Most of Sibornal’s rivers ran south. Most of them, for most of the year, were fast and ill-natured, as befitted waters born of glaciers.
The Venj was no exception. It was wide, full of dangerous currents, and could be said to hurtle rather than flow on its way to its outlet at Rivenjk.
In the course of centuries, however, the Venj had scoured itself a valley through which it might flow or flood as the mood took it, and it was along this valley that the road led which would eventually bear a north-bound traveller to Kharnabhar.
The road wound upward through pleasant country, protected from prevailing winds by the mass of the Shivenink Chain. Large bushes, indifferent to frost, grew here, putting out immense blossoms. Small flowers grew by the wayside, picked by pilgrims because they were never seen elsewhere.
The pilgrims were carefree on this, the first stage of their land journey to Kharnabhar. They travelled alone or in groups, dressed in all manner of garb. Some went barefoot, claiming that they controlled their bodies so as not to experience cold. There was singing and music among the groups. This was a serious exercise in piety-one that would stand them in good stead at home for the rest of their lives-but never- theless it was a holiday, and they rejoiced accordingly. For some miles out of Rivenjk, stalls stood by the side of the way, where fruit or emblems of the Wheel could be bought. Or peasants from Bribahr- for the frontier was close here-climbed up from the valley to se ll produce to the travellers. This stage of the way was easy.
The way became steeper. The air grew a little thinner. The blossoms on the leathery-leaved bushes were brighter but smaller. Fewer peasants climbed up from the valley. Not so many of the pilgrims had the lung power to blow their musical instruments. There was nervous talk of robbers.
But still-well, this special trip must be an advent ure, perhaps the great adventure. They would all return home as heroes. A little difficulty was welcome.
The hostels where the pilgrims slept for the night, if they could afford it, became rougher, the dreams of the pilgrims more troubled. The nights were filled with the sound of water forever falling-a reminder of the heights lost in the clouds above them. Next morning, the travellers would get silently on their way. Mountains are enemies of talk. Conversation was born a lowland art.
Still the road wound upward, still it followed the ill-tempered Venj. Still the travellers followed the road. And at last they were rewarded by fine views.
They were approaching Sharagatt, five thousand metres above sea level. When the clouds dispersed, views were to be had northwestward, down the tangled mountainsides, into terrifying gorges where vultures soared. Even farther, if the pilgrim was lucky and eagle-eyed, he might see the plains of Bribahr, blue with distance or possibly frost.
Before Sharagatt, a few pokey wayside shops began again. Some had nuts and mountain fruits to sell, some offered paintings of the landscape, as badly drawn as they were highly idealised. Signs appeared. A bend in the road-and yet another bend-and how tired the calf muscles suddenly seemed-and a stall selling waffles-and a glimpse of a wooden spire-and then another bend-and people-crowds-and Sharagatt, yes, that haven!-Sharagatt and the prospect of a bath and a clean bed.
Sharagatt was full of churches, some modelled on the ones in Kharnabhar. Paintings and engravings of Kharnabhar were on sale. Some claimed that, if you knew where to go, you could purchase genuine certificates to say that you had visited the Great Wheel.
For Sharagatt-considerable though the achievement was to reach it-was nothing. It was but a halt, a beginning. Sharagatt was where the real journey to Kharnabhar began. Sharagatt was as far as many travellers ever got. Promising everything, it was a milestone of lost hopes. Many people found themselves too old, too tired, too ill, or simply too poor to get further. They stayed for a day or two. Then they turned round and made their way back down to Rivenjk, at the mouth of the unforgiving river.
For Sharagatt was little past the tropical zone. To the north, further up the mountain, the climate rapidly grew more severe. Many hundreds of miles lay between Sharagatt and Kharnabhar. More than determina- tion was needed to make that journey.
Luterin Shokerandit, Toress Lahl, and Harbin Fashnalgid slept in the Sharagatt Star Hotel. More precisely, they slept on a verandah under the broad eaves of the Sharagatt Star Hotel. For even Shokerandit’s careful booking of all details in Rivenjk had not prevented a muddle at the hotel, which was fully occupied. A creaky three-decker bunk bed had been carried onto the verandah for their comfort.
Fashnalgid lay in the top bunk, with Shokerandit next and the woman at the bottom. Fashnalgid had not been pleased with the arrangement, but Shokerandit had bought them each a pipe full of occhara, the weed grown from a mountain plant, and they were full of peace. A light wagon had brought them and other privileged passengers this far. Tomorrow they would take to a sledge. Tonight was for rest. When the mists cleared over the mountain, the night sky blazed with familiar constellations, the Queen’s Scar, the Fountain, the Old Pursuer.
“Toress Lahl, you see the stars? Can you name them?” Shokerandit asked in a dreamy voice.
“I name them all-stars. . . .” She gave a faint laugh. “Then I shall climb down into your bunk and teach you.” “There are so many.” “It will take me a long time. . . .”
But he fell asleep before he could move, and even animal cries from further down the mountainside did not awaken him.
Shokerandit was up early next morning, feeling stale and tired. He pulled his chilly top clothes on before rousing Toress Lahl.
“We sleep in all our clothes from now until the end of the journey,” he said. Without waiting for her to follow he was off to the stores to see to the equipment that would be needed for the month ahead. NORTH
TRAVEL STORES it announced over the door, with a painting of the Great Wheel.
He was anxious. Fashnalgid, a true Uskuti, thought of Shivenink as a mountainous backwater. Luterin Shokerandit knew better. Remote though it was from the capital, Shivenink was well provided with police and informers. After Fashnalgid’s killing of a soldier, both police and military would be on their track. He grieved to think of the trouble he had left with Eedap Mun Odim and Hernisarath.
Using an assumed name, he bought various necessary items at the store, and then went to inspect the team, already booked, which would transport them to Kharnabhar and the safety of his father’s estates.
Fashnalgid took the processes of the morning more slowly. Directly Shokerandit was gone from the verandah, he ceased to feign sleep and climbed down into the lower bunk with Toress Lahl. Now that he had broken her spirit, she offered no resistance. The occhara had left her listless.
“Luterin will kill you when he discovers what you are doing,” she said.
“Shut up and enjoy it, you hussy. I’ll take care of him when the time comes.” He seized her in a bear’s embrace, and with his ankles wrapped about hers, parted her thighs, and thrust into her. His thrusting set the rickety bunk banging against the rail of the verandah.
Sharagatt was divided into two parts. There was Sharagatt and North Sharagatt. The two parts were close. Little more than a hundred yards and a cliff like corner of rock separated them. Sharagatt was protected by wedges of mountainside above it. On North Sharagatt cold katabatic winds poured, lowering the temperature by several degrees. The teams that made the northward journey were stabled only in North Sharagatt. Sharagatt itself would have made them soft.
It took Shokerandit two hours to see that all was arranged for the journey. He knew the folk he had to deal with. They were mountain people who called themselves Ondod, which meant-according to who was translating from their complex language-e ither “Spirit People” or “Spirited People.”
One Ondod would be driver. With him would be his phagor slave. He had a good sledge and an eight- dog asokin team.
While he was inspecting the harness inch by inch, Toress Lahl appeared, her face pale and sullen.
“It’s freezing here,” she said listlessly.
He went over to the supplies he had acquired and brought back a woollen one-piece undergarment. Smiling, he handed it to her. “This is for you. Put it on now.”
“Here.” He caught her meaning, glanced at the Ondod and phagors standing there. “Oh, these people have no shame. Put your new garment on.”
“I’m the one with shame,” she said. But she didas she was told, while the others watched smiling.
He went back to checking everything and interrogating their Ondod driver, by name Uuundaamp, a small person with brilliant black eyes, pockmarked cheeks, and a narrow moustache that faded out into lashes across his cheekbones. He was fourteen, and had made the difficult journey many times.
As Uuundaamp took Shokerandit out to see the team, Toress Lahl joined them in her new gear, glancing at the Ondod questioningly.
“All drivers are young,” Shokerandit told her. “They live on meat, and generally die young.”
At the back of the store, a door opened into a yard. Here were the pens, separated by high wire. Dirty snow lay on the ground. The noise of the dogs was deafening.
Uuundaamp walked the narrow path between the pens. On either side, asokins hurled themselves at the wire, teeth snapping, saliva running from their jaws. The horned dogs stood as high as a man’s hip, and were covered in thick fur, brown, white, grey, black, or mixed.
“This our team-gumtaa team-very good asokin,” Uu undaamp said, pointing out the contents of one pen and glancing slyly up at Shokerandit. “Before we go here, you two give one meat chunk for lead dog, make friend together him. Then you alway friend together him. Ishto?”
“Which is the lead dog, the black one?” Shokerandit asked.
Uuundaamp nodded. “Same black one, he lead dog. He name Uuundaamp, all same me. People say, he same size me, only not so fierce.”
The black asokin had finely marked and curled horns, pointing outwards at the ends. Uuundaamp’s body was covered with bristling black fur. Only his chest was white, and the underside of his tail. The Ondod Uuundaamp pointed out this latter feature; it was distinctive, making Uuundaamp easy for the rest of the pack to follow.
Uuundaamp turned to Toress Lahl. “Lady, to you warning. You give one meat this Uuundaamp, like I say. Then never no more. You never give no meat other asokin, understand? These asokin, they keep rules. We obey. Ishto?”
“Ishto,” she said. That mountain word of acceptance she had picked up on the way from Rivenjk.
He stared up at her, black eyes merry. “You big woman. I no feed you one piece meat. Beside, my woman, she come Kharnabhar together us. One thing more. Most important. Never you try pat these asokin, see? He take him hand like one piece meat.”
Toress Lahl shivered and laughed. “I wouldn’t dare try to pat them.” “We’ll collect Fashnalgid and then we’ll be away,” Shokerandit said when he had checked even-thing thoroughly. The stores and provisions were adequate; the sledge would not be overloaded. He linked his arm in hers. “You are well, aren’t you? It’s completely useless to be ill on the trail.”
“Can’t we leave Fashnalgid behind?”
“No. He’s okay. He’d be a good man if anything happened. Let me tell you that I am anxious in case the Oligarch’s agents are on our track. Perhaps they think that if we reach my father and tell him our history, he will turn the army against the Oligarchy. Many of my father’s associates are military. I checked here, and one of the sledges is booked to leave at fifteen-just an hour after us. They said that four men hired it. If we can leave earlier, all the better for us. I have a gun.” “I’m frightened. Can you trust these Ondod?”
“They’re not human. They’re related to the Nondads of Campannlat. He’s got eight fingers on each hand-you’ll see when he takes his gloves off. They tolerate the phagors but they never really ally themselves with humans. They’re tricky. You mustpay them and please them, or they can be difficult.”
While they were talking, they were walking back from North Sharagatt to Sharagatt. The change in temperature was marked.
She clung to his arm and said resentfully, “Why did you make me strip off in front of them? You don’t have to humiliate me just because I’m a slave.”
He laughed. “Oh, that was part of pleasing them. They wanted to see. They’ll think the better of me for it.”
“I don’t think the better of you for it.”
“Ah, but I am lead dog.”
She said viciously, “Why didn’t you come into mysleeping bag? Are you weird or something? Aren’t I supposed to be yours to biwack whenever you feel the urge?”
“Oh, you want me now? That’s a change of t une.” He gave a short angry laugh. “Then you’ll be pleased about tonight’s arrangements.”
They collected Fashnalgid, who was drinking spirits at a wayside stall. Shokerandit then spent a while in a small shop, haggling over the price of a bright yellow-and-red striped blanket. The inevitable pattern of the Great Wheel was woven among its stripes.
“Beholder, how you waste your money!” Fashnalgid said. “I thought you’d been so careful to get all the necessary supplies already.”
“I like the look of this blanket. Pretty, isn’t it?”
He paid up and draped the colourful blanket over his shoulder before starting back for North Sharagatt. Other travellers took no apparent notice of him; all were dressed unpredictably against the cold mountain air. Fashnalgid looked on in amazement as, at another stall, Shokerandit paid dear for a skinned smoked kid.
A man at the North Travel Stores said that Uuundaamp was asleep. Shokerandit went alone to the makeshift dwelling carved from the rock at the back of the store, behind the asokin pens. Some Ondod were sitting on the floor eating strips of raw meat. Others slept with their women on shelves built against the cliff.
Uuundaamp was wakened, and came forward scratching his armpits and yawning, showing teeth almost as sharp as those of his animals.
“You make hard chief, start three hour too much. I no your man till fifteen.”
“Sorry. Look, I want to start soonest. I bring you present, ishto?”
He threw the smoked baby goat on the floor. Uuundaamp immediately sat down on the floor and called to his friends. He pulled out a knife and beckoned to Shokerandit with it. “All come eat, friend. Gumtaa. Then make quick start.”
As everyone gathered round, Uuundaamp called to his wife as an afterthought. She rolled off the shelf she had shared and came forward, bundled in bedding. All that was visible of her was a round face with black eyes much like Uuundaamp’s. She made no attempt to join the greedy circle of men. Instead, she stood meekly behind Uuundaamp, deftly catching a scraggy slice of meat when he tossed it to her over his shoulder.
While Shokerandit chewed his meat, he observed the hands of the men. They were narrow and sinewy, and bore eight fingers. The blunt clawlike nails were uniformly black, gleaming with filth and fat lodged under them.
“Gumtaa,” said Uuundaamp, with his cheeks bulging. “Gumtaa,” agreed Shokerandit.
“Gumtaa,” agreed the other Ondod. The woman, being a woman, was not called upon to say whether she thought the food was good or not.
Soon, nothing but bones and horns were left of the kid. Uuundaamp rose immediately, wiping his hands on his suit of fur. “By way, chief,” he said, still chewing, “this horrid bag behind me with belly full of gas and babies is my woman. Name Moub. You can forget. She come together us. You no mind.”
“She is as welcome as she is beautiful, Uuundaamp. I am carrying this blanket for myself, which I did not intend to give away, but in view of Moub’s loveliness, I wish you to give it to her as a present.” “Loobiss. You give, chief. Then she not lose it. She kiss you.” So Shokerandit presented the yellow-and- red striped blanket to Moub. “Loobiss,” she said. “Far too good for any bag belong this vile Uuundaamp.”
She hopped nimbly forward and kissed Shokerandit with her full and greasy lips.
“Gumtaa. Any time you want biwack, chief, you use Moub. She look horrid but she got all that stuff there, ishto?”
“Loobiss!” Their friendship had been properly cemented. Happiness swept through Shokerandit, as he recalled sleigh rides with his mother when he was a child, and playing with Ondod children on their estates. His mother had always found the Ondod coarse and beastly, perhaps because of the peculiar conventions between the sexes, which relied on insult. Later, he and his friends had visited a shack on the edge of the caspiarn forests. His first sexual experiences had been with Ondod females. He remembered a rotund girl called Ipaak. To Ipaak he had always been “the pink stinker.”
Stern discipline for asokins, stern discipline for travellers. That was the rule for journeys between Kharnabhar and the outside world. Uuundaamp sat at the front of the sledge with the whip, Moub lumpish just behind him. The phagor, Bhryeer, rode at the back, standing upright to steer the long vehicle, often jumping off to left or right, sometimes pushing when the incline was steep enough for the asokins to require help. The three humans sat astride the tarpaulin-covered supplies, on one side or the other according to the direction of the wind.
It was easy to fall off the sledge. An eye had to be kept on the driver, for a hint of which way they might be turning. Sometimes Uuundaamp could hardly be seen for the snow that fell in flurries from the heights of the chain above them. They had crossed the treacherous Venj by-wooden bridge, and were now proceeding on a roughly north-northeasterly course under the high spine of Shivenink, where ice prevailed above the ten-thousand-metre line for all of the Great Year.
Even when the air was clear of snow, the breath of the dogs rose like steam and concealed them from the passengers. The team included one bitch, to keep the other seven doing their utmost. The dogs frequently broke wind at the start of a new lap of the journey. Their panting could be heard above the shrill of the metal runners. Otherwise, sounds were muffled. There was no visibility, except for white walls on either side. The smell of the dogs and of stale clothes became part of the scene. Monotony dulled the
sense of danger. Weariness, the reflections of the snow, reveries that ran half-formed through the mind, these filled the days.
The asokins were attached to the sledge by twenty feet of leather harness. They were allowed to rest for ten minutes every three hours. Then all eight would lie down except for Uuundaamp the leader. The man Uuundaamp was at least as close to his asokins as he was to Moub. They were his life.
During the break, Uuundaamp did not rest. He and Moub would walk restlessly about, studying natural phenomena-the shape of clouds, the f light of birds, any nuance of change in weather, tracks of animals, sounds and signs of landslides.
Sometimes they met pilgrims coming or going, making the great journey on foot. There were other sledges on the route, bells ringing. Once they were caught behind a slow herring-train and forced to tag along slowly before the vehicle moved into a passing place. The herring-train was a land version of the herring-coach. It bore barrels of pickled fish up to the distant rendezvous.
The asokins barked furiously whenever they met with another vehicle, but the rival drivers never moved a muscle in greeting.
The night’s break also had its set pattern. Uuundaamp pulled the team off the track in selected places he knew about. He then immediately went about settling the dogs, which had to be staked separately and away from the sledge, so that they did not eat its skins. Each asokin was fed two pounds of raw meat every third day; they worked best when starved. But each night they got a herring apiece, which Uuundaamp threw to each asokin in turn, starting with Uuun-daamp. They caught the fish in midair, swallowing it at a gulp. The bitch was last to be fed. The lead dog slept some way from the rest of the team. If snow fell during the night, the dogs remained under it, in small caverns carved by their own heat. Bhryeer the phagor slept with them.
At a night’s stop, everything had to be made ready for the evening meal inside fifteen minutes.
“It’s not possible. What’s the point?” Fashnalgid complained. “The point is that it’s possible and must be done,” Shokerandit said. “Stretch the tent, hold tight.”
They were stiff with cold. Their noses were peeling, their cheeks blackened by frost.
The sledge had to be unloaded. The tent was pitched over it and secured, which often entailed a battle against wind. Skins were stretched across the sledge. On this, the five of them slept, to be off the ground. Belongings required overnight were arranged nearby: food, stove, knives, oil lamp. Although the temperature in the tent generally remained below zero, they found themselves sweating in the confined space, after the cold of the journey.
When Uuundaamp entered on the first night, he found the three humans quarrelling.
“No more speak. Be good. Anger bring smrtaa.” “I can’t stand four weeks of this,” Fashnalgid said. “If you disobey him, he will simply leave,” Shokerandit said. “All he asks is that you put your personality away to sleep for the journey. The cold will not allow quarrels, or death will strike.” “Let the sherb leave.”
“We’d die here without him-can’t you understand hat?” “Occhara soon, soon,” said Uuundaamp, nudging Fashnalgid. He handed Moub a pair of silver foxes to cook. They came from traps he had set on his previous journey.
A pleasant fug arose in the tent. The meat smelt good. They ate with filthy hands, afterwards drinking melted snow water from a communal mug.
“Food ishto?” asked Moub. “Gumtaa,” they said.
“She bad cook,” Uuundaamp said, as he lit up pipes of occhara and handed them round. The lamp was providently extinguished and they smoked in peace. The howl of the wind seemed to die away. Good feelings overcame them. The smoke filtering through their nostrils was the breath of a mysterious better life. They were the children of the mountain and it had them in its care. No harm comes to those who have eaten silver fox. For all the differences between men and women, and between men and men, all have this good thing in common-that the divine smoke pour s from their noses, and perhaps from eyes and ears and other orifices. Sleep itself is but another orifice in the mountain god. Sometimes in sleep men become the dream of the silver fox.
In the morning, when they struggled in the dull, bitter air to fold the tent, Toress Lahl said secretly to Shokerandit, “How degraded you are and how I hate you! Last night, you biwacked with that bag of lard, Moub. I heard you. I felt the sledge tremble.”
“I was being courteous to Uuundaamp. Pure courtesy. Not pleasure.”
He had discovered that the Ondod female was far gone with child.
“No doubt your courtesy will be rewarded with a disease.”
Uuundaamp came up smiling with the two silver fox tails. “Carry these at teeth. Gumtaa. Keep off cold from face.”
“Loobiss. Have you one for Fashnalgid?”
“That man, he got tail grow along face,” said Uuundaamp, indicating the captain’s moustache, and laughing merrily.
“At least he means to be kind,” Toress Lahl said, hesitatingly placing the tail between her teeth to protect her chapped nose and cheeks.
“Uuundaamp is kind. And when we stop tonight you must be kind to him. Return his favour.”
“Oh, no ... Luterin . . . not that, please. I thought you had some feeling for me.”
He turned savagely on her. “I have some feeling for getting us safe to Kharnabhar. I know the conventions of these people and these journeys and you don’t. It’s a code, a matter of survival. Stop thinking you are so special.”
Bitterly hurt, she said, “So you don’t care, I suppose, that Fashnalgid rapes me whenever your back is turned.”
He dropped the tent and grasped her jacket.
“Are you lying to me? When did he do it? Tell me when. Then and when else. How many times?”
He listened bleakly as she told him.
“Very well, Toress Lahl.” He spoke in no more than a whisper, his face hard. “He has broken the honour that existed between us as officers. We need him on this journey. But when we get to my father’s home, I shall kill him. You understand? For now, you say nothing.”
Without further words, they loaded up the sledge. Smrtaa-retribution. A prominent feature of life in these parts. Uuundaamp was harnessing up the dogs, and in a few minutes they were once more on their way through the mist, Shokerandit and Toress Lahl biting on their fox tails.
The unsleeping machines of the Avernus still recorded events below, and transmitted them automatically back to Earth. But the few humans surviving on the Observation Station took little interest in
that primary function; their own primary function was to survive. Their numbers were so far down- lowered by disease as well as fighting- that defence became a less pressing need.
Much time was spent establishing tribes and tribal territory, to obviate pitched battles. In neutral territory between tribes, the obscene puden-dolls survived, to become something sacroscanct, something between gods and demons.
Though a measure of “peace” descended, the earlier destruction of food synthesising plants meant that cannibalism was still prevalent. There was almost no meat but human meat. The heavy tabus against this practice fell with great force upon the delicately trained sensibilities of the Avernians. To descend to barbarism and worse within a generation was more than their psyches could easily endure.
The tribes became matriarchies, while many of the younger men, mainly adolescent, developed multiple personalities. As many as ten different personalities could house themselves in one body, differing in inclination, age, and sex, as well as habits. Ascetic vegetarians were common, .living an eye’s blink away from stone age savages, tempestuous dancers from lawgivers.
The complex separation from nature undergone by the Avernian colonisers had now reached its limits. Not only did individuals not know each other: they were now strangers to themselves.
This adaptation to stress situations was not for everyone. When severe fighting first broke out, a number of technicians left the Avernus. They stole a craft from one of the Observation Station s maintenance bays and fled. They landed on Aganip.
Tempting though the green, white, and blue planet of Helliconia looked, its danger was known to all. Aganip occupied a special place in the mythology of Avernus, for it was here, many centuries ago, that Earth’s colonising starship had established a base while the Avernus was being constructed.
Aganip was a lifeless planet, with an atmosphere consisting almost entirely of carbon dioxide, together with a little nitrogen. But the old base still stood, and offered something of a welcome.
The escapers built a small dome. There they lived in restricted circumstances. At first they sent out signals to Earth and then-being naturally unwilling to wait two thousand years for an answer- to the Avernus. But the Avernus had its own problems and did not reply.
The escapers had failed to understand the nature of mankind: that it, like the elephant and the common daisy, is no more and no less than a part and function of a living entity. Separated from that entity, humans, being more complex than elephants and daisies, have little chance of flourishing. The signals continued automatically for a long while.
No one heard.