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8

My Second Story The Man Who Returned


On Green, at the time of which I speak, there was a band of a hundred bad men. A few had slug guns and almost all had knives. With these weapons they fought off the inhumi, and fought among themselves as well, only too often.

Their leaders were a certain man and his son, and though they thought themselves better than the rest, they were much worse because they hated each other. The others did not hate one another, though they fought and sometimes killed one another. It was only that they were proud and reckless, and that each one wanted to be thought very brave.

If they had been wise, they would have tried to recover the lander in which they had come to Green, but they were foolish, and because they feared the inhumi and did not know where in the City of the Inhumi it was, they would not. They felt sure there were other men on Green, and women, too; they wanted very much to find women.

Their leader, the man I spoke of, tried to persuade them to retake the lander; but when they refused, he foolishly agreed to lead them in search of colonists from the Long Sun Whorl. He led them north through the heat and the terrible jungle, feeling that the landers would have chosen a more temperate climate for the colonists they carried.

They traveled a long way, or at least they thought it long, and found a small settlement; but the settlers drove them away, then fled when they returned and attacked. Far though they traveled, it was never far enough to escape the jungle, its fevers, and its insects.

At last their leader gathered his men about him and told them frankly that their only hope was to reclaim the lander in which they had arrived. "If you will not come with me, " he told them, "I will go back alone and take it by stealth, if I can, or die trying. If we continue as we have begun, I will die in any case. I promised the people of my town that I would do my utmost to return to the Whorl. If I am to die here, I prefer to die with honor." They talked long after he spoke to them, eight or ten in support of him and a dozen or a score opposing him. Their wrangling continued for hours…

Here I stopped to listen, for I heard Hyacinth singing to her waves. "What is it?" my host's mother asked me.

"A woman singing in the sea on the other side of the whorl, " I told her. "I doubt that you can hear her, but I do."

While they wrangled in that fashion, I counted them over and over, and the result was always the same, one that I had come to know well since Ushujaa died: sixty-nine. At last even they grew tired and slept, agreeing to settle the matter by a vote in the morning.

As I lay sweating in the darkness, I foresaw what morning would bring. It was neither delusion nor enlightenment from any god; I knew them well by then, how foolish they were and how quick to anger. They would vote, and the sides would be very nearly even, though they could not be precisely even. The winners would demand that the losing side do everything they wished. The losers would defy them, and the sides would fight.

I rose as quietly as I could. We always had a fire, and two sentries; but the sentries, though they were awake, were as tired as the rest, and they had let the fire sink to embers. I crept away unobserved, not using the light that the Neighbor had given me until I was completely certain it could not be seen from the camp.

The next day, and the next, I made my way back toward the City of the Inhumi. It will seem vainglorious when I say that I lived by eating the creatures that attacked me, yet it was so. Their flesh was foul, for they were predators and carrion eaters; but I lived upon it and upon half-eaten fruits and nuts dropped by the great green spiders.

On the third day, Sinew joined me. Three more came on the morning of the forth, and six after night had fallen-six who had found us by my light, which shone a long way through the jungle, thick though it was. Then more and more, until we were forty-six men.

Forty-six we regained the City. I am proud of that, as proud as Patera Remora was of having brought Maytera Mint to confer with the Ayuntamiento. We had lost more than half our force since we set out; but we had learned a great deal in the losing of it, and I had brought these back without losing even one more.

"Poor Silk, " Oreb muttered on my shoulder. And again, "Poor Silk."

"My name is not Silk, " I explained to the people seated beyond the clear white glow of my light. "It has never been Silk. He once belonged to a man called Silk, and uses that name for me now."

The white light died in my hand as I spoke. A big man with a kind, ugly face that made me want to smile said, "Was this you for real, Incanto? Were you on Green? By Echidna's babies, I think you were!"

I shook my head and told him it had been someone else, a man whose name I have forgotten, a man who wore a ring with a white stone. My own name is Horn, no matter what Oreb may say.

They stole into the City of the Inhumi by night, moving through the sewers at first, then through the cellars and the lower floors of the ruinous towers, the way having been scouted for them by their leader's son. Eventually, however, they were forced to go out into the neglected, rubbish-strewn streets, in which the inhumi take the shapes of men and women to act out their ghastly parody of human life.

An hour passed, and another; they had to fight, and fight they did, cunning as felwolves and fierce as Mucor's lynxes. Onward and onward until they found the place where their lander had put down. It was not there, and when they saw that it was not, the heart went out of them.

Two had been lost in the advance. Their leader tried to count those who died in their retreat as well, but they fell too fast. At last they reached the sewers again, and the fighting slackened. He counted them then, and counted twenty-seven with his son and himself; but as they made their way along a narrow, slimy walkway above the water he tried to name them and found he could name only twenty-six. Other names occurred to him, the names of dead men and of certain men who had not rejoined him in the jungle. He knew that the twenty-seventh man could be none of those.

He had feared that the human slaves of the inhumi would be waiting for them where the sewer left the city, and so it proved. There was a hot fight there, in which he was wounded. His son carried him back into the darkness under the City; and when his son had returned to the fighting, and he felt a trifle stronger, he sat up and watched the battle as one who sits at ease in a darkened theater watches the play, his men crouching and firing, or wriggling and creeping near enough to use their knives. Among them fought a young man whom he had never seen before, a young man with a needier who fought as bravely as the bravest.

Night came, and they got away. Wounded, he was no longer their leader; but they carried him with them, and he loved them and wept. The young man with the needier was wounded too, with many others; but when their wounds had begun to heal, his (which he would allow no one to treat) grew worse each day. He had been on another lander, he said, and had been hiding in the City of the Inhumi until they came.

The slaves of the inhumi pursued them, armed men and women in chains, with empty eyes; and when he could no longer walk, the men who had fought beside him left him beneath arching gray roots, where he lay as if in the Grand Manteion – and the man who had been leader lay there beside him.

"This is too hard for you, Incanto, " my host's mother said kindly. "You don't have to go on with it if you don't want to."

"It would be worse not to finish it, " I told her, "but I'll make the rest as brief as I can. I've talked too much already."

The young man lay on the ground, upon the naked black soil of Green, for little can grow between the monstrous trees. The man who had been leader lay beside him, and it seemed to him that the trees and vines leaned toward them to overhear their talk, and wept. I will not tell you how tall those trees are, or their thickness through the trunk; you would not credit anything I said. But I will say this. The trees you have seen are bushes, and the roots of many of the great trees on Green could heave the soil of this big farm from one end to the other and from one side to the other, making hills and valleys of its flat land. There are animals that burrow in the bark of those trees that are larger than we.

"You don't recognize me, " the dying man said. "I knew you wouldn't."

The man who had been leader shook his head.

"I promised I wouldn't deceive you as long as we were on your boat, " the young man told him, "but we are no longer on your boat. I am your son Krait." Krait was an inhumu. The inhumi seem men and women to us when they wish to – but no doubt all of you know that.

Mora and Fava looked at me strangely. Inclito said, "I've never seen one I couldn't tell after a minute or two."

Our hostess spoke of devils, saying that witches can command them, and they raise storms. I do not know whether either assertion is true. Perhaps they are, though I am prone to doubt it. But I realized long ago that the devils about which poor, ignorant people talk in the Long Sun Whorl, those malign beings who, it is said, crept into the Whorl without Pas's permission, were only inhumi by another name. At the time of which I speak, Krait revealed the secret that has permitted me, at times, to command them, the secret that they dare not let us learn, thinking that we could employ it to ruin them.

I do not believe we can. I tell you that openly and fairly, all of you who hear me now, and all of you who will read the account of our dinner that I intend to write. It is a great secret, truly. If you will, it is a great and terrible weapon. That is how the inhumi themselves see it, and I will not call them wrong. But it is a weapon too heavy for our hands. The Neighbors, whom you name the Vanished People, knew it; but they could not wield it against the inhumi, who drank their blood in their time as they drink ours today. If they could not wield it, there is little hope that we human beings can. Or so it seems to me.

Here I must pass over many things if I am not to keep you all night. After coming near death more than once and more than twice, the man who had been leader rejoined the men he had led. They traveled very far together and saw many strange things about which I will not speak tonight, until they found a deserted settlement, in whose center stood a ruined lander.

(Silk had thought the lander Mamelta showed him a tower underground; this was a tower indeed, its nose high as the tops of the tallest trees and its sleek lines radiating a strength it no longer possessed. I can see it now, that slightly canted tower gleaming dully in the reddish light of the stifling afternoon. Like a rotting corpse, it showed ribs where some sideplates had been taken. How we shouted in our delight, thinking it would save us!)

There were cards as well as bones in the wretched huts, the cards that were our money in the Long Sun Whorl and that are too often our money here as well-the cards that let a lander think and speak. We restored them to the lander, and directed by its monitor we tried to restore the lander itself, raiding the few settlements we could locate, and sometimes carrying heavy parts from other landers for scores of leagues. Then the leader's son found a woman in one of those settlements and turned against his father for good, helping the settlers fight him and his men.

And one by one they died, those men. Some fell prey to wild beasts, and some to rotting wounds and fevers. Some were killed by the settlers, some killed or captured by the inhumi. Always, it seemed to them that a few more parts would be enough, three more, two more, one more – only one more! – and their lander could fly again, and return them to the Whorl of the Long Sun.

Until at last there were only two left with the man who had again become their leader, and their leader lay dying.

They deserted him, taking both the fell black sword and the light he had been given. Perhaps they still hoped to find the waveguide coupling they needed. Perhaps they merely hoped to be accepted by some settlement. I only know that he lay dying in the lander, and that he silenced its monitor so that he might die in peace.

A terrible yearning for the life he was to lose came upon him when the monitor had gone. He took off the ring Seawrack had given him not so very long before, and clasping it between hands that had been thick and strong implored every god he could call to mind to send a Neighbor to heal him.

None came, and his legs were cold and dead. He felt the thirst of death, and it seemed to him at that moment that he had been cheated, that all his sons should be at his deathbed, and Nettle, who had been his wife, and Seawrack herself. And he raised… He raised-

Fava gave me her handkerchief, a little square of cloth scarcely larger than a pen wiper, trimmed with coarse lace; and Inclito pressed his soiled napkin into my hand.

He raised Seawrack's ring and put it to his eye, peering through its silver circle because a fathomless darkness was closing in. He saw the whorl then as something small and bright, receding into the night beyond the stars; and for senseless reasons felt that the ring's bright round might hold the night at bay.

Through the ring a Neighbor saw him, and she came to him in his agony. He told her what was in his heart; and when he had finished, she said, "I cannot make you well again, and if I could you would still be in this place. I can do this for you, however, if you desire it. I can send your spirit into someone else, into someone whose own spirit is dying. If you wish, I will find someone in the whorl in which you were born. Then there will be one whole man there, instead of two dying men, one here and another there."

That was all I told Inclito, Mora, and the rest that night; but I consented, and found myself upon my knees beside the open coffin of a middle-aged woman. My hands and arms and face and neck were bleeding, and an old, worn knife covered with blood was by my hand. There was no one else in the poor little house in which I knelt, and almost nothing in it that was not torn or broken.

I rose, and leaving the dead woman in her coffin opened the door and walked out into the whorl. It was a little after midday then, as well as I could judge from the narrowing line of the Long Sun.



7 Second Stories | In Green`s Jungles | 9 Favas Second Story: The Girl on Green



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