Maps in a mirror, p.64

Maps in a Mirror, page 64

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  He crossed the Greebeck to the drylands and gave the meat and the chicken to the poor people there. He lived with them for a few days. And then he went out into the desert.

  He wandered in the desert for a week before he ran out of food and water. He tried everything to find the desertmagic. He spoke to the hot sand and the burning rocks as the treemage had spoken to the trees. But the sand was never injured and did not need a healing touch, and the rocks could not be harmed and so they needed no protection. There was no answer when Cer talked, except the wind which cast sand in his eyes. And at last Cer lay dying on the sand, his skin caked and chafed and burnt, his clothing long since tattered away into nothing, his flagon burning hot and filled with sand, his eyes blind from the whiteness of the desert.

  He could neither love nor serve the desert, for the desert needed nothing from him and there was neither beauty nor kindness to love.

  But he refused to die without having vengeance. Refused to die so long that he was still alive when the Abadapnu tribesmen found him. They gave him water and nursed him back to health. It took weeks, and they had to carry him on a sledge from waterhole to waterhole.

  And as they traveled with their herds and their horses, the Abadapnur carried Cer farther and farther away from the Nefyrre and the land of Greet.

  Cer regained his senses slowly, and learned the Abadapnu language even more slowly. But at last, as the clouds began to gather for the winter rains, Cer was one of the tribe, considered a man because he had a beard, considered wise because of the dark look on his face that remained even on those rare times when he laughed.

  He never spoke of his past, though the Abadapnur knew well enough what the tin ring on his finger meant and why he had only eight toes. And they, with the perfect courtesy of the incurious, asked him nothing.

  He learned their ways. He learned that starving on the desert was foolish, that dying of thirst was unnecessary. He learned how to trick the desert into yielding up life. “For,” said the tribemaster, “the desert is never willing that anything should live.”

  Cer remembered that. The desert wanted nothing to live. And he wondered if that was a key to desertmagic. Or was it merely a locked door that he could never open? How can you serve and be served by the sand that wants only your death? How could he get vengeance if he was dead? “Though I would gladly die if my dying could kill my father’s killers,” he said to his horse one day. The horse hung her head, and would only walk for the rest of the day, though Cer kicked her to try to make her run.

  Finally one day, impatient that he was doing nothing to achieve his revenge, Cer went to the tribemaster and asked him how one learned the magic of the sand.

  “Sandmagic? You’re mad,” said the tribemaster. For days the tribemaster refused to look at him, let alone answer his questions, and Cer realized that here on the desert the sandmagic was hated as badly as the treemage hated it. Why? Wouldn’t such power make the Abadapnur great?

  Or did the tribemaster refuse to speak because the Abadapnur did not know the sandmagic?

  But they knew it.

  And one day the tribemaster came to Cer and told him to mount and follow.

  They rode in the early morning before the sun was high, then slept in a cave in a rocky hill during the heat of the day. In the dusk they rode again, and at night they came to the city.

  “Ettuie,” whispered the tribemaster, and then they rode their horses to the edge of the ruins.

  The sand had buried the buildings up to half their height, inside and out, and even now the breezes of evening stirred the sand and built little dunes against the walls. The buildings were made of stone, rising not to domes like the great cities of the Greetmen but to spires, tall towers that seemed to pierce the sky.

  “Ikikietar,” whispered the tribemaster, “Ikikiaiai re dapii. O ikikiai etetur o abadapnur, ikikiai re dapii.”

  “What are the ‘knives’?” asked Cer. “And how could the sand kill them?”

  “The knives are these towers, but they are also the stars of power.”

  “What power?” asked Cer eagerly.

  “No power for you. Only power for the Etetur, for they were wise. They had the manmagic.”

  Manmagic. Was that the darkest magic spoken of by the treemage?

  “Is there a magic more powerful than manmagic?” Cer asked.

  “In the mountains, no,” said the tribemaster. “On the well-watered plain, in the forest, on the sea, no.”

  “But in the desert?”

  “A huu par eiti ununura,” muttered the tribemaster, making the sign against death. “Only the desert power. Only the magic of the sand.”

  “I want to know,” said Cer.

  “Once,” the tribemaster said, “once there was a mighty empire here. Once a great river flowed here, and rain fell, and the soil was rich and red like the soil of Greet, and a million people lived under the rule of the King of Ettue Dappa. But not all, for far to the west there lived a few who hated Ettue and the manmagic of the kings, and they forged the tool that undid this city.

  “They made the wind blow from the desert. They made the rains run off the earth. By their power the river sank into the desert sand, and the fields bore no fruit, and at last the King of Ettue surrendered, and half his kingdom was given to the sandmages. To the dapinur. That western kingdom became Dapnu Dap.”

  “A kingdom?” said Cer, surprised. “But now the great desert bears that name.”

  “And once the great desert was no desert, but a land of grasses and grains like your homeland to the north. The sandmages weren’t content with half a kingdom, and they used their sandmagic to make a desert of Ettue, and they covered the lands of rebels with sand, until at last the victory of the desert was complete, and Ettue fell to the armies of Greet and Nefyryd—they were allies then—and we of Dapnu Dap became nomads, living off that tiny bit of life that even the harshest desert cannot help but yield.”

  “And what of the sandmages?” asked Cer.

  “We killed them.”

  “All?”

  “All,” said the tribemaster. “And if any man will practice sandmagic, today, we will kill him. For what happened to us we will let happen to no other people.”

  Cer saw the knife in the tribemaster’s hand.

  “I will have your vow,” said the tribemaster. “Swear before these stars and this sand and the ghosts of all who lived in this city that you will seek no sandmagic.”

  “I swear,” said Cer, and the tribemaster put his knife away.

  The next day Cer took his horse and a bow and arrows and all the food he could steal and in the heat of the day when everyone slept he went out into the desert. They followed him, but he slew two with arrows and the survivors lost his trail.

  Word spread through the tribes of the Abadapnur that a would-be sandmage was loose in the desert, and all were ready to kill him if he came. But he did not come.

  For he knew now how to serve the desert, and how to make the desert serve him. For the desert loved death, and hated grasses and trees and water and the things of life.

  So in service of the sand Cer went to the edge of the land of the Nefyrre, east of the desert. There he fouled wells with the bodies of diseased animals. He burned fields when the wind was blowing off the desert, a dry wind that pushed the flames into the cities. He cut down trees. He killed sheep and cattle. And when the Nefyrre patrols chased him he fled onto the desert where they could not follow.

  His destruction was annoying, and impoverished many a farmer, but alone it would have done little to hurt the Nefyrre. Except that Cer felt his power over the desert growing. For he was feeding the desert the only thing it hungered for: death and dryness.

  He began to speak to the sand again, not kindly, but of land to the east that the sand could cover. And the wind followed his words, whipping the sand, moving the dunes. Where he stood the wind did not touch him, but all around him the dunes moved like waves of the sea.

  Moving eastward.

 
; Moving onto the lands of the Nefyrre.

  And now the hungry desert could do in a night a hundred times more than Cer could do alone with a torch or a knife. It ate olive groves in an hour. The sand borne on the wind filled houses in a night, buried cities in a week, and in only three months had driven the Nefyrre across the Greebeck and the Nefyr River, where they thought the terrible sandstorms could not follow.

  But the storms followed. Cer taught the desert almost to fill the river, so that the water spread out a foot deep and miles wide, flooding some lands that had been dry, but also leaving more water surface for the sun to drink from; and before the river reached the sea it was dry, and the desert swept across into the heart of Nefyryd.

  The Nefyrre had always fought with the force of arms, and cruelty was their companion in war. But against the desert they were helpless. They could not fight the sand. If Cer could have known it, he would have gloried in the fact that, untaught, he was the most powerful sandmage who had ever lived. For hate was a greater teacher than any of the books of dark lore, and Cer lived on hate.

  And on hate alone, for now he ate and drank nothing, sustaining his body through the power of the wind and the heat of the sun. He was utterly dry, and the blood no longer coursed through his veins. He lived on the energy of the storms he unleashed. And the desert eagerly fed him, because he was feeding the desert.

  He followed his storms, and walked through the deserted towns of the Nefyrre. He saw the refugees rushing north and east to the high ground. He saw the corpses of those caught in the storm. And he sang at night the old songs of Greet, the war songs. He wrote his father’s name with chalk on the wall of every city he destroyed. He wrote his mother’s name in the sand, and where he had written her name the wind did not blow and the sand did not shift, but preserved the writing as if it had been incised on rock.

  Then one day, in a lull between his storms, Cer saw a man coming toward him from the east. Abadapnu, he wondered, or Nefyrre? Either way he drew his knife, and fit the nock of an arrow on his bowstring.

  But the man came with his hands extended, and he called out, “Cer Cemreet.”

  It had never occurred to Cer that anyone knew his name.

  “Sandmage Cer Cemreet,” said the man when he was close. “We have found who you are.”

  Cer said nothing, but only watched the man’s eyes.

  “I have come to tell you that your vengeance is full. Nefyryd is at its knees. We have signed a treaty with Greet and we no longer raid into Hetterwee. Driplin has seized our westernmost lands.”

  Cer smiled. “I care nothing for your empire.”

  “Then for our people. The deaths of your father and mother have been avenged a hundred thousand times, for over two hundred thousand people have died at your hands.”

  Cer chuckled. “I care nothing for your people.”

  “Then for the soldiers who did the deed. Though they acted under orders, they have been arrested and killed, as have the men who gave them those orders, even our first general, all at the command of the King so that your vengeance will be complete. I have brought you their ears as proof of it,” said the man, and he took a pouch from his waist.

  “I care nothing for soldiers, nor for proof of vengeance,” said Cer.

  “Then what do you care for?” asked the man quietly.

  “Death,” said Cer.

  “Then I bring you that, too,” said the man, and a knife was in his hand, and he plunged the knife into Cer’s breast where his heart should have been. But when the man pulled the knife out no blood followed, and Cer only smiled.

  “Indeed you brought it to me,” said Cer, and he stabbed the man where his father had been stabbed, and drew the knife up as it had been drawn through his father’s body, except that he touched the man’s heart, and he died.

  As Cer watched the blood soaking into the sand, he heard in his ears his mother’s screams, which he had silenced for these years. He heard her screams and now, remembering his father and his mother and himself as a child he began to cry, and he held the body of the man he had killed and rocked back and forth on the sand as the blood clotted on his clothing and his skin. His tears mixed with the blood and poured into the sand and Cer realized that this was the first time since his father’s death that he had shed any tears at all.

  I am not dry, thought Cer. There is water under me still for the desert to drink.

  He looked at his dry hands, covered with the man’s blood, and tried to scrub off the clotted blood with sand. But the blood stayed, and the sand could not clean him.

  He wept again. And then he stood and faced the desert to the west, and he said, “Come.”

  A breeze began.

  “Come,” he said to the desert, “come and dry my eyes.”

  And the wind came up, and the sand came, and Cer Cemreet was buried in the sand, and his eyes became dry, and the last life passed from his body, and the last sandmage passed from the world.

  Then came the winter rains, and the refugees of Nefyryd returned to their land. The soldiers were called home, for the wars were over, and now their weapons were the shovel and the plow. They redug the trench of the Nefyr and the Greebeck, and the river soon flowed deep again to the sea. They scattered grass seed and cleaned their houses of sand. They carried water into the ruined fields with ditches and aqueducts.

  Slowly life returned to Nefyryd.

  And the desert, having lost its mage, retreated quietly to its old borders, never again to seek death where there was life. Plenty of death already where nothing lived, plenty of dryness to drink where there was no water.

  In a wood a little way from the crest of the Mitherkame, a treemage heard the news from a wandering tinker.

  The treemage went out into the forest and spoke softly to the Elm, to the Oak, to the Redwood, to the Sweet Aspen. And when all had heard the news, the forest wept for Cer Cemreet, and each tree gave a twig to be burned in his memory, and shed sap to sink into the ground in his name.

  THE BEST DAY

  Once there was a woman who had five children that she loved with all her heart, and a husband who was kind and strong. Every day her husband would go out and work in the fields, and then he’d come home and cut wood or repair harness or fix the leaky places in the roof. Every day the children would work and play so hard they wore paths in the weeds from running, and they knew every hiding place in two miles square. And that woman began to be afraid that they were too happy, that it would all come to an end. And so she prayed, Please send us eternal happiness, let this joy last forever. Well, the next day along came a mean-faced old peddler, and he spread his wares and they were very plain—rough wool clothing, sturdy pots and pans, all as ugly and practical as old shoes. The woman bought a dress from him because it was cheap and it would last forever, and he was about to go, when suddenly she saw maybe a fire in his eyes, suddenly flashing bright as a star, and she remembered her prayer the night before, and she said, “Sir, you don’t have anything to do with—happiness, do you?”

  And the peddler turned and glowered and said, “I can give it to you, if you want it. But let me tell you what it is. It’s your kids growing up and talking sassy, and then moving on out and marrying other children who don’t like you all that much, at least at first. It’s your husband’s strength giving out, and watching the farm go to seed before your eyes, and maybe having to sell it and move into your daughter-in-law’s house because you can’t support yourselves no more. It’s feeling your own legs go stiff, and your fingers not able to tat or knit or even grip the butter churn. And finally it’s dying, lying there feeling your body drop off you, wishing you could just go back and be young with your children small, just for a day. And then—”

  “Enough!” cried the woman.

  “But there’s more,” said the peddler.

  “I’ve heard all I mean to hear,” and she hurried him out of the house.

  The next day, along comes a man in a bright-painted wagon, with a horse named Carpy Deem that he shout
ed at all the time. A medicine man from the East, with potions for this and pills for that, and silks and scarves to sell, too, so bright they hurt your eyes just to look at them. Everybody was healthy, so the woman didn’t buy any medicine. All she bought was a silk, even though the price was too high, because it looked so blue in her golden hair. And she said to him, “Sir, do you have anything to do with happiness?”

  “Do you have to ask?” he said. “Right here, in this jar, is the elixir of happiness—one swallow, and the best day of your life is with you forever.”

  “How much does it cost?” she asked, trembling.

  “I only sell it to them as have such a day worth keeping, and then I sell it cheap. One lock of your golden hair, that’s all. I give it to your Master, so he’ll know you when the time comes.”

  She plucked the hair from her head, and gave it to the peddler, and he poured from the bottle into a little tin cup. When he was gone, she lifted it up, and thought of the happiest day of her life, which was only two days before, the day she prayed. And she drank that swallow.

  Well, her husband came home as it was getting dark, and the children came to him all worried. “Something’s wrong with Mother,” they said. “She ain’t making no sense.” The man walked into the house, and tried to talk to his wife, but she gave no answer. Then, suddenly, she said something, speaking to empty air. She was cutting carrots, but there were no carrots; she was cooking a stew, but there was no fire laid. Finally her husband realized that word for word, she was saying what she said only two days ago, when they last had stew, and if he said to her the words he had said then, why, the conversation at least made some sense.

  And every day it was the same. They either said that same day’s words over and over again, or they ignored their mother, and let her go on as she did and paid her no mind. The kids got sick of it after a time, and got married and went away, and she never knew it. Her husband stayed with her, and more and more he got caught up in her dream, so that every day he got up and said the same words till they meant nothing and he couldn’t remember what he was living for, and so he died. The neighbors found him two days later, and buried him, and the woman never knew.

 
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