Authors: Janet Morris
Tags: #Adult, #Science Fiction
Its bars must have been driven deep in the riverbed itself, into the water far below the choppy water. Where the shore reared up, the gate was fitted into a wall: featureless, towering undulant up the banks, extending undiminished into the forest. Thunder roared and rippled toward us. Over the gate danced lightning.
At that flashing signal the rain stopped. But the sound remained, redoubled. With querulous protest, the lower half of the iron gate split, each section retreating into its wall of stone.
Chayin, with a grunt: ran. Sereth, motioning me before him, followed. I stumbled in the gaseous mist, broke my fall with outstretched hands.
“Come on,” urged Sereth. “Look!”
I looked. And saw. And heard: the great gate, mysteriously as it had opened, had begun to close. We ran for it.
My numbed fingers grasped the slow-closing iron bars. I grabbed the lattice of body-thick, slimy iron and pulled myself through. The gate’s sides rejoined, to present once more an impenetrable barrier.
“Estri, did you open the gate?” asked Chayin, touching my shoulder.
“No. I was going to ask you.”
“If you did not, and I did not, then who did?”
to Perry Knowlton
“Gate!” he bellowed over the storm, his dripping lips at my ear. The deluge had made us sparing of words. Under leathers soaked to thrice their weight, I shivered in spasms. Arms clutched to my sides, I stared into the rain. The driven sheets slashed me for my audacity. Lightning flared, illuminating the riverbank white. A moment later, the bright noise cracked through my head. The hillock trembled.
Over the gate danced the lightning. Its crackling fingers quested down thick-crossed slabs of iron, seared flesh. Emblazoned as they tumbled were those six-legged amphibians, their streamered tails lashing, scaled, fangful heads thrown back in dismay. I saw their afterimage: beryl and cinnabar, aglow upon the storm. Then their charred remains splashed into oblivion, spun away on the fast current.
“Down!” One man shouted, the other shoved me, and as I staggered to kneel in the sedges, the god that washed this land shook it, grumbling. I crouched on my hands and knees on the bucking sod, between them. Little protection could they offer up against shaking earth and searing sky, not even for themselves, without divorcing themselves from the reality they had come here to explore. And that they would not do.
Somewhere far off the weather struck earth again. We knelt on a fast-declining shore. On our right and left, steeps ascended, cresting in a plume of dense rain forest. In that moment of illumination the whole river valley and the gate set—into the river stood bared of shadow. Six times the height of a man was that gate. Its bars must have been driven deep in the riverbed itself, into the rock far below the choppy water. Where the shore reared up, the gate was fitted into a wall: featureless, towering undulant up the banks, extending undiminished into the forest. For a swath about its base the earth was black and devoid of vegetation.
“Did you see that?” I yelled into the wind, which, like a hymn to power in its last stanza, trailed off to a murmur as the rains recommenced.
“Higher ground, before any of those six-legged toothfulnesses decide to take a stroll!” His roar echoing in the abating gale’s last howls, the cahndor of Nemar lifted me bodily to my feet. The other man shaded his eyes with his hand and peered up into the enshrouded sky before he abandoned his squat. He has borne many names, before that time and since: we will call him Sereth.
“Chayin, I would take a closer look,” Sereth called, wiping his streaming brow. Chayin rendi Indue, cahndor of Nemar, co-cahndor of the Taken Lands, Chosen Son of Tar-Kesa, and in his own right a god, ceased dragging me across the suck and slide of the sedges. The nictitating membranes snapped full over his black eyes. For a silent moment the gazes of the two men locked, and the worth of a thousand words was exchanged therein. Then Chayin nodded and propelled me toward the gate. Or to where it must be, beyond the sheeting rain, white as if boiled, through which little could be seen for farther than a man might extend his hand.
Sereth dropped back behind, blade drawn, sidling through the grass with his eyes turned riverward, that he might see a slither, a shifting of reeds, a muck-covered, armored snout before its owner could make a strike.
We had seen few of them, these legged ones. We had seen their larger cousins, who have no legs, in the open seas to the north. They were much the same; irridescent, scales striped their lengths; their wide-hinged jaws, fringed round with glowing streamers ever-changing in hue and deadly with poisonous barbs, boasted two rows of blade-sharp teeth; their eyes were bilious, side-set under protrusions of bone. One of them could doubtless shred a woman-sized carcass free from flesh in less time than it takes to realize dreaming in sleep.
Though some might say I am sufficient protection unto myself, I was glad of Sereth’s sword behind me, and Chayin’s upon my left, on that shore. I squinted into the rain, straining for sight of the sun. Somewhere, unvanquished, it lurked behind the black-bellied clouds that had come so fast down from the north to envelop us. Beneath my booted feet, the reeds gave way. I lurched, gasped, sank ankle-deep into the mush.
Chayin whirled. Then, chuckling, he offered out his free hand. I took it—his, deep, rich brown, surrounded mine, copper with a muted tinge of light—and he pulled me from the slurping sink. Sereth, brows down-drawn, stepped with care.
Once again the angered giant hurled firebolt to earth. At that flashing signal the rain stopped, asudden as if the lightning’s heat had razed all moisture from the land. The sedges began to steam, throwing off their putrid perfume.
The sound came, slowly growing, ineluctable as an injured limb reporting its message. Renewed, thunder roared and rippled toward us, borne on a wind that bent the reeds whooshing flat. Before that wind the clouds took flight. But the sound remained, redoubled. Above the gate, daysky crawled shakily upward as the thunder, disheartened, slunk away before the other sound. It pealed like some mountainous bird screeching to its mate. It made a chalybeate taste come into the mouth, and water into the eyes. Might the earth’s bowels scream that shrilly? If the continents sob as they pulverize each other beneath the sea, might such a sound be their dirge? It sanded nerve and quickened blood, and stopped us each in our tracks.
Searching amid the mists for its source, I made it out, even as Sereth’s eyes sought Chayin’s for confirmation. Ahead, swathed in dusky green shadows, the gate continued to draw itself back. With querulous protest, the lower half of that iron lattice split, each section retreating into its wall of stone.
Chayin, with a grunt, ran. Sereth, motioning me before him, followed. High reeds jabbed us. I stumbled in the gaseous mist, broke my fall with outstretched hands. My palms, when I raised them, came away speckled with burrs. Chayin gained the water’s edge. Sereth, his hand at the small of my back, urged me silently.
Running, I scraped the burrs off onto my tunic. Harsh in my ears, my breathing and the break and hiss of the marsh grass beat time to my stride, as did the ever-welling clouds of insects released by the storm’s retreat. A flying thing as large as my hand, vermilion and gold with great staring eyes upon its wings, hovered before us. An eager ray of sun struck it bejeweled It passed on The ground under my feet had spongy strength. Sereth loped easily at my side, accommodating his pace to mine.
“Move!” implored Chayin, half-blended into the dark brown, towering wall before him. So skillfully joined were those blocks that there was no shadow of stone upon stone. Nor did mortar show between them. As we quit the last of the rushes a silver-winged bird screeched and burst upward, scolding, its curved cobalt beak open wide.
“Kreeshkree!” it accused, diving so low I shielded my eyes. A wingtip brushed my temple. “Kreeshkree! Breet, breet iyl!” it blared, whirling in midair to hover above my head.
In a single motion, Sereth pushed me aside and struck out at it as it dived. His blade flickered. The bird
dropped to the ground, its severed head covered by the plummeting body where it fell into a bier of red flowers.
“Come on,” urged Sereth. “Look!”
And I looked. And saw. And heard: the great gate, mysteriously as it had opened, had begun to close. Vibration and rumble grew loud, then unbearable. We ran for it. Chayin hesitated, poised in the crural water of the wall’s lee edge, imploring, body tensed to spring.
“Go on,” urged Sereth. In a handful of bounds, the cahndor had disappeared between the gate’s drawn-back portals.
Over the cinder swath that paralleled the wall’s extent, we ran. Sliding down the bankside, over the wall’s plinth, we splashed into the water. In moments I was hip-deep, slogging with sinking feet through the sediment. As we assayed the crossing, the screeching noise began once more: the gate, in stately approach, paced us, drawing us with it toward the river’s center.
Sereth’s needless, urgent demand for speed ripped through my mind even as my numbed fingers grasped the slow-closing iron bars. I grabbed the lattice of body-thick, slimy iron and pulled myself through. The wail of metal was deafening. I stood, frozen, gaping at the gate while its sides rejoined, to present once more an impenetrable barrier.
Sereth pushed me ungently toward the shore. I stumbled, and cursed him as, thoroughly soaked, I waded to the bank. He himself stood up to his hips in the water, oblivious of danger, bow and blade held high, staring with narrowed eyes at the gate. It was silent, suddenly. No longer did the screams of tortured metal ride the wind. The air was still. The water, earlier dark and gray, shone warm with the reds of day’s end. The sky was fired green, cloudless.
It was Chayin who called him out from before that gate of iron, latticed like some giant’s garden trellis, He came, shaking his head, taking short backward glimpses. He joined me where I stood on the plinth and ran his hand over the groove where gate met brown stone, then over the woven iron bars, through which nothing larger than a hand might pass. There was no sign now that the gate had ever opened (save that we were now within whatever this barrier had been constructed to protect), nor that it might ever do so again.
With a toss of his head Sereth sheathed his blade, shouldered the bow, and aided me up the bank to where Chayin sat amid a puff of dark-capped weeds on a hillock.