I realize the story has rather slowed down at this point, so I'm posting six chapters this time. Is this better or worse than three at a time?
It had been raining all day. The tent, which was really quite spacious, was beginning to seem too narrow for comfort. At least it kept them dry, no matter how hard the torrent gushed. The rain was pounding on its sides, but not a single drop penetrated to them.
“I’ve always hated the rain”, said Truevow, staring at the dark splotches the raindrop made on the tent’s dark brown fabric. “It’s like a reminder.”
“A reminder of what?”, asked Fox, without much curiosity. The young man talked with barely a pause.
“Of everything bad”, said Truevow. “Everything stops for rain. It’s like a reminder of everything that frustrates us and pulls us back. All the dreary circumstances that keep us from soaring.”
“I like it”, said Fox, who had become more argumentative, the longer they spent in these never-ending hills. “I like it all the time, but especially now, because it gives me a rest”.
His body was one great ache, it seemed. He was getting used to the long slog through the wilderness. But painfully.
“You’re right”, said Truevow, with his infuriating cheerful grin. He seemed to have two basic moods; blazing with enthusiasm and poetically despondent. “How are your poor limbs?”
“My poor limbs are killing me”, said Fox, knowing that his sarcastic tone would be lost on Truevow. “And we haven’t had a glimpse of the Blue Stag.”
“I didn’t expect to have one yet”, said Truevow. “We’ve only been out eleven days.”
“Twelve”, said Fox. “Twelve days.”
“Was it twelve days?”, asked Truevow, surprised. “What a pettish girl is Time! How wayward all her moods!”
“No”, said Fox, and Truevow’s face fell for a moment. Ever since Fox had remarked on that line of Karrak’s poetry, Truevow had been quoting poems at every opportunity. Some of them excited Fox. He was surprised just how many of them did. There was one in particular—its echoes linger in my soul’s dark well—that made him want to…well, it made him want to run, and shout,
despite all his tiredness. He had never suspected words could have such power.
But lots of the others—most of them—just seemed dead as a skinned chicken. Especially the ones Truevow had composed himself.
“That wasn’t one of mine”, said Truevow, almost defiantly. “That was from a celebrated poem by Dusk’s Daughter.”
“Who was she?”, asked Fox, wondering if the next day was going to be rainy too. Even listening to Truevow for hours on end was better than putting his muscles through further punishment.
“Oh, she was one of the very best”, said Truevow, reverently. “She was the most celebrated poet of the Anarchy, in happier times. Before it was even the Anarchy.”
“What do you mean”, asked Fox, “before it was the Anarchy?”
Truevow smiled, pleased at the opportunity to give a history lesson. “More than three centuries ago”, he said, in a lecturing voice, “the Anarchy was a better place. They call it the Seven Nations now. Back then it was a more appropriate appellation…a better name”, he corrected himself, seeing the annoyed look in Fox’s eyes.
“Because they were true nations back then, independent and equal in strength, neither seeking nor yielding supremacy”, said Truevow. “Aglow with the keen but gentle light of…”
“What happened?”, Fox cut in. “Why did they stop…being like that?”
“One nation, Genn-Ran, became more wealthy and powerful than all the others”, said Truevow, his voice growing low as if burdened with the weight of the past. “Under the rule of Queen Blackletter. She was a wise and just queen, and her country grew peaceful and prosperous and strong. Too prosperous and strong, for the liking of the other six nations. They grew fearful and jealous, and allied together to attack Genn-Rann.”
“Who won?”, asked Fox, irritated to find another story that he didn’t know. History began with the Great Pledge, according to most of the Ezwayna.
“Genn-Ran”, said Truevow. “But after their victory, all the fears of their neighbours came to pass. Queen Blackletter had been killed in battle, and her successor, Queen Riverchild, exploited the power of Genn-Rann to the full, made greedy by their victory. Within thirty years, all the other nations had become servant nations, and that was the beginning of another long war. A war of liberation, this time.”
“Who won that?”, asked Fox, who could feel the ghost of a whole age, flickering and dim, forming in the chill air of the tent.
“Who ever wins any war?”, asked Truevow, and that rare anger flickered on his face again. “Nobody. There were no victors. It lasted for forty years, and thousands died in battle, and tens of thousands died of famine and plague. And in the end, Genn-Rann’s power had been broken, but all the other nations had been broken, too. All the nobility had been drained from the world, and the Anarchy was born. The war of nation against nation was over, and the war of every man against every other took its place.”
For a few minutes, the only sound was the fury of the rain against the tent. Fox wondered what a battle would be like; every moment expecting the agony of a spear or sword slicing into your guts. He prayed that the purple flash would never transport him into the middle of one. He prayed that the purple flash would never appear to him again.
“Our Empire was crumbling, too”, said Fox, dreamily. “Its enemies were cutting into it. Grandy said that he would…that it would fall within his lifetime. I wonder what it’s like now?”
Fox had tried to make it sound like a careless speculation, but for once, Truevow saw what was on Fox’s mind.
“Old people are always saying they’re going to die, Fox”, he said. “I knew one woman, a healer like Secret, who predicted her own death every year, ever since I was a little boy. She only died a couple of years before you came, on the threshold of her eightieth birthday. Your grandfather doesn’t know how long is given him any more than anybody else knows.”
A wave of gratitude passed over Fox, but his worries were not washed away so easily. “Grandy usually knows things”, he insisted. “And…he’s coughing so much now.”
“Well, perhaps he is ill”, said Truevow, looking gloomy himself. “Tomorrow is the infinite unknown.”
“What does that mean?”, asked Fox, trying to push his worries about Grandy aside.
“It means that the future is a shimmering mirage, a thing that exists but does not exist. Its ontological status has been much disputed by philosophers. There are those—“
“What does infinite mean?”, asked Fox, who was still mastering the language of the Ezwayna.
“It means endless, limitless, without boundaries”, said Truevow, showing (as usual) no irritation at being interrupted. “It’s one of my favourite words. Maybe the seventh or eighth. I can never quite decide.”
“What are the others?”, asked Fox, wondering why most grown-ups didn’t talk about this sort of thing. Things like favourite words. Interesting things.
“Ethereal”, said Truevow promptly. “Promise. Immemorial. Cobweb. Dawn. Rustle. And my favourite of all is shimmer. What’s yours?”
“Nest”, said Fox, with no more pause for thought than Truevow had needed.
“Seems a…funny kind of favourite word”, said Truevow, looking disappointed. “Homely.”
“It makes me feel safe and warm”, said Fox, feeling sad. He felt the very opposite right now.
Then there was another long stretch of silence—even Truevow ran out of things to say at times. Or perhaps he was thinking about Jasma. The rain rattled on the tent, as it had all day, but after a few minutes it seemed to be getting lighter.
“Do you think it might be clearing up?”, asked Fox, feeling depressed at the prospect of a renewed march.
“I doubt it”, said Truevow, his glumness almost comical. “This is just a break.”
The Ezwayna all seemed to have an instinctive reading of the weather, developed through years living with nature. Fox was cheered at the prospect of a longer rest. But he was glad the rain had halted for a moment; his bladder had been nagging him for a while now.
“I have to go out to, you know”, he said. Truevow nodded, and lay back on the cramped floor of the tent, putting his hands over his eyes, the image of the frustrated man of action.
Fox untied the laces of the tent’s flap, and stepped outside. Even getting to his feet made his legs cry out with cramps. Days of walking followed by hours of sitting down had taken their toll. Once again, he wondered if Armala was just playing a cruel game on him. She had certainly seemed amused.
The landscape outside had been transformed. Little lakes and pools had appeared in every furrow and depression. Leaves and shrubs and grass were glistening in the evening sun, and the air was clearer than Fox had ever seen it. There was something expectant, something solemn about the vast scene.
Fox walked purposelessly, looking for somewhere private, though they were probably the only two people within almost a hundred miles. But after a few steps, despite the cramps in his legs, and his lingering exhaustion, he began to enjoy the sensation of freedom. Staying in tent was preferable to marching all day, but it was pretty claustrophobic. The tingling in his body was actually quite pleasant now, he thought.
He picked his way over muddy brown puddles, almost losing his footing once or twice on the slippery earth. He noticed rabbits warrens that had been waterlogged, and found himself hoping that the poor things had not been drowned. Nest, he thought. What happened to bird’s nests in this kind of downpour?
He had been wandering ten minutes or so, when he found a woody nook in which to relieve himself. He wondered how long the tree he was watering had stood in this ancient tranquillity. Had humans ever passed this way before the Ezwayna? They said it was outside all of the maps of the Anarchy. This world, it seemed, was mostly vast wilderness. The Seven Nations were all concentrated in the fertile zone, as it was called. The Ezwayna had come a long, long way before they found a country they could farm. And even that had been won with enormous labour and sacrifice.
He turned back around, rearranging his clothes. And then froze.
He was looking at the Blue Stag. There was no doubt about it. It stood less than fifteen feet away.
It was perhaps the noblest animal he had ever seen. It stood almost as tall as Fox, with antlers wider and higher than any he had seen before. They curved in perfect symmetry. He was not dappled or spotted; his fur was a perfectly even blue, a blue like the sky on a warm summer afternoon. He stood with more grace than any of the wealthy, well-dressed ladies Fox had seen in the Empire, sauntering down the streets with a gang of bodyguards.
Its eyes were a deeper blue than its fur, almost purple. It was the strangest beast Fox had ever seen, but a strangeness that was in no way grotesque. It was otherworldly, exotic, almost unreal. And maddening in its beauty.
It gazed back lazily at Fox, not at all nervous like the deer he had encountered when he was following the hunters. Fox could not even imagine harming this creature.
But then it looked past Fox, alarm waking in its eyes. The boy turned around. And there, with only a few trees between them, stood a frolic bear.
He had as little trouble recognising this beast as he had recognising the Blue Stag. It did look something like a squirrel, standing on its powerful hind legs, with two smaller forelegs that seemed very like arms rubbing against each other. But its head was something like a dog’s, or a wolf’s. Its tail was enormous, and its fur was striped black and dun. It stood taller than a man, and Fox could hardly think for fear.
But it leapt past him, towards the Blue Stag.
The stag snapped out of its paralysis, and skipped across the clearing Fox had just left. Its nimbleness and speed was amazing. The frolic bear leapt after it, and Fox could understand how it earned its name. There was something almost giddy about its leaps, which carried its bulk much further than he would have thought possible. And the sound it made reminded him of the yelping of an excited child.
Fox stood rooted like a tree, watching the pursuit, horrified at the thought that the Stag would be captured. But in a few moments, he realised—almost with euphoria—that the frolic bear was being left behind, and the Stag was skipping away almost insolently.
Before long, the frolic bear realised it, too, and stopped. It let out a desolate howl, one of the most forlorn sounds Fox had ever heard. For a moment, he felt stricken with pity for it, a pity that was almost unbearable. It was like some huge baby being parted from its mother. Then it turned around, and looked at him.
It began to scamper towards him, with the same alarming speed.
He turned to run, but the stupidity of that idea struck him at once. There was no time to be afraid. Where was there to go, except for upwards?
He looked about for a suitable tree, and saw one with low, sturdy branches. He lunged towards it, and hoisted himself up on the nearest bough.
The childish yaps of the frolic bear were louder every second. He was perhaps ten feet up the tree by the time it reached it.
It jumped at the tree with horrifying confidence, and grabbed hold of a branch only a feet below the one the boy was holding. One more leap and it was hanging above him.
For a surreal moment they gazed into one another’s eyes, like guests at a dinner party. The frolic bear’s eyes were an orangey-brown. They looked into his with a keen curiosity.
And then it had bundled him up in its forelegs, which were strong beyond belief, and hurtled from the tree. A shockwave passed through Fox’s already tender body when it hit the ground. Then it was bounding into the wilderness, and Fox was hardly aware of Truevow’s voice behind, calling his name, fainter every instant. Soon it was beyond hearing. He longed for the purple flash, but it did not come.
Time changed. It was no longer a succession of moments, one after the other. It became a fevered dance. Fox kept slipping in and out of sleep, but there was no stark difference between dream and reality. He knew the frolic bear was dragging him through the forest, but it seemed to him as though the entire world was moving with them. Grandy and Armala, Jasma and Truevow, Secret and Sleep and Piper, they were all marching forwards in a great trek that would probably never end. Nothing ever stopped moving. Everything was rushing forward perpetually, and there would never be any rest.
His body throbbed with pain, and he imagined he was being punished. He didn’t know what he was being punished for, but he was certain of his own guilt. Some demonic creature was squeezing his body in a dozen places at once, and everybody—Grandy and Armala and all the others—were looking on in sad approval.
Now and again he would emerge into full consciousness, but even then, he seemed to be hovering a little bit above reality. He didn’t feel scared, or concerned. He hardly even felt curious. He just wished that the onward rush would stop. Nothing else mattered.
It couldn’t have gone on for longer than a few hours, but it seemed like a little era of its own, a miniature life.
They were moving upwards, Fox noticed in his more conscious moments. It was getting colder, and rockier. Walls of blue-grey, craggy rock began to rise up around them. The rock looked curiously light. Fox could almost imagine pulling chunks away from it with his bare hands. It gave a faint glitter, too, in the spring sun. It made him think of the sugar-coated cakes he had eaten back in the Empire.
The trees became sparser and shorter, and the air became cooler. Fox began to come out of his delerium, atlhough he still did not feel afraid. If he had thought about it, he would have assumed he was going to die. But somehow he avoided thinking about it. He took it all in like a baby listening to adults talking, absorbed by the sounds but never asking their meaning.
The bear left him several times. Fox was too weak too attempt escape. It always came back, and scooped him against its chest again. The pain made him cry out. It was not a gentle creature. And then they went shuddering through the wilderness again.
It was a beautiful and desolate country. Even in his fevered state, he could see that. It made death seem like a grim but grand thing.
He woke up in what seemed like a dark, empty space. There was rough earth under his body. He could see nothing at first. He thought he was dying, that his faculties were ebbing from him. But the tide of his senses were returning, not going out. After a few minutes, he saw a soft glow all around him.
They’re tiny stars, he thought, and he felt comforted. He had died, or passed to some other, gentler realm. God had decided that Fox had enough.
But a few minutes more passed, and he saw that he was lying in a large cave. It must have been night-time, because the only light came from whatever was sparkling in the walls and ceiling. Some kind of crystal in the rock. There was a faint blue tinge to the glow, he noticed after a while. He could hear the wind moaning outside, and the sound of splashing water, some distance away.
He lifted his neck. The action was not as painful as he expected, but perhaps he had gone beyond pain. He felt almost as if he was outside his own body; there was sensation, but it was distant and dull.
All was darkness. But somehow he felt that he was alone in the cave. If the bear had been here, he would have heard its panting. Perhaps it had gone for good. If it had, he would probably die here. He hoped it wouldn’t be a death through starvation.
He wanted to sleep, but he was thirsty. He realised that he had been thirsty for hours, and now that he was fully aware of it, it became unbearable. He tried to lift himself up, and then felt a blast of panic when his body did not respond. He was paralysed, and he wanted to scream.
After a few minutes of terror, he managed to lift one arm, and the fear faded a little. After that, the struggle to get up was nothing compared to the horror he had felt immediately before.
He got to his feet, thinking that he was going to fall over at any moment. He had felt pins and needles before. Now he felt something a hundred times stronger, not only in one limb, but all over. Pain exploded in his head.. But he was up, and he could hear water.
He stepped into the darkness, putting each foot down toes-first, frightened of plunging into some unseen chasm. Soon there was no earth underfoot, and he was walking on rock. It was hard to guess at the size of the cave, the height of the ceiling above him. The sparkling of the walls had a strange effect. They made the walls seem close and far at once.
His toes struck something hard and thin. He ran them along it. It only took a moment before he realised what it was. Bone. Dead people, he thought immediately, but that was absurd. If anybody had ever come this way before, it was centuries before, long before the history of the Ezwanya or the Five Nations had begun. It was only animal bones.
He walked for perhaps five minutes, with his slow and nervous strides. And then he saw the sparkling of water, and it was hard not to run.
It was a little waterfall that fell into a pool. It was almost circular, and the length of three or four men from side to side. There was a wall at the far side of the pool—too jagged and thick to be a wall somebody had built—and he could makes out round shapes along its top. Skulls, he realised, though he did not have much attention to spare them. He was too intent upon the water.
He kneeled beside the fountain, ignoring the jabs of pain that came from such a sudden movement. He scooped up handful after handful of water. Swallowing each one was perhaps the purest joy he had ever known.
He was still drinking, the fire of his thirst almost quenched, when he heard a commotion behind him. It was far-off and muffled, so he guessed that it must be outside the cave. He followed it, moving even more slowly now. His apathy had disappeared, and his fear was returning. He wanted to live. That was the only certainty in the world, right now.
There were more bones under his feet. They were small, he realised, like the bones of rabbits, or something even smaller.
He saw a shaft of moonlight. It was coming from above, and so—he realised now—was the noise. It was the yelping of a frolic bear, but
multiplied —how many times? He couldn’t guess. It might be half-a-dozen, or dozens, or hundreds. It echoed in this empty darkness. It might have seemed a pleasant sound, in other circumstances. Now, it filled him with terror.
Then he heard another sound. It was the sound of a frolic bear climbing down into the cave. He paced backwards, feeling behind him with his hands, hoping to find some nook where he could hide.
The bear leapt into the shaft of moonlight, and it somehow looked even bigger from a distance. Two circles of white light flashed as it looked around the cave, and then he could hear it sniffing in the air. He was moving backwards all the time, feeling for the wall, but his hands reached into air.
Then the frolic bear bounded towards him—he could hear it, rather than see he. He turned and began to run, but he had only covered a few paces when it was upon him, gathering him once again into its almost-suffocating grip. He screamed, and went rigid with fear.
Now it was leaping back over the ground it had covered, and into the shaft of moonlight. They moved up along it—it really did feel like they were climbing upwards onto the moonbeam—and into the night air.
Even the moonlight dazzled Fox’s eyes, after the near-darkness of the cave. But in a few moments he could see that there were, indeed, dozens of frolic bears. They seemed to be standing on the top of a hill, and there were enormous trees rising from the ground. They were even higher than benefactor trees, though not nearly so wide. Their trunks were wide but straight, with huge boughs extending from them at intervals. Towards the crown, the boughs were longer and closer together, so that it looked a huge head on a tall body.
The frolic bears were leaping from tree to tree. Fox almost forgot his fear in astonishment. He could never have believed that such bulky creatures could jump so far. It was not just the distance from bough to bough that astonished him. It was the difference in height; the bears were jumping from low boughs to high boughs, and from high boughs to low boughs. It almost looked like they were flying.
The bear that was carrying him shoved him down on the ground. It stood there, looking at him. It did not seem hostile, or friendly. It just stared at him, as if wondering what kind of a creature he was.
Then it howled—occasionally, the frolic bears howled, instead of yelping. Fox thought he was turning to ice. It was a strange thing; he had never heard a sound as cheerful or as playful as their yelping, or a sound as desolate and blood-curdling as their howling.
But it didn’t seem to be a cry of distress. For the next moment, the frolic bear turned and bounded towards the trees, yelping as eagerly as any of the others, eager to join the game.
Because it was a game; that much was obvious. The bears were not leaping simultaneously. They were taking turns, and when a particularly impressive feat was achieved—though all of them amazed Fox—the entire contingent started hopping up and down, and yelping even more excitedly. It seemed like a kind of applause. When an over-ambitious bear missed his bough, and fell to the ground—it never seemed to hurt them—a simultaneous howl went up from all the bears. It was a harrowing sound, but after a while, Fox began to suspect that it was their form of laughter.
He watched the display for perhaps twenty or twenty-five minutes, utterly entranced. His fear did not leave him. There was a savagery about the frolic bears that made him quite sure they might tear him apart without even meaning to hurt him.
He began to look around, trying to see if there was somewhere to hide, some kind of escape route. He wasn’t too hopeful; the frolic bears could climb, and jump, and burrow. They were immensely strong. How was he supposed to flee from a creature like that?
It was a landscape without variety. Aside from the enormous trees, there was little besides thin grass and the grey-blue rock that dominated this region. But something caught his eye. There was a circle of stones, crude but obviously made by the bears. The stones—the biggest hardly larger than an apple—were lying pell-mell on top of each other, and they made a circle perhaps four feet in diameter.
Within the circle, there was a pile of stones. Stones, and bones, and skulls, and shells. The frolic bears, it seemed, were passionate hoarders. He moved towards this mound, forgetting his hazy notions of escape, trying to quell his fear with curiosity.
They were pretty things; the bears certainly seemed to have some appreciation of beauty. There were many different colours, cream and red-brown and white. Some of the shells were multi-coloured. And then he noticed something else; a bright blue glint between chinks in the pile.
Looking over his shoudler to make sure the bears were still preoccupied with their sport, he removed half-a-dozen stones to get a better view. It was a gem of some kind; that much was obvious.
With great care, he managed to extract it from the mound of stones. It was a beautiful thing, and it made his heart beat faster. It was rough, not like the polished stones he had seen in jeweller’s windows in the Empire. But its colour was a richer blue than he had ever seen, bluer than any summer sky or birds’ plumage or cloak’s dye. It was the perfect blue. Josper Stronghouse mentioned in his memoirs that blue was the colour of eternity. Fox felt he was holding eternity in his hand.
As if his eye had been trained to it, he found himself noticing the blue sheen elsewhere in the pile. They were not far from the surface. There were probably dozens of them scattered throughout it. He took a few more, hiding them in his clothes, when he realised that the yelping of the frolic bears was dying down.
He looked up, and saw that they were feasting now. It was a revolting sight. They were standing in a huddle, tearing apart the bodies of animals they must have killed earlier. Some of the animals were as small as mice—so small Fox could not make them out from this distance. But there were hares, too, and badgers, and animals Fox did not recognise. They tore them to bits, spurting blood everywhere, and chewed noisily on the pieces.
From time to time, one of them howled, and the landscape rang with the echoes.
A wave of hopelessness passed over him. The frolic bears didn’t seem to think of him as food, but could he stay alive here? What was he going to eat?
He felt hollow with hunger already. Could he survive the rough play of the bears? Their frolicking might be deadly to him. What if one of them dropped him, on their mighty leaps? Or landed on him?
He had to try to slip away. It was the only thing to do, and he couldn’t give up. That would be opening his soul to despair.
He crept towards one of the enormous trees, his ears pricked for the chewing and tearing noises behind him. They made him want to retch. Once he reached the tree, he hid behind the trunk, hoping that the bear who had captured him would not notice his absence if he looked up.
The first glow of dawn was in the East, he noticed. The Ezwayna would begin to stir in an hour or two. First the children, who liked to get up before the grown-ups, to enjoy a brief period of freedom before they were given errands and chores. And Grandy, too, who never seemed to sleep. “I’ll sleep long enough, soon enough”, he would say. He had been saying that for as long as Fox could remember.
And now it seemed like Fox was going to die before Grandy, after all. All that worrying seemed ridiculous now.
But he would keep trying to escape. He spotted another tree, about thirty yards away. He made a dash for it—as close to a dash as he manage, weak as he was. The ground was steeper, and he was frightened of slipping. Would he ever get up again?
He reached the doubtful refuge of the next tree, and looked down at the landscape below. It was not encouraging. It was open country, aside from the scattered trees. There was not even a clump of shrubbery to hide in.
And then he saw something that made his heart race. A human figure. Truevow; he could just make him out, carrying both their packs, utterly dwarfed by the vast, rolling landscape. And he was moving in the wrong direction.
Fox shouted as loud as he could. His voice seemed utterly feeble in this immense landscape. He was straining his lungs, but it was all in vain. Truevow was like a shadowy, miniscule figure in the background of a painting. The last time I’ll ever see another person, though Fox, and thick tears began to run down his cheek.
Then he heard the frolic bear coming towards him, with its yelp, already so familiar. He did not try to run. Resignation passed over him like a grey mist. He flinched from its approach, raising his arms over his face. It howled as it clutched him to its chest, and Fox had time to look towards the speck that was Truevow. It continued moving in the wrong direction, too far away even to hear such a resounding roar.
There was once a boy called Fox, except instead of being clever like a fox, he was very, very stupid. He did everything wrong. He lost a purple stone that could have taken him anywhere, and he insisted on being an apprentice to a madwoman who sent him on a fool’s quest, during which he was carried off by bears. And nobody ever saw him again, especially the fool who had brought him here. Even when the little boy roared his lungs out at the fool, he passed him by. The fool was probably thinking of a fair-headed, air-headed girl who didn’t give a spit about him. And since the boy couldn’t bear to eat the dead animals the friendly bears offered, he died hungry, and uncomfortable, and aching all over. The end.
What would Armala think of that story? He thought of the old woman’s lusty laugh, when he complained of being sent on this crazy hunt. Underneath all his fear, he’d felt so sure that she knew what she was doing. He’d felt so sure she was wise. What a fool he’d been! Nobody was wise. Not Armala, not Grandy, not the Elder. The entire human race was mad, utterly mad. These vast spaces laughed at them, their ambition to be anything more than the dew drying in the morning sun, or the dead worms washed up after a night of heavy rain.
Fox lay in the cave, on his bank of earth, looking at his blue stones. The snoring of the bears filled the darkness. They all slept at the same time, and they slept soundly. None of them stirred, or whimpered, all night through. This had been the third night he had spent amongst them.
It was obvious that they had accepted him as a member of their group. It was ridiculous; he was being loved to death by a tribe of ferocious bears. On four occasions, a bear had lunged towards him, in the manner of their rough play. It was terrfying, and even more painful than it was terrifying. He didn’t think he could survive another one or two of those bear hugs. He already felt like all of his insides were red-raw. He could just imagine them, like the innards of animals he had seen on butchers’ stalls.
So he just lay there, feeling bitter and angry, and looking at his blue stones.
They comforted him. There was something soothing about them. Their blue glow was so different from the purple glow that filled his dreams. The purple glow was disturbing, a symbol of a world in chaos. The purple glow was uncertainty, fear, too much possibility. The blue glow was permanence, safety, security. It was Grandy living forever, and Fox becoming the Ezwayna’s storyteller, and nothing ever changing. Josper Stronghouse was right; blue was the colour of eternity.
He could almost smell and taste the dust of Stronghouse’s memoirs, the smell of wisdom and calm sureness.
These blue stones would go on existing after he had died, and even after the Ezwanya had passed away, and become names in stories, like the Genn-Ra and Queen Blackletter, and Josper Stronghouse himself. Like the sky or the sea, nobody could ever own them. If he thought aobut it, Fox might have found it strange that such an idea could be comforting. But ideas and feelings were passing through his mind without much thought; he didn’t have the courage for thought anymore.
Then he heard something he had despaired of ever hearing again. A human voice.
It was a hoarse whisper, and it was Truevow’s. At first, Fox had no idea where it was coming from; it might have been the air itself addressing him. He looked around, and saw that Truvow was half-way down the shaft, the cave’s only entrance. He was hanging onto something, and one of his feet was dangling in the air. The other was almost horizontal, propping him up against the rock wall. He looked like he could fall any moment.
“I’m here”, called Fox, hardly able to believe what was happening. Hope gripped him. There was something painful about this sudden hope. It was as like coming straight from a snow-storm to sit in front of a roasting fire.
“I’m going to get you out”, whispered Truevow. He didn’t sound very convinced himself. He looked thinner than ever, like a slight but sturdy cord. He had grown the beginnings of a beard. Unlike most Ezwayna men, Truevow shaved every day. Even on their journey into the wilderness, he had scraped his chin every morning with a spongy-looking stone, mixing some pink dust with water to create a thin lather. He looked more sober than Fox had ever seen him before, as if he had suddenly woken out of his fantasies.
“Get me out?”, asked Fox. “How?” It was quite easy for them to communicate. Fox was lying not far from the cave’s opening, since the stench of the bears was so strong it made his eyes water. It had bothered him a lot less than it might have normally—he’d had more to worry about than a bad smell-- but he still got as close to the air as he could manage.
“I’m thinking about that”, said Truevow, and Fox felt like crying. He had cried enough in the past three days. There was nobody to put up a show for anymore. Truevow was an idiot. He had got him into this situation in the first place. An avalanche of fury passed over him.
“I hate you”, he said, half-way between a cry and a whisper. He was not too afraid to wake up the bears; nothing seemed to wake them. And his anger was stronger than his fear, for a brief spell. “You’ve got us both killed, with your stupid ideas. Jasma can’t stand you. She never would have married you in a hundred years. Nobody takes you seriously. You’re a joke. A joke. And your poems are just awful.”
Truevow stared at Fox for a few moments, with no expression on his face. It was as if he had spoken to him in another language. Fox was almost mad with frustration. He wanted revenge on Truevow, but the fool’s eyes remained blank.
“Well, never mind all that for now”, he said, with no emotion in his voice. “Can you get up here?”
“I’m half-dead”, said Fox, feeling pain at the very thought of clambering up the shaft.
“Oh”, said Truevow, as if he hadn’t considered this. “Then I’m going to have to get down to you.”
And he continued his climb. It wasn’t very far—perhaps fifteen feet—but it was almost entirely straight down. Once or twice, Truevow almost lost his grip, and Fox expected him to fall and die on the rocky floor of the cave. But within five minutes, he had come within a few feet of the bottom, and he jumped them as if he was hopping over a gate.
“Not so difficult”, he said, moving towards Fox with slow, stealthy steps. “You don’t look too good, Fox. Are you in pain?”
“Lots and lots of pain”, whispered Fox, his anger cooling down but far from gone. “Those bears seem to think I’m one of their babies.”
“Really?”, asked Truevow, looking around him as if he was at a fair or a dance. “They’re fascinating creatures. I’ve come across one or two already.”
“Are you going to get me out of here?”, asked Fox, trying to rise up from his earthy bed.
I’ll get you out or I’ll die!”, said Truevow, with a little of his old enthusiasm. “Can you get on my back?”
“Can you get me on your back?”, asked Fox. “I can hardly move”.
“Let’s see”, said Truevow, crouching down and taking hold of Fox with a gentle grasp.
Tears of pain sprang into Fox’s eyes, and he almost cried out once or twice, but eventually he was mounted on his would-be saviour’s back. Hopelessness was pressing down on him like earth on a coffin. How did Truevow think he could make it back up the shaft with Fox weighing him down?
“This is going to be tricky”, said Truevow. He stood at the bottom of the opening, through which the first grey light of dawn was falling. The light was as dim as Fox’s hopes.
“Here goes”, said Truevow, reaching out a hand for a clump of rock that was hardly more than a gentle swelling on the shaft’s sides. Fox clung to him tighter, trying not to think of what tumbling to the cave floor would feel like.
Truevow spent perhaps five minutes scrabbling at sides of the shaft before he managed to lift them a foot or two off the ground. Fox could already hear him wheezing, and he wondered if they were both insane. But what was the sane thing to do, in this situation?
It was slower than the dawn, but inch by inch they climbed up the shaft. Truevow groaned every few seconds. Fragments of earth and rock fell to the ground, and Fox was sure that the bears were going to wake up. They had slept through louder sounds, like the squealing of bats in the cave, but it would be just his luck for them to wake now. At least they were not early risers, he thought. It was often near noon before they emerged from their thick slumbers.
Truevow was whispering to himself:
“The prince replied, my flesh will serve while spirit is its lord;
Why should I bow to cold and pain, who braved the tyrant’s sword?”
With the words, a flame of new strength seemed to rise within him, and he lifted Fox up another few inches. The ritual was repeated several times. Words were the fuel to Truevow’s enthusiasm, and heroic ideas were like a breeze filling his sails, pushing him on to new efforts when Fox thought he was about to collapse.
And then, unbelievably, they were looking over the edge of the cave’s opening, into the grey shadows of morning. Fox was sure they were going to plummet down now, on the very verge of escape, but Truevow whispered a few more words to himself—something about a maiden’s brave rejoinder to a king—and pulled them up to the grass, letting Fox fall on his back as if the last ounce of his strength had been spent in the effort. Then Truevow fell backwards himself.
Fox thought the young man had fainted. He got to his feet, as shaky as a drunkard, and took a few steps’ towards his saviour’s flat form. Truevow’s eyes were open, but Fox could see that he had not passed out. He was staring up into the sky, as if lost in contemplation. Fox thought he had never seen anybody look as exhausted, like the three-days’-old ashes of a fire. But eventually, he spoke.
“Do you really think my poetry is awful?”, he asked, in a voice emptied of feeling, not looking at Fox but still gazing into the grey sky of dawn.
“Well…” said Fox, knowing from Truevow’s tone that a lie would not be accepted. “Maybe in time…”
Truevow swallowed, closed his eyes for a few moment’s, and asked: “Do you really think Jasma will never love me?” This question was even more urgent, even more earnest.
“Jasma…” started Fox. He started coughing, not as a way of buying time, but because he had to. The fit lasted perhaps half a minute, and when it passed Fox was bent double with a fireworks display going on behind his closed eyes. He somehow felt numb and wracked with pain at once. But when he straightened up, Truevow was looking at him, still waiting for his answer.
“Jasma isn’t the sort of person you think she is”, said Fox, his mind filled with a picture of his once-upon-a-time nurse rolling dough, showering spit upon it as she ranted about “book readers” and “head-in-the-air wasters”.
“You’re wrong about that”, said Truevow, back to staring into the pale depths of the morning sky. “She’s more….oh, she’s more than any of you have ever guessed. Her flower was choked by the weeds of poverty and money-grabbing, that’s all. How could anybody thrive in those conditions?”
“She was paid well”, said Fox. Jasma had always complained about the money she made, but Grandy told Fox she was probably the best-paid servant in the street.
“Poverty has to do with more than money, Fox”, said Truevow, and his voice was tender. “A lot more”. He closed his eyes, and Fox was scared he was going to fall asleep.
“Let’s go”, said Fox. “Those bears can move like hounds. We’d better get as far as we can.” He wasn’t sure that even distance would protect them; what if the bears just followed their scent? For all his pain and tiredness, desperation was welling up in him again.
“Yes”, said Truevow, though he didn’t open his eyes, or even shift his limbs. “Just give me a few minutes. Just a few. The flesh…” His words trailed into silence, and he smiled. He looked like a little boy, tucked up for the night in clean linen.
The frolic bears did not follow them. Within a day of their slow progress, they could no longer hear their howls and yelps. No doubt they had already forgotten their adopted son. But it was several days before Fox stopped expecting to see one springing over the horizon, determined to recapture him.
Fox and Truevow hardly spoke for two days. Moving was hard enough. Fox was pleased to sleep in a tent again—and to devour the food—but carrying them was more of an ordeal than ever.
It rained for two days. It was a light drizzle, but it seemed to seep into Fox’s joints and bones. This time they did not stay in their tents, though. Home drew them like the scent of food draws starving dogs.
They were sitting around a fire, eating a thin soup, when Truevow said: “I saw him”.
“Saw who?”, asked Fox, without much curiosity. He would have been quite happy to pass the return journey in complete silence.
“The stag”, said Truevow, almost whispering. “The blue stag.”
Fox had forgotten about the object of their quest. He was surprised, too, that it had been glimpsed again. It had gone so long without being seen, he thought it was a strange chance that it should appear twice.
“It got away from you?”, he asked, remembering how lightly it had skipped away from the frolic bear.
“No”, said Truevow, shaking his head. Somehow, he looked surprised himself. “I just couldn’t kill it. It was…such a noble creature. Only a fiend could harm it.”
“I saw it, too”, said Fox, not caring whether Truevow believed him or not.
But Truevow was born to believe. His eyebrows shot up, and his pupils flashed. “You saw it? When?”
“Just before the frolic bear took me. That very moment.”
Truevow smiled. Fox could see relief in that smile. “My youthful friend! You know what that means?”
“No”, said Fox, unwilling to admit that the remembered the prophecy.
“It means that you shall decide the fate of the Ezwayna!”, said Truevow, putting down his bowl so he could spread his arms dramatically.
“That’s all nonsense”, said Fox. Then, trying to hide the excitement he felt at at the thought, he added: “But that’s not even the best thing I saw”.
“What do you mean?”, asked Truevow, picking up his bowl again, but not taking his eyes from the boy.
Fox suddenly felt shy about telling him. He liked having secrets. But he liked impressing people, too. So he took one of the blue stones from his pockets, and held it up to sparkle in the afternoon sun.
Truevow looked at with awe—its beauty demanded that—but his expression was troubled, too.
“What’s wrong?”, asked Fox, rather irritated.
“It’s so beautiful”, said Truevow, his gaze fixed on the gem. He spoke slowly, carefully. “So intoxicating.” His eyes had taken a faraway look, as if the stone was a crystal that held a vision of the past. “But back in the Anarchy, many of the Ezwanya were bankers. Bankers, and pawnbrokers, and jewellers. People trusted us with their money, their treasures. They trusted us not to sell them coloured glass.”
“So?”, asked Fox, rather sullenly.
“We’ve had experience of treasure before”, said Truevow, his voice grim. “We know its witchery.”
“I think your Elders don’t like any of their people making money”, said Fox, feeling embarrassed by his own enthusiasm now. “Because then they might not be able to order them about as much.” He closed his fist around the blue stone and thrust it back in his pocket.
“Yes”, said Truevow, thoughtfully. He was still staring at the place where the blue gem had been. “A few people have said that. But I don’t agree.”
“That doesn’t surprise me”, said Fox. He regretted showing the blue stone to Truevow now. He had not expected a lecture.
“The Elders have to be told about this”, said Truevow, finally raising his eyes, as if he had woken from a spell. “And only the Elders.”
“Why?”, asked Fox, knowing how cranky he must sound, but annoyed that his discovery was being taken away from him. What right did Truevow did think he had to give him instructions?
“Because that is how they would want it”, replied the other, his voice never straying from its usual gentleness. “And because coldfire is one of the most precious gems there are. My love looks through her coldfire eyes…”
“Coldfire?”, repeated Fox. He thoght of the blue blaze of the stone. Yes, that was a good name. “So you’ve seen these before?”
“I’ve never actually seen them”, Truevow replied. “But I know what they are. I’ve seen charts. I’ve read a jeweller’s manual. There aren’t many books in the settlement, I think I’ve read them all. Except for the almanacs, maybe.”
“And?”, asked Fox, still irritated.
“And those are definitely coldfire”, said Truevow. For the first time, he seemed a litle frightened. “You can tell by how many edges they have, and from how they shine. No other stone is such a deep blue. There’s only one place in the whole Anarchy where coldfire was ever mined, and that was used up decades ago.”
Only one place, thought Fox. The coldfire stones were so beautiful, and the thought that so few of them existed made them even more beautiful.
“What has it got to do with the Elders?”, he asked, deciding to be blunt.
He expected Truevow to look shocked, but he didn’t. He just gave Fox a sad smile. “Neither of us would be alive now”, he said, “if it wasn’t for the Elders.”
“I don’t know about that”, said Fox, automatically. But he knew Truevow was right. What if the Elders had turned away Fox and his friends, when they appeared on this world? How would they have survived?
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this, Fox”, Truevow said. He didn’t say it like an order, but like a request. All the same, Fox could feel his blood heating with anger.
“Why should I?”, he asked. Did Truevow think he had to do everything he said him to, just because he’d saved his life? He was the one who’d put it in danger in the first place!
But Truevow, still looking a little scared, only replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do”.
Fox looked down, into the remains of his stew. If Truevow had shouted at him, he could have refused. If his voice had been stern, he could have refused. But it was almost impossible to refuse such a gentle request.
“I won’t tell anyone”, muttered Fox. “I promise”.
“You’re a good soul, Fox”, said Truevow. He spoke almost without approval, as if this was a simple statement of fact.
Fox felt the blood surge to his cheeks. Suddenly he felt ashamed.
“Thanks for saving my life”, he said. “That was…brave”.
Truevow seemed taken aback, almost confused. “You would have done the same thing, if it was me”, he said, almost defensively. “Though you might not have been able to carry me”.
Fox laughed. He couldn’t help it. From anybody else, that would have been a humorous remark, but there wasn’t the hint of a smile in Truevow’s expression. Eventually, Truevow laughed too, but it was plain that he didn’t know what they were laughing at.
It was fair weather all the way back, and Fox felt his body healing. He’d been afraid that some permanent damage had been done, and he was almost giddy with relief when he realised the pain was going away.
Truevow talked, and talked, and talked. Not only had he read all the books he could lay his hands on, he seemed to have memorised every one. Once he even spent fifteen minutes discussing a word that had been printed differently in two different versions of a poem, and trying to decide (aloud) which one suited the poem better.
“Ultimately,” he said, while Fox concentrated on making his footsteps as wide as possible—a habit he had fallen into out of boredom—“both words have their various merits. Torment is rather more subdued, rather more literary. Torture is somewhat more emphatic, but—strangely enough—its very violence lessens its force. We’re so used to hearing torture used in a hyperbolic way, that it sounds like a colloquialism. But that, too, has its appeal, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so”, said Fox, stepping over a bump in the ground.
“It comes to this”, said Truevow, as if he was reaching the end of a speech. Which, in fact, he was. “The two different versions are subtly different poems. Isn’t that a thrilling thought? That a mistake by a printer can open up an entirely new vista?”
“Hardly entirely new”, said Fox, to prove he was listening. “Pretty much the same, really.”
“A fallen leaf creates a whole new world”, quoted Truevow. His singsong way of quoting lines was irritating Fox more and more.
“How far do you think we are from the village now?”, asked Fox, after a few moments’ silence.
“A day, perhaps two days”, said Truevow cheerfuly, not in the least bit bothered by the change of subject. “Have you heard about Dradner’s theory of poetic-religious echoing?”
“Yes”, said Fox, who hadn’t a clue what Truevow was talking about. “I don’t agree with it. I think it’s stupid.”
Truevow was still talking when they reached the village, a day and a half later, as the last shadows of night were retreating before morning.
The village of the Ezwayna seemed so tiny from the surrounding hills. It lay in a steep bowl of high ground, and it seemed so fragile from this distance—like a child’s toy—that Fox felt almost sorry for it.
He felt sorry, under the light of this dawn, for all mankind. So many days beneath the stars and the sun, so many hours travelling the immense distances of nature, made him see the toy town beneath him as almost pitiful. Man was such a sorry thing, really; a feeble, bewildered child, a flame that flickered out almost as soon as it came into being. Tears filled his eyes for a moment. He wanted to hold the village like a baby.
“Home”, said Truevow. They had both stopped moving when the settlement came into view. It would have been just possible to make out people from this distance, but nobody was stirring. Under the sentry-like forms of the Benefactor trees, the Ezwayna were sleeping.
There were almost four hundred tamzans, most of them of a similar size, all of them in shades of black or brown or green. Consciously or unconsciously, they had been arranged in a crescent like the crescent of the hills, with the Elder’s stone house in the centre. There were a few other stone or wooden buildings; the forge, the stables, the granary. The Great Hall stood some distance from the rest of the settlement, past the silver ribbon of the Skipwater.
“Look”, said Truevow, pointing into the sky, “The Promise Star”.
Fox had noticed it before. The stars in this world were entirely different to the stars in his previous world. The Ezwayna were not much interested in astronomy, and he had never heard any of them discussing the night sky before.
“Why is it called the Promise Star?”, he asked.
“Because of a legend”, said Truevow, “of the Genn-Ra. A legend from their ancient history. Karana, the spirit of art and knowledge, put the Promise Star in the heavens as a guarantee.” Truevow said spirit to avoid the forbidden word goddess, Fox knew.
“A guarantee of what?”, asked Fox, after Truevow had been silent for some moments. He could rattle on for hours, and then his stream of talk would freeze in the middle of an explanation. It was irritating.
“A guarantee”, continued Truevow softly, still gazing up at the blue-white spot of light, “that the world could be understood. Because the Promise Star can always seen, except on the very cloudiest nights. It’s the first start to appear and the last to disappear. Karana put it there as a symbol, that even through the worst confusion, even though life was so mysterious and confusing, we could understand just enough.”
“Just enough for what?”, asked Fox, after the poet had fallen quiet a second time.
“She didn’t say”, he said, with his usual faint smile. He was obviously pleased that Fox had asked the question. “Alyanya—that was her worshipper—asked her the same thing, but Karana only smiled and disappeared into white mist. At least that’s how the pictures always show it. Just enough. That’s all we could ever know.”
“Why are spirits always so bloody confusing?”, asked Fox.
“I like to think of it in a different way, though”, continued Truevow, as though Fox had not spoken. “I like to think that the Promise Star is a symbol for the loyal heart, the one that shines bright through all the darkness of the night, and is still shining when the dawn arrives.”
The last words were almost too low to hear, and Fox knew that he was thinking of Jasma.
“Let’s do down”, he said, when he realised that Truevow was not going to speak again. “I can’t wait to wash in hot water again.”
“Neither can I”, said the Truevow, and they began to descend.
They could see the settlement waking up; smoke began to rise from breakfast fires, and dogs were scurrying here and there, having risen with their masters but having no need for their masters’ morning rituals. Figures, too far away to be recognisable, lined up at the village’s six wells, huge pots by their side. The pity that had filled Fox’s heart gave way to love. Life went on, in its cheerful and heedless and unconquerable way. One day, one moment at a time.
“Have you got those coldfire stones safe?”, asked Truevow, in a tight voice, and they made their way down a particularly steep slope.
“In my pocket”, said Fox. “Where else can I put them?”
“As soon as we get there, give them to Grandy”, said Truevow. The Ezwayna seemed to have boundless faith in Grandy. People who were openly rude, Fox thought, were somehow considered both wise and trustworthy. “And for the seven dogs’ sake, don’t let them slip onto the ground. Keep your hand in your pocket if you have to.”
“What are you so worried about?”, asked Fox. “Nobody is going to take them, are they?”
“No”, replied Truevow. But It’s not the coldfire I’m worried about”.
Fox could feel the muscles in his neck and shoudlers aching. After so many days walking, leg muscles seemed to grow immune to pain or fatigue. It was the other muscles that cried out. He no longer felt sick, but he felt like he could sleep forever. He toyed with that fantasy for a few moments. He liked the idea of closing his eyes and drowning in the sea of sleep, of never emerging again. The world would go around him, and he imagined himself still taking part, in some ghostly, semi-conscious state. His mind would wander, invisible but all-seeing, while his body slept…
“Watch it”, came Truevow’s voice, and his arm was in front of Fox’s chest, stopping him from falling forward. “Do you want to rest?”
Fox straightened up, feeling embarrassed. “No”, he said, rather sharply. “I’ve walked this far, I think I can manage the rest of the way.”
“It’s a long way to come for a ten-year-old boy”, said Truevow.
“Twelve”, snapped Fox. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Ten is easier to remember”, said Truevow, breezily.
So they marched on, Fox thinking about Grandy and his coughing fits, Truevow almost certainly thinking about about Jasma. He whispered to himself, and sighed. After twenty minutes descent, the village was hidden behind trees and hills.
Even the Promise Star had disappeared now, and a mild spring morning had begun. The sky was lightening to a bright blue, and a brisk breeze was ruffling through the leaves. Fox felt a new strength spreading through his body, and Truevow stopped murmuring, and began to hum. He did not think he had ever heard Truevow humming before. It was an unlikely sound, and Fox could not help smiling.
They plodded on for another half an hour. It seemed strange that the settlement was so far away, when it seemed close enough to touch when it first came into view. Eventually, they could smell smoke, and the hint of cooking upon it. It made their mouths water.
“I think I could eat five whole—“ began Truevow, but he stopped, because at that moments they heard shouting. It was impassioned, urgent. They looked at each other, and their faces were pictures of exhaustion. All the eagerness had dropped from them. Was there any end to the struggle?
They stood looking at each other, wondering what to do next, when they heard another sound. It was laughter. High-pitched, gleeful, joyous laughter, that made Fox think of a jet of white foam surging into the heavens.
He looked a question at Truevow, but Truevow was smiling, his face set in realisation.
“I forgot what day it was today”, he said. “You’d better brace yourself.”
“Why?”, asked Fox, but all Truevow would answer was: “You’ll see”.
He moved through the screen of brushes and trees, all of them bursting with red and gold and purple blossoms, treading cautiously. He motioned Fox to follow, with a quick nod of his head. Fox went along, still awash with relief that there had not been a cruel surprise waiting for them at their desination.
The shouting was become more fierce. It was closer to screaming than shouting at times. The laugh had been a child’s laugh, and most of the voices seemed those of children. But some of them were undoubtedly men and women.
The commotion was only feet away. Truevow climbed to the top of a tree trunk, and was peering around its side. It was a broad oak, so Fox clambered up beside him, and followed his gaze.
There was more than a dozen people in the field beyond. They would have been impossible to count exactly, even if Fox had wanted to, because they were a blur of motion. They all seemed to be chasing each other and fleeing from each other at once.
Every one of them was dressed in rags. It took him a moment to realise they were people he had seen before, and not beggars who had wandered the hundreds of miles from the Anarchy in search of a few crumbs. They were flinging things at each other with impressive energy. Eggs, fruit, and what looked like balls of dough and flour were flying through the air at a rate of several every second.
“What is it?”, asked Fox, who had never seen anything like it.
“It’s the Fools’ Feast”, whispered Truevow, with a fond smile. It was the smile of someone who could never be silly, but who would never stop trying. “Once a year, they have a day-long mock battle. Sometimes people get over-excited and somebody is hurt, but never seriously. And that hasn’t happened in a while, anyway.”
“What does it mean?”, asked Fox. Truevow’s whispering seemed unnecessary; the combatants were so absorbed in their battle, it would have been difficult to be noticed if they’d tried.
“Nothing”, said Truevow, with fascination in his voice. “It doesn’t mean anything at all.”
Three or four of the fighters had been chanting something that Fox had been unable to make out. It was something like, “Bite me best! Bite me best!”
“What are they chanting?”, he asked.
“It’s Brighties are Best!”, said Truevow, smiling like a grandfather might smile at the antics of infants playing around his chair. “The Fools’ Feast is fought between those who were born in the sunlight hours and those who were born in the darkness. The Brighties and the Nighties.”
“Which are you?”, asked Truevow.
“Well, I was born at dawn”, said Truevow. “So I get to choose. I chose to be a Nighty. I’ve always preferred night. The silver queen and all her solemn host, that gaze down on their kingdom rich with dreams…”
“I don’t know which I am”, said Fox, feeling a little sorry for himself.
Now the other side had started chanting: “Night forever! Night forever!” Fox noticed that all the combatants were wearing arm-bands, black or white. It was an easy detail to miss, considering that they were all dressed in rags in the first place.
“Where did they get all this stuff?”, asked Fox, amazed at the amount of objects that were being thrown. There were four or five buckets standing in different places, to which the partisans were regularly returning, when they ran out of things to throw. But, of course, there were plenty of missiles lying around the field, ready to be used again.
“Oh, they’ve been saving it for months”, said Truevow. “The more rotten it gets, the better.”
There a howl of pain from a little boy, who seemed too young and frail to be joining in. Fox thought he was going to start crying, but soon he had picked himself up and was hurling doughballs with more strength than anyone would have expected his little body to hold. And he was laughing like a maniac.
“We can’t stay here forever”, said Truevow, bowing his head a little, as if gathering his strength. “We’re going to have to make a run for it.”
“They’re hardly going to pelt us?”, asked Fox.
“Nobody is immune on Fools’ Feast”, said Truevow, attempting a smile. It came out as more of a grimace. “Nobody under the age of sixty, anyway. Are you ready?”
“I suppose so”, said Fox.
“Then let’s to it”, said Truevow, making a rush for the field. Fox followed him.
As soon as they came clear of the trees, the fighting stopped. Some of the figures had frozen in mid-throw. The girl standing nearest them, whose face was red with exercise, cried: “Fox! Truevow!
For a few moments there were no words, no motion. Then a little boy said: “I told you that Fox would get them back. Magic. It’s his magic. I told you.”
There was a murmur of agreement around the field, and Fox was about to complain, but his irritation was cut off as soon as it was born. All of a sudden, something soft and wet struck him in the face, at great speed. It stung him more than a little. He barely had time to wipe it off his face before another had been thrown at him, whistling past his ear.
“Run!”, said Truevow, giving him a shove, before taking to his feet himself.
“I thought you were a Nightie”, shouted Fox, as they both rushed towards the other end of the field, heading for an opening in the trees.
“If you’re not wearing an arm-band”, Truevow shouted back, “you’re fair game for anybody”. He was running in a slight zig-zag, hoping the could avoid being hit by confusing the attackers. He was less than successful; his face was green with the juice of a caspan, the mellow fruit that always seemed to Fox like a cross between an apple and a tomato.
They were tired, but all the marching had made them fit. They soon outran their pursuers—most of whom had yet to reach their tenth birthday—and were making their way to the settlement.
In the open fields around the tamzans, they could see more battles being waged, other figures running from chasing packs. They saw a girl being pulled from a pond into which she had fallen while trying to escape. As soon as she was steady on her feet, she pushed one of her saviours over and started to run again, drops of water flying from her as she raced away.
“When does it end?”, Fox asked Truevow, when they paused for breath, out of immediate danger.
“Whe everybody is exhausted”, said Truevow. “Or by sunset, whichever comes first. Usually it’s sunset.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Fox, longing to rest his aching body.
“I’m going to go back to my tamzan”, said Truevow. “Tamzans are out of bounds.”
“Then I’m going to see Grandy”, said Fox, trying not to wonder if there would still be a Grandy to greet him.
It wasn’t far from the tamzans, but they didn’t reach their santuary without getting attacked again. At one point, Fox fell over in his eagerness to escape from two girls who were aiming doughballs at him. Their delight at his fall seemed to satisfy them, and after howling with laughter, they took off in another direction, in pursuit of another victim.
At one point, Fox was astonished—and a little horrified—to see Goodfellow, dressed like all the others in worn-out and dirty clothes, exchanging missiles with four of five youngsters, across a narrow pond. He seemed to be enjoying himself hugely, and he didn’t even notice Fox.
All of a sudden, Truevow had dropped to his knees, and was hugging him. Fox realised they were standing outside the young man’s tamzan.
“Are we not brothers, after sharing so much?”, he asked, his serious manner undisturbed by the flour and fruit that was spattered on his face. “I would trust you unto death”.
I wish you wouldn’t, thought Fox, flinching a little from the strength of Truevow’s embrace. But he only said: “Me, too”. Truevow unlatched the door of his tamzan, where he lived with his two sisters. It had the words Virtue and Beauty are One carved over the lintel. Most of the Ezwayna carved mottoes over their lintels.
Fox looked around, worried about new attacks. But, though the cries and laughter of Fool’s Feast were all around him, they came from a distance. Obviously, the warriors kept their distance from the tamzans, probably fearful of pelting one of the Elders by accident. He made his way to Grandy’s tamzan without being hit again, though it was on the very edge of the settlement, some distance away from its closest neighbours. Grandy, and the other old people, had been offered their own tamzans, in respect to their age. Grandy had chosen the most isolated, of course.
He felt almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing Grandy again. He imagined the way his wrinkles deepened when he frowned, and the faraway look in his eyes when he pulled on his pipe. As if he was seeing into the depths of his cold, rocky wisdom. There had always been Grandy. He was the thread that ran through all Fox’s days.
He knocked three times on the door of the tamzan. No answer, but that was typical. Grandy was not as deaf as most old people, but his hearing was far from keen. Then again, he often simply ignored knocks, thinking that anybody determined enough to see him would come in anyway. Nobody locked their doors amongst the Ezwanya.
Then he heard a voice coming from the inner room. Most tamzans had only one room, but Grandy’s had an antechamber and a store-room. The voice that came from inside was not Grandy’s. Fox could not make out words. It was a thin voice, but a self-assured one.
He knocked on the door of the inner chamber, and the voice halted. He pushed the door open.
Grandy was sitting in his favourite chair, smoking. Joy spread through Fox’s soul when he saw that Grandy was relieved to see him safe. It would hardly have been noticeable to somebody else, but it was as plain as the sun to Fox.
The other man was standing up, with his hands folded behind his back. Fox had never stood in a room with a man so well-dressed. His costume was all lace and velvet, all black, perfectly cut and fitted. It was elegant, but not fancy.
His face, which was turned towards Fox, was somewhat comical-looking. His nose was long, his eyes were bulging. It was not an unpleasant face, though. On the contrary, there was an openness to it that made Fox feel, ridiculously, that the man was an old friend of Grandy’s.
He smiled, and said: “I take it this is the remarkable Fox.”
“I don’t know about remarkable”, said Grandy, who hated every sort of compliment. “But this is my grandson. Fox, this is Cambrice Swan. He’s come all the way from the Seven Nations just to see the Ezwayna.”
“Never guessing what other wonders there were for me to witness”, said Swan. “Such as travellers from another world.”
Cambrus smiled down at Fox. It was a friendly, good-natured smile but Fox somehow felt that it held knowledge and secrets that were beyond guessing. And he felt, without knowing why, that Cambrice Swan was going to change his life.
“But you look exhausted, Fox”, said Cambrice, and he crossed to the corner of the room, carefully took some Spiral boards from an ancient-looking chair, and carried the chair back to where Fox was standing. “Sit down”, he said, setting the chair down on the reed-strewn ground of the tamzan. “Gelphin, may I get some chora for your grandson?”
Fox had never heard Grandy called by his name before. Everybody simply called him Grandy.
“If you like”, said Grandy, who was already hiding his joy at seeing Fox returned safely. He hated showing such soft emotions. “Or he can do it himself.”
“Nonsense”, said Cambrice, going to a small, round table in the centre of the room, where a jug of chora stood with some long white cups. At first, Grandy had abstained from the Ezwayna’s favourite drink, keeping to his beloved tea. But eventually, he had been won over to the sharp taste of the chora berry.
“Nothing like chora to bring life back into hard-pressed flesh and blood”, said Cambrice, as if he was talking to himself. “No wonder the Ezwayna love it.”
Fox was grateful to fall into the chair. It was a hard chair but he hardly noticed that. Anything that took the pressure off his muscles and bones was luxury. He closed his eyes, and the word home flashed into his mind. Was there any thought more beautiful than home?
“I’ve never been one for ceremony, Fox”, came Grandy’s voice, “but I think a simple hello would be in order.”
“I’m sorry” , said Fox, realising he had not spoken since he entered the tamzan. But Cambrice, handing him the chora, was laughing.
“For goodness sake, Gelphin”, he said, “the boy has just come back from the wilds. And been greeted by a pelting of egg and flour, I see. This Fools’ Festival is fascinating.”
“Every festival is for fools”, Grandy shot back. “What happened to you, Fox?” The old man spoke with curiosity, rather than anxiety. He spoke as though Fox had just returned from an afternoon’s stroll.
Suddenly Fox remembered the coldfire stones in his pocket, and pressed his hands against them, feeling them through the fabric to reassure himself they were there. Cambrice Swan seemed like a good man, but he knew that this was not the time to speak about them.
“We saw the Blue Stag,” said Fox, savouring the sharp but warming taste of the chora. He could almost imagine a glow of heat filtering through his body, slowly but steadily. “And…and I was taken by frolic bears, but Truevow saved me.”
Grandy frowned, and the glimpse of his true concern warmed Fox more than the chora. But it was Cambrice Swan who spoke.
“Frolic bears, eh? Blue Stag? I’ve never heard of either of them.” There was an exhilaration in his voice. “And they told me I’d find nothing but skeletons out here. What are these frolic bears, Fox?”
“They’re like enormous squirrels”, said Fox, shuddering at the memory.
“The Blue Stag”, Grandy said, as if to himself. He was almost hidden behind a haze of grey smoke, which always seemed to Fox like the physical form of the old man’s thoughts. “Of course they told me what you were hunting after, but I didn’t think it was real.”
“Neither did I”, said Fox.
“I always believe in legend”, said Swan, his hands joined behind his back again. Occasionally he would bow forward a little, in a gesture that seemed eccentric and dignified at once. “On principle, and based on experience. Four-fifths of them are entirely true, I find. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen.”
“Seen a few strange things myself”, said Grandy, like a small boy unwilling to be outdone. “But did you bring back this Blue Stag?”
“It got away”, said Fox, unwilling to admit that Truevow had spared the animal. He didn’t have to guess Grandy’s reaction to that.
“Well, you seem to have escaped the attention of the bears with no damage done”, said Grandy. It was the closest he could come to asking Fox if he had been hurt.
“I’m fine”, said Fox. “But”…his eyes turned to Cambrice Swan, who had poured himself a cup of chora and was sipping it with appreciation.
“Tell the boy all about yourself, Swan”, said Grandy, rather dutifully.
“All about myself?”, asked Swan, good-humouredly. He was perhaps ten years younger than Grandy, but his manner was more like that of a man in his twenties. “Who could possibly tell all about himself? But the facts are simple enough. I was born to a wealthy cloth merchant, in the city of Arganth. That’s the capital of Greenwater, the smallest of the Seven Nations. Or the Anarchy, as the Ezwayna rather rudely call them.”
Fox was so tired. He closed his eyes, expecting Grandy to comment on his rudeness. But nobody said anything. Cambrice’s words continued to wash over him, conjuring images in his mind.
“I was an excellent merchant, to my great surprise, and I expanded the business. But I’m one of those strange men who think there is such a thing as enough money. One day I sold the business and devoted my life to seeing as much of the world as I possibly could.”
“Never understood that”, muttered Grandy, a second voice breaking into the sleepy darkness of Fox’s mind, dragging him back to reality for a moment. “Why just look when you could be doing?”
“Indeed, Gelphin”, said Swan. “But not all men are men of action. I was never much good at anything beside silling wool and brocades.”
“Should have stuck at it, then”, muttered Grandy, but he seemed pleased by Swan’s agreement. Even half-asleep, Fox could tell that Grandy liked Swan.
“For better or worse, I didn’t”, said Swan. “I spent years learning everything I could about the different peoples of the Seven Nations. Then I travelled the empty countries around the Fertile Zone, to see what there was to be seen.”
“What did you see?”, asked Fox, to show he was still awake. The image of Swan wandering through desolate, lifeless lands filled his mind. He was a tiny figure in an immense landscape, under an almost sunless sky.
“More than you might imagine”, said Swan. “Life has a way of flourishing in the very mouth of death. It takes the strangest forms, but it flourishes.”
Fox could see them, these unlikely life-forms; long, thin snakes with skins like black rubber, tiny and bloated animals that came to life for a few months every year and dreamt away the rest, stunted trees with leaves that seemed to be withering even as they shot forth. But alive, all of them. Alive in spite of all the reasons to be dead.
“And then you came to see the oddest creatures of them all”, said Grandy, rumbling with laughter. “And the least likely to be found amongst the living.”
“Everybody thought the Ezwayna were dead”, admitted Swan. “Even I wasn’t sure. I just had to come to see for myself.”
“But the Red Dogs…” began Fox, opening his eyes. Sleep was still pressing down on him like a heavy but cool blanket.
“Grandy told me about them”, said Swan, in his dry and thoughtful voice. “I don’t think they expected to find the Ezwayna alive, either. They were looking for plunder. And they were desperate. The Seven Nations is no place for brigands anymore.”
“Apparently,” said Grandy, looking at Fox in the way he sometimes did—as if he had forgotten he was a boy, and temporarily thought of him as an equal—“the Anarchy is no longer an Anarchy”.
Fox looked at Swan, enquiringly, and Swan nodded. He gave a smile that seemed a little bitter, and said: “Indeed. Law and order has returned to the Seven Nations, in the form of the Legislatrix.”
“What’s that?”, asked Fox, taking another sip of the chora, and feeling his sleepiness recede a little.
“Not a that”, said Grandy. “A she. A woman ruler, Fox. The most foolish idea in the world.”
Swan smiled at that, too. “Some say Queen Blackletter was the greatest ruler in history.”
“Isn’t she the lass who started the whole mess?”, asked Grandy. “But never mind. Go on with your story. It’s worth hearing again, to be sure. I’ve heard nothing but little follies out here. It’s nice to hear about some big follies.” Grandy smiled at his own cynicism.
“The Legislatrix, Fox”, said Swan, “has become supereme ruler of the Seven Nations, by no force other than the force of her personality. I don’t know whether she’s good, or wicked. I know that she’s an extraordinary being, though.”
“Explain about her witchery again” , said Grandy. “I might understand it a second time around, if there is anything to be understood in it.”
“She’s a practitioner of a new science”, said Swan, beginning to pace up and down the small room, as if his thoughts would not allow him to be still. “A science called soulcraft. Soulcrafters think that they can see into the depths of the human spirit, that they can make out patterns and laws that lie underneath all our acts and thoughts.”
“Can they?”, asked Fox.
“Who knows?”, asked Swan, spreading his arms in a gesture of bewilderment. “But they’ve certainly convinced a lot of people that they can. The Legislatrix has devised a map of human nature called the Star. Like a map of the human soul, if you can imagine that. With the aid of her book, The Flame of True Self, anybody can find their place upon the Star.”
“And that tells you what kind of a person you are”, said Grandy, drily.
“It sounds rather ridiculous to me, too”, said Swan, giving one of his stiff bows in Grandy’s direction. “But it has won her legions of supporters. They say that happiness and public peace are to be achieved from a study of the Star.”
“Preposterous”, Grandy spat, filling his pipe. He seemed amused. Fox recognised the look. He knew it meant that Grandy was annoyed and didn’t wish it to be known.
“Indeed”, said Swan, shaking his head in disapproval. “But it cannot be denied that it changes people. My servant, for instant.”
“The smug-looking chap who was carrying your packs?”, asked Grandy.
“The same. He wasn’t much of a servant before he began to study the Star. I only kept him out of loyalty to his father, who was one of my best workers. He’s not exactly a saint now, either, but at least he doesn’t spend the entire day looking in the mirror and flirting with shop-girls like he used to. And he stopped stealing from me.”
“You let him steal from you?”, asked Grandy, now openly shocked.
Swan waved a dismissive arm. “I could afford it”, said Swan. “He was never very greedy, or brave. I think he just liked feeling that he’d cheated me. In any case, he stopped doing it when the Legislatrix became his idol”.
“I would have whipped him”, said Grandy, who seemed to be enjoying the very thought.
“You would have been right”, said Swan. “I’ve always been too soft. But Greatcastle isn’t the only one who was converted by her. There’s been many a case of a tavern thug, who’d spent his life knifing and swindling, becoming the most eager guardian of the peace under her influence. Whether it’s science or plain magic, the woman seems to understand the hearts of men.”
“I’d like to see her try to convert me” said Grandy.
“Me, too”, said Swan, who seemed hugely amused by the idea.
“But still”, said Grandy, staring into the grey clouds of smoke with a slight smile, “it’s something I’ve missed. It’s history. It’s nice to know that it’s happening, even if I’ll never live through it again. I thought that I’d never hear of anything more world-shaking than a good or bad harvest for the rest of my life.”
“I’m pleased to have given you that pleasure, Gelphin”, said Swan.
Grandy scowled at the pleasantry, and turned to Fox. “Don’t you go nattering about this gentleman”, he said, as if Fox was a famous gossip. “The only reason the place isn’t already in an uproar about it is that he happened to come on the day of this Fool’s Festival. They’ll know about him soon enough, and then they’ll be yapping like puppies.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything”, said Fox, feeling his eyes close again. “I just want to sleep now. I’m so tired.”
“Well, stretch yourself out on my bed”, said Grandy. “I doze for an hour or two in this chair, most nights. Sleeping seems a silly activity, when you’re facing into the endless sleep.”
Fox was too exhausted even to shudder at this.The bed was in the corner of the room they were in, and Grandy and Swan continued talking while Fox undressed and lay down on the lumpy, straw-stuffed mattress. He had felt hispockets while taking his trousers off, to make sure the coldfire stones were still there.
He drifted, at last, into deep and grateful sleep, while the voices of the two men filled the air, and a tangle of images filled his mind. Frolic bears leaping from bough to bough, a girl falling into a pond, Truevow gazing at the Promise Star, which was a coldire stone hanging in the depths of the sky. His mind melted into the ebb and flow of the two men’s voices, and he slept until long after the last egg of Fools’ Feast had been thrown.