Authors: Piers Anthony
Then it was done. Embarrassed, Neq broke off his singing, finding his voice hoarse. They had walked and sang for hours. Tyl and Vara were there, shaking their heads as though waking from nightmare.
Dawn was coming.
"Stay clear of the tribesmen," Tyl said. "Let them think we are dead, or they may kill us to preserve their secret. We'll sleep in the forest today."
"The haunted forest?" Vara demanded nervously.
"It is safe by day. We shall want to visit it again by night."
Again!" Neq was incredulous. "We nearly killed each other there! The ghosts--"
"You spared us that," Tyl said. "Your weapon vanquished them and brought us out. But our conquest is not complete until we know what causes the effect, and why the outlaw tribe chooses to sacrifice ignorant strangers to it. Surely they know; they can not be so stupid as to spend their lives adjacent to it and not fathom the mystery.
I have never fled from an enemy--or left a potential enemy behind me."
He was right. An enemy neglected was doubly dangerous. 'The flowers," Neq said. "Night bloomers."
Tyl removed his weapons. "Sticks to you," he said to Vara. "Sword to you, Neq."
Neq could not hold the sword effectively in his claw, but he understood what Tyl was doing.
Tyl went to a hanging vine and plucked a closed bud. He pulled it open and put it to his nose. He sniffed.
"Faint--not the same." He sniffed again, deeply. Then a third time.
His manner changed. His eyes widened, then narrowed. His hand went for his sword.
Then he grinned and dropped the flower. "This is it!" he cried. "I'm high on it now--but I know what it is. Don't come near me--"
They knew what he meant. The weak, temporary daylight effect of one bud might not overcome a forewarned man, any more than an ounce of alcohol would. But the massed fragrance of thousands of blooms, in the flush of their strength, building up all night long--that would be another matter.
"I don't think we'd better stay the night," Vara said. "It fuels our passions...."
Yes. And there was already a matter of death-vengeance between them.
Tyl went down to the river and dunked his head. He came back dripping but triumphant. "We know the haunt now!"
"We still have to breathe at night," Neq said, returning the sword. "We got through once, but it would be foolhardy to risk it again."
Tyl considered. "Yes. I knew what it was doing to me, just now, but I didn't care. If I had had my weapons--"
"It was the same with me last night," Neq admitted. "But all I had was song."
"The flower is the weapon," Tyl said. "One that would bring down a tribe. If others knew of it, it would be planted everywhere. We must make it ours."
Vara rubbed her eyes. None of them had slept yet, and the tribesmen could soon appear. Tyl was probably correct: the tribe had more interest in maintaining the secret of the forest than in exposing it. Dead men would spread its reputation, and prevent other tribes from moving in on the good hunting preserve. Naturally only strangers would be sacrificed. It was time to hide and sleep.
Tyl nodded. "We'll make a baffle by the water, under the bank, and sleep together without posting guard. If they find us, we'll stall until dusk--or dive into the river."
The tribesmen were either too confident or too stupid to search thoroughly. No one found them. Refreshed, the three walked to the southern fringe as the blooms opened. No tribesmen stood guard, understandably.
"If light makes them close..." Tyl murmured.
Neq jumped. Tyl was leading the way directly to a large group of the opening flowers! "Careful--moonlight didn't stop them last night."
"Maybe it did," Vara said. "Maybe that's why we got through. We got only part of the effect...."
"Stand upwind," Tyl said. He brought out his light. It was a small kerosene lantern with a circular wick and adjustable mantle, and it had a spark-striker attachment. It had been cumbersome to carry, and Tyl had seldom used it before, preferring his own night vision. He had never been one to travel unprepared, however.
He ignited the lantern, adjusted it for maximum brilliance, and brought it near the vine. There was a reflector, so that a surprising amount of illumination was concentrated in that vicinity.
Slowly the flowers closed.
"If light seals them, darkness must open them," Tyl said. "If we carried a vine with us--"
"It would die," Neq said, leary of the notion.
"A growing vine, with its earth. Set in a box with this light."
"A weapon!" Vara exclaimed, catching on. "Cover it by day, leave it among enemies...."
Tyl nodded. "Pick it up when they are dead. Turn on the light. Travel on."
"A counter-ambush," Vara finished, her eyes seeming to glow in the night.
More killing, Neq thought. No end to it, whether with sword or flower. Yet the plan had merit. "This is a fringe zone. Will it grow beyond this forest?"
"Delicate mutation," Vara said excitedly. "Needs the right temperature, water, soil, shade--"
"We'll find out," Tyl said. "Man has tamed plants before."
The two of them hastened to dig up an appropriate sample and fix its enclosure. Neq had qualms, however. Any oversight, and the flowers could wipe out their little party. This was an uncertain ally.
"Var was self-sacrificing," Vara said. "He always helped me, even when I was pretending to be a boy. When we slept in the snows and I was stung by a badlands worm, be carried me back to the only hostel though his own ankle had been turned. And he fought to preserve my rest, though he was not then fit for the circle. He was exhausted and his foot was swollen--"
Neq had to listen. This was the man he had killed. He could not restore what he had taken without first comprehending her loss. He understood what she was doing:
Tyl had stopped her from attacking him with the sticks, so now she turned to words. Her voiced memories were terrible because they brought a dead man back to life, multiplying Var's greatness and the agony of his demise.
Her verbal campaign was calculated, and he knew it, but still it hurt him. He had no legitimate defense. He had killed her husband, the man who should have been his friend, and now could never be.
Sometimes when she said Var he heard Neqa. Neq himself had become Yod: slayer of the innocent.
It worked. The vine prospered under Tyl's care, and a minimum flame in the lantern kept the narcotic flowers closed. But normally they set the plant down some distance from their night camp and let it bloom, so that its natural cycle would not be unduly disrupted. They had no concern about animals bothering it; the fragrance was defense enough. A mile's separation seemed more than sufficient--less than a mile when the wind was sure-- though upon occasion they smelled the faint perfume and felt a token enhancement of animal passion.
They did encounter another ambush, as such things were too common in this post-crazy world. They managed to barricade themselves defensively for an hour, using Tyl's gun to keep the outlaws at bay, while the covered vine slowly opened its flowers and poured its essence forth through vents in the box. Neq sang and played his glockenspiel when he felt the effect, confining himself to songs of solidarity and justice while the fragrance wafted into the afternoon air. Tyl and Vara joined him, laying their weapons on the ground under their feet, out of sight of the enemy. The ambushers laughed, thinking the whole show ludicrous.
Then the enemy warriors fell to quarreling among themselves. The fumes had spread. They were not strong, but the ambushers were aggressive and unsuspecting. Tyl uncovered the vine to let in daylight, for they had to be free of the effect themselves before moving out. They were on guard against their own raw emotions, but there was no sense taking chances.
The ambushers were in disarray, not comprehending the reason. The strong passions of men driven to outlawry had been sufficient. Once the conflict started, it fed on itself.
Neq made the mistake of singing a love song. He became acutely conscious of Vara next to him, almost sixteen and at the height of her womanhood. He became sexually excited, not caring what else had passed between them. But Tyl was there, and in the sudden fierce resentment of the man's interfering presence Neq realized the danger and forced himself to shift songs. Love Vara? Safer to kiss a badlands kill-moth!
It was time to move out. "Onward Christian Soldiers!" Neq sang. The words were incomprehensible, but the tune and spirit were apt.
They marched singing through a wilderness of carnage. Only occasionally did they have to defend themselves from attack. Some pairs were locked in combat, some in amour, for the women had been drawn into the activity. A man and a woman snarled and bit at each other in the midst of copulation. Children were fighting as viciously as adults, and some were already dead.
The passion would pass, but the tribe would never quite recover.
Vara's campaign continued. Neq learned how Var had saved her from a monster machine in a tunnel--the same tunnel Neq had lacked the courage to enter--and from a hive of wasp-women, and how he had interposed his body to take arrows intended for her. He had fought the god-animal Minos to save her from a fate almost as bad as death.
Var had evidently had a short but full life. "The documentation of that life was sufficient to cover more than a month of travel, at any rate. The climate became warmer as they moved south and east and further into spring, but the girl's language never ameliorated.
When she finally ran out of Var's virtues, she started on Var's faults.
"My husband was not pretty," Vara said. "He was hairy, and his back was hunched, and his hands and feet were deformed, and his skin was mottled." Neq knew that, for he had fought the man. "His voice was so hoarse it was hard to understand him." Yes. With clever enunciation, Neq might have understood enough in time to withhold his thrust. "He could not sing at all. I love him yet."
Gradually Neq got the thrust of this new attack. Neq himself was handsome, apart from the lattice of scars he had from years of combat and the mutilation of his hands. His voice was smooth and controlled. He could sing well. Vara held his very assets against him, making him ashamed of them.
It was like the vine narcotic. Neq knew what she was doing, but was powerless to oppose it. He had to listen, had to respond, had to hate himself as she hated him. He was a killer, worse than the man who had killed his own mate.
Tyl did not interfere.
In the next month of their travel, Vara grew especially sullen. Her campaign was not working, for Neq only accepted her taunts. "I had everything!" she exclaimed in frustration. "Now I have nothing. Not even vengeance."
She was learning.
She was silent for a week. Then: "Not even his child."
For Var had been sterile. Her father Sol had been castrate; she had been conceived on his bracelet by Sos the Rope, who later gave his own bracelet to Sosa at Helicon. So her husband, like her father, had had no child.
Neq knew that twisted story, now, and understood why the Weaponless, who had been Sos, had pursued Var. Vengeance, again! But Var had been hard to catch, for his discolored skin had been sensitive to radiation, a marvelous advantage near the badlands. But that ability bad come at the cost of fertility.
"And my mother Sosa was barren," Vara cried. "Am I to be barren too?"
Tyl looked meaningfully at Neq.
Var had been naive. Neq was not. That had been established and reestablished in the past two months, to his inevitable discredit. But this shocked him. The meaning of Tyl's original stricture had suddenly come clear.
Vara wanted a baby....
She didn't seem to realize what she had said, or to comprehend why Tyl had stopped her from attacking Neq at the outset.
Yet what was in Tyl's mind? If he thought it important that Vara have her baby, there were other ways. As many ways as there were men in the world. Why this? Why Neq, Vara's enemy? Why dishonor?
There was an answer. Vara did not want just a baby-- she wanted a child to Var. Any infant she bore would be Vari, the line of Var. Just as she herself had been born Soli, child of the castrate Sol. The bracelet, not the man, determined parentage in the eyes of the nomads. And what man would abuse Var's bracelet and his own honor by contributing to such adultery, however attractive the girl might be?
What man indeed--except one already shed of his bracelet, and so hopelessly sullied by his own crimes that violation of another bracelet could hardly make a difference? What man, except one bound by oath to return a life taken?
What man but Neq!
Now it was Tyl's turn to advance his cause, and Neq's to stand aside. The trek continued into the third month, interrupted by strategies and combats and natural hazards, but the important interaction was between Tyl and Vara. Vara's initial fury had been spent, and she was now vulnerable.
It started subtly. One day Tyl would ask her a question, seemingly innocuous, but whose answer forced her to consider her own motivations. Another day he would question Neq, bringing out some minor aspect of his background. In this way Tyl established that Vara's closest ties were to Sol, not her biological father, and to Sosa, not her natural mother, and that Sol and Sosa had lived together in deliberate violation of both their bracelets, making a family for Soli/Vara.
"It's different in Helicon," she said defensively. "There are no real marriages there. There aren't enough women. All the men share all the women, no matter who wears the bracelets. It wouldn't be fair, otherwise." She spoke as though Helicon still existed, though she knew the truth.
"Did Sosa share with all the men, then?" Tyl inquired as though merely clarifying a point of confusion. "Even those she disliked?"
"No, there was no point. She couldn't conceive. Oh, I suppose she took a turn once in a while, if someone insisted--she's quite attractive, you know. But it didn't mean anything. Sex is just sex, in Helicon. What counts is that women have babies."
Similarly true in the nomad society, Neq thought.