I wrote late last night (too late, to admit the truth) and still did not set down everything I had intended. Now here I sit, writing once more while everyone else is asleep; and even though I have not gotten to make my little experiment, I have far more to write about than patience to write it.
Or paper, for that matter.
Oreb came back this morning, and remembering how I had boasted to the Duko about his acuity of vision I told him to find me a stone table.
Soon he was back, quite elated by his success.
"Big table! Stone table. White table. Bird find! On hill. Watch bird!" With much more. I promised to watch, and off he flew due north.
I told Duko Sfido that I was going to retrace our journey for an hour's ride or about that, and instructed him to continue toward Blanko. "This is a good horse," I said, "and I should be able to catch up to you tonight."
Certainly there was nothing to worry about; but whether he was really worried or not, he seemed very worried indeed. "If this is absolutely necessary, I'd like to send a couple of troopers with you."
Oreb returned, flying in circles overhead and calling, "See god! Watch bird! See god!"
I said, "Its necessity is not the question, Your Grandeur. I am going to do it. It is a private matter, a matter of my private devotions, and I am not going to take away two of the troopers Inclito gave us to help guard his prisoners. Or one, or any other number." With that, I turned and rode away before Sfido could stop me.
I had said an hour's ride, because I had told
Oreb that I was interested only in tables not far from us. To give him his due, the altar he found for me would have been less than an hour distant if the ride had been over level ground. In the event, my horse was forced to pick his way across rocky little gullies and up and down the barren, windswept hills, which made my ride closer to three hours than one. With Hyacinth's azoth virtually out of reach under my greatcoat, robe, and tunic, my mind dwelt apprehensively on wild beasts and stragglers from the Horde of Soldo, without my actually seeing the smallest sign of either.
The cold and the wind were more immediate enemies. I pulled my looted greatcoat tight about me and muffled my face against the wind, just as I had when I rode with Sfido, but it seemed colder than it had ever been before, perhaps merely because I was facing into the wind, or perhaps merely because winter had advanced another step that morning. Those who live largely in houses or in warm climates, as I have, do not know cold. On my long, lonely ride today, cold and I at last shook hands- mine, of course-and exchanged unpleasantries that left me with the cough that is keeping me awake tonight. When I rode, my feet froze. Dismounting and leading my horse warmed me somewhat, but slowed our progress.
The altar Oreb had found was on a hilltop, as I expected, and the climb was difficult: up the side of a flat-topped hill whose gentlest slope was practically straight up, until at last, perspiring in spite of the cold, I was able to pull myself over the edge, and stand upright on smooth rock more level than your kitchen floor.
I had expected that the altar would be a mere flat stone not much different from the one beneath which I had laid Fava to rest, a rough slab of fire-blacked slate resting on three or four boulders. What I found instead was a wide rectangle of some white mineral so fine in grain it might almost have been a kind of glass, supported by twelve graceful pillars of a metal that I am going to call bronze until we can speak face-to-face. The Neighbors had danced around it once; I knew that as soon as I saw it and the floor of living rock that they had leveled and smoothed with so much care. They had danced, and their watching gods, with their feet upon the stars, had smiled and bent in honest friendship to accept a morsel from a table fit for gods.
Sinew had found an altar of the Vanished People in a wood, and had tried to persuade me to visit it without exposing himself to the humiliation of my refusal. Now I wonder what wonders I missed by my surly rejection of his implied invitation. Was it an altar like the one to which Oreb guided me today? If not, in what respects did it differ, and why? Did Sinew himself worship there? If he did, did he experience what I experienced today, or anything of the kind? Have you visited the place, Nettle? I am eager to talk to you about all this.
Sinew is still on Green, assuming that he is (unlike his father) still alive. On Green and so unreachable, as Sfido's friend Gagliardo would doubtless tell us. But I and others will visit Green's jungles tomorrow night if my experiment succeeds. If I can locate Sinew, I will ask him about the altar he found in order that we can find it ourselves, assuming that Hide and I succeed in returning to the Lizard; if it is as remarkable as the altar to which Oreb led me, it will be well worth visiting more than once.
Ever since my boyhood, it has seemed to me that it is a species of insult to the immortal gods to pray at their altars without sacrificing, provided that sacrifice is possible. If I still had the long, straight, single-edged knife I used to carry when I was Rajan of Gaon, I would have thought seriously about sacrificing Oreb. I do not believe that I could have nerved myself to do it, but I cannot help wondering what the result would have been. My horse would have made a sacrifice worthy of the Grand Manteion, to be sure; but I could not spare him, and I had no knife other than the azoth (as I said), and no means of getting him onto the hilltop.
There will be a barn for him tomorrow, poor creature. A barn and hay-corn or oats if I can find them, though I have little hope of that.
When I had rejected both sacrifices, my next thought was to pray as I would have at a shrine. I tried, kneeling on the level living rock with my head swathed in my scarf, and mumbling a few of the prayers I have not yet forgotten. When I have failed in prayer in the past, I have generally felt myself ludicrous, like the little boy in the story who prayed that Hierax would fly off with the larger boy next door and drop him on the head of some evildoer.
Not so today-my prayers were beneath even Comus's good-natured raillery. When I was in the schola, I once asked why those spirits who had been thrust from the Aureate Path could not save themselves by prayer; and I was told that they could not pray-that although we, the living, might pray for them, they themselves could only mouth the words of prayers, words that left their lips without effecting any interior change. So it was with me, as I knelt before that cold altar and felt its hunger. I was like a barren woman who longs to conceive, but cannot conceive although she lies with three-score men.
At last I rose and lifted my face to the dark winter sky. "I have no knife for a sacrifice," I said, and I spoke aloud as one man does to another. "Even if I had my old knife back, I would not give you Oreb, who has led me here to you. You will reclaim us both quickly enough. But you did not condemn me-or at least I dare to hope that you did not-when I sacrificed for Olivine."
I opened the leather burse that Volanta gave me when we left Blanko, found the piece of Soldese flatbread I had put there before setting out, and struck by the idea of sharing the simple meal we shared with our prisoners at midday, climbed down and fetched the last of my wine from my saddlebag. The second climb should have been worse than the first, yet it was not. I was tired, my ankle pained me; and my fingers, which had been cold from the beginning, were colder than ever. But all the emptiness I had felt when I had tried to pray, had vanished so completely I could almost believe they had never been. I was happy and more, and if an old instructor had appeared and demanded to know the reason for my joy, I would only have laughed at him for needing causes and explanations in so simple a matter. I was alive, and the Outsider-who knows very well what sort of creature I am-cared about me in spite of all.
"This is what I have," I told him, and raised my bread and my bottle, displaying them to the low, gray clouds. "I beseech you to share them with me, and I pray that you will not object to me and my animals sharing them with you." Then I broke the bread in two, laid half of it upon his altar, and poured wine over it, cautioning Oreb not to touch it. After that, I wet a bit with a little wine and gave it to Oreb, ate a bite myself, drank deeply from the bottle and recorked it, and put away what remained of the bread.
He came, and stood behind me on the hilltop.
I have been preparing myself to describe that the whole time I have been writing, and now that the moment has come I am as wordless as my horse.
I knew that he was there, that if I turned, I would see them.
I also knew that it was not permitted me, that it would be an act of disobedience for which I would be forgiven but whose consequences I would suffer.
Just now I got up to think, walking around our camp. Oreb is off looking for something to eat. "Bird hunt," he said. It recalled Krait, flying away from our boat after Seawrack and I had gone to bed.
Both Dukos are sleeping. So are Private Cuoio, General Morello, and the coachman and the rest of the troopers. Only Colonel Terzo was awake, staring at me with frightened eyes before pretending to sleep.
None of which matters.
That, I believe, is what I ought to tell you, although it is by no means exact. In the presence of the Outsider, I was conscious of another whorl. Not a remote one like Green or the Long Sun Whorl that you and I grew up in, but a whorl that is as present to us as this one, a place all around us that we cannot see into. Many would say that it is not real, but that is almost the reverse of truth. It is the things of this whorl that are unreal by the standards of that one.
Think of a picture. Do you remember the wonderful pictures in the Calde's Palace, and how we went through all those empty rooms taking off dustcovers and looking wide-eyed at the rich furniture and the pictures? Surely you must.
We are there still, Nettle, as Silk and Hyacinth still kneel by the pool in Ermine's.
There was a picture of a worried man writing at a little table while his wife crocheted, remember that one? Was the man actually present?
He was present in the picture, there can be no doubt of that. If he had not been, we would have seen a picture of a young, unhappy-looking woman crocheting alone.
That is how it is for us. The hill on which I found the altar was really there-in the whorl that we are so prone to believe is the only whorl; but it is no more real than the table at which that man wrote, and for as long as the Outsider remained with me I knew that.
No, I know it now. I was directly aware of it then.
Think of a man who sees a picture and thinks it is real. Here on the wall is a painted door, open, and beyond it another room, in which a ragged child stands weeping. He goes to the child to comfort it, stops, and reaches out until his fingers brush the painted plaster. So it was with me while the Outsider was with me; my fingers touched the plaster, and the illusion lost its power over me.
I cannot explain it better than that. I have tried to think of something more, of some way in which I can tell you what it is to walk with a god and know that the god loves you, as Auk did; and as I did there upon the hill. Perhaps something will come to me later. If so, I will set it down.
Before I proceed I should tell you that although my horse was where I had tied him, and unharmed, I saw the tracks of some great beast all around him in the snow. I was not huntsman enough to identify it, but it was very large and had big soft feet with seven toes. A baletiger? We coursed them in Gaon, but it seems that they are more apt to course men in this part of the whorl. Whatever it was, it had walked about my horse several times, and had left him trembling and sweating, but had not harmed him.
I took out the remaining bread, which was not very much, wet it with wine, gave it to him, and mounted and rode away. I have never left a friend with so high a heart.
Our son is here, as I believe I may have said already. He has been calling himself Cuoio – but let me begin at the beginning.
I found Sfido and the rest scarcely a league from the place where I had left them. I had told them to continue our journey, as you will remember; and so they had, but not very far. They were very glad to see me, or at any rate Sfido was. He called to Cuoio, who joined us and saluted. Sfido said, "Inclito's given this young fellow a horse and sent him to us. He says you wanted to see him."
I acknowledged that I did, and invited him to come with me. "I'm sorry to take you from the fire," I told him as we walked away from it, "but I want to ask you various questions. They are innocent things, but it isn't wise to let other people overhear conversations that do not concern them. You were one of the young troopers behind the hedgerow, weren't you? You set off the fireworks?"
"And shot at the cavalry attacking us, after the fireworks were gone?"
"No, sir. I didn't have this," he indicated his slug gun, "until after the battle."
"I see. You came out here from Blanko?"
"Were you born in Blanko?"
"In Olmo then? Or in Novella Citta? Were you born in Soldo, by any chance? Duko Sfido wasn't either, he was born in Grandecitta, I believe. He has lived most of his life in Soldo, however, although he's been fighting against it."
"I didn't know he was Duko Sfido, sir. I've been calling him Colonel Sfido. That's what General Inclito called him."
"I feel sure he doesn't object; he would have corrected you if he did. Where were you born, Private Cuoio?"
"A long way away, sir." His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him.
I turned and looked back at the fire. Sfido and the rest were huddled about it so closely that it could scarcely be seen. Our horses waited, patient and miserable, their heads to the wind.
"We will find no comfort here," I said. "Not even the slight comfort of blankets and a fire. Winter is no time to fight a war."
Oreb leaned fluttering from the handle of my staff to offer Cuoio his advice. "Boy talk. Talk now."
"Yes, speak, Cuoio. You can dodge my questions for a long time, no doubt." I coughed. "But not all night. Would it help to know that I am not your enemy? Sinew thought I was his-"
Cuoio looked at me sharply.
"But we were friends at the end, even when we fought. What was your name before you came to Blanko? What name were you born with?"
"Thank you, Hide. It seems a good enough name. Why did you change it?"
"Nobody would tell me anything, sir. I mean before I got into town. There was a place, a little village, like, and when I said my name was Hide they sent me to talk to the shoemaker. I mean they told me to talk to this certain man, and he could probably tell me. So I went around looking for him, and he was a shoemaker. He laughed at me, but he helped me anyway. He said to say my name was Cuoio, and showed me how to eat the way they do, and these people were a lot friendlier after that."
"Good! Good!" Oreb bobbed on the handle of my staff.
"They told you what you wanted to know?"
He nodded with his head cocked, listening. "Did you hear that, sir?"
"I didn't hear anything except the wind. What did you hear?"
"A big animal, I think, sir. Not a horse."
"It's a baletiger, I believe, though it seems almost too large for one. I saw its tracks this afternoon-or at least I saw the tracks of a similar animal. You said that the people told you what you wanted to know, after you changed your name. What was it you wanted to know?"
"That isn't exactly right, sir." Hide unslung his slug gun as he spoke and pushed the safety catch off. "But they tried to help me, and they were nicer to me."
"I have found them very friendly."
"Isn't your name really Incanto, sir? It sounds like one of their names."
I ignored the question. "What was it you asked them?"
"I'm trying to find my father, sir. Or a town called Pajarocu, because he went there."
"And has never come back. I see."
"Don't you know where Pajarocu is, Hide?"
"No, sir. Do you?"
"Will you tell me, sir? I-I certainly would appreciate it, sir."
"I may. We'll see. You've been honest and forthright, Hide, and I'm grateful. Before I ask you anything more, I want to assure you that nothing bad is going to happen to you as a result of your honesty-that I wish you well. Do you accept that?"
"Yes, sir. You said Sinew, sir. He thought you were his enemy."
I nodded again. "Sinew was a young man who was with me in Pajarocu, Hide. He cannot have been your father, however. Sinew cannot have been more than nine or ten at the time you were born."
"He's my brother, sir. I mean, I've got a brother named Sinew. It might not be the same person. He's pretty tall, and he's got black hair like mine, sir. Big hands?"
"Many thousands of men would fit that description, Private Hide." A fit of coughing overtook me. "Describe your father."
"His name's Horn, sir. He's about as tall as me, maybe a little bit taller, and kind of stocky. Just about bald."
I untied my scarf and let my hair blow free in the wind. "Like this?"
"No, sir. You've got a lot more hair than he does, and yours is white. His is kind of a dark gray, and there isn't that much of it."
"As tall as I am?"
"No, sir. More like me, like I said. Sir, don't you think we ought to go back to the fire?"
"If you wish, Hide. I intend to ask you a great many more questions, however." I started up the hill to our left. "Will it trouble you to talk where the others can overhear us? I'm going to ask you about the place you came from, your mother and your brothers and so forth. Will you continue to be open and honest with me then, with Duko Sfido and the rest listening?"
"Yes, sir. I'll try, sir. Only…"
"They'll know I'm a foreigner then, sir."
He was hanging back, and I motioned to him to follow me. "They will. But if I call you Cuoio, and you continue to eat as they do and speak as they do-you didn't mention that, but it's the most important thing of all-it will make very little difference. Besides, I'm going to adopt you. You've searched here for your father without finding him. Will it trouble you to call me Father?"
He hesitated, but when we had walked a short distance more he said, "No, sir."
"Good boy!" Oreb bobbed his approval.
"Does he understand everything we say, sir?"
"Call me Father, Cuoio."
"All right. Father, the camp's back that way. Why are we going up here?"
I slipped on a snow-covered stone, saved by my staff. "Because it's shorter. That's one reason, at least. I want to ask you about your mother and your home, Cuoio; but I can do it when were sitting at the fire warming ourselves. I want to ask about your father, too; and I had better do that now, since we're going to tell others you're my son. What sort of man was he?"
"He's a good man, sir."
I shook my head.
"Father, I mean. He always worked really hard so we'd have enough to eat, and he protected my mother and my brothers and me. Things are pretty bad where we live. People stealing and killing. Only nobody ever tried anything like that when he was around, and he didn't do it himself, either."
"Did you love him, Cuoio?"
"Good boy!" Oreb hopped from the head of my stick to Hide's shoulder.
"For duty's sake? To make your mother happy?"
"No, sir. Father, I mean. He was my father, and I just loved him. He used to take me out in our boat sometimes so I could fish, even when he was really tired."
"He was always pretty strict with us, but that was because Sinew got bitten by a inhumu when he was real little and almost died. After that he was really worried Hoof and me would get bitten too, and so was Mother. Then there was people from New Viron that would come out to the Lizard sometimes. That's where we live. On the Lizard, Lizard Island."
"I want you to sling that slung gun you're holding, Private Cuoio. First engage the safety. You may sling it behind your left shoulder, if you don't want to disturb my bird."
"All right." The click of the safety was followed by the rattle of sling swivels.
"Try not to make so much noise. Listen to me now-listen very carefully."
"I've been trying to get you to walk beside me, motioning for you to catch up."
"Yes, Father. It's just that I'm kind of tired after riding all day."
"I'm tired too. Can you hear me when I speak this softly?"
"Good. You have good ears. I no longer want you beside me. Do you understand? Stay well behind me. Oreb, it might be best for you to go; but if you insist on staying here, you must be completely quiet."
Hide chuckled softly.
"That's the way, Oreb, but quieter than that." I had an idea then, and said, "I'm going to hold my staff in back of me, like this. Take hold of the end and follow me."
He did. "Father?"
"What is it?"
"It's all thorns up there where the hill's sort of split. I don't think we can get through there."
"The worst thing we could do would be to turn back here. To turn our backs. He wouldn't harm my horse this afternoon. Perhaps the god-spell hasn't worn off yet, and he won't harm us tonight."
"Keep your grip on my staff," I said as we stepped into the crowding thornbushes; and then I saw him. I had expected him to crouch, although I cannot tell why. He was standing instead, with all eight feet solidly planted, so large that his great green eyes were on a level with mine. Catching the starlight, they seemed luminous, shining in the darkness like gems malign as Green itself.
"Sir…?" Hide was pulling the staff so hard he almost took it out of my hand.
"Be quiet. Winter is hard on animals. He's very hungry."
Hide let go of my staff. I heard the faint jingle of his sling swivels, and said as sharply as I dared, "Stop that!"
The baletiger came toward us, slipping between the thorns step by slow step. I ought to have been terrified, but I was merely weak and sick. I pitied him, and now that I have leisure to look back upon that moment, I think it likely that he pitied me.
"Is Mucor there?" I whispered. "Is it Mucor?"
There was no reply save the merciless winter wind's. I heard Oreb stir on my shoulder, fluffing out his feathers.
"Yes," I whispered to the baletiger, "make them come to us."
He sniffed the hand that grasped my staff as a huge dog might. For a moment his mighty body rubbed against me, and I could feel his muscles slither beneath his thick, soft winter fur. A second later he was bounding down the slope past Hide, and was gone.
"Come up here," I told Hide. "I want you to sit beside me on this flat stone. We won't be going back to the fire for another hour or so."
"I can't, Father." (I could hear his teeth chatter.) "I can't even move, sir."
"Yes. F-Father. That animal?"
"What about it?" I went to him and took him by the sleeve.
"Was it a-a…?"
"I believe so, yes. Come with me, Cuoio."
He did, and sat upon Fava's grave when I pointed out the stone. I sat down beside him; instinctively we huddled together for warmth, father and son.
My nose had been running all day, and was running worse than ever. I had it in a rag that one of the troopers had given me the day before, and did not reply. Hide said, "I think so, only not loud."
"We're going to shoot game here, Oreb," I explained when I could. "He's going to drive it toward us, if he can find any; and we're going to shoot it for him. I should say Cuoio is. I promised he would, so he must."
Hide nodded; I felt the motion rather than saw
"Are you a good shot?" I asked him.
"Pretty good, Father. My father, I mean my real one, had a needier he'd brought from the Long Sun Whorl, only he took it with him when he went away."
"Yes, sir. It gets kind of complicated."
I nodded. "We have time. Will you tell me, Cuoio? I'd like very much to hear about it."
He cleared his throat softly. "If you'll tell me a couple of things too, sir. I've told you a lot, and you haven't told me anything."
"What I've said would have told you a lot, if you'd been paying attention. Just a couple?"
"Maybe more than that, Father. Please? Like, why'd you want to see me?"
"Isn't it natural for a father to want to see his own son, Cuoio?"
"Really, I mean."
"Do you imagine that I asked my question in jest? I was completely serious."
"You're not really my father!"
"If you say so where the others can overhear you, we will be in difficulties."
"Where is Hoof, Cuoio?"
"Out looking for our real father. He was supposed to go north and I was supposed to go south. I did, too, or pretty much. How did you make the baletiger do what you told him?"
"I didn't. Because he had spared my horse, I agreed to do as he asked. You and Hoof left your mother alone?"
"She made us," Hide said miserably. "She made us both go out and look for Father."
"You didn't want to."
"We did, only we didn't want to leave her by herself like that. Hoof wanted to go and tried to get me to promise to stay, only I said for him to stay and I'd go. She made us both go."
"Leaving her there alone."
Hide nodded wretchedly.
"How long has your father been gone?"
"About three… Did you hear that, sir?"
"No. What did you hear?"
"He's roaring, way off somewhere. He roars, and then he stops, and then he roars again."
Oreb bobbed agreement. "Bird hear!"
"He's trying to frighten game. Greenbuck, I suppose. He isn't fast enough to run them down, you see. He has to lie in wait and spring at them, and they don't move around very much in weather like this. There is little food for them anywhere, and they try to find shelter from the wind."
"Sometimes they die, too. My brother, my other brother, I mean-"
"Yes, sir. Sinew. He told me one time he'd find them in the winter sometimes, starved to death or else frozen. He'd skin them and take that, but there wouldn't be any meat."
"They'll be poor soon," I agreed, "and few."
"I left my slug gun with her," Hide said. "Not this one, I got this one here. I was supposed to take it, and Hoof took his. Only I left mine where she'd find it. These people would come out from New Viron after Father and Sinew went away, and take things and make us do whatever they said. So Mother traded for slug guns for Hoof and me, so we could fight."
"I wasn't going to cut anything."
I said, "He means you are not to shoot him. You wouldn't anyway, I know.
"He's going to shoot food for the baletiger, Oreb, and perhaps for us as well. Fish heads.
"Go on, please, Cuoio."
"Sure," Hide declared. "She got them so we could fight if they came anymore, only we didn't have to. Hoof shot at them a couple of times while they were still on their boat, and they went away. Only I'm afraid they'll come back now that we're gone. Mother knows how to shoot, though."
I nodded, recalling the fighting in the streets of Viron, and our desperate battle with the Trivigauntis in the tunnels under the city.
"We figured to go over to the big island and hunt the way Sinew used to, and we did. We didn't have much stuff we could trade for cartridges though." Hide laughed softly. "So after we'd missed a little we learned how to get up real close and put the slug right where we wanted it." He sighed, and I knew that he was thinking of past hunts. "You know why they call these greenbuck, sir?"
"Say Father. You must learn to do that, just as I must learn to call you Cuoio."
"All right, Father."
Now I, too, heard the baletiger.
"Do you think he'll give us some, Father? There's not much to eat back at the fire, and I didn't bring much." He raised his slug gun to his shoulder as he spoke.
"If you can get enough for him and us too."
Oreb croaked softly, wordlessly, as the first game came in sight.
I told Hide, "Not now, my son-wait until they're closer." He nodded, his head scarcely moving as he squinted down the barrel.