The night was alive. So thickly was the snow falling that, brushing against a human face in its descent, it resembled the fur of a great beast. The fur was less cold than suffocating: it occupied space normally taken up by air and sound. But when the sledge stopped, the staid brazen tongue of a bell could be distantly heard.
Luterin Shokerandit helped Toress Lahl down from the sledge. The churn of snowflakes had confused her. She stood with bowed shoulder, sheltering her eyes.
“Where are we?”
She saw nothing, only the animal dark, rolling, rolling towards her. Dimly, she made out Shokerandit, a bear walking, as he staggered towards the front of the sledge. There he embraced both Uuundaamp and the Ondod mother, clutching her infant into the coloured blanket.
Uuundaamp lifed his whip in farewell and flashed his unreliable smile. Came the jar-jar of his warning bell, the slice of his whip over the team, and the outfit was swallowed immediately by the whirling murk.
Bent almost double, Shokerandit and Toress Lahl made their way to a gate beyond which a dim light burned. He pulled a metal bell handle. They leaned exhaustedly against the stone pillar of the gate until a muffled military figure appeared from a shelter somewhere beyond the bars. The gate swung open.
They sheltered, panting, saying nothing to each other, until the guard returned after securing the gate and scrutinised them under his lantern.
The guard’s lineaments were those of an old soldier.
His mouth was tight, his gaze evaded other eyes, his expression gave nothing away. He stood his ground and asked, “What do you want?”
“You’re speaking to a Shokerandit, man. Where are your wits?”
The challenging tone made the guard look more closely. With no change of expression, he said finally, “You wouldn’t be Luterin Shokerandit?”
“Have I been away that long, you fool? Will you stand there and have me freeze?”
The man allowed his glance to take in Luterin’smetamorphosed bulk in one mute, insulting glare. “A cab to take you up the drive, sir.”
As he turned away, Luterin, still nettled at not being recognised, said, “Is my father in residence?”
“At present not, sir.”
The guard put his free hand to the side of his mouth and bawled to a slave lurking at the rear of the guardhouse. In a short while, the cabriolet appeared through the blizzard, drawn by two yelk already encrusted in snow.
It was a mile from the gate to the ancient house, through land still known as the Vineyard. Now it was rough pasturage, where a local strain of yelk was bred.
Shokerandit alighted. The snow whirled round the comer of the house as if personally interested in turning them to ice. The woman closed her eyes and clutched Shokerandit’s skins. Following ghostly materialisations of the structure, they climbed steps to the iron-banded front door. Above them sounded the dismal tolling bell, long drawn out, like a sound heard underwater. Other bells, drowning farther off, added their tongues.
The door opened. Dim guardian figures showed, helping the two new arrivals inside. The snow ceased, the roaring and clanging ceased, as bolts were shot home behind them.
In an echoing darkened hall, Shokerandit exchanged words with a servant unseen. A lamp glittered high on a marble wall, not yielding its illumination beyond the frosty surface which reflected it. They padded upstairs, each step with its own protesting noise. A heavy curtain was drawn back as if to abet the powers of darkness and stealth. They entered. While the woman stood, the servant lit a light and quit the room, bowing.
The room smelt dead. Shokerandit turned up the wick of his lamp.
An impression of space, a low ceiling, shutters ineffectively barring out the night, a bed . . . They struggled out of their filthy garments.
They had been travelling for thirty-one days and, since Sharagatt, had been allowed only six and a half hours of sleep a day, rarely more, sometimes less, according to whether Uuundaamp considered the police were closing on them. Their faces were blackened by frost and lined by exhaustion.
Toress Lahl took a blanket from a couch and prepared to lie beside the bed. He climbed into the bed and beckoned her to join him.
“You sleep with me now,” he said.
She stood before him, her expression still dazed from the journey. “Tell me what place we are in now.”
He smiled. “You know where we are. This is my father’s house in Kharnabhar. Our troubles are over. We are safe here. Get in.”
She attempted a smile in return. “I am your slave and so I obey, master.”
She got in beside him. Her answer did not satisfy him, but he put his arms about her and made love to her. After which, he fell asleep immediately.
When she awoke, Shokerandit had gone. She lay gazing at the ceiling, wondering what he was trying to demonstrate by leaving her on her own. She felt herself unable to move from the comfortable bed, to face the challenges that would have to be met. Luterin was well disposed to her, and more than that; she had no doubts on that score. For him, she could feel only hatred. His casual handing over of her to the animal who drove the sledge, a humiliation still fresh in her mind, was merely the latest of his coarse treatments. Of course, she reflected, he did not do these things to her personally; he was merely conforming to fashion and treating her as slaves were treated.
She had good reason to hope that he might restore her social status. She would be a slave no more. But if that entailed marrying him, her husband’s murderer, she did not think she could go through with it, even to ensure her own safety.
To make matters worse, she felt a dread of this place to which she had been brought. A spirit seemed to brood over it, chill, hostile.
She rolled over unhappily in the great bed, to discover that a female slave was waiting silently, kneeling by the door. Toress Lahl sat up, pulling the sheet over her naked breasts. “What are you doing there?”
“Master Luterin sent me in to attend you and bathe you when you woke, lady.” The girl bowed her head as she spoke. “Don’t call me lady. I am a slave justas you are.” But the response merely embarrassed the girl. Resigning herself to the situation and half-amused, Toress Lahl climbed naked from the bed. She raised an imperious hand.
“Attend me!” she said.
Nodding compliantly, the girl came forward and escorted Toress Lahl to a bathroom, where warm water ran from a brass tap. The whole mansion was heated by biogas, the slave explained, and the water too.
As Toress Lahl reclined in the luxurious water, she surveyed her body. It had grown less bulky with the rigours of the journey. Down both sides of her thighs, the scratches inflicted by Uuundaamp’s claws were slowly healing. Rather worse, she suspected that she might be pregnant. By whom she could not say, but she thanked the Beholder that matings between Ondods and humans were never fertile.
Borldoran and her home town of Oldorando were thousands of miles away. If she ever saw the pleasant land of her birth again, she would be more than lucky. A female slave’s life was generally wretched and short. She thought to ask the girl attending her about that, then considered it wiser to hold her tongue. If Luterin married her, she would be a thousand times better off.
What would he say? Would he ask her? Tell her? She would have to go through with it, whatever he did.
After the maid had dried her, she put on a satara gown provided for her. She sank back on the bed and delivered herself into a state of pauk. It was the first time that she had descended into the world of the gos-sies since leaving Rivenjk. There below her, in obsidian where all decisions had finally been made, waited the spark of her dead husband, calling her to him.
The estate looked as beautiful as ever. The continuing wind from the north had blown most of the night’s snow into drifts. Exposed areas were clear.To the south of every tree lay a line of snow, fine honed as a bird’s bone. The Chief Steward, an agreeable man Luterin had known since his childhood accompanied him on his survey. Ordinary life was beginning again.
Great caspiams and brassimips stood in wind-deflecting parade. On all sides, distant or near, rose snowy peaks, the daughters of the chain, generally sulking in cloud. To the north, the cloud allowed glimpses of the Holy Mountain, in which was the Great Wheel. Luterin broke off the conversation to raise his gloved hand in salute.
He wore a warm greatcoat over his clothes, and had attached his hip-bell to his belt. In the stable yard, slaves naked to the waist had brought a young gunnadu for him to ride. These two-legged, large-eared creatures balanced themselves by means of long tails, and ran on clawed birdlike feet. Like the yelk and biyelk with which they associated in the wild, the gunnadu were necrogenes. Thus they belonged to a category of animal which could give birth only through its own death. Luterin’s mother had said bitterly to him once, “Not unlike humanity.”
Gunnadu were without wombs; the sperm developed into grubs inside the stomach, where they fed, working outwards until reaching an artery. From there they exploded throughout the maternal body, caus- ing rapid death. The grubs pupated through several stages, feeding on the carion, until of a size to survive in the outside world as small gunnadu.
Fully grown gunnadu made docile mounts, but tired easily. They were ideal for short journeys, such as an inspection of the Shokerandit estate. He felt himself safe here. The police would never enter one of the great estates. While his father was away enjoying the hunt, Luterin was in charge. Despite his long absence, despite his metamorphosis, he fell into the role with ease. From the Chief Steward down to the lowest slave, everyone knew him. It was absurd to think of any other life. And he was the perfect only son.
He had duties. Those he would attend to. He must introduce Toress Lahl to his mother. And he would have to speak to Insil Esikananzi; that might be a little awkward. . . . Meanwhile, there were more im- portant duties.
He had matured. He caught himself reflecting that it was no bad thing that his father was absent. Always before this, he had missed him. Lobanster Shokerandit’s word hereabouts was law, as it was with his one remaining son. But the formidable Keeper of the Wheel was frequently absent. He liked to live rough, he said, and his hunting trips took up two or three tenners at a time. Off he would go, taking his dogs and his yelk with him. Sometimes he went accompanied only by his mute hunt captain, Liparotin. A farewell wave and he would be away, into the trackless wilds.
From his childhood, Luterin remembered that casual gesture of the hand upraised. Less a sign of love for him and his mother as they watched him depart, more a sign of acknowledgement to the spirit which presided over the lonely mountains.
Luterin had grown up missing his father. His withdrawn mother was hardly compensating company. Once he had insisted on accompanying his father and his brother, Favin. He had been proud then, among the proud caspiams; but Lobanster had appeared vexed with his sons, and they had returned home after no more than a week away.
He sniffed. He told himself that he too was a solitary, like his father. And then his thoughts swung back to Harbin Fashnalgid, last seen when Uuundaamp had turned him off the sledge. Only now did he realise he liked Fashnalgid, and should try to do something for him. His jealous anger at the man for possessing Toress Lahl was over.
Now he could recall Harbin uttering his unseemly oath, and smile. What an outcast the man was! Perhaps that was why it rankled when he called Luterin a victim of the system, or whatever the phrase was. The captain also had had a good side to his nature.
He and the Chief Steward visited the stungebag enclosure. The slow creatures were much as he remembered them. It was said that the Shokerandits had bred stungebags through four Great Years. The stungebags looked like badly thatched caterpillars or, when stretched to their full length, like fallen trees. They were combined animal and plant, a sport born at the melting time when the planet was showered by high-energy radiation.
Slaves were working in the hoxney paddock. Droves of hoxneys had once roved the uplands. Now they were starting to go into hibernation. In one of the corners of the estate, slaves were collecting the animals and storing them away in dry barns, prising them out of the nooks and crannies in which they had hidden. The animals relapsed swiftly into a shrunken, glassy state, their energies draining. They would come to resemble small translucent figures. Already, some were losing their dull brown colour and exhibiting colourful horizontal stripes, as they had done in the Great Spring.
In the hibernatory state, the hoxneys were known as glossies, perhaps not only for their shine, but because, like gossies, they were not entirely dead.
The estate manager, a freeman, came up and touched his hat.
“Glad to see you back, master. We’re packing the glossies with hay between, as you may observe, to protect the creatures. They should be all right when spring arrives, if so happen it ever does.”
“It’ll come. It’s only a matter of centuries.”
“So you scholars say,” said the man, with a conspiratorial grin at the steward.
“The principle is to organise for spring now. By storing these hoxneys safely, instead of leaving them to the vagaries of nature, we guarantee a good riding herd when the time comes.”
“ ‘Twill be long past our lifetimes.”
“Someone will be here, I don’t doubt, to be grateful for our providence.”
But he spoke absentmindedly, with Fashnalgid still on his mind.
When he got back to the mansion, he summoned his father’s secretary,a learned withdrawn man called Evanporil. He gave Evanporil instructions that four armed liegemen were to be sent on two giant biyelk as far down the road as Noonat, to seek out Fashnalgid if he was to be found. Fashnalgid was to be brought back to the safety of the Shokerandit estate. The secretary left about his task.
Luterin ate some lunch, and only then thought that he should visit his mother.
The hall of the great house was gloomy. There were no windows on the lower floor, so as to render the structure more impervious to ice, snow, and flood. A great heavy chair stood empty on the marble tiling; as far as Luterin knew, no one had ever sat in it.
Between the dim wall lamps, fed from the biogas chambers, skulls of phagors projected from the walls. These were specimens that Lobanster and other Shokerandits before him had killed. They remained now with their horns held high, their shadowed eye sockets observing with melancholy the far recesses of the hall.
He paused on the way to his mother’s quarters,aware of an uproar outside. Someone was shouting in a thick drunken voice. Shokerandit ran for a side door, hip-bell clattering. A slave hastily flung back the bolts to allow him passage.
In a court overlooked by the upper windows of the mansion, a liegeman and two freemen were brandishing swords. They had cornered six dehorned phagors. One of the phagors, a gillot with thin withered dugs which spoke of years in captivity, was calling out in a hoarse voice, in Sibish, “You not to kill, you vile Sons of Freyr! This Hrl-Ichor Yhar come back belong to us, the ancipitals! Stop! Stop!” “Stop!” Shokerandit said.
The men had already killed one of the ahumans. A swordsman had disembowelled a stallun with a downward slash of his sword. Ancipital eddre lodged in their carcasses above their lungs. As Shokerandit bent over the corpse, which was still in spasm, the intestines slithered forth on a tide of yellow blood.
The mass loosened itself and began slowly to evacuate the cavern of the ribs like a concoction of soft- boiled eggs in jelly. Beige shadows ran between little glistening mounds which came creeping out of the wound like a living mass, flowing thickly over the flags and into the cracks between the flags, flowing until all poured forth, separate organs no longer distinguishable in the general exodus, leaving a hollow behind them.
Shokerandit tugged back the dead creature’s ear to expose its blaze mark.
He glared at the men.
“These are our slave ancipitals. What are you doing?”
The liegeman was scowling. “Best mind out the way, master. Orders are to kill off all phagors, whether ours or otherwise.”
The five phagors began shouting hoarsely and scrambling to get past the men, who immediately brought their swords to the ready.
“Stop. Drikstalgil, who gave you these orders?” He remembered the liegeman’s name.
Keeping one eye on the ancipitals and his sword ready, the liegeman dipped into his left pocket and brought out a folded paper.
“Secretary Evanporil issued me this this morning. Now, stand back, if you would not mind, master, or you’ll get crushed.”
He handed Shokerandit a poster, which Shokerandit flapped open with an angry gesture. It was printed in heavy black letters.
The poster announced that a New Act had been passed, in a further attempt to keep down the Plague known as the Fat Death. The Ancipital Race had been identified as the main Carrier of the Plague. All Phagors must therefore be killed. Phagor slaves must be put down. Wild Phagors should be shot on sight. A bounty would be paid of One Sib per ancipital head by the appropriate authority in each District. Henceforth, the possession of Phagors was illegal, under Penalty of Death. By Order of the Oligarch.
“Put up your swords until I give you further orders,” Shokerandit said. “No more killing till I say so. And get this corpse away from here.”
When the men reluctantly did as he instructed, Shokerandit went back into the house, marching angrily upstairs to see the secretary.
The mansion was full of ancient prints, many of them engraved by a steel process in Rivenjk, when that city had boasted an artistic colony. Most of the prints depicted scenes suitable to wild mountainous areas: hunters coming unexpectedly upon bears in clearings, bears coming unexpectedly upon hunters, stags at bay, men mounted on yelk leaping into chasms, women being stabbed in gloomy forests, lost children dying in pairs upon exposed crags.
Beside the secretary’s door was a print of a soldier- priest on guard before the very portals of the Great Wheel. He stood stiffly upright while spearing to death an immense phagor which had leaped from a hole to attack him. The engraving was entitled-the Sibi sh lettering executed with many a curlicue-“An Old Antagonism.”
“Very appropriate,” Shokerandit said aloud, thumped on Evanporil’s door, and entered.
The secretary was standing by his window, looking out, and enjoying a cup of pellamountain tea. He inclined his head and looked slyly at Shokerandit without speaking.
Shokerandit spread the poster out on his desk.
“You did not tell me about this when I was here earlier. How’s that?”
“You did not ask me, Master Luterin.”
“How many ancipitals do we employ on the estate?”
The secretary answered without hesitation. “Six hundred and fifteen.”
“It would be a tremendous loss to slaughter them. The new Act is not to be complied with. First, I am going into town to see what the other landlords make of it.”
Secretary Evanporil coughed behind his fingers. “I wouldn’t advise a visit to town just now. We have reports of some disturbance there.”
“What kind of disturbance?”
“The clergy, Master Luterin. The live cremation of Priest-Supreme Chubsalid has caused a great deal of disaffection. A tenner has passed since his death, and I’m given to understand that the occasion was marked this morning by the burning of an effigy of the Oligarch. Member Ebstok Esikananzi led some men to quell the display, but there has been trouble since.”
Shokerandit sat himself on the edge of the desk.
“Evanporil, tell me, do you consider that we can afford to kill over six hundred phagors out of hand?”
“That’s not for me to say, Master
Luterin. I am only an administrator.”
“But the Act-it’s so arbitrary. Don’t you think so?”
“I would say, since you ask me, Master Luterin, that, if scrupulously carried out, the Act will rid Sibornal of the ancipital kind for ever. An advantage, wouldn’t you say?”
“But the immediate loss of cheap labour to us ... I don’t imagine my father will be best pleased.”
“That may be, sir, but for the general good . . .” The secretary let the sentence hang.
“Then we will not implement the Act until my father returns. I shall write to Esikananzi and the other landlords to that effect. See that the managers are clear on that score immediately.”
Shokerandit spent the afternoon happily riding about the estate, ensuring that no more phagors were harmed. He rode out some miles to call on his father’s cousins, who had another estate in a mountainous region. With his mind full of plans, he forgot entirely about his mother.
That night he made love to Toress Lahl as usual. Something in the words he uttered, or in the way he touched her, woke a response in her. She became a different person, yielding, imaginative, fully alive. An exhilaration beyond mere happiness filled Luterin. He thought he had won a great gift. All the pains of life were worth such delight.
They spent the whole night in the closest embraces, moving slowly, moving wildly, moving scarcely at all. Their spirits and bodies were one.
Towards morning, Luterin fell asleep. He was immediately in the dreamworld.
He was walking through a sparse landscape almost bereft of trees. It was marshy underfoot. Ahead lay a frozen lake whose immensity could not be judged. It was the future: all-powerful night prevailed in a small winter during the Weyr-Winter. Neither sun was in the sky. A lumbering animal with rasping breath followed him.
It was also the past. On the shores of the lake were camped all the men who had died violently in the Battle of Isturiacha. Their wounds still remained, disfiguring them. Luterin saw Bandal Eith Lahl there, standing apart with his hands in his pockets, gazing down at the ground.
Under the ice of the lake, something gigantic was penned. He recognised that this was where the breathing came from.
The being surged forth from the ice. The ice did not break. The being was a huge woman with a lustrous black skin. She rose and rose into the sky. No one saw her but Luterin.
She cast a benevolent gaze on Luterin and said, “You will never have a woman to make you entirely happy. But there will be much happiness in the pursuit.”
Much more she said, but this was all Luterin could remember when he woke up.
Toress Lahl lay beside him. Not only were her eyes shut: her whole countenance presented a closed appearance. A lock of hair lay across her face; she bit it, as recently she had bitten the fox tail to preserve her from the cold of the trail. She scarcely breathed. He recognised that she was in pauk.
Finally she returned. She stared and looked at him almost without recognition.
“You never visit those below?” she said in a small voice.
“Never. We Shokerandits regard it as gross superstition.”
“Do you not wish to speak with your dead brother?”
After a silence, he clutched her hand and asked, “You have been communing with your husband again?”
She nodded without speaking, knowing it was bitter to him. After a moment, she said, “Isn’t this world we live in like an evil dream?”
“Not if we live by our beliefs.”
She clung to him then and said, “But isn’t it truethat one day we shall grow old, and our bodies decay, and our wits fail? Isn’t that true? What could be worse than that?”
They made love again, this time more from fear than affection.
After he had done the rounds of the estate the next day, and found everything quiet, he went to visit his mother.
His mother’s rooms were at the rear of the mansion. A young servant girl opened the door to him, and showed him into his mother’s anteroom. There stoodhis mother, in characteristic pose, hands clasped tightly before her, head slightly on one side as she smiled quizzingly at him.
He kissed her. As he did so, the familiar atmosphere that she carried round with her enveloped him. Something in her attitude and her gestures suggested an inward sorrow, even-he had often thought it- an illness of some kind: and yet an illness, a sorrow, so familiar that Lourna Shokerandit drew on them almost as a substitute for other marked characteristics.
As she spoke gently to her son, not reproaching him for failing to come earlier, compassion rose in his heart. He saw how age had increased its tyranny upon her since their last meeting. Her cheeks and temples were more hollow, her skin more papery. He asked her what she had been doing with herself.
She put out a hand and touched him with a small pressure, as if uncertain whether to draw him nearer or push him away.
“We won’t talk here. Your aunt would like to see you too.”
Lourna Shokerandit turned and led him into the small wood-panelled room within which much of her life was spent. Luterin remembered it from childhood. Lacking windows, its walls were covered with paintings of sunlit glades in sombre caspiarn forests. Here and there, lost among representations of foliage, women’s faces gazed into the room from oval frames. Aunt Yaringa, the plump and emotional Yaringa, was sitting in a corner, embroidering, in a chair upholstered somewhat along her own lines.
Yaringa jumped up and uttered loud soblike noises of welcome.
“Home at last, you poor poor thing! What you must have been through . . .”
Lourna Shokerandit lowered herself stiffly into a velvet-covered chair. She took her son’s hand as he sat beside her. Yaringa perforce retreated to her padded corner.
“It’s happiness to see you back, Luterin. We had suchfears for you, particularly when we heard what happened to Asperamanka’s army.”
“My life was spared through a piece of good fortune. All our fellow-countrymen were slain as they returned to Sibornal. It was an act of deep treachery.”
She looked down at her thin lap, where silences had a habit of nestling. Finally she said, without glancing up, “It is a shock to see you as you are. You have become so ... fat.” She hesitated on the last word, in view of her sister’s presence.
“I survived the Fat Death and am in my winter suit, Mother. I like it and feel perfectly well.”
“It makes you look funny,” said Yaringa, and was ignored.
He told the ladies something of his adventures, concluding by saying, “And I owe my survival in great part to a woman called Toress Lahl, widow of a Borldoranian I killed in battle. She nursed me devotedly through the Fat Death.”
“From slaves, devotion is to be expected,” said Lourna Shokerandit. “Have you been to see the Esikananzis yet? Insil will be eager to see you again, as you know.”
“I have not yet spoken to her. No.”
“I shall arrange a feast for tomorrow night, and Insil and her family shall come. We will all celebrate your return.” She clapped her hands once, without sound.
“I shall sing for you, Luterin,” said Yaringa. It was her speciality.
Lourna’s expression changed. She sat more upright in her chair.
“And Evanporil tells me that you are countermanding the new Act to destroy all phagors.”
“We could cull them gradually, Mother. But to lose all six hundred at once would be to disrupt the working of the estate. We are hardly likely to get six hundred human slaves to replace them-apart from the greater expense of human slaves.”
“We must obey the State.”
“I thought we would wait for Father’s return.”
“Very well. Otherwise, you will comply with the law? It is important for us Shokerandits to set an example.”
“I should tell you that a foreign female slave was arrested in your rooms this morning. We have her in a cell, and she will go before the local Board when they meet next.”
Shokerandit stood up. “Why was this done? Who dared intrude into my rooms?”
With composure, his mother answered, “The servant you had ordered to attend the slave woman reported that she went into a state of pauk. Pauk is proscribed by law. No less a personage than Priest- Supreme Chubsalid has gone to the stake for refusing to comply with the law. Exception can hardly be made for a foreign slave woman.”
“In this case, an exception will be made,” Shokerandit said, pale of face. “Excuse me.” He bowed to his mother and aunt and left their rooms.
In a fury, he stamped through the passages to the Estates Office. He relieved his anger by bellowing at the staff.
As he summoned the estate guard captain, Shokerandit said to himself, Very well, I shall marry Toress Lahl. I must protect her from injustice. She’ll be safe, married to a future Keeper of the Wheel . . . and perhaps this scare will persuade her not to visit the gossie of her husband so often.
Toress Lahl was released from the cell without trouble and restored to Shokerandit’s rooms. They embraced.
“I bitterly regret this indignity imposed on you.”
“I have become used to indignity.”
“Then you shall become used to something better. When the right opportunity arises, I will take you to meet my mother. She will see the kind of person you are.”
Toress Lahl laughed. “I am sure that I shall not greatly impress the Shokerandits of Khamabhar.”
The feast to mark Luterin’s return was well attended.
His mother had shaken off her lethargy to invite all local dignitaries as well as such Shokerandit relations as were in favour.
The Esikananzi family arrived in force. With Member Ebstok Esika-nanzi came his sickly-looking wife, two sons, his daughter Insil Esikananzi, and a train of subsidiary relations.
Since Luterin and Insil had last met, she had developed into an attractive woman, though a heaviness in her brow prevented true beauty-as well as sugges ting that tendency to meet fate head-on which had long been a quality of the Esikananzis. She was elegantly dressed in a grey velvet gown reaching to the floor, adorned by the sort of wide lace collar she favoured. Luterin noted how the formal politeness with which she covered her disgust at his metamorphosis studiedly emphasised that disgust.
All the Esikananzis tinkled to a great extent; their hip-bells were very similar in tone. Ebstok’s was the loudest. In a loud whisper, he spoke of his bottomless sorrow at the death of his son Umat at Isturia-cha. Luterin’s protest that Umat was k illed in the great massacre outside Koriantura was swept aside as lies and Campannlatian propaganda. Member Ebstok Esikananzi was a thickset man of dark and intricate countenance. The cold endured on his frequent hunts had brought a maze of red veins creeping like a species of plant life over his cheeks. He watched the mouths, not the eyes, of those who addressed him.
Member Ebstok Esikananzi was a man who believed in being unafraid to speak his mind, despite the fact that this organ, when spoken, had only one theme to sound: the importance of his opinion.
As they demolished the maggoty fists of venison on their plates, Esikananzi said, addressing both Luterin and the rest of the table, “You’ll have heard the news about our friend Priest-Supreme Chub-salid. Some of his followers are kicking up a bit of trouble here. Wretched man preached treason against the
State. Your father and I used to go hunting with Chubsalid in better days. Did you know that, Luterin? Well, we did on one occasion.
“The traitor was born in Bribahr, so you don’t wonder
. . . . He paid a visit to the monasteries of the Wheel. Now he takes it into his head to speak against the State, the friend and protector of the Church.”
“They have burnt him for it, Father, if that’s any consolation,” saidone of the Esikananzi sons, with a laugh.
“Of course. And his estates in Bribahr will be confiscated. I wonder who will get them? The Oligarchy will decide on what is best. The great thing is, as winter descends, to guard against anarchy. For Sib- ornal, the four main tasks are clear. To unify the continent, to strike rapidly against all subversive activity, whether in economic, religious, or academic life . . .”
As the voice droned on, Luterin Shokerandit stared down at his plate. He was without appetite. His eventful time away from Shivenink had so widened his outlook on life that he was oppressed by the sight and sound of the Esikananzis, of whom he had once been in awe. The pattern of the plate before him penetrated his consciousness; with a wave of nostalgia, he realised that it was an Odim export, despatched from the warehouse in Koriantura in better times. He thought with affection of Eedap Mun Odim and his pleasant brother-and t hen, with guilt, of Toress Lahl, at present locked in his suite for safety. Looking up he caught Insil’s cool gaze.
“The Oligarchy will have to pay for the death of the Priest-Supreme,” he said, “no less than for the slaughter of Asperamanka’s army.Why should winter be an excuse for overturning all our human values? Excuse me.”
He rose and left the room.
After the meal, his mother employed many reproaches in order to induce him to return to the company. Sheepishly, he went and sat with Insil and her family. They made stiff conversation until slaves brought in a phagor who had been taught to juggle. Under guidance from her master’s whip, the gillot jiggled a little from one foot to another while balancing a plate on her horns.
An ensemble of slaves appeared next, dancing while Yaringa Shokerandit did her party piece and sang love songs from the Autumn Palaces.
If my heart were free, if my heart were free, And wild as the dashing Venj is ...
“Are you being uncivil or merely soldierly?” Insil asked, under cover of the music. “Do you anticipate our marrying in a kind of dumb show?”
He gazed at her familiar face, smiled at her familiar teasing tone. He admired the froth of lace and linen at shoulders and breasts, and observed how those breasts had developed since their last meeting.
“What are your expectations, Insil?”
“I expect we shall do what is expected of us, like creatures in a play. Isn’t that necessary in times like these-when, as you tactfully reminded Pa, ordinary va lues are cast off like garments, in order to meet winter naked.”
“It’s more a question of what we expect from ourselves. Barbarism may come, certainly, but we can defy it.”
“Word has it that in Campannlat, following the defeat you administered to their various savage nations, civil wars have broken out and civilisation is already crumbling. Such disturbances must be avoided here at all costs . . . Notice that I have taken to talking politics since we parted! Isn’t that barbarism?”
“No doubt you have had to listen to your father preaching about the perils of anarchy many times. It’s only your neckline I find barbaric.”
When Insil laughed, her hair fell over her brow. “Luterin, I am not sorry to see you again, even in your present odd shape, disguised as a barrel. Let’s talk somewhere privately while your relation sings her heart out about that horrible river.”
They excused themselves and went together to a chill rear chamber, where biogas flames hissed a continual cautionary note.
“Now we can trade words, and let them be warmer than this room,” she said. “Ugh, how I hate Kharnabhar. Why were you fool enough to come back here? Not for my sake, was it?” She gave him a look askance.
He walked up and down in front of her. “You still have your old ways, Sil. You were my first torturer. Now I’ve found others. I am tormented-tormented by the evil of the Oligarchy. Tormented by the thought that the Weyr-Winter might be survived by a compassionate society, if men thought that way, not by a cruel and oppressive one like ours. Real evil-the Oligar ch ordered the destruction of his own army. Yet I can also see that Sibornal must become a fortress, submitting to harsh rules, if it is not to be destroyed as Campannlat will be by the oncoming cold. Believe me, I am not my old childish self.”
Insil appeared to receive the speech without enthusiasm. She perched herself on a chair.
“Well, you certainly don’t look yourself, Luterin. I was disgusted at the sight of you. Only when you condescend to smile, when you are not sulking over your plate, does your old self reappear. But the size of you ... I hope my deformities remain inside me. Any measures, however harsh, against the plague, are justified if they spare us that.” Her personal bell tinkled in emphasis, its sound calling up a fragment of the past for him.
“The metamorphosis is not a deformity, Insil; it’s a biological fact. Natural.”
“You know how I hate nature.”
“You’re so squeamish.”
“Why are you so squeamish about the Oligarch’sactions? They’re all part of the same thing. Your morality is as boring as Pa’s politics. Who caresif a few people and phagors are shot. Isn’t life one big hunt anyway?”
He stared at her, at her figure, slender and tense, as she clutched her arms against the chill of the room. Some of the affection he had once felt broke through. “Beholder, you still argue and riddle as before. I admire it, but could I bear it over a lifetime?”
She laughed back. “Who knows what we shall be called upon to endure? A woman needs fatalism more than a man. A woman’s role in life is to listen, and when I listen I never hear anything but the howl of the wind. I prefer the sound of my own voice.”
He touched her for the first time as he asked, “Then what do you want from life, if you can’t even bear the sight of me?”
She stood up, looking away from him. “I wish I were beautiful. I know I haven’t got a face-just two profiles tacked together. Then I might escape fate, or at least find an interesting one.”
“You’re interesting enough.”
Insil shook her head. “Sometimes I think I am dead.” Her tone was unemphatic; she might have been describing a landscape. “I want nothing that I know of and many things I know nothing of. I hate my family, my house, this place. I’m cold, I’m hard, and I have no soul.
“My soul flew out of the window one day, maybe when you were spending your year pretending to be dead . . . I’m boring and I’m bored. I believe in nothing. No one gives me anything because I can give nothing, receive nothing.”
Luterin was pained by her pain, but only that. As of old, he found himself at a loss with her. “You have given me much, Sil, ever since childhood.”
“I am frigid, too, I suspect. I cannot bear even to be kissed. Your pity I find contemptible.” She turned away to say, as if the admission cost her dear, “As for the thought of making love with you as you are now . . . well, it repels me ... at least, it does not attract me at all.”
Although he had no great depth of human understanding, Luterin saw how her coldness to others was part of her habit of maligning herself. The habit was more ingrained than formerly. Perhaps she spoke truth: Insil was always one for truth.
“I’m not requiring you to make love with me, dearInsil. There is someone else whom I love, and whom I intend to marry.”
She remained half turned from him, her narrow left cheek against the lace of her collar. She seemed to shrink. The wan gaslight made the skin at the nape of her neck glisten. A low groan came from her. When she could not suppress it by putting hands to mouth, she began to beat her fists against her thighs.
“Insil!” He clutched her, alarmed.
When she turned back to him, the protective mask of laughter was back on her face. “So, a surprise! I find that there was after all something I wanted, which I never expected to want. . . . But I’m too much of a handful for you, isn’t that true?”
“No, not that, not a negative.”
“Oh, yes . . . I’ve heard. The slave woman in your quarters . . . You want to marry a slave rather than a free woman, because you’ve grown like all the men here, you want someone you can possess without contradiction.”
“No, Insil, you’re wrong. You’reno free woman. You are the slave. I feel tenderly for you and always will, but you are imprisoned in your self.”
She laughed almost without scorn. “You now know what I am, do you? Always before you were so puzzled by me, so you said. Well, you are callous. You have to tell me this news without warning? Why did you not tell my father, as convention demands? You’re a great respecter of convention.”
“I had to speak to you first.”
“Yes? And have you broken this exciting news to your mother? What of the liaison between the Shokerandits and the Esikananzis now? Have you forgotten that we shall probably be forced to marry when your father returns? You have your duty as I have mine, from which neither of us has so far flinched. But perhaps you have less courage than I. If that day comes when we are forced into the same bed, I will repay you for the injury you do me today.”
“What have I done, for the Beholder’s sake? Are y ou mad because I share with you your lack of enthusiasm for our marriage? Speak sense, Insil!”
But she gave him a cold look, her eyes dark under her disordered hair. Collecting up her heavy skirt with one hand, she set the other hand pale against her cheek and hastened from the chamber.
Next morning, after Toress Lahl had bathed and a slave woman had dressed her, Luterin took her before his mother and announced formally that he intended to marry her and not Insil Esikananzi. His mother wept and threatened-and in particular th reatened the wrath of Luterin’s father-and finally retreated to her inner room.
“We shall go for a ride,” Luterin said coolly, strapping on his revolver and clipping a sling onto a short rifle. “I’ll show you the Great Wheel.”
“Am I to ride behind you?”
He regarded her judiciously. “You heard what I said to my mother.” “I heard what you said to your mother. Nevertheless, at present I am not a free woman, and this is not Chalce.”
“When we return, I will have the secretary issue you a declaration of your freedom. There are such things. Just now, I wish to be outside.” He moved impatiently to the door, where two stablemen stood holding the reins of two yelk.
“I’ll teach you the points of a yelk one day,” he said, as they moved into the grounds. “These are a domestic breed-bred by my father, and his father before him.”
Once outside the grounds of the estate, they moved into the teeth of the wind. There was no more than a foot of snow underfoot. On either side of the track, striped markers stood, awaiting the time when the snow was deep.
To get to Kharnabhar, the peak, they had to pass the Esikananzi estates. The track then wound through a tall stand of caspiarns, the branches of which were fuzzy with frost. As they advanced, bells of differing voice told of Kharnabhar, as it emerged gradually from the cloud.
Everything here was bells, indoors and out. What had once had a function-to guard against the possibility of being lost in snow or fog-was now a fashion.
Toress Lahl reined her yelk and stared ahead, holding a cloaked arm up to her face to protect her mouth. Ahead lay the village of Kharnabhar, the lodgings for pilgrims and the stalls on one side of the main track, the housing for those who worked with the Great Wheel on the other side. Most of the buildings had bells on their roofs, housed in cupolas, each with its distinctive tongue; they could be heard when the weather was too bad for them to be seen.
The track itself led uphill to the entrance to the Great Wheel. That entrance, almost legendary, had been adorned by the Architects with gigantic bird-faced oarsmen. It led into the depths of Mount Kharnabhar. The mount dominated the village.
Up the face of the mountain the buildings climbed, many of them chapels or mausoleums erected by pilgrims on this holiest of sites. Some of them stood boldly above the snow, perched on rock outcrops. Some were in ruins.
Shokerandit gestured largely ahead. “Of all this my father is in charge.”
He turned back to her. “Do you want to look more closely at the Wheel? They don’t take you in there by force. These days, you have to volunteer to get a place in the Wheel.”
As they moved forward, Toress Lahl said, “I somehow imagined that we should see a part of the Wheel from outside.”
“It’s all inside the mountain. That’s the main idea. Darkness. Darkness bringing wisdom.”
“I thought it was light brought wisdom.”
Jostling locals stared at their metamorphosed shapes. Some locals bore prominent goitres, a common malady in such mountainous inland regions. They superstitiously made the symbol of the circle as they moved towards the entrance of the Wheel with Shokerandit and Toress Lahl.
Nearer, they could see a little more: the great ramplike walls leading in from either side, as if to pour humanity down the gullet of the mountain. Above the entrance, protected from landslides by an apron, was a starkly carved scene embodying the symbolism of the Wheel. Oarsmen clad in ample garments rowed the Wheel across the sky, where could be recognised some of the zodiacal signs: the Boulder, the Old Pursuer, the Golden Ship. The stars sprang from the breast of an amazing maternal figure who stood to one side of the archway, beckoning the faithful to her.
Pilgrims, dwarfed by the statuary, knelt at the gateway, calling aloud the name of the Azoiaxic One.
She sighed. “It’s splendid, certainly.”
“To you, it may be no more than splendid. To those of us who have grown up in the religion, it is our life, the mainspring that gives us confidence to face the vicissitudes of this life.”
Jumping lightly from his yelk’s back, he took hold of her saddle and said, looking up at her, “One day, if my father finds me fit enough, I may in my turn become Keeper of the Wheel. My brother was to have been heir to the role, but he died. I hope my chance will come.”
She looked down at him and smiled in a friendly way, without understanding. “The wind’s dropped.”
“It’s generally calm here. Mount Kharnabhar is high, t he fourth highest mountain in the world, so they say. But behind it-you can’t see it for cloud-is the even grander Mount Shivenink, which shelters Kharnabhar from the winds of the pole. Shivenink is over seven miles high, and the third highest peak.
You’ll catch a glimpse of it some other time.”
He fell silent, sensing that he had been too enthusiastic. He wished to be happy, to be confident, as he had been. But the encounter with Insil the previous evening had upset him. Abruptly he jumped back on his yelk and led away from the entrance to the Wheel.
Without speaking, he wended a way through the village street, where pilgrims were crowding among the clothing shops and bell stalls. Some munched waffles stamped with the sign of the Great Wheel.
Beyond the village was a steep ravine, with a path winding down into a distant valley. The trees grew close, with massive boulders between them. Drifts of snow lay here and there, making the route treacherous. The yelk picked their way with care, the bells on their harness jingling. Birds called in the branches high above them and they heard the sound of water falling onto rock. Shokerandit sang to himself. Batalix weakly lit their way. In the chasmlike valley below them, shadow ruled.
He halted where the track divided. One fork ran upwards along the slopes, one down. When she caught up with him, he said, “They say this valley will fill with snow when the Weyr Winter really comes- say in my grandchildren’s time, if I have any. We should take the upper track. It’s the easiest way home.”
“Where does the lower track lead?”
“There’s an old church down there, founded by a king from your part of the world, so you might be interested. And next to it is a shrine my father built in memory to my brother.”
“I’d like to see.”
The way became steeper. Fallen trees obstructed their way. Shokerandit pursed his lips to see how the estate was being neglected. They passed under a waterfall, and picked their way through a bed of snow.
Cloud clung to the hillside. Every leaf about them shone. The light was bad.
They circled past the cupola of the chapel. Its bell hung silent. When they reached level ground, they saw that a great drift of snow had sealed the door of the building.
As a native of Borldoran, Toress Lahl recognised immediately that the church was built in what was known as the Embruddockan style. Most of it lay below ground level. The steps which wound down its curving outer dome were intended to give worshippers a chance to clear their minds of worldly things before entering.
She scooped away snow so that she could peer through a narrow rectangular window set in the door. Darkness had been created inside, such light as there was penetrating from above. An old god’s portrait gazed down from behind a circular altar. She felt her breath come faster.
The name of the deity eluded her memory, but she knew well the name of the king whose bust and titles stood, sheltered from the elements, under the porch above the outer door. He was JandolAnganol, King of Borlien and Oldorando, the countries which later became Borldoran.
Her voice shook when she spoke. “Is this why I am brought here? This king is a distant ancestor of mine. His name is proverbial where I come from, though he died almost five centuries ago.”
Luterin’s only response was to say, “I know the building is old. My brother lies nearby. Come and see.”
In a moment, she collected herself and followed him, saying, “fandolAnganol . . .”
He stood contemplating a cairn. Stone was piled on stone, and capped with a. circular block of granite. His brother’s name-FAVIN- was engraved on the granit e, together with the sacred symbol of circle within circle.
To show reverence, Toress Lahl dismounted and stood with Luterin. The cairn was a brutal object in comparison with the delicately worked chapel.
Finally, Luterin turned away and pointed to the rocks above them.
“You see where the waterfall begins?”
High overhead, a spur of rock protruded. Water spouted over its lip, falling clear for seventy feet before striking stone. They could hear the sound of its descent into the valley.
“He rode out here one day on a hoxney, when the weather was better. Jumped-man and mount. The Azoiaxic knows what made him do it. My father was at home. He it was who found my brother, dead on this spot. He erected this cairn to his memory. Since then, we have not been allowed to speak his name. I believe that Father was as heartbroken as I.”
“And your mother?” she asked, after a pause.
“Oh, she was upset too, of course.” He looked up again at the waterfall, biting his lip.
“You think greatly of your father, don’t you?” “Even-one does.” He cleared his throat and added, “His influence on me is immense. Perhaps if he were away less, he would not be so close to me. Everyone knows him hereabouts for a holy man-mu ch like your ancestor, the king.”
Toress Lahl laughed. “JandolAnganol is no holy man. He is known as one of the blackest villains in history, who destroyed the old religion and burnt the leader of it, with all his followers.”
“Well, we know him here as a holy man. His name is revered locally.” “Why did he come here?”
He shook his head impatiently. “Because this is Kharnabhar. Everyone wants to be here. Perhaps he was doing penance for his sins . . .” To that she would say nothing.
He stood staring down into the valley, into the confused hillsides. “There is no finer love than that between son and father, don’t you agree? Now I have grown up, I know other kinds of love-all with their lure. None has the purity-the clarity-of the love I bear for my father. All others are full of questions, of conflicts. The love for a father is unquestioning. I wish I were one of his hounds, that I could show him unquestioning obedience. He’s away in the caspiarn forests for months at a time. If I were a hound, I could be forever at his heel, following wherever he led.”
“Eating the scraps he threw you.” “Whatever he wished.” “It’s not healthy to feel like that.”
He turned towards her, looking haughty. “I am not a lad anymore. I can please myself or I can subdue my will. So it must be with everyone. Compassion and firmness are needed. We must fight unjust laws. As long as anarchy does not take over, Weyr-Winter will be endurable. When spring comes, Sibornal will emerge stronger than ever. We are committed to four tasks. To unify our continent. To rectify work, and consolidate it organisationally with regard to depleted resources . . . Well, all that’s no concern of yours. . .
She stood apart from him. The clouds of their breath formed and dispersed without meeting. “What role do I play in your plans?”
He was uneasy with the question, but liked its bluntness. Being in Toress Lahl’s company was like occupying a different world from Insil’s. With asudden impulse, he turned and grasped her, staring into her eyes before kissing her briefly. He stepped back, drawing deep breath, drinking in her expression. Then he moved forward again and this time kissed her with greater concentration.
Even when she made some response, he could not banish the thought of Insil Esikananzi. For her part, Toress Lahl too struggled against her late husband’s phantom lips.
They broke apart.
“Be patient,” he said, as if to himself. She gave no answer.
Luterin climbed back on his mount, and led the way up the track which wound through the dark trees. The bells on the animals’ harness jingled. The littlesnowbound chapel sank behind them, soon becoming lost in the obscurity.
When he returned, a sealed note from Insil awaited him. He opened it with reluctance, but it contained only an oblique reference to their quarrel of the previous evening. It read:
You will think me hard, but there are those who are harder. They offer you greater danger than ever I could.
Do you recall a conversation we once had about the possible cause of your brother’s death? It took place, unless I dreamed it, after you had recovered from that strange horizontal interlude which followed the death. Your innocence is heroic. Let me say more soon.
I beg you use guile now. Hold “our” new secret for a while, for your own sake.
“Too late,” he said impatiently, screwing the note up into a ball.