Authors: Edmuind Cooper
Tags: #Sci-Fi, #Science Fiction
The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The tribes came from the north and from the west. Every year at the time of winter solstice, they made their long and hazardous journeys into the desert. Every year they came to visit the Sightless One. Every year they came to conduct the ancient ceremony of Searching Out.
The desert itself was a curiously dead land. Nothing could live here for very long—not even the most hardy animals—because of desert sickness. So once the ceremony was over, the tribes packed up their tattered tents and departed hurriedly to live in relative peace of mind for another four seasons. But even so, the days began to pass and the peace of mind grew less until everyone’s thoughts turned hypnotically once more to the next Searching Out, the next count of the Perfect Ones and the dismissal of the Changelings.
As she walked with her tribe, the People of the Spur, on the last day’s march toward the rendezvous, Runa felt the weight of the fear inside her far more than the weight of the small child slung over her shoulder. Runa was seventeen years old and her baby son, Thali, a mere three seasons. This was his first Searching Out. It was also likely to be his last.
When Runa was fifteen, her village had been attacked one night by a group of escaped Changelings — the wild, grotesque creatures who lived mainly in the hills and were shunned by all ordinary people. They had killed many of the Spur menfolk and stolen many of their women. Runa was among those taken. Eventually, however, she had somehow managed to break out of the cage in which they
kept their prisoners
— though not until they had already got her with child — and make her way back to the village.
Being wise for her years, she took the simple precaution of lying immediately with two or three of the Spur men, so that when Thali was bom none could claim with certainty that he was a child of the Changelings. Fortunately, apart from a long, thin weal across his bade, there was, nothing wrong with the baby at all, and so he was not dismissed at birth.
Only Runa saw that as the baby grew, so the weal grew into a raised, homy ridge from which sprouted thick red hairs. She took care to keep him, well covered, pleading a weakness for chills and fevers. But presently the ridge grew big enough to be felt through the coarse cloth in which he was wrapped. In desperation, Runa took to scraping it with a sharp stone in the still of the night. Pieces of it flaked off, but then new segments grew to take their place. The task was impossible, and besides there was the added difficulty of keeping the child’s mouth stuffed with rags to deaden his crying.
It was, of course, a futile gesture, for at the Searching Out, Thali would be presented naked for inspection—like every other man, woman, and child of the lawful tribes—at the foot of the Sightless One. Then the priests would discover his imperfection. Then he would be dismissed. And his tiny body would be tossed upon the monstrous cairn that yearly grew into a bleached and terrifying mountain.
Runa was a fatalist, but no simple fatalist. She knew that in the end Thali must die, and knew too that she must do all she could to save him. For that also was ordained.
Now the tribe was less than a day’s march from the rendezvous, less than a day’s march from death. Tonight they would make camp with the other tribes in the greenly glowing desert only a few bowshots from the foot of the Sightless One. And tomorrow, before dawn, the priests would lead their people to the Searching Out. And when the Sightless One’s shadow touched the hill of bones, the slaughter would begin.
Runa was tired and depressed and almost oblivious of her surroundings. Mechanically, she continued to place one foot before the other, vaguely aware of the background chatter and the whispered anxieties of the
other women as they followed the groups of menfolk. Now and again she managed to make some automatic response to the odd remark that was addressed to her, but for the most part she walked in a shroud of loneliness, knowing only that the red sun was bending low toward Thali’s last sunset.
Later, when the camp had been set up, when the communal meal had been eaten and the fires had burned to dull embers, she lay with Thali in the lee of a massive boulder and gazed sleeplessly at the clear night sky.
The constellations were pricked out in immobile brilliance. But Runa did not know much about stars. She supposed that they were nothing more than a sprinkling of frozen fire-dust—no doubt as unhealthy to be near as the fire-dust that was carried by the winds of earth. Sometimes it drifted against the walls of huts or tents, until there was a tiny, glowing pile that had to be swept away before everyone got dust sickness.
Runa gazed at the stars and then at the sprawling cluster of tribal tents in the immense dead sea of the desert. Suddenly she decided to run away, though to do so would be to meet death just as surely as Thali would meet the dawn blade at the foot of the Sightless One. For the desert hated life and all that was living, and none could hope to escape its evil alone.
For a moment or two Runa considered the possibility of asking one of the Spur people to go with her—a boy barely her own age who had lain with her several times. But then she pushed the thought out of her mind; for if he refused, he would doubtless stop her escape also—or else give the alarm when she had gone.
Having made her decision, Runa stood up, holding the now sleeping child tightly to her body. Then she crept quietly and almost without breathing from the camp. Evidently no one had seen her departure; and when she had covered perhaps the distance of a long bowshot, she came to a halt and let out a long sigh of relief.
Thali was still asleep. Gently she eased his small, half-starved body into the shoulder sling that all the women used for carrying their babies. The problem now was where to go. But there was nowhere to go, for the desert was all around her, patchily glowing with the dull green of death.
It might have been possible to retrace the route taken by the tribe. But that was more than three day’s march, and she had neither food nor water. So it did not really matter which direction she took.
In the end, noticing a bright yellow star that hung low on the horizon, she decided to follow it. It looked a much warmer and friendlier star than the others. And in any case, it was too far away to be poisonous.
Runa hitched Thali into a comfortable position and started to walk.
The desert was a place of ghosts, but the ghosts were older even than the tribes. They were as old, Runa knew, as creation itself. They were part of creation, and they whispered to each other in words that no one living could understand. As she walked, Runa heard their whisperings and was surprised that she was not more terrified. Perhaps, she told herself bitterly, it was because she had learned that there was more to fear from men than from ghosts.
The desert was also a place of glowing sands, of strangely dancing lights, of clouds of fire-dust, of rocks that were smoother than ice yet harder than iron. There were rivers of stone veined with all the colors of the rainbow and dry pools of powdery blackness that stirred and rippled like restless water. It was a wilderness indeed.
Runa found it hard to follow the yellow star. She struggled across gullies and hillocks, grazing her feet and legs on sharp unseen stones. After a time she began to regret her folly. Surely it would have been better to let them take Thali from her? But then she knew it would not. The child belonged to her. It was the only living thing that had ever belonged.
Immersed in her thoughts, she saw the narrow black chasm at her feet a moment too late. The despairing cry she gave as she fell was driven from her body by a great hammer blow between the shoulders. She could not breathe, could scarcely move. The child was jammed tight against her, and the two of them were wedged between the narrowing, dreadfully smooth surfaces of rock.
Thali had not moved or made any sound. Clearly he was dead, for the pressure of his thin little body against hers seemed enough to snap her ribs. As she tried to breathe, Runa could hear the rattling air forced from her baby’s mouth by the painful pressure of her own chest.
This was a judgment. She had tried to save Thali from the Searching Out, and so she had been condemned to kill him herself.
Fortunately the chasm was not deep. As she writhed in pain and tried desperately to ease the terrible pressure, Runa’s toes touched the bottom. Working in agonizing haste against the clouds of unconsciousness that threatened to swallow her, she managed at last to ease the child’s limp body round to her side. And after a time the pain in her arms and chest subsided.
Runa looked up and saw a mistily dancing pattern of stars framed by die lip of the chasm, no more than an arm’s length above her head. Presently the stars became still, and she was able to think clearly once more.
She took the tattered cloth shoulder sling in which she had carried Thali and tore it into strips, knotting them together. One end of the rope she tied tightly round the baby’s motionless form and the other she gripped between her teeth. Then she began to climb by the simple process of forcing her back against one side of the fissure and her feet against the other.
Twice she fell, but at the third attempt she succeeded in mustering the tremendous effort needed to haul herself out, knowing that she did not have enough strength for another try. As soon as she reached the surface, she pulled the child’s body quickly^ after her, bumping it from side to side, desperate with the need to hold it tenderly in her arms.
She gripped the pitiful bundle to her, smothering it with kisses and meaningless soothing sounds. Then suddenly the stars fell out of the sky, the desert dissolved, and she was sucked down into a whirlpool of darkness.
When at last Runa opened her eyes once more, it was in the ghost-gray light of pre-dawn. And there before her loomed the grim stone shape of the Sightless One.
She gave a cry of anguish. Was it for this that she had faced die terrors of the desert? Was it for such awful disobedience, for such blasphemy of thought and deed, that the Sightless One had doomed her to kill her own child?
For the first time in her life, Runa was no longer afraid of the Sightless One. His monstrous, godlike implacability had become too great for fear.