The Queen of Air and Darkness
by Poul Anderson
The last glow of the last sunset would linger almost until midwinter. But there would be no more day, and the northlands rejoiced. Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steelflowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them in iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled. Between horizons the sky deepened from purple to sable. Both moons were aloft, nearly full, shining frosty on leaves and molten on waters. The shadows they made were blurred by an aurora, a great blowing curtain of light across half heaven. Behind it the earliest stars had come out.
A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. Their hair, which streamed halfway down their backs, showed startlingly forth, bleached as it was by summer. Their bodies, still dark from that season, merged with earth and bush and rock, for they wore only garlands. He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Outlings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.
His notes piped cold around her voice:
“Cast a spell, weave it well of dust and dew and night and you.”
A brook by the grave mound, carrying moonlight down to a hill-hidden river, answered with its rapids. A flock of hellbats passed black beneath the aurora.
A shape came bounding over Cloudmoor. It had two arms and two legs, but the legs were long and claw-footed and feather covered it to the end of a tail and broad wings. The face was half, human, dominated by its eyes. Had Ayoch been able to standwholly erect, he would have reached to the boy’s shoulder.
The girl rose. “He carries a burden,” she said. Her vision was not meant for twilight like that of a northland creature born, but she had learned how to use every sign her senses gave her. Besides the fact that ordinarily a pook would fly, there was a heaviness to his haste.
“And he comes from the south.” Excitement jumped in the boy, sudden as a green flame that went across the constellation Lyrth. He sped down the mound. “Oho!, Ayoch!” he called. “Me here, Mistherd!”
“And Shadow-of-a-Dream,” the girl laughed, following.
The pook halted. He breathed louder than the soughing in the growth around him. A smell of bruised yerba lifted where he stood.
“Well met in winterbirth,” he whistled. “You can help me bring this to Carheddin.”
He held out what he bore. His eyes were yellow lanterns above. It moved and whimpered.
“Why, a child,” Mistherd said.
“Even as you were, my son, even as you were. Ho, ho, what a snatchl” Ayoch boasted. “They were a score in yon camp by Fallowwood, armed, and besides watcher engines they had big ugly dogs aprowl while they slept. I came from above, however, having spied on them till I knew that a handful of dazedust would quiet them.”
“The poor thing.” Shadow-of-a-Dream took the boy and held him to her small breasts. “So full of sleep yet, aren’t you?” Blindly, he sought a nipple.
She smiled through the veil of her-hair. “No, I am still too young, and you already too old. But come, when you wake in Carheddin under the mountain, you shall feast.”
“Yo-ah,” said Ayoch very softly. “She is abroad and has heard and seen. She comes.” He crouched down, wings folded. After a moment Mistherd knelt, and then Shadow-of-a-Dream, though she did not let go the child.
The Queen’s tall form blocked off the moons. For a while she regarded the three and their booty. Hill and moor sounds withdrew from their awareness until it seemed they could hear the northlights hiss.
At last Ayoch whispered, “Have I done well, Starmother?”
“If you stole a babe from a camp full of engines,” said the beautiful voice, “then they were folk out of the far south who may not endure it as meekly as yeomen.”
“But what can they do, Snowmaker?” the pook asked. “How can they track us?”
Mistherd lifted his head and spoke in pride. “Also, now they too have felt the awe of us.”
“And he is a cuddly dear,” Shadow-of-a-Dream said. “And we need more like him, do we not, Lady Sky?”
“It had to happen in some twilight,” agreed she who stood above. “Take him onward and care for him. By this sign,” which she made, “is he claimed for the Dwellers.”
Their joy was freed. Ayoch cartwheeled over the ground till he reached a shiverleaf. There he swarmed up the trunk and out on a limb, perched half hidden by unrestful pale foliage, and crowed.
Boy and girl bore the child toward Carheddin at an easy distance-devouring lope which let him pipe and her sing:
Wing on the wind
high over heaven,
rush with the rainspears,
tumble through tumult,
drift to the moonhoar trees
and the dream-heavy shadows beneath them,
and rock in, be one with the clinking wavelets of lakes
where the starbeams drown.”
* * *
As she entered, Barbro Cullen felt, through all grief and fury, stabbed by dismay. The room was unkempt. Journals, tapes, reels, codices, file boxes, bescribbled papers were piled on every table. Dust filmed most shelves and corners. Against one wall stood a laboratory setup, microscope and analytical equipment. She recognized it as compact and efficient, but it was not what you would expect in an office, and it gave the air a faint chemical reek. The rug was threadbare, the furniture shabby.
This was her final chance?
Then Eric Sherrinford approached. “Good day, Mrs. Cullen,” he said. His tone was crisp, his handclasp firm. His faded gripsuit didn’t bother her. She wasn’t inclined to fuss about her own appearance except on special occasions. (And would she ever again have one, unless she got back Jimmy?) What she observed was a cat’s personal neatness.
A smile radiated in crow’s feet from his eyes. “Forgive my bachelor housekeeping. On Beowulf we have—we had, at any rate—machines for that, so I never acquired the habit myself, and I don’t want a hireling disarranging my tools. More convenient to work out of my apartment than keep a separate office. Won’t you be seated?”
“No, thanks. I couldn’t,” she mumbled.
“I understand. But if you’ll excuse me, I function best in a relaxed position.”
He jackknifed into a lounger. One long shank crossed the other knee. He drew forth a pipe and stuffed it from a pouch. Barbro wondered why he took tobacco in so ancient a way. Wasn’t Beowulf supposed to have the up-to-date equipment that they still couldn’t afford to build on Roland? Well, of course old customs might survive anyhow. They generally did in colonies, she remembered reading. People had moved starward in the hope of preserving such outmoded things as their mother tongues or constitutional government or rational-technological civilization…
Sherrinford pulled her up from the confusion of her weariness. “You must give me the details of your case, Mrs. Cullen. You’ve simply told me your son was kidnapped and your local constabulary did nothing. Otherwise, I know just a few obvious facts, such as your being widowed rather than divorced; and you’re the daughter of outwayers in Olga lvanoff Land who, nevertheless, kept in close telecommunication with Christmas Landing; and you’re trained in one of the biological professions; and you had several years’ hiatus in field work until recently you started again.”
She gaped at the high-cheeked, beak-nosed, black-haired and gray-eyed countenance. His lighter made a scrit and a flare which seemed to fill the room. Quietness dwelt on this height above the city, and winter dusk was seeping through the windows. “How in cosmos do you know that?”
she heard herself exclaim.
He shrugged and fell into the lecturer’s manner for which he was notorious. “My work depends on noticing details and fitting them together. In more than a hundred years on Roland, tending to cluster according to their origins and thought habits, people have developed regional accents. You have a trace of the Olgan burr, but you nasalize your vowels in the style of this area, though you live in Portolondon—that suggests steady childhood exposure to metropolitan speech. You were part of Matsuyama’s expedition, you told me, and took your boy along. They wouldn’t have allowed any ordinary technician to do that; hence, you had to be valuable enough to get away with it. The team was conducting ecological research; therefore, you must be in the life sciences. For the same reason, you must have had previous field experience. But your skin is fair, showing none of the leatheriness one gets from prolonged exposure to this sun. Accordingly, you must have been mostly indoors for a good while before you went on your ill-fated trip. As for widowhood-you never mentioned a husband to me, but you have had a man whom you thought so highly of that you still wear both the wedding and the engagement ring he gave you.”
Her sight blurred and stung. The last of those words had brought Tim back, huge, ruddy, laughterful and gentle. She must turn from this other person and stare outward. “Yes,” she achieved saying, “you’re right.”
The apartment occupied a hilltop above Christmas Landing Beneath it the city dropped away in walls, roofs, archaistic chimneys and lamplit streets, goblin lights of human-piloted vehicles, to the harbor, the sweep of Venture Bay, ships bound to and from the Sunward Islands and remoter regions of the Boreal Ocean, which glimmered like mercury in the afterglow of Charlemagne. Oliver was swinging rapidly higher, a mottled orange disc a full degree wide; closer to the zenith which it could never reach, it would shine the color of ice. Alde, half the seeming size, was a thin slow crescent near Sirius, which she remembered was near Sol, but you couldn’t see Sol without a telescope.
“Yes,” she said around the pain in her throat, “my husband is about four years dead. I was carrying our first child when he was killed by a stampeding monocerus. We’d been married three years before. Met while we were both at the University—’casts from School Central can only supply a basic education, you know—we founded our own team to do ecological studies under contract, you know, can a certain area be settled while maintaining a balance of nature, what crops will grow, what hazards, that sort of question. Well, afterward I did lab work for a fisher co-op in Portolondon. But the monotony, the… shut-in-ness… was eating me away. Professor Matsuyama offered me a position on the team he was organizing to examine Commissioner Hauch Land. I thought, God help me, I thought Jimmy—Tim wanted him named James, once the tests showed it’d be a boy, after his own father and because of ‘Timmy and Jimmy’ and-oh, I thought Jimmy could safely come along. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind for months, not at his age. We could make sure he’d never wander out of camp. What could hurt him inside it? I had never believed those stories about the Outlings stealing human children. I supposed parents were trying to hide from themselves the fact they’d been careless, they’d let a kid get lost in the woods or attacked by a pack of satans or—Well, I learned better, Mr. Sherrinford. The guard robots were evaded and the dogs were drugged and when I woke, Jimmy was gone.”
He regarded her through the smoke from his pipe. Barbro Engdahl Cullen was a big woman of thirty or so (Rolandic years, he reminded himself, ninety-five percent of Terrestrial, not the same as Beowulfan years), broad-shouldered, long-legged, full-breasted, supple of stride; her face was wide, straight nose, straightforward hazel eyes, heavy but mobile mouth; her hair was reddish-brown, cropped below the ears, her voice husky, her garment a plain street robe. To still the writhing of her fingers, he asked skeptically, “Do you now believe in the Outlings?”
“No. I’m just not so sure as I was.” She swung about with half a glare for him. “And we have found traces.”
“Bits of fossils,” he nodded. “A few artifacts of a neolithic sort. But apparently ancient, as if the makers died ages ago. Intensive search has failed to turn up any real evidence for their survival.”
“How intensive can search be, in a summer-stormy, wintergloomy wilderness around the North Pole?” she demanded. “When we are, how many, a million people on an entire planet, half of us crowded into this one city?”
“And the rest crowding this one habitable continent,” he pointed out.
“Arctica covers five million square kilometers,” she flung back. “The Arctic Zone proper covers a fourth of it. We haven’t the industrial base to establish satellite monitor stations, build aircraft we can trust in those parts, drive roads through the damned darklands and establish permanent bases and get to know them and tame them. Good Christ, generations of lonely outwaymen told stories about Graymantle, and the beast was never seen by a proper scientist till last year!”
“Still, you continue to doubt the reality of the Outlings?”
“Well, what about a secret cult among humans, born of isolation and ignorance, lairing in the wilderness, stealing children when they can for—” She swallowed. Her head dropped. “But you’re supposed to be the expert.”
“From what you told me over the visiphone, the Portolondon constabulary questions the accuracy of the report your group made, thinks the lot of you were hysterical, claims you must have omitted a due precaution, and the child toddled away and was lost beyond your finding.”
His dry words pried the horror out of her. Flushing, she snapped, “Like any settler’s kid? No. I didn’t simply yell. I consulted Data Retrieval. A few too many such cases are recorded for accident to be a very plausible explanation. And shall we totally ignore the frightened stories about reappearances? But when I went back to the constabulary with my facts, they brushed me off. I suspect that was not entirely because they’re undermanned. I think they’re afraid too. They’re recruited from country boys, and… Portolondon lies near the edge of the unknown.”
Her energy faded. “Roland hasn’t got any central police force,” she finished drably. “You’re my last hope.”
The man puffed smoke into twilight, with which it blent, before he said in a kindlier voice than hitherto: “Please don’t make it a high hope, Mrs. Cullen. I’m the solitary private investigator on this world, having no resources beyond myself, and a newcomer to boot.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Twelve years. Barely time to get a little familiarity with the relatively civilized coastlands. You settlers of a century or more—what do you, even, know about Arctica’s interior?” Sherrinford sighed. “I’ll take the case, charging no more than I must, mainly for the sake of the experience,” he said. “But only if you’ll be my guide and assistant, however painful it will be for you.”
“Of course! I dreaded waiting idle. Why me, though?”
“Hiring someone else as well qualified would be prohibitively expensive, on a pioneer planet where every hand has a thousand urgent tasks to do. Besides, you have a motive. And I’ll need that. I, who was born on another world altogether strange to this one, itself altogether strange to Mother Earth, I am too dauntingly aware of how handicapped we are.”
Night gathered upon Christmas Landing. The air stayed mild, but glimmer-lit tendrils of fog, sneaking through the streets, had a cold look, and colder yet was the aurora where it shuddered between the moons. The woman drew closer to the man in this darkening room, surely not aware that she did, until he switched on a Auoropanel. The same knowledge of Roland’s aloneness was in both of them.
One light-year is not much as galactic distances go. You could walk it in about 270 million years, beginning at the middle of the Permian Era, when dinosaurs belonged to the remote future, and continuing to the present day when spaceships cross even greater reaches. But stars in our neighborhood average some nine light-years apart, and barely one percent of them have planets which are man-habitable, and speeds are limited to less than that of radiation. Scant help is given by relativistic time contraction and suspended animation en-route. These make the journeys seem short, but history meanwhile does not stop at home.
Thus voyages from sun to sun will always be few. Colonists will be those who have extremely special reasons for going. They will take along germ plasm for exogenetic cultivation of domestic plants and animals-and of human infants, in order that population can grow fast enough to escape death through genetic drift. After all, they cannot rely on further immigration. Two or three times a century, a ship may call from some other colony. (Not from Earth. Earth has long ago sunk into alien concerns.) Its place of origin will be an old settlement. The young ones are in no position to build and man interstellar vessels.
Their very survival, let alone their eventual modernization, is in doubt. The founding fathers have had to take what they could get in a universe not especially designed for man.
Consider, for example, Roland. It is among the rare happy finds, a world where humans can live, breathe, eat the food, drink the water, walk unclad if they choose, sow their crops, pasture their beasts, dig their mines, erect their homes, raise their children and grandchildren. It is worth crossing three-quarters of a light-century to preserve certain dear values and strike new roots into the soil of Roland.
But the star Charlemagne is of type F9, forty percent brighter than Sol, brighter still in the treacherous ultraviolet and wilder still in the wind of charged particles that seethes from it. The planet has an eccentric orbit. In the middle of the short but furious northern summer, which includes periastron, total insolation is more than double what Earth gets; in the depth of the long northern winter, it is barely less than Terrestrial average.
Native life is abundant everywhere. But lacking elaborate machinery, not yet economically possible to construct for more than a few specialists, man can only endure the high latitudes. A ten-degree axial tilt, together with the orbit, means that the northern part of the Arctican continent spends half its year in unbroken sunlessness.
Around the South Pole lies an empty ocean.
Other differences from Earth might superficially seem more important. Roland has two moons, small but close, to evoke clashing tides. It rotates once in thirty-two hours, which is endlessly, subtly disturbing to organisms evolved through gigayears of a quicker rhythm. The weather patterns are altogether unterrestrial. The globe is a mere 9500 kilometers in diameter; its surface gravity is 0.42 X 980 cm/sect; the sea level air pressure is slightly above one Earth atmosphere. (For actually Earth is the freak, and man exists because a cosmic accident blew away most of the gas that a body its size ought to have kept, as Venus has done.)
However, Homo can truly be called sapiens when he practices his specialty of being unspecialized. His repeated attempts to freeze himself into an all-answering pattern or culture or ideology, or whatever he has named it, have repeatedly brought ruin. Give him the pragmatic business of making his living, and he will usually do rather well. He adapts, within broad limits.
These limits are set by such factors as his need for sunlight and his being, necessarily and forever, a part of the life that surrounds him and a creature of the spirit within.
* * *
Portolondon thrust docks, boats, machinery, warehouses into the Gulf of Polaris. Behind them huddled the dwellings of its five thousand permanent inhabitants: concrete walls, storm shutters, high-peaked tile roofs. The gaiety of their paint looked forlorn amidst lamps; this town lay past the Arctic Circle.
Nevertheless Sherrinford remarked, “Cheerful place, eh? The kind of thing I came to Roland looking for.”
Barbro made no reply. The days in Christmas Landing, while he made his preparations, had drained her. Gazing out the dome of the taxi that was whirring them downtown from the hydrofoil that brought them, she supposed he meant the lushness of forest and meadows along the road, brilliant hues and phosphorescence of flowers in gardens, clamor of wings overhead. Unlike Terrestrial flora in cold climates, Arctican vegetation spends every, daylit hour in frantic growth and energy storage. Not till summer’s fever gives place to gentle winter does it bloom and fruit; and estivating animals rise from their dens and migratory birds come home.
The view was lovely, she had to admit: beyond the trees, a spaciousness climbing toward remote heights, silvery-gray under a moon, an aurora, the diffuse radiance from a sun just below the horizon.
Beautiful as a hunting satan, she thought, and as terrible. That wilderness had stolen Jimmy. She wondered it she would at least be given to find his little bones and take them to his father.
Abruptly she realized that she and Sherrinford were at their hotel and that he had been speaking of the town. Since it was next in size after the capital, he must have visited here often before. The streets were crowded and noisy; signs flickered, music blared from shops, taverns, restaurants, sports centers, dance halls; vehicles were jammed down to molasses speed; the several-stories-high office buildings stood aglow. Portolondon linked an enormous hinterland to the outside world. Down the Gloria River came timber rafts, ores, harvest of farms whose owners were slowly making Rolandic life serve them, meat and ivory and furs gathered by rangers in the mountains beyond Troll Scarp. In from the sea came coastwise freighters, the fishing fleet, produce of the Sunward Islands, plunder of whole continents further south where bold men adventured. It clanged in Portolondon, laughed, blustered, swaggered, connived, robbed, preached, guzzled, swilled, toiled, dreamed, lusted, built, destroyed, died, was born, was happy, angry, sorrowful, greedy, vulgar, loving, ambitious, human. Neither the sun’s blaze elsewhere nor the half year’s twilight here—wholly night around midwinter—was going to stay man’s hand.
Or so everybody said.
Everybody except those who had settled in the darklands. Barbro used to take for granted that they were evolving curious customs, legends and superstitions, which would die when the Outway had been completely mapped and controlled. Of late, she had wondered. Perhaps Sherrinford’s hints, about a change in his own attitude brought about by his preliminary research; were responsible.
Or perhaps she just needed something to think about besides how Jimmy, the day before he went, when she asked him whether he wanted rye or French bread for a sandwich, answered in great solemnity—he was becoming interested in the alphabet “I’ll have a slice of what we people call the F bread.”
She scarcely noticed getting out of the taxi, registering, being conducted to a primitively furnished room. But after she unpacked, she remembered Sherrinford had suggested a confidential conference. She went down the hall and knocked on his door. Her knuckles sounded less loud than her heart.
He opened the door, finger on lips, and gestured her toward a corner. Her temper bristled until she saw the image of Chief Constable Dawson in the visiphone. Sherrinford must have chimed him up and must have a reason to keep her out of scanner range. She found a chair and watched, nails digging into knees.
The detective’s lean length refolded itself. “Pardon the interruption,” he said. “A man mistook the number. Drunk, by the indications.”
Dawson chuckled. “We get plenty of those.” Barbro recalled his fondness for gabbing. He tugged the beard which he affected, as if he were an outwayer instead of a townsman. “No harm in them as a rule. They only have a lot of voltage to discharge, after weeks or months in the backlands.”
“I’ve gathered that that environment—foreign in a million major and minor ways to the one that created man—I’ve gathered that it does do odd things to the personality.” Sherrinford tamped his pipe. “Of course, you know my practice has been confined to urban and suburban areas. Isolated garths seldom need private investigators. Now that situation appears to have changed. I called to ask you for advice.”
“Glad to help,” Dawson said. “I’ve not forgotten what you did for us in the the Tahoe murder case.” Cautiously: “Better explain your problem first.”
Sherrinford struck fire. The smoke that followed cut through the green Odors—even here, a paved pair of kilometers from the nearest woods—that drifted past traffic rumble through a crepuscular window. “This is more a scientific mission than a search for an absconding debtor or an industrial spy,” he drawled. “I’m looking into two possibilities: that an organization, criminal or religious or whatever, has long been active and steals infants; or that the Outlings of folklore are real.”
“Huh?” On Dawson’s face Barbro read as much dismay as surprise. “You can’t be serious!”
“Can’t I?” Sherrinford smiled. “Several generations’ worth of reports shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Especially not when they become more frequent and consistent in the course of time, not less. Nor can we ignore the documented loss of babies and small children, amounting by now to over a hundred, and never a trace found afterward. Nor the finds which demonstrate that an intelligent species once inhabited Arctica and may still haunt the interior.”
Dawson leaned forward as if to climb out of the screen. “Who engaged you?” he demanded. “That Cullen woman? We were sorry for her, naturally, but she wasn’t making sense, and when she got downright abusive—”
“Didn’t her companions, reputable scientists, confirm her story?”
“No story to confirm. Look, they had the place ringed with detectors and alarms, and they kept mastiffs. Standard procedure in country where a hungry sauroid or whatever might happen by Nothing could’ve entered unbeknownst.”
“On the ground. How about a flyer landing in the middle of camp?”
“A man in a copter rig would’ve roused everybody.”
“A winged being might be quieter.”
“A living flyer that could lift a three-year-old boy? Doesn’t exist.”
“Isn’t in the scientific literature, you mean, Constable. Remember Graymantle; remember how little we know about Roland, a planet, an entire world. Such birds do exist on Beowulf—and on Rustum, I’ve read. I made a calculation from the local ratio of air density to gravity, and, yes, it’s marginally possible here too. The child could have been carried off for a short distance before wing muscles were exhausted and the creature must descend.”
Dawson snorted. “First it landed and walked into the tent where mother and boy were asleep. Then it walked away, toting him, after it couldn’t fly further. Does that sound like a bird of prey? And the victim didn’t cry out, the dogs didn’t bark!”
“As a matter of fact,” Sherrinford said, “those inconsistencies are the most interesting and convincing features of the whole account. You’re right, it’s hard to see how a human kidnapper could get in undetected, and an eagle type of creature wouldn’t operate in that fashion. But none of this applies to a winged intelligent being. The boy could have been drugged. Certainly the dogs showed signs of having been.”
“The dogs showed signs of having overslept. Nothing had disturbed them. The kid wandering by wouldn’t do so. We don’t need to assume one damn thing except, first, that he got restless and, second, that the alarms were a bit sloppily rigged-seeing as how no danger was expected from inside camp-and let him pass out. And, third, I hate to speak this way, but we must assume the poor tyke starved or was killed.”
Dawson paused before adding: “If we had more staff, we could have given the affair more time. And would have, of course. We did make an aerial sweep, which risked the lives of the pilots, using instruments which would’ve sported the kid anywhere in a fifty-kilometer radius, unless he was dead. You know how sensitive thermal analyzers are. We drew a complete blank. We have more important jobs than to hunt for the scattered pieces of a corpse.”
He finished brusquely. “If Mrs. Cullen’s hired you, my advice is you find an excuse to quit. Better for her, too. She’s got to come to terms with reality.”
Barbro checked a shout by biting her tongue.
“Oh, this is merely the latest disappearance of the series,” Sherrinford said. She didn’t understand how he could maintain his easy tone when Jimmy was lost. “More thoroughly recorded than any before, thus more suggestive. Usually an outwayer family has given a tearful but undetailed account of their child who vanished and must have been stolen by the Old Folk. Sometimes, years later, they’d tell about glimpses of what they swore must have been the grown child, not really human any longer, flitting past in murk or peering through, a window or working mischief upon them. As you say, neither the authorities nor the scientists have had personnel or resources to mount a proper investigation. But as I say, the matter appears to be worth investigating. Maybe a private party like myself can contribute.”
“Listen, most of us constables grew up in the outway. We don’t just ride patrol and answer emergency calls; we go back there for holidays and reunions. If any gang of… of human sacrificers was around, we’d know.”
“I realize that. I also realize that the people you came from have a widespread and deep-seated belief in nonhuman beings with supernatural powers. Many actually go through rites and make offerings to propitiate them.”
“I know what you’re leading up to,” Dawson fleered. “I’ve heard it before, from a hundred sensationalists. The aborigines are the Outlings. I thought better of you. Surely you’ve visited a museum or three, surely you’ve read literature from planets which do have natives—or damn and blast, haven’t you ever applied that logic of yours?”
He wagged a finger. “Think,” he said. “What have we in fact discovered? A few pieces of worked stone; a few megaliths that might be artificial; scratchings on rock that seem to show plants and animals, though not the way any human culture would ever have shown them; traces of fires and broken bones; other fragments of bone that seem as if they might’ve belonged to thinking creatures, as if they might’ve been inside fingers or around big brains. If so, however, the owners looked nothing like men. Or angels, for that matter. Nothing! The most anthropoid reconstruction I’ve seen shows a kind of two-legged crocagator.
“Wait, let me finish. The stories about the Outlings—oh, I’ve heard them too, plenty of them. I believed them when I was a kid—the stories tell how there’re different kinds, some winged, some not, some half human, some completely human except maybe for being too handsome—It’s fairyland from ancient Earth all over again. Isn’t it? I got interested once and dug into the Heritage Library microfiles, and be damned if I didn’t find almost the identical yarns, told by peasants centuries before spaceflight.
“None of it squares with the scanty relics we have, if they are relics, or with the fact that no area the size of Arctica could spawn a dozen different intelligent species, or… hellfire, man, with the way your common sense tells you aborigines would behave when humans arrived!”
Sherrinford nodded. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I’m less sure than you that the common sense of nonhuman beings is precisely like our own. I’ve seen so much variation within mankind. But, granted, your arguments are strong. Roland’s too few scientists have more pressing tasks than tracking down the origins of what is, as you put it, a revived medieval superstition.”
He cradled his pipe bowl in both hands and peered into the tiny hearth of it. “Perhaps what interests me most,” he said softly, “is why—across that gap of centuries, across a barrier of machine civilization and its utterly antagonistic world view—no continuity of tradition whatsoever—why have hardheaded, technologically organized, reasonably well-educated colonists here brought back from its grave a belief in the Old Folk’”
“I suppose eventually, if the University ever does develop the psychology department they keep talking about, I suppose eventually somebody will get a thesis out of your question.” Dawson spoke in a jagged voice, and he gulped when Sherrinford replied:
“I propose to begin now. In Commissioner Hauch Land, since that’s where the latest incident occurred. Where can I rent a vehicle?”
“Uh, might be hard to do—”
“Come, come. Tenderfoot or not, I know better. In an economy of scarcity, few people own heavy equipment. But since it’s needed, it can always be rented. I want a camper bus with a ground-effect drive suitable for every kind of terrain. And I want certain equipment installed which I’ve brought along, and the top canopy section replaced by a gun turret controllable from the driver’s seat. But I’ll supply the weapons. Besides rifles and pistols of my own, I’ve arranged to borrow some artillery from Christmas Landing’s police arsenal.”
“Hoy? Are you genuinely intending to make ready for… a war… against a myth?”
“Let’s say I’m taking out insurance, which isn’t terribly expensive, against a remote possibility. Now, besides the bus, what about a light aircraft carried piggyback for use in surveys?”
“No.” Dawson sounded more positive than hitherto. “That’s asking for disaster. We can have you flown to a base camp in a large plane when the weather report’s exactly right. But the pilot will have to fly back at once, before the weather turns wrong again. Meteorology’s underdeveloped on Roland; the air’s especially treacherous this time of year, and we’re not tooled up to produce aircraft that can outlive every surprise.” He drew breath. “Have you no idea of how fast a whirly-whirly can hit, or what size hailstones might strike from a clear sky, or—Once you’re there, man, you stick to the ground.” He hesitated. “That’s an important reason our information is so scanty about the outway and its settlers are so isolated.”
Sherrinford laughed ruefully. “Well, I suppose if details are what I’m after, I must creep along anyway.”
“You’ll waste a lot of time,” Dawson said. “Not to mention your client’s money. Listen, I can’t forbid you to chase shadows, but—”
The discussion went on for almost an hour. When the screen finally blanked, Sherrinford rose, stretched and walked toward Barbro. She noticed anew his peculiar gait. He had come from a planet with a fourth again of Earth’s gravitational drag, to one where weight was less than half Terrestrial. She wondered if he had flying dreams.
“I apologize for shuffling you off like that,” he said. “I didn’t expect to reach him at once. He was quite truthful about how busy he is. But having made contact, I didn’t want to remind him overmuch of you. He can dismiss my project as a futile fantasy which I’ll soon give up. But he might have frozen completely, might even have put up obstacles before us, if he’d realized through you how determined we are.”
“Why should he care?” she asked in her bitterness.
“Fear of consequences, the worse because it is unadmitted fear of consequences, the more terrifying because they are unguessable.” Sherrinford’s gaze went to the screen, and thence out the window to the aurora pulsing in glacial blue and white immensely far overhead. “I suppose you saw I was talking to a frightened man. Down underneath his conventionality and scoffing, he believes in the Outlings-oh, yes, he believes.”
* * *
The feet of Mistherd flew over yerba and outpaced windblown driftweed. Beside him, black and misshapen, hulked Nagrim the nicor, whose earthquake weight left a swath of crushed plants. Behind, luminous blossoms of a firethorn shone through the twining, trailing outlines of Morgarel the wraith.
Here Cloudmoor rose in a surf of hills and thickets. The air lay quiet, now and then carrying the distance-muted howl of a beast. It was darker than usual at winterbirth, the moons being down and aurora a wan flicker above the mountains on the northern world edge. But this made the stars keen, and their numbers crowded heaven, and Ghost Road shone among them as if it, like the leafage beneath, were paved with dew.
“Yonder!” bawled Nagrim. All four of his arms pointed. The party had topped a ridge. Far off glimmered a spark. “Noah, hoah! Ull we right off stamp dem flat, or pluck dem apart slow?”
We shall do nothing of the sort, bonebrain, Morgarel’s answer slid through their heads. Not unless they attack us, and they will not unless we make them aware of us, and her command is that we spy out their purposes.
“Gr-r-rum-m-m. I know deir aim. Cut down trees, stick plows in land, sow deir cursed seed in de clods and in deir shes. ’Less we drive dem into de bitterwater, and soon, soon, dey’ll wax too strong for us.”
“Not too strong for the Queen!” Mistherd protested, shocked.
Yet they do have new powers, it seems, Morgarel reminded him. Carefully must we probe them.
“Den carefully can we step on dem?” asked Nagrim.
The question woke a grin out of Mistherd’s own uneasiness. He slapped the scaly back. “Don’t talk, you,” he said. “It hurts my ears. Nor think; that hurts your head. Come, run!”
Ease yourself, Morgarel scolded. You have too much life in you, human-born.
Mistherd made a face at the wraith, but obeyed to the extent of slowing down and picking his way through what cover the country afforded. For he traveled on behalf of the Fairest, to learn what had brought a pair of mortals questing hither.
Did they seek that boy whom Ayoch stole? (He continued to weep for his mother, though less and less often as the marvels of Carheddin entered him.) Perhaps. A birdcraft had left them and their car at the now-abandoned campsite, from which they had followed an outward spiral. But when no trace of the cub had appeared inside a reasonable distance, they did not call to be flown home. And this wasn’t because weather forbade the farspeaker waves to travel, as was frequently the case. No, instead the couple set off toward the mountains of Moonhorn. Their course would take them past a few outlying invader steadings and on into realms untrodden by their race.
So this was no ordinary survey. Then what was it?
Mistherd understood now why she who reigned had made her adopted mortal children learn, or retain, the clumsy language of their forebears. He had hated that drill, wholly foreign to Dweller ways. Of course, you obeyed her, and in time you saw how wise she had been…
* * *
Presently he left Nagrim behind a rock—the nicor would only be useful in a fight-and crawled from bush to bush until he lay within man—lengths of the humans. A rainplant drooped over him, leaves soft on his bare skin, and clothed him in darkness. Morgarel floated to the crown of a shiverleaf, whose unrest would better conceal his flimsy shape. He’d not be much help either. And that was the most troublous, the almost appalling thing here. Wraiths were among those who could not just sense and send thoughts, but cast illusions. Morgarel had reported that this time his power seemed to rebound off an invisible cold wall around the car.
Otherwise the male and female had set up no guardian engines and kept no dogs. Belike they supposed none would be needed, since they slept in the long vehicle which bore them. But such contempt of the Queen’s strength could not be tolerated, could it?
Metal sheened faintly by the light of their campfire. They sat on either side, wrapped in coats against a coolness that Mistherd, naked, found mild. The male drank smoke. The female stared past him into a dusk which her flame-dazzled eyes must see as thick gloom. The dancing glow brought her vividly forth. Yes, to judge from Ayoch’s tale, she was the dam of the new cub.
Ayoch had wanted to come too, but the Wonderful One forbade. Pooks couldn’t hold still long enough for such a mission.
The man sucked on his pipe. His cheeks thus pulled into shadow while the light flickered across nose and brow, he looked disquietingly like a shearbill about to stoop on prey.
“—No, I tell you again, Barbro, I have no theories,” he was saying. “When facts are insufficient, theorizing is ridiculous at best, misleading at worst.”
“Still, you must have some idea of what you’re doing,” she said. It was plain that they had threshed this out often before. No Dweller could be as persistent as she or as patient as he. “That gear you packed—that generator you keep running—”
“I have a working hypothesis or two, which suggested what equipment I ought to take.”
“Why won’t you tell me what the hypotheses are?”
“They themselves indicate that that might be inadvisable at the present time. I’m still feeling my way into the labyrinth. And I haven’t had a chance yet to hook everything up. In fact, we’re really only protected against so-called telepathic influence—”
“What?” She started. “Do you mean… those legends about how they can read minds too…” Her words trailed off and her gaze sought the darkness beyond his shoulders.
He leaned forward. His tone lost its clipped rapidity, grew earnest and soft. “Barbro, you’re racking yourself to pieces. Which is no help to Jimmy if he’s alive, the more so when you may well be badly needed later on. We’ve a long trek before us, and you’d better settle into it.”
She nodded jerkily and caught her lip between her teeth for a moment before she answered, “—I’m trying.”
He smiled around his pipe. “I expect you’ll succeed. You don’t strike me as a quitter or a whiner or an enjoyer of misery.”
She dropped a hand to the pistol at her belt. Her voice changed; it came out of her throat like knife from sheath. “When we find them, they’ll know what I am. What humans are.”
“Put anger aside also,” the man urged. “We can’t afford emotions. If the Outlings are real, as I told you I’m provisionally assuming, they’re fighting for their homes.” After a short stillness he added: “I like to think that if the first explorers had found live natives, men would not have colonized Roland. But too late now. We can’t go back if we wanted to. It’s a bitter-end struggle, against an enemy so crafty that he’s even hidden from us the fact that he is waging war.”
“Is he? I mean, skulking, kidnapping an occasional child—”
“That’s part of my hypothesis. I suspect those aren’t harassments, they’re tactics employed in a chillingly subtle strategy.”
The fire sputtered and sparked. The man smoked awhile, brooding, until he went on:
“I didn’t want to raise your hopes or excite you unduly while you had to wait on me, first in Christmas Landing, then in Portolondon. Afterward we were busy satisfying ourselves that Jimmy had been taken further from camp than he could have wandered before collapsing. So I’m only now telling you how thoroughly I studied available material on the… Old Folk. Besides, at first I did it on the principle of eliminating every imaginable possibility, however absurd. I expected no result other than final disproof. But I went through everything, relics, analyses, histories, journalistic accounts, monographs; I talked to outwayers who happened to be in town and to what scientists we have who’ve taken any interest in the matter. I’m a quick study. I flatter myself I became as expert as anyone—though God knows there’s little to be expert on. Furthermore, I, a comparative stranger to Roland, maybe looked on the problem with fresh eyes. And a pattern emerged for me.
“If the aborigines had become extinct, why hadn’t they left more remnants? Arctica isn’t enormous, and it’s fertile for Rolandic life. It ought to have supported a population whose artifacts ought to have accumulated over millennia. I’ve read that on Earth, literally tens of thousands of paleolithic hand axes were found, more by chance than archaeology.
“Very well. Suppose the relics and fossils were deliberately removed, between the time the last survey party left and the first colonizing ships arrived. I did find some support for that idea in the diaries of the original explorers. They were too preoccupied with checking the habitability of the planet to make catalogues of primitive monuments. However, the remarks they wrote down indicate they saw much more than later arrivals did. Suppose what we have found is just what the removers overlooked or didn’t get around to.
“That argues a sophisticated mentality, thinking in long-range terms, doesn’t it? Which in turn argues that the Old Folk were not mere hunters or neolithic farmers.”
“But nobody ever saw buildings or machines or any such thing,” Barbro objected.
“No. Most likely the natives didn’t go through our kind of metallurgic-industrial evolution. I can conceive of other paths to take. Their full-fledged civilization might have begun, rather than ended, in biological science and technology. It might have developed potentialities of the nervous system, which might be greater in their species than in man. We have those abilities to some degree ourselves, you realize. A dowser, for instance, actually senses variations in the local magnetic field caused by a water table. However, in us, these talents are maddeningly rare and tricky. So we took our business elsewhere. Who needs to be a telepath, say, when he has a visiphone? The Old Folk may have seen it the other way around. The artifacts of their civilization may have been, may still be unrecognizable to men.”
“They could have identified themselves to the men, though,” Barbro said. “Why didn’t they?”
“I can imagine any number of reasons. As, they could have had a bad experience with interstellar visitors earlier in their history. Ours is scarcely the sole race that has spaceships. However, I told you I don’t theorize in advance of the facts. Let’s say no more than that the Old Folk, if they exist, are alien to us.”
“For a rigorous thinker, you’re spinning a mighty thin thread.”
“I’ve admitted this is entirely provisional.” He squinted at her through a roil of campfire smoke. “You came to me, Barbro, insisting in the teeth of officialdom that your boy had been stolen, but your own talk about cultist kidnappers was ridiculous. Why are you reluctant to admit the reality of nonhumans?”
“In spite of the fact that Jimmy’s being alive probably depends on it,” she sighed. “I know.” A shudder. “Maybe I don’t dare admit it.”
“I’ve said nothing thus far that hasn’t been speculated about in print,” he told her. “A disreputable speculation, true. In a hundred years, nobody has found valid evidence for the Outlings being more than a superstition. Still, a few people have declared it’s at least possible that intelligent natives are at large in the wilderness.”
“I know,” she repeated. “I’m not sure, though, what has made you, overnight, take those arguments seriously.”
“Well, once you got me started thinking, it occurred to me that Roland’s outwayers are not utterly isolated medieval crofters. They have books, telecommunications, power tools, motor vehicles; above all, they have a modern science-oriented education. Why should they turn superstitious? Something must be causing it.” He stopped. “I’d better not continue. My ideas go further than this; but if they’re correct, it’s dangerous to speak them aloud.”
Mistherd’s belly muscles tensed. There was danger for fair, in that shearbill head. The Garland Bearer must be warned. For a minute he wondered about summoning Nagrim to kill these two. If the nicor jumped them fast, their firearms might avail them naught. But no. They might have left word at home, or— He came back to his ears. The talk had changed course. Barbro was murmuring, “—why you stayed on Roland.”
The man smiled his gaunt smile. “Well, life on Beowulf held no challenge for me. Heorot is—or was; this was decades past, remember—Heorot was densely populated, smoothly organized, boringly uniform. That was partly due to the lowland frontier, a safety valve that bled off the dissatisfied. But I lack the carbon dioxide tolerance necessary to live healthily down there. An expedition was being readied to make a swing around a number of colony worlds, especially those which didn’t have the equipment to keep in laser contact. You’ll recall its announced purpose, to seek out new ideas in science, arts, sociology, philosophy, whatever might prove valuable. I’m afraid they found little on Roland relevant to Beowulf. But I, who had wangled a berth, I saw opportunities for myself and decided to make my home here.”
“Were you a detective back there, too?”
“Yes, in the official police. We had a tradition of such work in our family. Some of that may have come from the Cherokee side of it, if the name means anything to you. However, we also claimed collateral descent from one of the first private inquiry agents on record, back on Earth before spaceflight. Regardless of how true that may be, I found him a useful model. You see, an archetype—”
The man broke off. Unease crossed his features. “Best we go to sleep,” he said. “We’ve a long distance to cover in the morning.”
She looked outward. “Here is no morning.”
They retired. Mistherd rose and cautiously flexed limberness back into his muscles. Before returning to the Sister of Lyrth, he risked a glance through a pane in the car. Bunks were made up, side by side, and the humans lay in them. Yet the man had not touched her, though hers was a bonny body, and nothing that had passed between them suggested he meant to do so.
Eldritch, humans. Cold and claylike. And they would overrun the beautiful wild world? Mistherd spat in disgust. It must not happen. It would not happen. She who reigned had vowed that.
The lands of William Irons were immense. But this was because a barony was required to support him, his kin and cattle, on native crops whose cultivation was still poorly understood. He raised some Terrestrial plants as well, by summerlight and in conservatories. However, these were a luxury. The true conquest of northern Arctica lay in yerba hay, in bathyrhiza wood, in pericoup and glycophyllon, and eventually, when the market had expanded with population and industry, in chalcanthemum for city florists and pelts of cage-bred rover for city furriers.
That was in a tomorrow Irons did not expect that he would live to see. Sherrinford wondered if the man really expected anyone ever would.
The room was warm and bright. Cheerfulness crackled in the fireplace. Light from fluoropanels gleamed off hand-carven chests and chairs and tables, off colorful draperies and shelved dishes. The outwayer sat solid in his high seat, stoutly clad, beard flowing down his chest. His wife and daughters brought coffee, whose fragrance joined the remnant odors of a hearty supper, to him, his guests and his sons.
But outside, wind hooted, lightning flared, thunder bawled, rain crashed on roof and walls and roared down to swirl among the courtyard cobblestones. Sheds and barns crouched against hugeness beyond. Trees groaned, and did a wicked undertone of laughter run beneath the lowing of a frightened cow? A burst of hailstones hit the tiles like knocking knuckles.
You could feel how distant your neighbors were, Sherrinford thought. And nonetheless they were the people whom you saw oftenest, did daily business with by visiphone (when a solar storm didn’t make gibberish of their voices and chaos of their faces) or in the flesh, partied with, gossiped and married with; in the end, they were the people who would bury you. The lights of the coastal towns were monstrously further away.
William Irons was a strong man. Yet when now he spoke, fear was in his tone. “You’d truly go over Troll Scarp?”
“Do you mean Hanstein Palisades?” Sherrinford responded, more challenge than question.
“No outwayer calls it anything but Troll Scarp,” Barbro said.
And how had a name like that been reborn, light-years and centuries from Earth’s Dark Ages?
“Hunters, trappers, prospectors—rangers, you call them—travel in those mountains,” Sherrinford declared.
“In certain parts,” Irons said. “That’s allowed, by a pact once made ’tween a man and the Queen after he’d done well by a jack-o’-the-hill that a satan had hurt. Wherever the plumablanca grows, men may fare, if they leave man-goods on the altar boulders in payment for what they take out of the land. Elsewhere”—one fist clenched on a chair arm and went slack again—“is not wise to go.”
“It’s been done, hasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. And some came back all right, or so they claimed, though I’ve heard they were never lucky afterward. And some didn’t; they vanished. And some who returned babbled of wonders and horrors, and stayed witlings the rest of their lives. Not for a long time has anybody been rash enough to break the pact and overtread the bounds.” Irons looked at Barbro almost entreatingly. His woman and children stared likewise, grown still. Wind hooted beyond the walls and rattled the storm shutters. “Don’t you.”
“I’ve reason to believe my son is there,” she answered.
“Yes, yes, you’ve told and I’m sorry. Maybe something can be done. I don’t know what, but I’d be glad to, oh, lay a double offering on Unvar’s Barrow this midwinter, and a prayer drawn in the turf by a flint knife. Maybe they’ll return him.” Irons sighed. “They’ve not done such a thing in man’s memory, though. And he could have a worse lot. I’ve glimpsed them myself, speeding madcap through twilight. They seem happier than we are. Might be no kindness, sending your boy home again.”
“Like in the Arvid song,” said his wife.
Irons nodded. “M-hm. Or others, come to think of it.”
“What’s this?” Sherrinford asked. More sharply than before, he felt himself a stranger. He was a child of cities and technics, above all a child of the skeptical intelligence. This family believed. It was disquieting to see more than a touch of their acceptance in Barbro’s slow nod.
“We have the same ballad in Olga Ivanoff Land,” she told him, her voice less calm than the words. “It’s one of the traditional ones—nobody knows who composed them—that are sung to set the measure of a ring dance in a meadow.”
“I noticed a multilyre in your baggage, Mrs. Cullen,” said the wife of Irons. She was obviously eager to get off the explosive topic of a venture in defiance of the Old Folk. A songfest could help. “Would you like to entertain us?”
Barbro shook her head, white around the nostrils. The oldest boy said quickly, rather importantly, “Well, sure, I can, if our guests would like to hear.”
“I’d enjoy that, thank you.” Sherrinford leaned back in his seat and stoked his pipe. If this had not happened spontaneously he would have guided the conversation toward a similar outcome.
In the past he had had no incentive to study the folklore of the outway, and not much chance to read the scanty references on it since Barbro brought him her trouble. Yet more and more he was becoming convinced that he must get an understanding—not an anthropological study, but a feel from the inside out—of the relationship between Roland’s frontiersmen and those beings which haunted them.
A bustling followed, rearrangement, settling down to listen, coffee cups refilled and brandy offered on the side. The boy explained, “The last line is the chorus. Everybody join in, right?” Clearly he too hoped thus to bleed off some of the tension. Catharsis through music? Sherrinford wondered, and added to himself: No; exorcism.
A girl strummed a guitar. The boy sang, to a melody which beat across the storm noise:
It was the ranger Arvid rode homeward through the hills
among the shadowy shiverleafs, along the chiming rills.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
The night wind whispered around him with scent of brok and rue.
Both moons rose high above him and hills aflash with dew.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
And dreaming of that woman who waited in the sun,
he stopped, amazed by starlight, and so he was undone.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
For there beneath a barrow that bulked athwart a moon,
the Outling folk were dancing in glass and golden shoon.
The dance weaver under the firethorn.
The Outling folk were dancing like water, wind and fire
to frosty-ringing harpstrings, and never did they tire.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
To Arvid came she striding from where she watched the dance,
the Queen of Air and Darkness, with starlight in her glance.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
With starlight, love and terror in her immortal eye,
the Queen of Air and Darkness—
“No!” Barbro leaped from her chair. Her fists were clenched and tears flogged her cheekbones. “You can’t—pretend that—about the things that stole Jimmy!”
She fled from the chamber, upstairs to her guest bedroom.
* * *
But she finished the song herself. That was about seventy hours later, camped in the steeps where rangers dared not fare.
She and Sherrinford had not said much to the Irons family, after refusing repeated pleas to leave the forbidden country alone. Nor had they exchanged many remarks at first as they drove north. Slowly, however, he began to draw her out about her own life. After a while she almost forgot to mourn, in her remembering of home and old neighbors. Somehow this led to discoveries—that he, beneath his professional manner, was a gourmet and a lover of opera and appreciated her femaleness; that she could still laugh and find beauty in the wild land around her—and she realized, half guiltily, that life held more hopes than even the recovery of the son Tim gave her.
“I’ve convinced myself he’s alive,” the detective said. He scowled. “Frankly, it makes me regret having taken you along. I expected this would be only a fact-gathering trip, but it’s turning out to be more. If we’re dealing with real creatures who stole him, they can do real harm. I ought to turn back to the nearest garth and call for a plane to fetch you.”
“Like bottommost hell you will, mister,” she said. “You need somebody who knows outway conditions, and I’m a better shot than average.”
“M-m-m… it would involve considerable delay too, wouldn’t it? Besides the added distance, I can’t put a signal through to any airport before this current burst of solar interference has calmed down.”
Next “night” he broke out his remaining equipment and set it up. She recognized some of it, such as the thermal detector. Other items were strange to her, copied to his order from the advanced apparatus of his birthworld. He would tell her little about them. “I’ve explained my suspicion that the ones we’re after have telepathic capabilities,” he said in apology.
Her eyes widened. “You mean it could be true, the Queen and her people can read minds?”
“That’s part of the dread which surrounds their legend, isn’t it? Actually there’s nothing spooky about the phenomenon. It was studied and fairly well defined centuries ago, on Earth. I daresay the facts are available in the scientific microfiles at Christmas Landing. You Rolanders have simply had no occasion to seek them out, any more than you’ve yet had occasion to look up how to build power beamcasters or spacecraft.”
“Well, how does telepathy work, then?”
Sherrinford recognized that her query asked for comfort as much as it did for facts and he spoke with deliberate dryness: “The organism generates extremely long-wave radiation which can, in principle, be modulated by the nervous system. In practice, the feebleness of the signals and their low rate of information transmission make them elusive, hard to detect and measure. Our prehuman ancestors went in for more reliable senses, like vision and hearing. What telepathic transceiving we do is marginal at best. But explorers have found extraterrestrial species that got an evolutionary advantage from developing the system further, in their particular environments. I imagine such species could include one which gets comparatively little direct sunlight-in fact, appears to hide from broad day. It could even become so able in this regard that, at short range, it can pick up man’s weak emissions and make man’s primitive sensitivities resonate to its own strong sendings.”
“That would account for a lot, wouldn’t it?” Barbro said faintly.
“I’ve now screened our car by a jamming field,” Sherrinford told her, “but it reaches only a few meters past the chassis. Beyond, a scout of theirs might get a warning from your thoughts, if you knew precisely what I’m trying to do. I have a well-trained subconscious which sees to it that I think about this in French when I’m outside. Communication has to be structured to be intelligible, you see, and that’s a different enough structure from English. But English is the only human language on Roland, and surely the Old Folk have learned it.”
She nodded. He had told her his general plan, which was too obvious to conceal. The problem was to make contact with the aliens, if they existed. Hitherto, they had only revealed themselves, at rare intervals, to one or a few backwoodsmen at a time. An ability to generate hallucinations would help them in that. They would stay clear of any large, perhaps unmanageable expedition which might pass through their territory. But two people, braving all prohibitions, shouldn’t look too formidable to approach. And… this would be the first human team which not only worked on the assumption that the Outlings were real but possessed the resources of modern, off-planet police technology.
Nothing happened at that camp. Sherrinford said he hadn’t expected it would. The Old Folk seemed cautious this near to any settlement. In their own lands they must be bolder.
And by the following “night,” the vehicle had gone well into yonder country. When Sherrinford stopped the engine in a meadow and the car settled down, silence rolled in like a wave.
They stepped out. She cooked a meal on the glower while he gathered wood, that they might later cheer themselves with a campfire. Frequently he glanced at his wrist. It bore no watch-instead, a radio-controlled dial, to tell what the instruments in the bus might register.
Who needed a watch here? Slow constellations wheeled beyond glimmering aurora. The moon Alde stood above a snowpeak, turning it argent, though this place lay at a goodly height. The rest of the mountains were hidden by the forest that crowded around. Its trees were mostly shiverleaf and feathery white plumablanca, ghostly amidst their shadows. A few firethorns glowed, clustered dim lanterns, and the underbrush was heavy and smelled sweet. You could see surprisingly far through the blue dusk. Somewhere nearby, a brook sang and a bird fluted.
“Lovely here,” Sherrinford said. They had risen from their supper and not yet sat down again or kindled their fire.
“But strange,” Barbro answered as low. “I wonder if it’s really meant for us. If we can really hope to possess it.”
His pipestem gestured at the stars. “Man’s gone to stranger places than this.”
“Has he? I… oh, I suppose it’s just something left over from my outway childhood, but do you know, when I’m under them I can’t think of the stars as balls of gas, whose energies have been measured, whose planets have been walked on by prosaic feet. No, they’re small and cold and magical; our lives are bound to them; after we die, they whisper to us in our graves.” Barbro glanced downward. “I realize that’s nonsense.”
She could see in the twilight how his face grew tight. “Not at all,” he said. “Emotionally, physics may be a worse nonsense. And in the end, you know, after a sufficient number of generations, thought follows feeling. Man is not at heart rational. He could stop believing the stories of science if those no longer felt right.”
He paused. “That ballad which didn’t get finished in the house,” he said, not looking at her. “Why did it affect you so?”
“I couldn’t stand hearing them, well, praised. Or that’s how it seemed. Sorry for the fuss.”
“I gather the ballad is typical of a large class.”
“Well, I never thought to add them up. Cultural anthropology is something we don’t have time for on Roland, or more likely it hasn’t occurred to us, with everything else there is to do. But—now you mention it, yes, I’m surprised at how many songs and stories have the Arvid motif in them.”
“Could you bear to recite it?”
She mustered the will to laugh. “Why, I can do better than that if you want. Let me get my multilyre and I’ll perform.”
She omitted the hypnotic chorus line, though, when the notes rang out, except at the end. He watched her where she stood against moon and aurora.
—the Queen of Air and Darkness cried softly under sky:
Light down, you ranger Arvid, and join the Outling folk.
‘You need no more be human, which is a heavy yoke.’
He dared to give her answer: I may do naught but run.
A maiden waits me, dreaming in lands beneath the sun.
And likewise wait me comrades and tasks I would not shirk,
for what is ranger Arvid if he lays down his work?
So wreak your spells, you Outling, and cast your wrath on me.
Though maybe you can slay me, you’ll not make me unfree.
The Queen of Air and Darkness stood wrapped about with fear
and northlight flares and beauty he dared not look too near.
Until she laughed like harpsong and said to him in scorn:
I do not need a magic to make you always mourn.
I send you home with nothing except your memory of moonlight,
Outling music, night breezes, dew and me.
And that will run behind you, a shadow on the sun,
and that will lie beside you when every clay is done.
In work and play and friendship your grief will strike you dumb
for thinking what you are—and—what you might have become.
Your dull and foolish woman treat kindly as you can.
Go home now, ranger Arvid, set free to be a man!
In flickering and laughter the Outling folk were gone.
He stood alone by moonlight and wept until the dawn.
The dance weaves under the firethorn.
She laid the lyre aside. A wind rustled leaves. After a long quietness Sherrinford said, “And tales of this kind are part of everyone’s life in the outway?”
“Well, you could put it thus,” Barbro replied. “Though they’re not all full of supernatural doings. Some are about love or heroism. Traditional themes.”
“I don’t think your particular tradition has arisen of itself.” His tone was bleak. “In fact, I think many of your songs and stories were not composed by human beings.”
He snapped his lips shut and would say no more on the subject. They went early to bed.
Hours later, an alarm roused them.
The buzzing was soft, but it brought them instantly alert. They slept in gripsuits, to be prepared for emergencies. Sky-glow lit them through the canopy. Sherrinford swung out of his bunk, slipped shoes on feet and clipped gun holster to belt. “Stay inside,” he commanded.
“What’s here?” Her pulse thuttered.
He squinted at the dials of his instruments and checked them against the luminous telltale on his wrist. “Three animals,” he counted. “Not wild ones happening by. A large one, homeothermic, to judge from the infrared, holding still a short ways off. Another… hm, low temperature, diffuse and unstable emission, as if it were more like a… a swarm of cells coordinated somehow… pheromonally?… hovering, also at a distance. But the third’s practically next to us, moving around in the brush; and that pattern looks human.”
She saw him quiver with eagerness, no longer seeming a professor. “I’m going to try to make a capture,” he said. “When we have a subject for interrogation— Stand ready to let me back in again fast. But don’t risk yourself, whatever happens. And keep this cocked.” He handed her a loaded big-game rifle.
His tall frame poised by the door, opened it a crack. Air blew in, cool, damp, full of fragrances and murmurings. The moon Oliver was now also aloft, the radiance of both unreally brilliant, and the aurora seethed in whiteness and ice-blue.
Sherrinford peered afresh at his telltale. It must indicate the directions of the watchers, among those dappled leaves. Abruptly he sprang out. He sprinted past the ashes of the campfire and vanished under trees. Barbro’s hand strained on the butt of her weapon.
Racket exploded. Two in combat burst onto the meadow. Sherrinford had clapped a grip on a smaller human figure. She could make out by streaming silver and rainbow flicker that the other was nude, male, long-haired, lithe and young. He fought demoniacally, seeking to use teeth and feet and raking nails, and meanwhile he ululated like a satan.
The identification shot through her: A changeling, stolen in babyhood and raised by the Old Folk. This creature was what they would make Jimmy into.
“Ha!” Sherrinford forced his opponent around and drove stiffened fingers into the solar plexus. The boy gasped and sagged. Sherrinford manhandled him toward the car.
Out from the woods came a giant. It might itself have been a tree, black and rugose, bearing four great gnarly boughs; but earth quivered and boomed beneath its leg-roots, and its hoarse bellowing filled sky and skulls.
Barbro shrieked. Sherrinford whirled. He yanked out his pistol, fired and fired, flat whipcracks through the half light. His free arm kept a lock on the youth. The troll shape lurched under those blows. It recovered and came on, more slowly, more carefully, circling around to cut him off from the bus. He couldn’t move fast enough to evade it unless he released his prisoner—who was his sole possible guide to Jimmy.
Barbro leaped forth. “Don’t!” Sherrinford shouted. “For God’s sake, stay inside!” The monster rumbled and made snatching motions at her. She pulled the trigger. Recoil slammed her in the shoulder. The colossus rocked and fell. Somehow it got its feet back and lumbered toward her. She retreated. Again she shot, and again. The creature snarled. Blood began to drip from it and gleam oilily amidst dewdrops. It turned and went off, breaking branches, into the darkness that laired beneath the woods.
“Get to shelter!” Sherrinford yelled. “You’re out of the jammer field!”
A mistiness drifted by overhead. She barely glimpsed it before she saw the new shape at the meadow edge. “Jimmy!” tore from her.
“Mother.” He held out his arms. Moonlight coursed in his tears. She dropped her weapon and ran to him.
Sherrinford plunged in pursuit. Jimmy flitted away into the brush. Barbro crashed after, through clawing twigs. Then she was seized and borne away.
Standing over his captive, Sherrinford strengthened the fluoro output until vision of the wilderness was blocked off from within the bus. The boy squirmed beneath that colorless glare.
“You are going to talk,” the man said. Despite the haggardness in his features, he spoke quietly.
The boy glared through tangled locks. A bruise was purpling on his jaw. He’d almost recovered ability to flee while Sherrinford chased and lost the woman. Returning, the detective had barely caught him. Time was lacking to be gentle, when Outling reinforcements might arrive at any moment. Sherrinford had knocked him out and dragged him inside. He sat lashed into a swivel seat.
He spat. “Talk to you, man-clod?” But sweat stood on his skin, and his eyes flickered unceasingly around the metal which caged him.
“Give me a name to call you by.”
“And have you work a spell on me?”
“Mine’s Eric. If you don’t give me another choice, I’ll have to call you… m-m-m… Wuddikins.”
“What?” However eldritch, the bound one remained a human adolescent. “Mistherd, then.” The lilting accent of his English somehow emphasized its sullenness. “That’s not the sound, only what it means. Anyway, it’s my spoken name, naught else.”
“Ah, you keep a secret name you consider to be real?”
“She does. I don’t know myself what it is. She knows the real names of everybody.”
Sherrinford raised his brows. “She?”
“Who reigns. May she forgive me, I can’t make the reverent sign when my arms are tied. Some invaders call her the Queen of Air and Darkness.”
“So.” Sherrinford got pipe and tobacco. He let silence wax while he started the fire. At length he said:
“I’ll confess the Old Folk took me by surprise. I didn’t expect so formidable a member of your gang. Everything I could learn had seemed to show they work on my race—and yours, lad—by stealth, trickery and illusion.”
Mistherd jerked a truculent nod. “She created the first nicors not long ago. Don’t think she has naught but dazzlements at her beck.”
“I don’t. However, a steel jacketed bullet works pretty well too, doesn’t it?” Sherrinford talked on, softly, mostly to himself: “I do still believe the, ah, nicors—all your half-humanlike breeds—are intended in the main to be seen, not used. The power of projecting mirages must surely be quite limited in range and scope as well as in the number of individuals who possess it. Otherwise she wouldn’t have needed to work as slowly and craftily as she has. Even outside our mind-shield, Barbro—my companion—could have resisted, could have remained aware that whatever she saw was unreal… if she’d been less shaken, less frantic, less driven by need.”
Sherrinford wreathed his head in smoke. “Never mind what I experienced,” he said. “It couldn’t have been the same as for her. I think the command was simply given us, ‘You will see what you most desire in the world, running away from you into the forest.’ Of course, she didn’t travel many meters before the nicor waylaid her. I’d no hope of trailing them; I’m no Arctican woodsman, and besides, it’d have been too easy to ambush me. I came back to you.” Grimly: “You’re my link to your overlady.”
“You think I’ll guide you to Starhaven or Carheddin? Try making me, clod-man.”
“I want to bargain.”
“I s’pect you intend more’n that.” Mistherd’s answer held surprising shrewdness. “What’ll you tell after you come home?”
“Yes, that does pose a problem, doesn’t it? Barbro Cullen and I are not terrified outwayers. We’re of the city. We brought recording instruments. We’d be the first of our kind to report an encounter with the Old Folk, and that report would be detailed and plausible. It would produce action.”
“So you see I’m not afraid to die,” Mistherd declared, though his lips trembled a bit. “If I let you come in and do your man-things to my people, I’d have naught left worth living for.”
“Have no immediate fears,” Sherrinford said. “You’re merely bait.” He sat down and regarded the boy through a visor of calm. (Within, it wept in him: Barbro, Barbro!) “Consider. Your Queen can’t very well let me go back, bringing my prisoner and telling about hers. She has to stop that somehow. I could try fighting my way through—this car is better armed than you know—but that wouldn’t free anybody. Instead, I’m staying put. New forces of hers will get here as fast as they can. I assume they won’t blindly throw themselves against a machine gun, a howitzer, a fulgurator. They’ll parley first, whether their intentions are honest or not. Thus I make the contact I’m after.”
“What d’ you plan?” The mumble held anguish.
“First, this, as a sort of invitation.” Sherrinford reached out to flick a switch. “There. I’ve lowered my shield against mind-reading and shape-casting. I daresay the leaders, at least, will be able to sense that it’s gone. That should give them confidence.”
“Next we wait. Would you like something to eat or drink’?”
During the time which followed, Sherrinford tried to jolly Mistherd along, find out something of his life. What answers he got were curt. He dimmed the interior lights and settled down to peer outward. That was a long few hours.
They ended at a shout of gladness, half a sob, from the boy. Out of the woods came a band of the Old Folk.
Some of them stood forth more clearly than moons and stars and northlights should have caused. He in the van rode a white crownbuck whose horns were garlanded. His form was manlike but unearthly beautiful, silver-blond hair falling from beneath the antlered helmet, around the proud cold face. The cloak fluttered off his back like living wings. His frost-colored mail rang as he fared.
Behind him, to right and left, rode two who bore swords whereon small flames gleamed and flickered. Above, a flying flock laughed and trilled and tumbled in the breezes. Near then drifted a half-transparent mistiness. Those others who passed among trees after their chieftain were harder to make out. But thev moved in quicksilver grace and as it were to a sound of harps and trumpets.
“Lord Luighaid.” Glory overflowed in Mistherd’s tone. “Her master Knower—himself.”
Sherrinford had never done a harder thing than to sit at the main control panel, finger near the button of the shield generator, and not touch it. He rolled down a section of canopy to let voices travel. A gust of wind struck him in the face, bearing odors of the roses’in his mother’s garden. At his back, in the main body of the vehicle, Mistherd strained against his bonds till he could see the oncoming troop.
“Call to them,” Sherrinford said. “Ask if they will talk with me.”
Unknown, flutingly sweet words flew back and forth. “Yes,” the boy interpreted. “He will, the Lord Luighaid. But I can tell you, you’ll never be let go. Don’t fight them. Yield. Come away. You don’t know what ’tis to be alive till you’ve dwelt in Carheddin under the mountain.”
The Outlings drew nigh.
* * *
Jimmy glimmered and was gone. Barbro lay in strong arms, against a broad breast, and felt the horse move beneath her. It had to be a horse, though only a few were kept any longer on the steadings and they only for special uses or love. She could feel the rippling beneath its hide, hear a rush of parted leafage and the thud when a hoof struck stone; warmth and living scent welled up around her through the darkness.
He who carried her said mildly, “Don’t be afraid, darling. It was a vision. But he’s waiting for us and we’re bound for him.”
She was aware in a vague way that she ought to feel terror or despair or something. But her memories lay behind her—she wasn’t sure just how she had come to be here—she was borne along in a knowledge of being loved. At peace, at peace; rest in the calm expectation of joy…
After a while the forest opened. They crossed a lea where boulders stood gray-white under the moons, their shadows shifting in the dim hues which the aurora threw across them. Flitteries danced, tiny comets, above the flowers between. Ahead gleamed a peak whose top was crowned in clouds.
Barbro’s eyes happened to be turned forward. She saw the horse’s head and thought, with quiet surprise: Why, this is Sambo, who was mine when I was a girl. She looked upward at the man. He wore a black tunic and a cowled cape, which made his face hard to see. She could not cry aloud, here. “Tim,” she whispered.
“I buried you—”
His smile was endlessly tender. “Did you think we’re no more than what’s laid back into the ground? Poor torn sweetheart. She who’s called us is the All Healer. Now rest and dream.”
“Dream,” she said, and for a space she struggled to rouse herself.
But the effort was weak. Why should she believe ashen tales about… atoms and energies, nothing else to fill a gape of emptiness… tales she could not bring to mind… when Tim and the horse her father gave her carried her on to Jimmy? Had the other thing not been the evil dream, and this her first drowsy awakening from it?
As if he heard her thoughts, he murmured, “They have a song in Outling lands. The Song of the Men:
The world sails to an unseen wind.
Light swirls by the bows.
The wake is night.
But the Dwellers have no such sadness.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
He nodded. “There’s much you’ll have to understand, darling, and I can’t see you again until you’ve learned those truths. But meanwhile you’ll be with our son.”
She tried to lift her head and kiss him. He held her down. “Not yet,” he said. “You’ve not been received among the Queen’s people. I shouldn’t have come for you, except that she was too merciful to forbid. Lie back, lie back.”
Time blew past. The horse galloped tireless, never stumbling, up the mountain. Once she glimpsed a troop riding down it and thought they were bound for a last weird battle in the west against… who?… one who lay cased in iron and sorrow. Later she would ask herself the name of him who had brought her into the land of the Old Truth.
Finally spires lifted splendid among the stars, which are small and magical and whose whisperings comfort us after we are dead. They rode into a courtyard where candles burned unwavering, fountains splashed and birds sang. The air bore fragrance of brok and pericoup, of rue and roses, for not everything that man brought was horrible. The Dwellers waited in beauty to welcome her. Beyond their stateliness, pooks cavorted through the gloaming; among the trees darted children; merriment caroled across music more solemn.
“We have come—” Tim’s voice was suddenly, inexplicably a croak. Barbro was not sure how he dismounted, bearing her. She stood before him and saw him sway on his feet.
Fear caught her. “Are you well?” She seized both his hands. They felt cold and rough. Where had Sambo gone? Her eyes searched beneath the cowl. In this brighter illumination, she ought to have seen her man’s face clearly. But it was blurred, it kept changing. “What’s wrong, oh, what’s happened?”
He smiled. Was that the smile she had cherished? She couldn’t completely remember. “I-I must go,” he stammered, so low she could scarcely hear. “Our time is not ready.” He drew free of her grasp and leaned on a robed form which had appeared at his side. A haziness swirled over both their heads. “Don’t watch me go… back into the earth,” he pleaded. “That’s death for you. Till our time returns—There, our son!”
She had to fling her gaze around. Kneeling, she spread wide her arms. Jimmy struck her like a warm, solid cannonball. She rumpled his hair; she kissed the hollow of his neck; she laughed and wept and babbled foolishness; and this was no ghost, no memory that had stolen off when she wasn’t looking. Now and again, as she turned her attention to yet another hurt which might have come upon him—hunger, sickness, fear—and found none, she would glimpse their surroundings. The gardens were gone. It didn’t matter.
“I missed you so, Mother. Stay?”
“I’ll take you home, dearest.”
“Stay. Here’s fun. I’ll show. But you stay.”
A sighing went through the twilight. Barbro rose. Jimmy clung to her hand. They confronted the Queen.
Very tall she was in her robes woven of northlights, and her starry crown and her garlands of kiss-me-never. Her countenance recalled Aphrodite of Milos, whose picture Barbro had often seen in the realms of men, save that the Queen’s was more fair and more majesty dwelt upon it and in the night-blue eyes. Around her the gardens woke to new reality, the court of the Dwellers and the heaven-climbing spires.
“Be welcome,” she spoke, her speaking a song, “forever.”
Against the awe of her, Barbro said, “Moon-mother, let us go home.”
“That may not be.”
“To our world, little and beloved,” Barbro dreamed she begged, “which we build for ourselves and cherish for our children.”
“To prison days, angry nights, works that crumble in the fingers, loves that turn to rot or stone or driftweed, loss, grief, and the only sureness that of the final nothingness. No. You too, Wanderfoot who is to be, will jubilate when the banners of the Outworld come flying into the last of the cities and man is made wholly alive. Now go with those who will teach you.”
The Queen of Air and Darkness lifted an arm in summons. It halted, and none came to answer.
For over the fountains and melodies lifted a gruesome growling. Fires leaped, thunders crashed. Her hosts scattered screaming before the steel thing which boomed up the mountainside. The pooks were gone in a whirl of frightened wings. The nicors flung their bodies against the unalive invader and were consumed, until their Mother cried to them to retreat.
Barbro cast Jimmy down and herself over him. Towers wavered and smoked away. The mountain stood bare under icy moons, save for rocks, crags,. and farther off a glacier in whose depths the auroral light pulsed blue. A cave mouth darkened a cliff. Thither folk streamed, seeking refuge underground. Some were human of blood, some grotesques like the pooks and nicors and wraiths; but most were lean, scaly, long-tailed, long-beaked, not remotely men or Outlings.
For an instant, even as Jimmy wailed at her breast-perhaps as much because the enchantment had been wrecked as because he was afraid—Barbro pitied the Queen who stood alone in her nakedness. Then that one also had fled, and Barbro’s world shiverered apart.
The guns fell silent; the vehicle whirred to a halt. From it sprang a boy who called wildly, “Shadow-of-a-Dream, where are you? It’s me, Mistherd. Oh, come, come!”—before he remembered that the language they had been raised in was not man’s. He shouted in that until a girl crept out of a thicket where she had hidden. They stared at each other through dust, smoke and moonglow. She ran to him.
A new voice barked from the car, “Barbro, hurry!”
* * *
Christmas Landing knew day: short at this time of year, but sunlight, blue skies, white clouds, glittering water, salt breezes in busy streets, and the sane disorder of Eric Sherrinford’s living room.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs where he sat, puffed on his pipe as if to make a veil, and said, “Are you certain you’re recovered? You mustn’t risk overstrain.”
“I’m fine,” Barbro Cullen replied, though her tone was flat. “Still tired, yes, and showing it, no doubt. One doesn’t go through such an experience and bounce back in a week. But I’m up and about. And to be frank, I must know what’s happened, what’s going on, before I can settle down to regain my full strength. Not a word of news anywhere.”
“Have you spoken to others about the matter?”
“No. I’ve simply told visitors I was too exhausted to talk. Not much of a lie. I assumed there’s a reason for censorship.”
Sherrinford looked relieved. “Good girl. It’s at my urging. You can imagine the sensation when this is made public. The authorities agreed they need time to study the facts, think and debate in a calm atmosphere, have a decent policy ready to offer voters who’re bound to become rather hvsterical at first.” His mouth quirked slightly upward. “Furthermore, your nerves and Jimmy’s get their chance to heal before the journalistic storm breaks over you. How is he?”
“Quite well. He continues pestering me for leave to go play with his friends in the Wonderful Place. But at his age, he’ll recover—he’ll forget.”
“He may meet them later anyhow.”
“What? We didn’t—” Barbro shifted in her chair. “I’ve forgotten too. I hardly recall a thing from our last hours. Did you bring back any kidnapped humans?”
“No. The shock was savage as it was, without throwing them straight into an… an institution. Mistherd, who’s basically a sensible young fellow, assured me they’d get along, at any rate as regards survival necessities, till arrangements can be made.” Sherrinford hesitated. “I’m not sure what the arrangements will be. Nobody is, at our present stage. But obviously they include those people—or many of them, especially those who aren’t full-grown—rejoining the human race. Though they may never feel at home in civilization. Perhaps in a way that’s best, since we will need some kind of mutually acceptable liaison with the Dwellers.”
His impersonality soothed them both. Barbro became able to say, “Was I too big a fool? I do remember how I yowled and beat my head on the floor.”
“Why, no.” He considered the big woman and her pride for a few seconds before he rose, walked over and laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’d been lured and trapped by a skillful play on your deepest instincts, at a moment of sheer nightmare. Afterward, as that wounded monster carried you off, evidently another type of being came along, one that could saturate you with close-range neuropsychic forces. On top of this, my arrival, the sudden brutal abolishment of every hallucination, must have been shattering. No wonder if you cried out in pain. Before you did, you competently got Jimmy and yourself into the bus, and you never interfered with me.”
“What did you do?”
“Why, I drove off as fast as possible. After several hours, the atmospherics let up sufficiently for me to call Portolondon and insist on an emergency airlift. Not that that was vital. What chance had the enemy to stop us? They didn’t even try—But quick transportation was certainly helpful.”
“I figured that’s what must have gone on.” Barbro caught his glance. “No, what I meant was, how did you find us in the back-lands?”
Sherrinford moved a little off from her. “My prisoner was my guide. I don’t think I actually killed any of the Dwellers who’d come to deal with me. I hope not. The car simply broke through them, after a couple of warning shots, and afterward outpaced them. Steel and fuel against flesh wasn’t really fair. At the cave entrance, I did have to shoot down a few of those troll creatures. I’m not proud of it.”
He stood silent. Presently: “But you were a captive,” he said. “I couldn’t be sure what they might do to you, who had first claim on me.” After another pause: “I don’t look for any more violence.”
“How did you make… the boy… cooperate?”
Sherrinford paced from her, to the window, where he stood staring out at the Boreal Ocean. “I turned off the mind-shield,” he said. “I let their band get close, in full splendor of illusion. Then I turned the shield back on, and we both saw them in their true shapes. As we went northward, I explained to Mistherd how he and his kind had been hoodwinked, used, made to live in a world that was never really there. I asked him if he wanted himself and whomever he cared about to go on till they died as domestic animals—yes, running in limited freedom on solid hills, but always called back to the dream-kennel.” His pipe fumed furiously. “May I never see such bitterness again. He had been taught to believe he was free.”
Quiet returned, above the hectic traffic. Charlemagne drew nearer to setting; already the east darkened.
Finally Barbro asked, “Do you know why?”
“Why children were taken and raised like that? Partly because it was in the pattern the Dwellers were creating; partly in order to study and experiment on members of our species—minds, that is, not bodies; partly because humans have special strengths which are helpful, like being able to endure full daylight.”
“But what was the final purpose of it all?”
Sherrinford paced the floor. “Well,” he said, “of course the ultimate motives of the aborigines are obscure. We can’t do more than guess at how they think, let alone how they feel. But our ideas do seem to fit the data.
“Why did they hide from man? I suspect they, or rather their ancestors—for they aren’t glittering elves, you know; they’re mortal and fallible too—I suspect the natives were only being cautious at first, more cautious than human primitives, though certain of those on Earth were also slow to reveal themselves to strangers. Spying, mentally eavesdropping, Roland’s Dwellers must have picked up enough language to get some idea of how different man was from them, and how powerful; and they gathered that more ships would be arriving, bringing settlers. It didn’t occur to them that they might be conceded the right to keep their lands. Perhaps they’re still more fiercely territorial than we. They determined to fight, in their own way. I daresay, once we begin to get insight into that mentality, our psychological science will go through its Copernican revolution.”
Enthusiasm kindled in him. “That’s not the sole thing we’ll learn, either,” he went on. “They must have science of their own, a nonhuman science born on a planet that isn’t Earth. Because they did observe us as profoundly as we’ve ever observed ourselves; they did mount a plan against us, one that would have taken another century or more to complete. Well, what else do they know? How do they support their civilization without visible agriculture or aboveground buildings or mines or anything? How can they breed whole new intelligent species to order? A million questions, ten million answers!”
“Can we learn from them?” Barbro asked softly. “Or can we only overrun them as you say they fear?”
Sherrinford halted, leaned elbow on mantel, hugged his pipe and replied, “I hope we’ll show more charity than that to a defeated enemy. It’s what they are. They tried to conquer us, and failed, and now in a sense we are bound to conquer them since they’ll have to make their peace with the civilization of the machine rather than see it rust away as they strove for. Still, they never did us any harm as atrocious as what we’ve inflicted on our fellow men in the past. And, I repeat, they could teach us marvelous things; and we could teach them, too, once they’ve learned to be less intolerant of a different way of life.”
“I suppose we can give them a reservation,” she said, and didn’t know why he grimaced and answered so roughly:
“Let’s leave them the honor they’ve earned! They fought to save the world they’d always known from that”—he made a chopping gesture at the city—“and just possibly we’d be better off ourselves with less of it.”
He sagged a trifle and sighed, “However, I suppose if Elfland had won, man on Roland would at last—peacefully, even happily—have died away. We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them?”
Barbro shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“What?” He looked at her in a surprise that drove out melancholy. After a laugh: “Stupid of me. I’ve explained this to so many politicians and scientists and commissioners and Lord knows what, these past days, I forgot I’d never explained to you. It was a rather vague idea of mine, most of the time we were traveling, and I don’t like to discuss ideas prematurely. Now that we’ve met the Outlings and watched how they work, I do feel sure.”
He tamped down his tobacco. “In limited measure,” he said, “I’ve used an archetype throughout my own working life. The rational detective. It hasn’t been a conscious pose—much—it’s simply been an image which fitted my personality and professional style. But it draws an appropriate response from most people, whether or not they’ve ever heard of the original. The phenomenon is not uncommon. We meet persons who, in varying degrees, suggest Christ or Buddha or the Earth Mother, or, say, on a less exalted plane, Hamlet or d’Artagnan. Historical, fictional and mythical, such figures crystallize basic aspects of the human psyche, and when we meet them in our real experience, our reaction goes deeper than consciousness.”
He grew grave again. “Man also creates archetypes that are not individuals. The Anima, the Shadow—and, it seems, the Outworld. The world of magic, of glamour—which originally meant enchantment—of half-human beings, some like Ariel and some like Caliban, but each free of mortal frailties and sorrows—therefore, perhaps, a little carelessly cruel, more than a little tricksy; dwellers, in dusk and moonlight, not truly gods but obedient to rulers who are enigmatic and powerful enough to be—Yes, our Queen of Air and Darkness knew well what sights to let lonely people see, what illusions to spin around them from time to time, what songs and legends to set going among them. I wonder how much she and her underlings gleaned from human fairy tales, how much they made up themselves, and how much men created all over again, all unwittingly, as the sense of living on the edge of the world entered them.”
Shadows stole across the room. It grew cooler and the traffic noises dwindled. Barbro asked mutedly, “But what could this do?”
“In many ways,” Sherrinford answered, “the outwayer is back in the Dark Ages. He has few neighbors, hears scanty news from beyond his horizon, toils to survive in a land he only partly understands, that may any night raise unforeseeable disasters against him and is bounded by enormous wildernesses. The machine civilization which brought his ancestors here is frail at best. He could lose it as the Dark Ages nations had lost Greece and Rome, as the whole of Earth seems to have lost it. Let him be worked on, long, strongly, cunningly, by the archetypical Outworld, until he has come to believe in his bones that the magic of the Queen of Air and Darkness is greater than the energy of engines; and first his faith, finally his deeds will follow her. Oh, it wouldn’t happen fast. Ideally, it would happen too slowly to be noticed, especially by self-satisfied city people. But when in the end a hinterland gone back to the ancient way turned from them, how could they keep alive?”
Barbro breathed, “She said to me, when their banners flew in the last of our cities, we would rejoice.”
“I think we would have, by then,” Sherrinford admitted. “Nevertheless, I believe in choosing one’s destiny.”
He shook himself, as if casting off a burden. He knocked the dottle from his pipe and stretched, muscle by muscle. “Well,” he said, “it isn’t going to happen.”
She looked straight at him. “Thanks to you.”
A flush went up his thin cheeks. “In time, I’m sure somebody else would have— What matters is what we do next, and that’s too big a decision for one individual or one generation to make.”
She rose. “Unless the decision is personal, Eric,” she suggested, feeling heat in her own face.
It was curious to see him shy. “I was hoping we might meet again.”
* * *
Ayoch sat on Wolund’s Barrow. Aurora shuddered so brilliant, in such vast sheafs of light, as almost to hide the waning moons. Firethorn blooms had fallen; a few still glowed around the tree roots, amidst dry brok which crackled underfoot and smelled like woodsmoke. The air remained warm but no gleam was left on the sunset horizon.
“Farewell, fare lucky,” the pook called. Mistherd and Shadow-of-a-Dream never looked back. It was as if they didn’t dare. Theytrudged on out of sight, toward the human camp whose lights made a harsh new star in the south.
Ayoch lingered. He felt he should also offer good-bye to her who had lately joined him that slept in the dolmen. Likely none would meet here again for loving or magic. But he could only think of one old verse that might do. He stood and trilled:
“Out of her breast
a blossom ascended.
The summer burned it.
The song is ended.”
Then he spread his wings for the long flight away.