Gene Wolfe's Return to the Whorl is the third volume, after On Blue's Waters and In Green's Jungles, of his ambitious SF trilogy The Book of the Short Sun . . . It is again narrated by Horn, who has embarked on a quest in search of the heroic leader Patera Silk. Horn has traveled from his home on the planet Blue, reached the mysterious planet Green, and visited the great starship, the Whorl and even, somehow, the distant planet Urth. But Horn's identity has become ambiguous, a complex question embedded in the story, whose telling is itself complex, shifting from place to place, present to past. Perhaps Horn and Silk are now one being. Return to the Whorl brings Wolfe's major new fiction, The Book of the Short Sun, to a strange and seductive climax. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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March 01, 2002
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Excerpt from Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
The Bloodstained Men
We have been journeying by guess, and it is high time we admitted it. Thus I admit it here. All things considered, we have been fortunate; but unless we are favored by the Vanished Gods of Blue far above most, it cannot continue.
In this third book, which will surely be the last, I will begin by saying that, and telling you who we are; but first I should mention that the bandits are all dead, and that I, rummaging through their loot, have discovered this paper--an entire bale--and am making haste to use it.
* * *
His thoughts seemed to have nothing to do with the dead woman, her coffin, or the hot sunshine streaming through the open door into the poor little room. There was a pattering, as of rain; moisture splashed his ankles, and he looked down and saw blood trickling from his fingers to splash into a small pool at his feet.
His son had deserted him.
He was wounded. (No doubt the blood was from that wound?)
He lay in the medical compartment of a lander, though he was standing now, his blood dripping on worn floorboards. The bier was for another, it seemed, and the other was a middle-aged woman, and was already dead.
A knife with a worn blade and a cracked wooden handle lay at his feet. Reflexively, he bent to pick it up, and recoiled from it as if from a coiled snake. Something screamed in the emptiness, something deeper than resentment and thoughts of water, food, and healing.
He backed away from the knife and stumbled through the open door into the darkest night ever known.
* * *
We are four, a number that includes Oreb but excludes our four horses and Jahlee's white mule. Oreb is my bird and often a nuisance, as he is at this moment, trying to wrest one of his old quills from my fingers. "It's no use, Oreb," I say. "I want to write-have just started a new book-and I won't play with you at all unless you behave yourself."
"Good bird!" He means himself.
Have I mentioned Hide? Looking over this sheet, I see I have not. Hide is the fourth member of our party and my son, one of three. He is of medium height, not bad-looking, solid, muscular, and rising sixteen. He wears a sheepskin coat shorter than mine, a sheepskin hat, and sheepskin boots that are very well greased now, he having found a pot of mutton fat. No doubt the bandits used it for the same purpose.
The bandits, I should say, are all dead. Even the last. I would like to inter them with some decency, but the ground is frozen. Jahlee suggested burning their bodies, but it would take a great deal of wood, I am sure, to consume the bodies of nine men.
I must have been present when Patera Silk, Patera Quetzal, and Maytera Marble burned Maytera Rose. If someone had asked me about it yesterday, I would have said that I was not, that Nettle and I went away to fight for Maytera Mint after Echidna ordered her to destroy the Alambrera; yet I find that I can very clearly visualize the skull peering from the flames. It seems likely that I am confusing that occasion with some other on which a body was burned.
In any event I am certain they used a great deal of good, dry cedar. Our wood here will be green, and that which is not green will be wet with snow. Hide and I, working hard, might cut that much wood in a week, perhaps. (I in half an hour if I used Hyacinth's azoth--but what folly it would be to let them know I have it now!)
Anything else about Hide? A lot, although I will not try to set it all down. Hide has a twin, his brother Hoof, who looks exactly like him. Hoof is in the south, or at least Hide believes he is. We were tempted turn to south around the marsh in the hope of finding him. It would have been farther, but I wish we had.
I am telling you all this in case the first two books in my saddlebag are lost or destroyed, which is surely likely enough. If you have them, they will tell you much more about me and my sons than I possibly can.
What else should I say? As a traveling companion he is inclined to gloom and pessimism. (He may well think the same of me.) He is not talkative, and is seldom entertaining when he does talk. But he is courageous and resourceful, and has a smile I can warm my hands at.
I see I have already begun on Oreb, so let us take him next. He is smaller than a hen, though his wings are much longer. His feathers shine. His head, bill, and feet are red. He has a most disconcerting habit of leaving me suddenly, when he may be gone for a day, an hour, or (once) the better part of a year. I got him in the Long Sun Whorl before Hari Mau got me and put me on his lander.
To be more accurate, Oreb got me as they did, adopting me as his master and sometime confidant. If I did not feed him more than he feeds me, it might be difficult to say who owns whom.
* * *
He thought he had gone blind, then that it was death. He had failed to reach the Aureate Path--he would wander in this darkness forever, beset by devils.
Devils worse than the inhumi? Worse than men? He laughed aloud--madness. Madness; and to be mad was to be dead, as to be dead was to be mad, and to be dead and mad was to be blind.
His fingers met the rough bark of a tree, and he discovered for the second time that they were slippery with blood. There were oozing cuts in both his arms and both his wrists. Rummaging unfamiliar pockets he found prayer beads, spectacles, two cards, and at last a handkerchief still folded in a way that seemed to promise it was clean. He started a tear with his teeth, ripped the handkerchief in two, and bandaged his deepest cuts, making himself work slowly and carefully, tightening the clumsy knots with his free hand and his teeth.
Far off, a faint light shone. He stood up, blinked at it, and stared again. A light, a faint point of golden light. When Aster's house had been haunted by her dead child, Remora had laid the ghost with candles and sacred waters, and many long readings from the Writings, urging it between times to go the Short Sun.
So it was said in town, at least; and when he had asked about it, Remora had explained that ghosts, for the most part, did not realize they had died: "An, um, understandable? An innocent confusion, eh? They have never been dead before, hey? The, ah, we religious know. Generally. Informed, eh? Expected. No ghosts of, um, holy augurs, hey? Or, er, sibyls. Not--ah--unheard of. But few. Very few."
Remora walked beside him, speaking into his ear.
"We--ah--anticipate it. Some even pray that it may be hastened, so, er, desirous of the blessed companionship of the Nine. But the, um, ah..."
"Skeptics have assumed--no evidence, eh? Do you follow me here, Horn? Um, theorize that, er, dissolution? The kind embrace of High Hierax is an--ah--mere sleep. But without dreams. There is in, er, simple fact. No such thing."
"They will not, um, credit it. Because they do not, eh? In every case--ah--recollect their dreams. The, um, goddess of sleep, eh? Morphia. Aspect of Thelxiepeia. She has, um, sagaciously arranged that we--ah--dream? That we shall be subject, eh? Yes, subject. Subject to phantoms--"
He had stepped on something hard and round. He picked it up, and felt dry, dead bark drop off under the pressure of his questing fingers. A fallen branch.
No, Patera, he thought. No. I do not.
"No, um, slumber without dreams, so we may know that sleep is not the end. We who've given over countless, um, delightful hours to prayer are prepared. Know Hierax when he comes, eh? You are a, um, boatman? Sailor?"
Its twigs were weak and brittle, but the branch itself seemed stout enough.
"Steer by the stars, hey? Do you take my meaning, Horn? By the stars by, er, at the midnight hour, and by the sun, um, daylight. Just so. Not, um, myself. Not seaworthy, eh? But so I've been told. Sun, and stars."
He waved the stick before him, discovering a tree that might perhaps have been the same tree to his left and something spongy that was probably a bush to his right. The pinpoint of yellow light called out to him like the driftwood fires the fishermen's wives lit on the beach by night.
"Landmarks. This is, um, crucial, eh? Landmarks. We, um, I spoke of faith. Of hours spent at prayer. Not--ah--natural to a child, eh? You agree? Run about shouting. Play. Perfectly normal. Fidget in manteion, seen them scores of times. You likewise, doubtless."
Yes, Patera. Certainly.
The stick made it easier to walk, and he told himself that he was walking toward the Aureate Path, toward the spiritual reality of which the mere material Long Sun was a sort of bright shadow. He would go to Mainframe (although he had already been there) and meet gods.
"A child, therefore, clings? A child adheres to landmarks, places familial and familiar."
Hello, Molpe. My name is Horn, Marvelous Molpe, and to tell you the truth I ever paid much attention to you. I'm sorry for that now, Molpe, but I suppose it is too late. You were Musk's goddess. Musk liked birds, loved hawks and eagles and all such, and I didn't like Musk, or at least didn't like what others told me about him.
"Hug the shore, eh? These, um, departed? These children who have, um, attained to life's culmination early. The--ah--familiar house, um, rooms. Toy, eh? Even toys. We, er, prattle that they have lost their lives, hey? Said it myself. We all have, eh? Possibly they hope to find them again, like a lost doll. Sad, though. Tragic. Not like, um, exorcising devil, eh? Calde Silk, eh? Performed the-ah--exorcised. Wrote an, um, report. Some old place on Music Street. I--ah--saw it. His, um, report, that is."
You were the goddess of music too, Molpe. I ought to have remembered that. I could use a cheering song. And I have sung, Molpe. I really have, although I was not thinking specifically of you. Oh, Molpe! Please, Molpe, dear old Molpe, goddess of kites and childhood, doesn't that count for something?
The point of light had become a rectangle. Still very far, and still very small; but distinctly a rectangle. Which god had light? Molpe? Molpe had autumn leaves, vagrant scraps of paper, wild birds, clouds, and all the other light things. So why not light itself?
"Pas, eh? Solar god, er, sun god. Go toward the light, child, hey? Steer by the sun."
What about the stars, Patera? Was Pas the god of stars, too? No, he could not be, because the stars burned outside Pas's whorl.
Not just in manteion, Molpe--but I sang there every Scylsday as a boy.
Miraculous Molpe, wind-borne on high,
Reaches her realm to the lands of the sky.
Dance for us, Molpe! Sing in our trees,
Send us thy breath, the sweet, cooling...
The old hymn faded and was gone with his cracked and lonely voice. Tartaros was the god of night and dark places, Tartaros who had been Auk's friend, walking with Auk, his hand in Auk's. There was no god's hand in his own, nothing but the stick that he had picked up a moment before. Was there a stick god? A god of wood and tree? A god or goddess for carpenters and cabinetmakers? If there was any, he could not think of it.
Smoke. He stopped to sniff. Yes, wood smoke. Very faint, but wood smoke.
How hot it was!
He had tried to smoke and salt fish when they had first come to Lizard, and watched his fish spoil afterward, had gone at last, after humiliating himself more than once, to the fishermen and learned their secrets. The smell of wood smoke always reminded him of his failures, of eating the fish that even loyal Nettle would not eat and being violently ill for half a day afterward. It was the dryness, not the smoke (as he had thought), that preserved the fish from decay.
"Tartaros! Can you hear me, Tenebrious Tartaros? Are you listening?" When he had written about Auk, he had shown Tartaros replying instantly to such pleas as those; but here was no book, no story, and there was no answer at all.This grass-like stuff was wheat, presumably. Some sort of grain. They grew wheat, in that case, in the dark beyond the Aureate Path, the darkness of which the shade was a mere material shadow cooling the whorl, cooling even the breath of Molpe.
Hare had joined General Mint after Blood died, and had told them about the eagle and the old kite maker's praying to Molpe for a wind. The wind had come, he said. The wind, and winter, too. Winter at last, with snow to refresh fields as hot and dry as dead fish hanging over a fire.
How hard the wind had blown, and how bitterly, bitingly cold it had been when they had gone down into the tunnels!
Not like Green. No, not like Green at all.
The bomb had burst, and Hyacinth had feared that their horse had been killed. Hyacinth, freezing cold and a little dirty, so beautiful in the dim light and wind-driven snow that it had been hard to look at her. Nettle had been cheerful and brave; but Hyacinth had been lovely, always lovely and always finding new ways to be lovely even when she was exhausted or shrieking curses. Hyacinth had hated all men, had hated men in the aggregate, because of things that had been said to her and things she had been forced to do for money, humiliations worse than spoiled fish.
He had loved Nettle--Nettle, whose mother had hated her from the moment of conception, as the name she had given her had made only too plain--and had envied Patera Silk Hyacinth (lovely, savage Hyacinth) with all his heart.
He stumbled and fell, got up again, too weary to swear, and looked for the golden rectangle; but it had vanished. He was tired, he discovered. Weak and tired and light-headed, and what was the use? Sighing, he dropped to his knees, then stretched out upon the soft, half-grown grain.
If Hyacinth had indeed been his, he would never have gone to Blue, never have gone to Green, never have died on Green....
For the first time he admitted himself that he was truly dead, that he had died in the medical compartment of the pillaged lander he had struggled so desperately to repair. This was the whorl again, the Whorl in which he had been born, and this was the only afterlife he had been granted.
If he had somehow possessed Hyacinth, he would still be in the Long Sun Whorl. He had not possessed her, yet here he was, without the Long Sun.
His eyes shut of themselves, seeing no less shut than open; and the soft cold swirling snow of another day filled his mind, mocking the dry heat of black night.
Wings beat overhead, and a harsh voice called, "Silk? Silk? Silk?" But he did not reply.
* * *
The third member of our party is my daughter Jahlee. She is of medium height, red-haired and attractive, with a smooth almond-shaped face and a sly smile many find captivating. The white mule ishers; she wears a thick wool gown under a wide, warm, snow-cat coat that reaches to the ankles of her kid-skin boots. The cold makes her slow and sleepy just the same, and she fears-as I do myself-that she may freeze to death like my poor friend Fava.
Jahlee is talented, although it might be unwise for me to say exactly how. She slipped her hands from the bonds as soon as the bandits left us. She can free herself easily from all such restraints, and her big white mule tolerates her, although it is naturally somewhat fearful. Our horses panic if Jahlee rides too near-but perhaps I have said too much already.
About myself, there is less to tell. I am Horn, Hide's father and Jahlee's. I am taller than most, and thin, with a homely, bony sort of face and white hair as long and thick as a woman's. I wear sheepskin boots like Hide's, and a long sheepskin coat over the old dark robe in which I left Gaon.
Now you know all four of us, and I must get some rest.
* * *
We hoped to reach the coast today, but there is no sign of it. I asked Hide whether we would not be several days' ride north of New Viron when we reach the sea. He said a week's ride at least. No doubt he is correct, but I would have appreciated more optimism. Since it seems likely that we are north of New Viron, we will pass Lizard before we come to the town. We will pass it, but we cannot reach it without a boat. Much as I would like to see Nettle (and Hoof?), my mill, and the house, I have resigned myself to going to New Viron first, selling our horses and some of the loot, and buying a boat.
Hide and Jahlee are asleep. It worries me, because she sleeps so little, normally; but she is near the fire and as warm as I can make her, with two blankets under and three over her, and her big coat as well. Her face-
I have sent Oreb to look for the sea. He is not as skillful as I would like at estimating distance or gauging the difficulty of rivers, sloughs, and the like; still, he will be able to tell me something of value. Or so I hope. Jahlee might scout for us in warmer weather, and that would be better.
Tomorrow we must find someplace where we can buy more food. If I thought that Jahlee was as hungry as I am now, I would be afraid to sleep.
* * *
Hide woke me up to tell me about his dream. He thought it might be important, and perhaps it is. Now he is sleeping again, but I shall sit up until dawn. It would be dawn already if only the sky were clear.
"It was so strange, Father. I didn't know I was dreaming at all until it was over, and it was such a long dream."
I nodded. "People say that when you know you're dreaming you're practically awake."
"Then I wasn't, but I was wide awake the minute it was over, and that was just a minute ago. Maybe I shouldn't have tapped your shoulder like I did."
"It's rather too late to think of it now." I yawned and stretched, believing--then--that I would be able to go back to sleep quite quickly.
"Can I get you something? A drink or something? There's a lot of wine left."
I shook my head, and suggested that he tell his dream, since he had awakened me for that purpose.
"I was in this big, big house. Like a palace. I've never seen a real one, but like the Cald?'s Palace you and Mother talk about. Only it wasn't grand like that, it was more like a great big kitchen with lots of rooms. I know this sounds petty silly."
"Dream-like at least."
"And halls and pantries and things, and tables and chairs and a lot of big cabinets of some kind of light-colored wood, smooth and waxed but not, you know, carved or painted very much. Some of the chairs were upside down. I don't smell things in dreams much, but I could smell food all the time, like meat with lots of pepper in it boiling in a pot, and bread baking."
"That was because you were hungry," I said. "People who go to sleep hungry are apt to dream about food."
"I never saw any, but the smell was in the air all the time. I walked around...I don't know how to explain this."
"You need not try, in that case."
"I was younger. I couldn't be sure how old I used to be, but I knew I was younger in my dream."
"I'd like very much to have a dream like that."
"I was afraid I'd meet Hoof. I felt like he'd be mad at me for being younger, and he'd be bigger and stronger than I was. I walked a long way, and sometimes I'd see tall men with too many legs going into rooms, but I couldn't get the doors open, and mostly I didn't try. Sometimes they'd be waiting up against the wall where I couldn't see them good because there was a cupboard or something there, and I'd be afraid to look. You're making the little circles again, Father. What is it?"
"Nothing, perhaps. Did you ever get a good look at them?"
He shook his head.
"Did they have long noses?"
"I think so."
"I don't know. I didn't ever see their faces very well, but it wasn't anybody I knew. Or I don't think so."
"I understand. Did you look at your hands, Hide?"
"At my own hands? I don't think so."
"We seldom do. Or at least I don't look at mine often. Jahlee must watch hers a great deal more. When we killed the bandits I beat a man to death with my staff."
He nodded. "I remember."
"I didn't think you'd noticed. You were shooting."
"You had to do it, Father."
"No. No, I didn't, and I didn't intend to. It was only that I struck him, several times, I think, and he fell but he kept his grip on his knife. Then he started to rise, and I was afraid--desperately afraid, Horn--"
"I'm Hide, Father."
Although I blush to record it now, I only blinked and stared at him, wondering how I could possibly have made such a foolish error. Oreb saved me, landing on the ground at a point that put the fire between Jahlee and himself. "Big wet," he croaked self-importandy. "Bird find."
"Is it much farther?" Hide asked him.
"Bird find!" he repeated.
I told Hide, "He means that it is far for us but not for him. Is there a town, Oreb, where the land meets the sea?"
"I see. Are there any before that? One we might reach tomorrow, for example?"
I nodded. "Thank you very much indeed, Oreb. You've been very helpful."
He took wing.
"He's still afraid of Jahlee," I told Hide. "I don't believe he has
reason to be, but he is."
"So am I, a little. I mean, not on Green or that other place, but here."
I nodded again. "Was she in your dream?"
He shook his head.
"Was anyone, besides the tall men?"
"A little girl named Mora and another one. Do you remember Mora from back when we were staying at that farm Jahlee pretended was hers? You said you knew her before, and she talked like she knew you."
"This litde girl looked a lot like her, dark and pretty, you know? And she had a thing here on her cheek." Hide touched the middle of his own.
"They'd been playing with dolls. You know how girls do."
"They had a lot of dolls and toy dishes and a little table and chairs. The dark one wanted me to play with them, and I said all right, only not that. Then the otiier one said how about hide-and-seek? So I said all right. Then they said their dolls could play too, whoever was it could look for the dolls, too."
"I hid my eyes, you know how you do, and counted to a hundred. You wanted to know if I'd looked at my hands."
"Yes. Did you?"
"Uh-huh. I just thought of it, but I did then. I remember taking my hands down after I counted. They looked younger, too, just like the rest of me."
"Were you wearing a ring? Any jewelry at all?"
He shook his head.
"Do you remember the ring I found in the lander?"
"Sure. Only you gave it to Sinew, not me. I don't think I could have
taken it back with me."
"Neither do I. I simply wanted to know whether you remembered what it looked like."
"A white gold ring with a white stone."
I nodded, looked at my own hands, and picked up my staff, which had lain beside me while I slept. "I spoke of killing a man with this. I hadn't intended to kill him, but I was afraid he was going to kill us. I thought he might kill you or Jahlee, and kept hitting him as hard as I could; when the fighting had ended, I looked at him, and he was dead."
"It wasn't your fault, Father."
"Of course it was, and his as well. It was--it is--my fault that I killed him. It is his fault that I bear the guilt of killing him, because he gave me good reason to fear him. But if it could be proved that his death was neither his fault nor mine, it would not restore him to life."
"After the fighting was over, I noticed I had blood on my hands and realized that it was his. I washed them, and for a moment thought that I had lost the ring Seawrack gave me."
From a branch some distance from our fire, Oreb called, "Bird say. Say girl."
I looked up at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Say girl. Silk go. Go wet!" He flew, quickly vanishing in the dark sky; and Hide ventured, "Maybe he wants to tell Mother we're coming home."
"Perhaps he does. May I ask how your dream ended?"
"Well, I hid my eyes like I said, and after that I looked for a long, long time. Sometimes I saw those tall men. They would be standing still next to something else tall, like one of the cupboards or a big clock or something. But I knew they weren't playing and I wasn't supposed to see them at all, so I pretended I didn't, and went on looking."
"Did you find anyone?"
"Yeah. It took a long time, but I finally did. I opened this one big cabinet, and there was one of the dolls." He fell silent, his face troubled.
"I would think you would have been happy."
"I was. It was just a doll, though. Like a baby, only somebody had carved a face sort of like that one on your stick. Only this was a baby's face, and painted pink. Younger than Bala's baby. You couldn't even tell if it was a boy or a girl."
I said I doubted that it made any difference.
"I guess not. I took it and carried it like a real baby, and tried to go back to base. The place where I'd counted?"
"I understand. Could you find it?"
"Huh-uh. I looked and looked, only I couldn't find them. You know, the little table, and the chairs the dolls had been in. So finally I sat the doll down in a corner and said you're it. I explained about hiding eyes and counting, and looking for people, and then I ran away and hid. There was this great big long sofa with lots of legs, I don't know how many but eight or ten, maybe, and I got down on my stomach and crawled under it."
"There was a little girl hiding under there already. At first I thought it was the one with yellow hair, but it wasn't."
I nodded and said that I was delighted to hear it.
"Then I thought it was the other one, Mora. Only it wasn't her cither."
"Who was it?"
Hide looked troubled, and seemed unable to meet my eyes. "I don't know."
"Was that the end of your dream?"
"Almost. We didn't talk, just pushed up close and held on to each other. We were both scared."
"In a game of hide-and-seek? What were you afraid of?"
"Being found, I guess. I was in front and she was in back against the wall, and I wanted to say if she sees me I'll go out and be it, and they won't know about you. Only I didn't. And pretty soon I could hear the doll, walking slow and looking in all the cabinets. And then I woke up and woke you up."
"To ask what your dream meant."
He nodded. "Yeah."
"But there is something about your dream you aren't telling me. Who was the girl under the sofa?"
"I don't know."
"Have you told me everything you remember about her?"
"What did it mean, Father? Do you know?"
"I might guess, I suppose-but I have no intention of guessing until you're willing to tell me everything you remember about it. Are you?"
"I'll think about it," he said, and lay down.
* * *
The sea was to his left, cliffs of wet black rock topped with dark and lofty trees to his right. At times he climbed over tumbled stones and fallen trunks. At others, he walked stony beaches with water lapping at his boots. He had gone a long way already and felt he had a long way to go still, although he could not have said how far, or where he was going. A single bird swooped and wheeled over the sea; once it cried hoarsely and he stopped to look up at it, touched by some memory to which he could not put a name.
At last he saw a house, small and primitive, with walls of big timbers and a steep roof of wooden shingles that were curling now, warping from the sea's salt spray and the Short Sun's heat. He made for it, aware that in some fashion he had left the beach, that he was wading, or perhaps walking inland. There was sand under his feet as he approached the house, sand mixed with chips of bark. He tried to rid his boots of it before he went inside, kicking the step gently with his left foot, then his right. He stepped inside...
And was home. The table at which they had eaten was there, armless chairs for Nettle and himself, stools for the boys. When Marrow and the rest arrived to ask him to go back to the Whorl, there would not be chairs enough for all of them, and someone would carry out the heavy wooden storage box that he had built for winter clothes, and someone else would sit on that.
But Marrow and the rest had not yet come to ask him to go. There was a child asleep in a basket now, the old wicker basket Nettle had woven for herself before they left the farm that had been their share of Blue, the land given them for coming because everyone had wanted land and livestock, even those like themselves who had less than no idea what to do with it. The sleeping child was Sinew. He knew it before he saw its face, before he saw the small silver ring the child wore, or the white stone in the ring.
The inhuma came, a bent and haggard figure that was not a woman, in a gown contrived of yellowing rags. She recalled Jahlee. Had Jahlee come to Blue for the human blood she needed and returned to Green, then come to Blue again? How long had she starved under the stone in Gaon?
The inhuma bent to drink, and he turned his head away and found himself crouching on the sand beside an earlier Horn who was seated on a blanket beside Nettle. Her right hand was in his; with her left, she pointed to a fish jumping far away, invisible against the setting sun but leaving silver circles on the calm swell of the sea. The fear of another pregnancy hung over them both, invisible as the fish but more real.
Nettle said, "Did you ever see anything so beautiful?"
He whispered in Horn's ear. You.
"When we were on the airship...Do you remember? I went up there alone. Up on the roof of the gondola. I never told you."
"I would have come with you."
"I know. But you were still asleep, and anyway I wanted to do it by myself, just once. It was the day before we got back to Viron, I'm pretty sure."
"It must have been cold," the Horn beside her said.
And he, the walker beside the sea, knew that Horn was thinking of the winter not long past that would soon come again, and the donkey frozen in the little hut he had built for it, and himself standing over it with his knife thinking that there had been some mistake that it could not be real, the donkey had been so young, not yet a year old, and it could not be happening; but back in the log house on the beach Jahlee had drunk her fill. Her fangs had vanished. She had licked the child's face and neck, and had wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, a ragged, painfully thin figure with famished eyes who melted through the doorway and was gone.
"It was, but not as cold as it was in Viron down on the ground once we got there. You couldn't see much sun, because the airship was sailing down the sun."
"I remember," the Horn beside her said.
"Just the same, I knew when the shade started to go up. I could see it in my mind, and the first light came down like gold dust."
The Horn beside her may have spoken then. Or not. If he did, the walker beside the sea crouching next to him did not hear him. In a moment the sun will be down. The stars will come out, and the wind grow cold. Tou will go inside and find Sinew, and it will never be the same again. Clasp her to you now. Tell her you love her now, before it is too late.
It was desperately urgent that he speak--desperately urgent that he be heard and understood. He rolled his head from side to side on the soft, crushed stems of the wheat, conscious that no sound issued from his lips.
His eyes opened. He sat up. It had been so real, all of it; but a dream, only a dream, and it was black night still.
He should lie down again, sleep again; in the morning, the men would expect him to lead them against his son's village.
* * *
We have been riding downhill all day. Winter is milder here, although it is still wretchedly cold. All of us would like very much to get inside, even the horses and Jahlee's mule--to escape the cold and the wind, if only for an hour.
We met other travelers today, four merchants with their servants and pack animals. We were glad to see them; but they, I believe, were even more glad to see us, because they had quarreled and were eager to air their grievances. I
listened as long as I cold bear it and longer, reminding myself of all the foolish quarrels in which I myself have been involved, often as the instigator. It is educational as well as humiliating, to listen to others voicing complaints like our own. They were all thoroughly bad people of the type to which I myself belong--that is to say, bad people who are pleased to think themselves good.At last Jahlee threw back her hood, leveled a trembling finger at the one who had been speaking and demanded to know what they wanted us to do.
"To judge between us," said one man, who had spoken less than the others. I believe his name is Ziek.
I explained that it would be quite useless for me to judge unless they would obey me as a judge, and one by one they pledged themselves to do so. Scylla is their principal goddess, I found, just as she was ours in Viron. That being the case I made them swear by Scylla, and by the Outsider, and by whatever gods might still linger here on Blue, and because I saw that had impressed them, by the Vanished People themselves.
When they had done so, I said, "Hear my judgment. You have so embittered yourselves, and forsworn yourselves, and tangled yourselves among competing claims and allegations that no peace is possible among you. There is no need, however, for you to torment yourselves as you have been doing. Am I to assume that you are all going to the same place?"
They were, to a town on the coast called Dorp.
"Then my judgment is that you must go there separately. You," I pointed to the largest of them, a man called Nat who seemed to be the richest too, "are to leave at once. How many of these horses and mules are yours?"
He had sixteen.
"Take them and go. Travel as fast as you can. We will rest here for a time before we follow you. When we ride again, it will be with the blond man in front, the one with the red cap between my son and me, and this one [by which I meant Ziek] behind my daughter. In an hour or so, I will send him ahead just as I'm sending you. In another hour another, and so on."
Nat protested. "What if I'm robbed? One man alone can't resist."
"Of course he can. He may be killed, but that is the risk he runs when he quarrels with his friends. Have your drivers collect your animals and go."
"Man go," Oreb seconded me.
He looked at me for a few seconds that seemed much longer, his eyes blazing with hatred. "I won't!"
"Then arrest him," I told the other three. "You've sworn to do as I tell you. Drag him off his horse and throw him down."
He drew a needier, but I struck his wrist with my staff. We have him still, I regret to say, with a valet, two drivers, eight horses, and ten mules. I had intended to have Hide untie him and remove his gag tonight so that he could eat, but I was tired and Hide was busy unloading and unsaddling our own horses, and hobbling them, and I forgot. From his size and the redness of his face, a missed meal is more apt to help then harm him, I believe. It will be enough to feed him in the morning before we let him go.I am sleepy enough for two, but before I sleep I ought to say here that here we have four horses, not counting Jahlee's mule. That makes twenty-three animals, not counting Oreb, who seems to have gone exploring: Nat's mount, his valet's and his pack animals, my own mount and Hide's, the white mule, and two pack horses we took from the bandits, loaded with our scant baggage and some loot.