13 new stories about TESTING the bonds of fellowship on fantastical worlds
The bonds of friendship and fellowship are key to many fine fantasy and science fiction novels, most notably Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. Now top tale-spinners offer their own unique takes on fellowship in thirteen original stories, featuring a girl who finds her best friend through a portal to another world, an adventure on an alternate Earth where a not-quite Holmes and Watson take on a fascinating challenge, a group of urban mages playing the "True Game" for high stakes, a squire determined to help his master's ghost fulfill his final mission, and more. Together, these stories dramatically illustrate how fellowships can alter destiny and change worlds.
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January 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Fellowship Fantastic by Martin H. Greenberg
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
From Fellowship Fantastic (DAW Books)
Alanna and I have been together most of our lives. She is the beautiful one, and I am the worker; at least, that's how it looks to people who see us now. It is not how we began. I was a princess in a tower, and she was a drudge who worked for my father, tending all the machinery that kept me imprisoned and alive, and trained me in my terrible purpose.
All that changed when we found and ate the bondfruit.
We live more than half our lives beneath the surface now. Inside, we are all sorts of different people, and outside, we have tried on many different roles, but we also meld into one another as we share eyes and thoughts and conversation. Still, I am the one who doesn't mind work and is driven mad by music, and she is the one who makes plans and minds details.
Alanna laughs and thinks, Tell them your name, Ylva. You always forget the important things!
Very well. My name is Ylva Sif.
Gwelf Kinnowar, currently married to Alanna, is the fourth husband we have had between us, and when we first met him, we thought he was the best. He didn't argue when Alanna told him that to marry her, he had to accept me into his household. He has plenty of money, and let us use it; and, though we live with him in various residences on planets where oppressive social conditions hold, he gives us freedom from the prevailing mores in the privacy of his house, so long as Alanna acts the perfect ornamental wife in public.
The first time Gwelf slept with another woman after the wedding, we lost faith in him. He didn't betray us in any other way, though, so we stayed, even though in his travels he often slept with other women. The benefits of the marriage still outweigh the troubles, so we adjusted our hopes and attitudes and went on with our real job, which is rescuing people, as we ourselves have been rescued.
Alanna was in the balcony room looking out over Haladion, the planet where Gwelf's main residence was. Alanna and I loved the balcony room. The mansion was built into the side of a cliff, among a cluster of others, and below the cliff lay all the world: at the base, the market town, Risen, and beyond it, farmlands, with the spaceport to the west, ringed by businesses that catered to offworld travelers. Near the spaceport was the technomall for people who liked to shop for factory-made things in person.
Out beyond the farmlands lay the forest, with the Fang Mountains rising in the distance.
Alanna dialed controls on the focusing window and peered down at the central market square, where the servants of cliffside mansions bought fresh produce from the farmers. "Ripe sakal," she thought.
I was in the kitchen, a level below, checking our stores and making a list. I paused and styled sakal on my list. "Much?"
"Going fast," she thought. "Oh! Perberries! Only three pints left! At the SunGlo booth."
"On my way." I shut the list, grabbed a carrybag, and headed for the door. In the purification room, I dipped into the amber scent bowl and dabbed it at my wrists. I pulled on an outer robe and hooked my veil across my lower face, then coded through the privacy portal and entered the communal elevator bank. My pod opened a moment later onto the public access foyer to the outdoors at the base of the cliff. Others came and went in various pods.
Outdoors, the heat and scents and sounds were intense. Meat cooking, bread baking, the faint taint of scoot fuel, though no mechanized transport was allowed in the city core except float carts to carry home one's purchases. Voices called as people spoke to each other in person or at a distance.
I headed to the market. At the SunGlo booth, all the perberries the vendor had on display were gone, but she saw the sigil on my hood and smiled at me. As a farm worker, she wore no veil nor head covering; she was outside the life lived in houses, and only another farmer would look at her as a wife. So the people professed to believe, anyway. One heard stories.
"I knew you'd be by, Ser Sif," the vendor, Vigil, said, and reached under the table for a whole flat of perberries.
"Thank you, Vigil." I pressed my thumb to her pay pad without even discussing price. Sometimes it was worth paying extra.
"Oh, no! I wanted some of those," said a low voice to my left. I turned to see a stranger, her hood unmarked by house. Her eyes were large, dark, liquid, under narrow black brows, and she wore a very plain outer robe, dusty light blue with one line of white at the hem. Her veil was opaque, giving no hint of who she was beneath. "Someone at the clay booth said you had them," she said to Vigil, "and I so hoped."
"Maybe we can arrange something." I opened the compartment in the carrybag for fragile perishables and slid the flat in, activating the stasis field that would hold my berries safe.
Ask her who she works for, Alanna thought-whispered; she was present behind my eyes, as I was behind hers.
"Whose house are you affiliated with?" I asked.
The stranger's eyes looked frightened. "I can't say," she whispered.
"Come with me for coffee and I'll sell you some of my berries. Thanks again, Vigil."
"I have other shopping," said the stranger as I tugged her toward Kalenki's Tea House. They had rooms in the back where women could unveil.
"I'll help you with it when we've finished our talk. I can see you're a stranger here. I can show you all the best bargains." I raised my voice. "Kalenki!"
"Ser Sif." He smiled at me and twirled his waxed mustache. "The sandalwood room?"
He gestured us toward the back, and I led the stranger to my favorite room, its walls fretted with carved wood, its scent warm and spicy. It had a heavy curtain that almost muffled outside sound and kept those within private enough to speak in low voices without fear. I took the bug zapper from the pouch at my waist and scanned the room for hidden ears. None today.
I settled onto the pile of cushions covered in white and red satin stripes, leaving the blue and green cushions for my guest, with the low inlaid-wood table between us. She looked at me, and then at the cushions, and then at her slippered feet.
She doesn't know how to sit! Alanna thought. Who is she?
"Sister, hold your skirts gently and sink down onto your rear," I said.
She grasped her outer robe in both hands and let herself sit, teetering. Then she straightened and looked at me with great intensity.
"If you are here stealthily," I said, or Alanna said, "what is it you intend? How did you even find a sigilless robe?"
"I escaped from a ship," she whispered. "I was sold into marriage, and the ship was carrying me to my husband in all luxury. I had a library. I knew Haladion was our only stop, and I studied everything in memory about it. I made this robe myself." She straightened, glanced around the room, fixed on me, as though realizing she was being too direct. "You aren't police?"
Just then, Kalenki whistled a warning and came in to take our order. "A big pot of spiced coffee, Ser, if you please," I said, "with all shades of color for it. Some of the lace biscuits as well."
"Your wish, Ser," he said, with a head bob, and dropped the curtain again.
I turned to the stranger.
"No, assuredly I am not police, just curious. I will not betray you."
"How can I know that? Have I given too much of myself away already?" She pressed the heels of her palms to the sides of her head and groaned. "I am so stupid."
Kalenki whistled again. His assistant brought the tray of purification, with its two basins of warm water, two cloths, a bowl of powdered soap, and a second basin for rinsing; also the censer with its fragrant smoke, redolent of roses, through which we could pass our hands before we drank. Kalenki himself carried in the coffee tray and set it on the table.
"Thank you. You are gracious," I said, and pressed my thumb into the pay pad he presented, tapped a tip into the options screen.
"Always a pleasure to have you visit, Ser," he said and followed his assistant out.
After he left, I tied the curtain closed, then settled on my cushions. "There, they have gone and we may unveil without fear of men's eyes on us." I unhooked my veil. The stranger stared at my face as though it were a lifesaving liquid she could drink with her eyes. I wondered why. I had been to many worlds, and on most of them, I was considered ordinary. "I am Ylva Sif," I said.
She did not drop her veil or offer a name. Rudeness, but perhaps she did not realize.
I showed her how to cleanse her hands, then poured coffee for both of us. "Have you tried our coffee before?" I asked. She shook her head. I handed her a cup with room left for colors. "Here is cream. This is cinnamon. This is pepper, and this, clarified butter. This is caramel syrup, and this holds serenity, and here is agitation. This -- " I lifted a small spoonful of pale powder -- "is clear-eye." I sprinkled it over my own drink, added a dollop of cream and two lumps of dark sugar, stirred with a cinnamon-flavored stick. "Here are chocolate shavings. These are sweeteners -- sugar, rain sugar, invisible sugar, low-processed sugar, flowersweet. We consider coffee an art, one it takes time to master. You can start with something sweet and something white." I pushed the doctorments tray toward her and sat back to sip my own mixture.
Alanna was with me for the first sip. We both found that the best, and always shared. My mouth said, "Aah." I felt hers smiling too.
The stranger mixed cream and flowersweet into her coffee, lifted it toward her mouth, and encountered the dilemma I had presented her with. As a stranger, she did not know how to drop her hood over her face and drink below the veil, as one did in the presence of strange men. Finally she unhooked her veil and we saw her face. Alanna and I studied it closely. She was young, beautiful, tense. A small red flower hung on her left cheek beside her mouth, but whether birthmark, tattoo, or more temporary stain, I could not tell.
She had generous lips and a narrow nose, not at all native to Haladion, but we already knew that. Dark freckles sprinkled across her nose and upper cheeks. She took a cookie and gave us a chance to study her teeth; they were narrow and pointed. She wolfed the sweet, then took another and another. "Forgive me," she muttered. "I'm so hungry. I had only a few coins on me when I left the ship, and I dare not use my credit wand. I was about to buy food when I heard there were perberries here. They come from my world, and I haven't tasted them since I was a child."
"My manners," I said. I opened the carry-bag and drew out a pint of berries. "Please accept these as a gift."
Her skin paled, making her eyes look larger and darker than ever. Her freckles looked like fallen stars of night against a light sea. She nodded and reached for the berries, too anxious to be polite. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she whispered and plunged both hands into the little veneer box, scooped up a double handful of dark berries and pressed her face into them.
When she lifted her face from the berries, some of the small seeds clung to her face. The stain they left was the same color as the flower on her cheek. She selected one squashed berry and put it on her tongue, then leaned back with eyes closed. Her smile started small and widened.
"Oh," she said, "it is the taste of the milk wind in the night sky on a hot summer night on Challis. My sister and I gathered these berries by starlight. They glow crimson in the dark to summon the night birds, and us. We said we were gathering for our mother. We ended up eating most of what we found. The thorns scratched us, but the berries were worth the pain." She ate another berry, then another. "How can I taste my child-planet on this faraway place? How can that taste translate to another world?"
"You carry your home planet in your head," Alanna said with my mouth. "The taste triggers memory; it is not the true place."
The stranger lowered her hands. She looked toward the wall. "Challis is gone," she said, "cindered in the Fractals War. My sister died in the attack."
"And now you're here, on Haladion," I said, "running away--from what?"
"We lived in a refugee satellite for the past several years. We only had access to terminals a couple hours a day; I practiced my music, and my brother studied for exams. He is gifted. My mother sold me into marriage to give my younger brother passage to university," she said. "She told me my intended was a Paki Prince who would treat me like royalty, but I saw the ship's manifest. My husband is not even human. He is a toad, on Linkan, and he wants me to raise his status."
"Ah," I said. I had married a Linkan toad--my first and only marriage, which I contracted for so Alanna could get special training in cosmetology. "Those are hard to kill. Do you know his name?"
"I can't pronounce it," said the stranger. She tucked her hand into a fold in her robe, came up with a small mempad. A tap, and it displayed a word in Linkan script.
"Fimkim Ruggluff," I said. "Almost I remember that name."
"One of the ship's officers used to come talk to me. She said Linkans kept their wives in bubbles and invited other Linkans over to view them. She said I was cargo to live in a bubble."
"Yes," I said. "They stack up their wife bubbles for display and try to outbubble each other. Their status increases if they have varied wives from different species. Also, they feed you everything you most love. They like big women. The health plan is good. Electrocize, peak conditioning, key nutrients."
"What do the wives do all day?"
"Stare at stranger toads your husband brings to look at you. There's a bonus if you can look happy and excited. The occasional sexual congress, which is a bit cold and slimy but not actually painful. Not much conversation is necessary. You can listen to music and stories all day. It's not a hard life, and you will be let go the minute you get wrinkled. They give good parting gifts."
"How do you know so much about it?"
"Some of what I know is rumor, but I was a toad wife for a year."
"You don't look wrinkled."
I shrugged one shoulder. "My husband and I didn't suit. We had a semi-amicable parting, though." After my fourth serious attempt to dispose of my husband, he and I had had a very intense discussion, and he had finally set me free. Sometimes we still messaged each other. Alanna and I had gone back to him twice to pretend we were his trophy wives; he had paid us well. All in all, a more satisfactory outcome for the three of us.
"The officer told me that with a Linkan, there was no possibility of divorce."
"Who is this officer? She sounds unpleasant."
"I don't know her rank, only that she wore a uniform. Was she right? Is there no way I can divorce my toad husband?"
"I'm afraid she was right about that. They lose face if their wives leave them. I made an arrangement with my ex-husband to return when he really needs to show me off; all other times, he tells his rivals I am too precious a treasure to exhibit often. There are ways to work around problems like this. But you are already in debt to this Fimkim, and he won't let you go yet. You should at least meet him."
"But then I'll be trapped!"
"You are trapped wherever you go," I said, though Alanna and I had not found this to be true. We had double vision, special training and talents, and twice the hands and feet other human people possessed, so we never felt as helpless as this stranger appeared to. We had been trapped, together and apart, but we always worked with or toward each other, and we always escaped.
I said, "You have chosen to be trapped on Haladion, unless you'd rather return to your ship. Do you know what you want to do next?"
She shook her head.
Ask for her name, Alanna thought. You always forget the important things.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"I won't tell you," she said.
"Is it such an important name I'll recognize it? Hmm," I said, "I know you're from Challis. Who could you be?" Alanna, in the house above, asked the homeputer questions about who had been lost on Challis. Unfortunately, the planet's death had been sudden, and many were missing and presumed dead. The list of living refugees was much shorter. Alanna scanned pix of survivors in a stream so fast I couldn't watch what she was doing and see what was in front of me.
"You can call me Lennox," said the stranger. Alanna put that into her search, even though we knew it was not the stranger's real name.
"All right, Lennox. What will you do if you are not a wife?"
Lennox sipped coffee and did not answer.
Alanna thought, "Hey. Lennox is a street name in the capital city of Ponder. I've got some views of the planet before it was burned. I'm mapping now. Beh. Lennox is a very long street. I'm viewing along it. Business districts. No, wait, now I'm watching houses." I could see as Alanna watched, but it was distracting; she was viewing a swoop down the street at the same time as survivors' shocked faces streamed past on the left margin. I aimed my ringcam at Lennox and snapped a shot, sent it to the homeputer. It could cross-reference much faster than Alanna, though Alanna was faster than most other people.
The stream of pix of planet-lorn people slowed, reversed, stopped as the computer matched Lennox's face with one of the people in the datafile. Alanna focused on that instead of the pix of houses. Milla Lyan, the caption read; formerly of 455 South Lennox Street, relocated to orbital refugee camp, subsequently relocated to permanent resettlement on Linkan, attached to Fimkim Ruggluff; currently in transit.
Alanna spoke the address, and the homeputer showed again the dizzying rush of Lennox Street. The view slowed, stopped on a small, decrepit black house with two cloudy front windows and a round door. We moved in closer, peered past wads of window drapery to see the back of a girl, who sat at a console with several extended keyboards. She worked her hands and music came out of small speakers inset in metal flowers on the wall. I sat back, my eyes closed, listening to music so inviting I couldn't resist it. One of my faults or gifts was to be susceptible to music, sensitive to its nuances and effects. On occasion this had saved our lives. Other times it had almost doomed us.
There were messages in this music. It had strange overtones, and it pulsed as though it breathed. Though there were no words in it, there was enticing information encoded in melody, repeating promises. Just listen, it murmured, and you will learn things to make your life better. Here's a mystery that will save you from grief--
Fingers gripped my shoulder. "Ser? Are you all right?"
I startled, looked up at Lennox's worried face.
Alanna paused the playback, ran it faster so the audio wasn't so compelling, found a spot where the musician turned toward the window. Lennox's face looked at us.
"I'm sorry," I said, as I stared up into a face I was also seeing a younger version of through Alanna's eyes. "Have you decided who to become now that your world and your place in it are gone?"
She shook her head.
"A musician," I said.
She drew back. "What makes you say that?" she whispered.
"I'll explain if you come home with me."
Her head was shaking before I finished my invitation. "No."
"Your choice," I said. "I had better finish my shopping before my mistress's husband gets home. He likes supper ready when he arrives." I drank the rest of my coffee; still divine, though cool now. Then I washed in the second bowl of water and passed my hands through rose-scented smoke, and she copied my motions. I said, "Please. Enjoy the berries. I hope you find safe haven." I collected my carrybag.
"Ser," she said. She climbed to her feet, struggling a little to free herself from the grip of the cushions. "Wait."
I paused in the posture of one trapped by a single thread of obligation, a good pose for getting people to open up.
"You have been nothing but kind to me. I am frightened, though, and don't know where to trust."
"I understand. You're not the only one who's run from danger. You are right to be suspicious of strangers."
"If you would help me...." She twisted one hand in the other, reached up to fasten her veil across her lower face, hiding the flower on her cheek. "Why would you help me?"
"That is one of my callings." I thought of the tapestry of my and Alanna's past, woven to include a number of people we had rescued. The tapestry of the one who had rescued us intersected with our early history. He had moved on, leaving us with the charge of helping others, which meant threads of his life were woven with ours as ours continued. "If I do it correctly, it becomes your calling, too. Will you accept my help?"
She looked toward the curtain, with the wide world outside that she was a stranger to. She looked at me. I kept my face still.
"I will," she said. "Thank you."
I closed my eyes to let Alanna tell me what she thought. She thought, Good.
"The first thing I must do is give you a sigil," I said.
"A sign on my hood?"
"An affiliation. Will you join my household?"
"What obligations does such a choice give me?"
I frowned. "At this point, it is nothing more than a mark on your clothing. You can choose Kinnowar, my mistress's husband's clan name, or you can join the houseless--that's a spiral sign and means you are without affiliation. Little protection in that, but recognized status. Or you can go unveiled and uncovered in public, and proclaim your status as a country worker. Not a comfortable existence."
"I will accept your mark," she said.
I took four of the berries from her basket and made the mark of Gwelf's house on her hood in juice. It would wash out if she changed her mind.