Maps in a mirror, p.89

Maps in a Mirror, page 89

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  And then I watched from the rocks as the others came across. Crofe was last, and just as he stepped out onto the saddle, the rocks above came alive with Golyny.

  They were silent (I had battle-trained with loud weapons; my only war had been filled with screams and explosions; this silent warfare was, therefore, all the more terrifying), and the men around me quickly drew bows to fire; Golyny dropped, but so did Crofe, an arrow neatly piercing his head from behind.

  Was he dead? He had to be. But he fell straddling the narrow ridge, so that he did not plummet down to the rocks below. Another arrow entered his back near his spine. And then, before the enemy could fire again, Fole was out on the ridge, had hoisted Crofe on his shoulders, and brought him back. Even at that, the only shots the enemy got off seemed aimed not at Fole but at Crofe.

  We retreated into the rocks, except for two bowmen who stayed to guard the saddle. We were safe enough—it would take hours for the Golyny to find another way up to this peak. And so our attention was focused on Crofe.

  His eyes were open, and he still breathed. But he stared straight ahead, making no effort to talk. Stone held his shoulders as Da pushed the arrow deeper into his head. The point emerged, bloody, from Crofe’s forehead.

  Da leaned over and took the arrowhead in his teeth. He pulled, and the flint came loose. He spat it out and then withdrew the shaft of the arrow backward through the wound. Through all this, Crofe made no sound. And when the operation had finished, Crofe died.

  This time there was no ritual of closed eyes and chanting. Instead, the men around me openly wept—openly, but silently. Sobs wracked their bodies; tears leaped from their eyes; their faces contorted in an agony of grief. But there was no sound, not even heavy breathing.

  The grief was not something to be ignored. And though I did not know them at all well, Crofe was the one I had known best. Not intimately, certainly not as a friend, because the barriers were too great. But I had seen him dealing with his people, and whatever culture you come from, there’s no hiding a man of power. Crofe had that power. In the assemblies when we had first petitioned for the right to trade, Crofe had forced (arguing, it seemed, alone, though later I realized that he had many powerful allies that he preferred to marshal silently) the men and women there to make no restrictions, to leave no prohibitions, and to see instead what the corporation had to sell. It was a foot in the door. But Crofe had taken me aside alone and informed me that nothing was to be brought to the Ylymyny without his knowledge or approval. And now he was dead on a routine scouting mission, and I could not help but be amazed that the Ylymyny, in other ways an incredibly shrewd people, should allow their wisest leaders to waste themselves on meaningless forays in the borderlands and high mountains.

  And for some reason I found myself also grieved at Crofe’s death. The corporation, of course, would continue to progress in its dealings with the Ylymyny—would, indeed, have an easier time of it now. But Crofe was a worthy bargaining partner. And he and I had loved the game of bargaining, however many barriers our mutual strangeness kept between us.

  I watched as his soldiers stripped his corpse. They buried the clothing under rocks. And then they hacked at the skin with their knives, opening up the man’s bowels and splitting the intestines from end to end. The stench was powerful; I barely avoided vomiting. They worked intently, finding every scrap of material that had been passing through the bowel and putting it in a small leather bag. When the intestine was as clean as stone knives could scrape it, they closed the bag, and Da tied it around his neck on a string. Then, tears still streaming down his face, he turned to the others, looking at them all, one by one.

  “I will go to the mountain,” he whispered.

  The others nodded; some wept harder.

  “I will give his soul to the sky,” Da whispered, and now the others came forward, touched the bag, and whispered, “I, too. I, also. I vow.”

  Hearing the faint noise, the two archers guarding the saddle came to our sanctuary among the stones and were about to add their vows to those of the others when Da held up his hand and forbade them.

  “Stay and hold off pursuit. They are sure to know.”

  Sadly, the two nodded, moved back to their positions. And Fole once again gripped my arm as we moved silently away from the crest of the peak.

  “Where are we going?” I whispered.

  “To honor Crofe’s soul.” Stone turned and answered me.

  “What about the ambush?”

  “We are now about matters more important than that.”

  The Ylymyny worshiped the sky—or something akin to worship, at least. That much I knew from my scanty research into their religious beliefs in the city on the plain, where I had first landed.

  “Stone,” I said, “will the enemy know what we’re doing?”

  “Of course,” he whispered back. “They may be infidels, but they know what honor binds the righteous to do. They’ll try to trap us on the way, destroy us, and stop us from doing honor to the dead.”

  And then Da hissed for us to be quiet, and we soundlessly scrambled down the cliffs and slopes. Above us we heard a scream; we ignored it. And soon I was lost in the mechanical effort of finding footholds, handholds, strength to keep going with these soldiers who were in much better condition than I.

  Finally we reached the end of the paths and stopped. We were gathered on a rather gentle slope that ended, all the way around, in a steep cliff. And we had curved enough to see, above and behind us, that a large group of Golyny were making their way down the path we had just taken.

  I did not look over the edge, at first, until I saw them unwinding their ropes and joining them, end to end, to make a much longer line. Then I walked toward the edge and looked down. Only a few hundred meters below, a valley opened up in the mountainside, a flood of level ground in front of a high-walled canyon that bit deep into the cliff. From there it would be a gentle descent into the plain. We would be safe.

  But first, there was the matter of getting down the cliff. This time, I couldn’t see any hope of it unless we each dangled on the end of a rope, something that I had no experience with. And even then, what was to stop the enemy from climbing down after us?

  Fole solved the dilemma, however. He sat down a few meters back from the edge, in a place where his feet could brace against stone, and he pulled gloves on his hands. Then he took the rope with only a few meters of slack, looped it behind his back, and gripped the end of the rope in his left hand, holding the rest of the line tight against his body with his right.

  He would be a stable enough root for the top end of the climbing line; and if he were killed or under attack, he would simply drop the line, and the enemy would have no way to pursue.

  He was also doomed to be killed.

  I should have said something to him, perhaps, but there was no time. Da was quickly giving me my only lesson in descending a rope, and I had to learn well or die from my first mistake. And then Da, carrying the bag of Crofe’s excrement, was over the edge, sitting on the rope as it slid by his buttocks, holding his own weight precariously and yet firmly enough as he descended rapidly to the bottom.

  Fole bore the weight stolidly, hardly seeming to strain. And then the rope went slack, and immediately Stone was forcing me to pass the rope under my buttocks, holding the rope in gloved hands on either side. Then he pushed me backward over the cliff, and I took a step into nothingness, and I gasped in terror as I fell far too swiftly, swinging to and fro as if on a pendulum, the rock wall skimming back and forth in front of my face—until the rope turned, and I faced instead the plain, which still looked incredibly far below me. And now I did vomit, though I had not eaten yet that day; the acid was painful in my throat and mouth; and I forgot the terror of falling long enough to grip the rope tightly and slow my descent, though it burned my gloves and the rope was an agony of tearing along my buttocks.

  The ground loomed closer, and I could see Da waiting, beckoning impatiently. And so I forced myself to ignore
the pain of a faster descent, and fell more rapidly, so that when I hit the ground I was jolted, and sprawled into the grasses.

  I lay panting in disbelief that I had made it, relief that I no longer hung like a spider in the air. But I could not rest, it seemed—Da took me by the arm and dragged me away from the rope that was now flailing with the next man’s descent.

  I rolled onto my back and watched, fascinated, as the man came quickly down the rope. Now that my ordeal was over, I could see a beauty in a single man on a twine daring gravity to do its worst—the poetical kind of experience that has long been forgotten on my gentle homeworld of Garden, where all the cliffs have been turned to gentle slopes, and where oceans gently lap at sand instead of tearing at rock, and where men are as gentle as the world they live in. I am gentle, in fact, which caused me much distress at the beginning of my military training, but which allowed me to survive a war and come out of the army with few scars that could not heal.

  And as I lay thinking of the contrast between my upbringing and the harsh life on this world, Stone reached the bottom and the next man started down.

  When the soldier was only halfway down, another climbed onto the rope at the top. It took me a moment to realize what was happening; then as it occurred to me that the Golyny must have nearly reached them, Da and Stone pulled me back against the cliff wall, where falling bodies would not land on me.

  The first soldier reached the bottom; I saw it was the one named Pan, a brutal-looking man who had wept most piteously at Crofe’s death. The other soldier was only a dozen meters from the ground when suddenly the rope shuddered and he dropped. He hit the ground in a tangle of arms and legs; I started to run out to help him, but I was held back. The others were all looking up, and in a moment I saw why. The giant Fole, made small by distance, leaped off the cliff, pulling with him two of the Golyny. A third enemy fell a moment later—he must have lost his balance in the struggle on the cliff.

  Fole hit the ground shudderingly, his body cruelly torn by the impact, the Golyny also a jumble of broken bones. Again I tried to go out to try to accomplish something; again I was held back; and again I found they knew their world better than I, with my offworld instincts, could hope to know it. Stones hit the ground sharply, scattering all around us. One of them hit the soldier who already was dying from his relatively shorter fall; it broke his skull, and he died.

  We waited in the shadow of the cliff until nearly dark; then Da and Pan rushed out and dragged in the body of the soldier. Stones were already falling around them when they came back; some ricocheted back into the area where Stone and I waited; one hit me in the arm, making a bruise which ached for some time afterward.

  After dark, Da and Stone and Pan and I all went out, and hunted for the body of Fole, and dragged him back into the shelter of the cliff.

  Then they lit a fire, and slit the throats of the corpses, and tipped them downhill so the blood would flow. They wiped their hands in the sluggish stream and licked their palms as they had for Gokoke. And then they covered their eyes and duplicated the chant.

  As they went through the funerary rites, I looked out toward the plain. From above, this area had seemed level with the rest of the plain; in fact, it was much higher than the plain, and I could see the faint lights of the city fires here and there above the jungle. Near us, however, there were no lights. I wondered how far we were from the outpost at the base of the cliffs where we had left our horses; I also wondered why in hell I had ever consented to come along on this expedition. “An ordinary tour,” Crofe had called it, and I had not realized that my understanding of their language was so insufficient. Nor had I believed that the war between the Golyny and the Ylymyny was such a serious matter. After all, it had been going on for more than three centuries; how could blood stay so hot, so long?

  “You look at the plain,” said Stone, beside me, his voice a hiss. It struck me that we had been together at the base of the cliff for hours, and this was the first word that had been spoken, except for the chanting. In the cities the Ylymyny were yarn-spinners and chatterers and gossipers. Here they scarcely broke the silence.

  “I’m wondering how many days it will take us to reach the city.”

  Stone glowered. “The city?”

  I was surprised that he seemed surprised. “Where else?”

  “We’ve taken a vow,” Stone said, and I could detect the note of loathing in his voice that I had come to expect from him whenever I said something wrong. “We must take Crofe’s soul to the sky.”

  I didn’t really understand. “Where’s that? How do you reach the sky?”

  Stone’s chest heaved with the effort of keeping his patience. “The Sky,” he said, and then I did a double take, realizing that the word I was translating was also a name, the name of the highest mountain on Ylymyn Island.

  “You can’t be serious,” I said. “That’s back the way we came.”

  “There are other ways, and we will take them.”

  “So will the Golyny!”

  “Do you think that we don’t have any honor?” cried Stone, and the sound roused Da and brought him to us.

  “What is it?” Da whispered, and stillness settled in around us again.

  “This offworld scum accuses us of cowardice,” Stone hissed. Da fingered the bag around his neck. “Do you?” he asked.

  “Nothing of the kind,” I answered. “I don’t know what I’m saying to offend him. I just supposed that it would be pointless to try to climb the highest mountain on your island. There are only four of us, and the Golyny will surely be ahead of us, waiting, won’t they?”

  “Of course,” Da said. “It will be difficult. But we are Crofe’s friends.”

  “Can’t we get help? From the hundred men, for instance, who were waiting for the ambush?”

  Da looked surprised, and Stone was openly angry. “We were there when he died. They were not,” Da answered.

  “Are you a coward?” Stone asked softly, and I realized that to Stone, at least, cowardice was not something to be loathed, it was something to be cast out, to be exorcised, to be killed. His hand held a knife, and I felt myself on the edge of a dilemma. If I denied cowardice while under threat of death, wouldn’t that be cowardice? Was this a lady or the tiger choice? I stood my ground. “If you are all there is to be afraid of, no, I’m not,” I said.

  Stone looked at me in surprise for a moment, then smiled grimly and put his knife back in his sheath. Pan came to us then, and Da took the opportunity to hold a council.

  It was short; it involved the choice of routes, and I knew little of geography and nothing of the terrain. At the end of it, though, I had more questions than ever. “Why are we doing this for Crofe, when we didn’t do anything like it for Fole or Gokoke?”

  “Because Crofe is Ice,” he answered, and I stored the non sequitur away to puzzle over later.

  “And what will we do when we reach the Sky?”

  Stone stirred from his seeming slumber and hissed, “We don’t talk of such things!”

  Da hissed back, “It is possible that none but he will reach the Sky, and in that case, he must know what to do.”

  “If he’s the one there, we can count on having failed,” Stone answered angrily.

  Da ignored him and turned to me. “In this bag I hold his last passage, that which would have become him had he lived, his future self.” I nodded. “This must be emptied on the high altar, so Jass will know that Ice has been returned to him where he can make it whole.”

  “That’s it? Just empty it on the high altar?”

  “The difficulty,” said Da, “is not in the rite. It is in the getting there. And you must also bid farewell to Crofe’s soul, and break a piece of ice from the mountain, and suck it until it melts; and you must shed your own blood on the altar. But most important is to get there. To the topmost top of the highest mountain in the world.”

  I did not tell him that far to the north, on the one continental landmass, there rose mountains that would dwarf Sk
y; instead I nodded and turned to sleep on the grass, my clinical anthropologist’s mind churning to classify these magical behaviors. The homeopathy was obvious; the meaning of ice was more obscure; and the use of unpassed excrement as the “last passage” from the body was, to my knowledge, unparalleled. But, as an old professor had far too often remarked, “There is no behavior so peculiar that somewhere, members in good standing of the human race will not perform it.” The bag around Da’s neck reeked. I slept.

  The four of us (had there been ten only yesterday morning?) set out before dawn, sidling up the slope toward the mouth of the canyon. We knew that the enemy was above us; we knew that others would already have circled far ahead, to intercept us later. We were burdened with rations intended for only a few days, and a few weapons and the rope. I wished for more, but said nothing.

  The day was uneventful. We simply stayed in the bottom of the canyon, beside the rivulet that poured down toward the plain. It was obvious that the stream ran more powerfully at other times: boulders the size of large buildings were scattered along the canyon bottom, and no vegetation but grass was able to grow below the watermarks on the canyon walls, though here and there above them a tree struggled for existence in the rock.

  And so the next day passed, and the next, until the canyon widened into a shallow valley, and we at last reached a place where the rivulet came from under a crack in the rock, and a hilltop that we climbed showed that we were now on the top of the island, with other low hills all around, deceptively gentle-looking, considering that they were hidden behind the peaks of one of the most savage mountain ranges I had seen.

  Only a few peaks were higher than we were, and one of them was the Sky. Its only remarkable feature was its height. Many other mountains were more dramatic; many others craggier or more pointed at the peak. Indeed, the Sky was more a giant hill—from our distance, at least—and its ascent would not be difficult, I thought.

 

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