found out. But it was not her fault, rather it was his, his alone; his the obsession and his the price to pay.
“You are an enchanter,” Shebat breathed in fearful delight when she saw the little opalescent reconnaissance ship, perched like a stalking mantis in a sorcerer’s seared circle in the verdant meadow. “I was afraid you might not be, after all.”
His horse’s reaction was quite another matter. By the time he had it calmed and stripped and turned loose in the clearing, the moment had passed to deny sorcery. Watching the little girl kiss the horse on his slobbery muzzle, he wondered whether there might not be something for such a one to do in the far-flung empire of the Consortium he served.
you would not rather go to the city, apprentice at some trade? I will give you money, secure you a position. You can grow up to be the Enchantress of all the Earth.” He had to kneel down to see her face, for she would not look at him. He took her by the arms, but she only repeated that she had nowhere to go and wanted to be with him.
So he took her onto the ship and showed her how to strap in, and soon there was nothing left in the dim clearing but a patch of seared ground and harness for two horses, and the beginnings of a legend that the townfolk—peering through the bushes but afraid to face the mighty enchanter, whose fire-spouting chariot rose on a deafening roar almost straight into the heavens—would tell to their friends and relations and to their children and their children for generations to come.
Within the antiquated reconnaissance ship needling upward, the sanguine enchanter in black relieved with red plied his trade. His aquiline profile bowed to flickering crystals whose images were never still. His voice hissed out softly in incantation. From somewhere above her head the air itself gave answer. Shebat shivered and looked around the padded, inward curving, light-bestarred chamber. An enchanter’s cave? She had not heard of mobile caves before. Nevertheless, this cramped enclosure with its soft sitting beds was both more numinous and more luxurious than anything she had ever experienced. Shebat told herself fiercely that this was the most important day of her life, every bit of which she should remember, especially the enchanter, who could call voices out of thin air and command the lights of many colors and cause the crystal windows to show him whatsoever he might choose. She stared very hard around her, committing what she saw to memory. Understanding would come later, she swore, as Marada fell silent and turned slowly toward her. Or rather, made the very chair-bed in which he sat turn slowly, but not so slowly that the two gold rings of chain dangling from his ears did not swing madly.
“Your staring is going to burn holes through my back,” he reproved.
He was more handsome than she had previously realized, though in a refined way that made him seem more alien. His beard reaching cheekward, his black hair reaching his shoulders, could not roughen his aspect sufficiently to disguise the androgynous, heavy-lidded eyes under straight, brief brows. Char-brown, they settled wide flung between distant cheekbones. His lips were spare, unyielding, antithetical to the poet’s eyes, as if a battle was underway between the aboves and belows of his face.
“No, I cannot do anything like that,” she answered.
“What? Never mind. I want to make you understand something. I am not an enchanter. Nothing I do is done of sorcery. It is science, the ingenuity of man that I practice, and that makes possible all you see about you.”