Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES—MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
Don Wollhem wrote to tell me he had just bought a long novel by an unknown Englishwoman whose only previous books had been written for children. He asked me to read it and, if I felt it was something I could honestly praise, to write an introduction.
It arrived on a morning full of annoyances. I was still recuperating after a slipped disk, so that I walked with a sort of careful crouch and winced when I hefted the thick manuscript. Still, I’d promised Wollheim and he is my own publisher, so I surveyed the fat mass of copy paper without enthusiasm, cautiously lowered my aching back into a kitchen chair, and spread out the manuscript on the table.
So I turned the first page and found myself in the heart of an extinct volcano, in darkness, with a woman who did not know who she was, or where she was, or why. . . .
And before long I forgot that I was reading this out of duty, or a promise to an editor, or anything else. I even forgot the kitchen chair and the bad back, although after a couple of hours (sleepwalking, still reading with the manuscript box under my arm, unable to set it aside even to hunt a really comfortable place) I did shift myself from kitchen table to living-room sofa. I had forgotten everything except the nameless woman and her mysterious quest.
I am a remarkably fast reader, but it was almost five hours later when I turned over the last page, read THE END, and surfaced with a start and a shudder. Wow, I thought. Oh, wow!
All I thought about the task of writing an introduction was that I’d have a chance to share with the other readers something of how I felt about this terrific new discovery.
It’s a strange and rather disturbing book. It’s filled with adventure and beauty, rich alien names, half-sketched barbarian societies, ruined cities, decadence and wonder. A nameless woman, knowing only that she is under a curse, comes out of the heart of an extinct volcano. Everything is strange to her. Is she healer-woman, witch, goddess, as the various peoples call her? Can she choose to be courtesan, warrior, queen? She goes from tribe to tribe, city to city, with the curse of her past following her wherever she goes. She can suffer pain—but she is deathless, except by her own will; she is drawn endlessly by the quest for her identity, her forgotten name, the mysterious Jade which—she believes—holds the key to her soul; and everywhere she is pursued by the image of the Knife of Easy Dying, which alone can kill her.
Comparisons are odious, yet as I read this I thought most often of the “Dying Earth” stories of Jack Vance, under whose spell I had fallen as a girl. THE BIRTHGRAVE has something of the same color and wonder; something, too, of the strange undertone of doom and sadness.
And there was something else.
Most women in science fiction write from a man’s viewpoint. In most human societies, adventures have been structured for men. Women who wish to write of adventure have had to accept, willy-nilly, this limitation. There seems an unspoken assumption in science fiction that science fiction is usually read by men, or, if it is read by women, it is read by those women who are bored with feminine concerns and wish to escape into the world of fantasy where they can change their internal viewpoint and gender and share the adventurous world of men. Maybe this was true at one time. The women’s liberationists would say that we women writers, too, had been brainwashed into accepting this pervasive social trend.
By and large, most of us have accepted the unspoken dictum that this is a man’s world, and if we wish to compete in it, we shall do so as men. All of us, and I include myself, have written mostly of men’s doings and concerns, and all too often from a man’s point of view.
So maybe this is the book we’ve all been waiting for.
Here is a woman writer whose protagonist is a woman—yet from the very first she takes her destiny in her own hands, neither slave nor chattel. Her adventures are her own. She is not dragged into them by the men in her life, nor served up to the victor as a sexual reward after the battle. For the first time since C. L. Moore’s warrior-woman, Jirel of Joiry, we see the woman-adventurer in her own right.
But this book is not an enormous allegory of women’s liberation, nor an elaborate piece of special pleading. It’s just a big delightful feast of excitement and adventure.
It’s a long book. You get involved, learn to know the people, get fully submerged in the colorful and fascinating world Tanith Lee presents. And I predict that when you, at last, satisfied but regretful, turn over the last page, you too will wish there were more.
As I found out when I read it through under what must be called acid-test conditions, it’s what Don Wollheim calls “a good read.” But it’s more than that. It has something to say to every reader, man or woman, about the eternal questions of existence and identity. And, although as I said before, it is not a piece of propaganda from women’s liberation, it may say more for all of us, women and men too, than the whole humorless crowd of Steinems, de Beauvoirs, Friedans, and all their weighty tomes.
Now get on with it. I won’t keep you any longer from the excitement of sharing with me this rich new discovery—THE BIRTHGRAVE by Tanith Lee.
This novel was written by me around the age of 22. I read it aloud to my mother, a great listener, as I went. Later she typed the manuscript—the only human being able to read my “writing-a-story” handwriting. Then or now.
But when we sent it to publishers, nobody was interested. Many didn’t even reply.
It didn’t stop me writing (evidently), but it stopped me hoping.
However . . .
* * *
The arrival for the idea of The Birthgrave was quite strange. The image of the ice-white being, trapped in the red-hot volcano. The dreams I had—as later told in the book—waking and not knowing what I was, let alone who. The dreams of flying—feeling the wing-tendons waking up in the muscles of my back—
But the other extraordinary thing which occurred is not mystical. It is a curious and perfect coincidence I’ve always treasured.
* * *
Earlier, I’d spent a year at art college. This really got me back on the rails as a person, and developed my drawing skills, such as they are.
Then the year ended. So I took various jobs: waitressing, shop work, etc.
One evening, I was meeting a friend from the college. We were meant to coincide about 5:30, and it was late April or May. As I stood waiting at the bus stop for her bus to arrive, the sky undid itself and about ten tons of snow descended. (Hey, it’s England!)
Asking a harried bus inspector, I was told my friend would, probably, arrive, but would be an hour to an hour and a half late.
By then I was up to my ankles (I don’t lie) in freezing snow.
I hauled myself out and staggered into W. H. Smith, the large, warm bookstore that lay just back from the bus stop.
The thing with Smith’s was they had an excellent fantasy/SF section then. And an especially good selection of those smart, unique volumes produced by DAW Books of America. (I still love those early yellow covers, each one with its single bright “window.”)
I was so often finding a fascinating read among them. Warmed up, and grabbing a novel for the check-out, I felt better. When the world doesn’t work, one of the best places to go is a book. Read it. Write it.
And this was the moment, and not remotely mystical, but—
No, I didn’t hear voices, but it was as if something said to me: “This company doesn’t do what anyone else does. Why don’t you . . . try approaching them?”
And I thought: Don’t be daft. Nobody wants my stuff. And look who DAW publishes—Marion Zimmer Bradley! Famous writers.
“Oh, go on,” said my silly, wise back-brain. “You admire them. Trust them.”
So I bought my book and met my friend. A few days later I tried the Approach to DAW. Expecting the normal rebuff.
To my amazement, I got a very nice reply. Sounds interesting, was the gist. Let’s see a synopsis and some text.
Luckily, since I seldom know how a story of mine is going to end till it’s got there, I’d written The Birthgrave, and so could do a direct synopsis from the established plot.
Again, quite speedily, I had a reply: “Send all.” I couldn’t believe it. Then believed it. Sent all, and subsequently the two other novels I’d written, The Storm Lord and Don’t Bite the Sun.
DAW took everything.
And from the outer dark beyond the hearth-fire I was liberated into the joy and light of a career as what I truly was, doing the only thing I could do well, and loved to do. A writer.
Donald Wollheim saved me—and I don’t exaggerate—from wasting everything I had and was. He gave me what I was, fully, and let me run with the torch.
I’m still running with it.
My everlasting thanks to him and to his daughter, my friend Elizabeth (Betsy) Wollheim, goes beyond words.
And for a writer to find they have no words—oh joy!
Part I: Under the Volcano
TO WAKE, AND not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a beast, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after a while, uncurling in the darkness, I began to discover myself, and I was a woman.
All around was blackness and no-sound. With my hands I felt old crusts of rock. There was an ancient bitter smell without a name pressing into my nostrils. I crawled out of the recess I had been lying in, and found a sort of passage where I could stand upright. Oddly, I did not wonder if I was blind. It was cold and airless as I felt a way along the passage. My foot struck hard on an obstruction. I kneeled and felt it carefully. A step, followed by other steps, hewn out roughly from the inner rock, and not much trodden. I could remember abruptly other staircases, made of smooth veined white stuff, slippery almost as glass, deeply indented at their center from countless feet passing up and down.
I went cautiously up the steps, feeling always with my hands. I did not think to count them, but there were many, at least a hundred. And then a flat space without steps. Foolishly I had quickened my pace, thankful to be on level ground, but I was punished. Suddenly there was no more stone in front, only an unsensable void. I swayed like a dancer on the brink of the invisible drop, then flung backward and saved myself. A skitter of stones fell down into the blackness. I heard them falling for a long time, bouncing often against the walls.
I was terrified now. How could I go on without seeing? The next mistake might be fatal, and already, without even knowing who I was, I knew my life was important to me. I sensed, too, something fighting against me in the dark, a malignant, one-sided battle, and I feared it and was angry.
On hands and knees I went forward very slowly, away to the left of the drop. After a moment, my outstretched hand clawed at emptiness. I turned back, going to the right. A few seconds, and the third corner of the abyss was sucking at my grasp.
I was filled with fury. I screamed out a curse in the dark, and the sound echoed and echoed until I thought the rock would split in pieces.
Where now? Perhaps there was nowhere. I lay on the ledge and wept, and then curled again, like an animal or a fetus, and slept. That was the end of my first awakening.
* * *
The second time was better. The original sleep had been no normal sleeping; this was, and I woke with a different awareness of things.
I reasoned in the dark that if the staircase ended in nothing, then I would have to go back down the stairs to the passage, and retrace my steps until I found some other way. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that I was seeking the surface, with an instinctive knowledge of being underground.
Crawling back across the platform to the stairs, my hands and then my knees encountered a square dip in the rock. I searched it and discovered a seam. This must be a door. Even while I was trying to find some way to open it, it slipped suddenly inward. I found myself, still in absolute blackness, hanging over another unguessable void, my scrabbling fingertips clutching at one smooth edge of the door. There was no hope. My fingers lost their grip and I fell. I thought that was the end of it, but the drop was not very far. I hit the stone floor, and rolled, loose-limbed enough that I did myself no harm.
I turned around slowly, and now, unmistakably, there was the merest glimmer of light, far off, at the end of what seemed another long passageway. Drawn by that light, I set off quickly, almost running.
Now I could see the dim outline of the rock sides, and the little veins of glitter in them. The passage wound and wound, and the glow deepened and bloodied. Then abruptly I had turned a corner and threw up my hands to shield my eyes.
The light was as blinding as the darkness, but soon I could rub away the tears and look around me.
I was in a vast cavern, lit only at its center where a great, rough-hewn bowl, at least six feet in diameter, poured out a ceaseless storm of red and golden flame. Beyond the fire a flight of steps ran up to a narrow door high in the wall. Otherwise the cavern seemed featureless and empty.
Somehow the narrow door was important to me, and I knew I must reach it.
I started out across the floor, suddenly aware of how the cavern, stretching up endlessly into darkness, dwarfed me like an ant. I passed the flame-bowl, had my foot on the first stair. There was a groaning thunder behind me. I swung around and looked in astonishment. Countless little fires had cracked open the cavern floor, and were blazing there. At the next step, fresh flames burst through. Not stopping to see any more, I ran to the top of the stairs, as if speed could outwit the mechanism below. With my hand on the narrow door, I glanced back. The floor where I had walked was now a sea of savage gold, and the scarlet smoke clouded up and turned to purple in the high roof. I pushed the door and ran through when it opened, thrusting it shut behind me.
The room was full of light, though it seemed to have no source. In front of me was a long hanging curtain, and when I pulled it aside, a stone altar and another stone bowl, where something stirred and brooded at my presence. I could not see this thing, only sense it, and when it spoke, I did not hear the words except with the ears inside my head.
“And so you could not sleep forever. I knew that you must wake one day, for all the sleep I gave you. Wake, and come to me. Even the abyss could not take you, as I hoped. Well, then. I will tell you things. I am Karrakaz, the Soulless One, who sprang from the evil of your race, a world of years before your birth, and finally destroyed that race, and everyone of it, except yourself. And you escaped destruction because you were a little child, and had not yet properly learned the ways of evil. But now you have grown to womanhood in your sleep, and you will learn. Evil will come and you will welcome it. Remember, wherever you go, I will be near you. There is no escape from Karrakaz now. Look.”
On the altar something flickered and glittered and took on substance. A knife, with a sharp bright blade.
“See how easy it would be to be rid of me. Pick up the knife. You have only to tell it where to strike, and it will obey you. Then you can sleep forever, without fear.”
But I stood quite still and did not take it. A million pictures and memories were blazing through my mind, and my hands were icy with terror.
“You wish to go out, then? Easy. There is the way. The steps beyond the altar lead upward and out into the world. But if you go, you are cursed, and carry a curse with you; there will be no happiness. The civilization which bred you is dead uncountable years. Your palaces are in ruins. The lizards sun themselves in the dried-up fountains and the fallen courts. And you—I will show you to yourself. Recollect, you should have been powerful, a magician who ruled the elements, the stars, the seas, the deep fires of the earth. All things might have done your bidding. The power of flight was yours, the chameleon art, the art of invisibility—and beauty. Let me show you what you are.”
The new thing in the air shone coldly clear, and in it I saw my reflection begin to form. A woman-shape, slender, small; long hair, very pale, and then the face—the hands of the reflection covered its face, and kept a little of its hideousness from me. But only a little. I knew. The face of a devil, a monster, a mindless thing, unbearable to look on.
I was crouching low against the floor, one arm over my head, my chin pressed down against my breasts, and, in the other hand, the knife from Karrakaz’ altar.
But before I could speak the death words to the blade, a soft lamp filled my brain, cool and green, and very old.
“Yes,” said the no-voice in my skull, “there is always that. If you can find it. Your soul-kin of green jade.”
I jumped up and flung the knife through the image of the mirror so that it shattered. Beyond the door a massive explosion rocked the cavern, and the floor juddered under my feet. I started for the steps.
“Wait,” it said, the he-she thing without a soul. “Remember you are cursed, and carry a curse with you. You have been asleep in the depths of a dead volcano. Leave it, and it will wake as you have woken. The red-hot lava will pour out through every passage and pursue you down the mountain. It will cover villages and towns, ruin crops, and burn to death everything living in its path.”
But I scarcely heard. My instinct for freedom was too strong, too terrible. I rushed up the steps, up and up, away from the glowing room and the possession there, into cold darkness that soon lightened. As I paused a moment to rest, leaning against the mountain’s gut, I looked up and saw stars and moonlight pouring in my eyes. Behind me the dark was reddening, and rocked with endless paroxysms of anger or pain. The stench of sulfur filled my belly and head and lungs and made me sick, but I toiled on, my hands like limpets on the stone. At last a ledge, and beyond the ledge the outer slopes of the volcano, running downward into dark valleys. Above, wide now from horizon to horizon, the brilliant sky.
I jumped from the ledge, and, as my feet touched soil, a demon belled in the earth. Sky and earth came toppling together and turned scarlet, and I fell, and continued to fall, down into the night.
I fell faster than I could have run, too stunned to be frightened yet. Then I was in a pit, and was stopped like a heart in death. I crawled out, gazed back. The clouds above the grumbling mountain were russet, and the first bright snakes of lava were sliding forth after me. A shower of boiling coals exploded outward, and fell all around me. Black-ash rain filled my eyes and mouth. I wrapped a corner of the dirty garment I wore over my mouth and nose, and fled again.
Down to the valleys. No longer dark. Lights were flying here and there and everywhere, and I could hear them screaming and shouting even over the noise the mountain made. There was no hope for them, for myself. Where would any of us hide from this burning demented hatred?
I was on a road, and scarcely noticed it. I bore away from the first village, ran across an orchard, where already the sparks of the volcano had started a fire. Vines were popping as they blazed. A flock of bleating, terrified sheep came plunging past and were gone.
I ran on. Where was my instinct taking me?
Something snapped with a clang; I stumbled and fell. A wicked little trap had bitten shut on the hem of my tunic, by some miracle missing my bare foot. I wrenched the tunic free, tearing it, and saw ahead the low glitter of water.
A palace pool, clotted with a cream of lilies and swans, dazzled behind my eyes, but the night was crimson now, and the mountain thundered. I got up and ran toward the water. The vines whipped around me. Through a gate, across a furrowed field, smoking in places. All the while, the coals burst over me. A million little blisters were forming on my body, but I scarcely noticed them. Suddenly through a thicket, against the ghastly sky, a long lake stretching wide, its glass changing to red, steaming where the hot things fell in it and went out.
Stumbling to the edge, I found several moored boats, little fishing canoes. Why hadn’t the fools in the villages run to these and saved themselves? I felt helpless anger at them, as I expertly pushed my boat out from the shore, using the long rough pole. I bore the guilt for every one of them to die. And here was the means for them to live, ignored. Damn them, then, let them perish.
Deep on the heart of the lake, I watched through the night, the imperceptible dawn, while the fury of the mountain expended itself. Around me the water heaved and bubbled, the air was black, hot, and stifled with falling ashes. The sounds were of a great beast vomiting. I thought of the stone Karrakaz had used as its altar, consumed with all the rest, but I knew that that thing at least had survived. It would be always with me, an emblem of the waiting evil in my soul, a reminder of my hideousness, the curse upon me, and the easiness of death.
At last, a sort of twilight, green and lavender, with one last pulsing cloud above the volcano. I strained the boat across the water to the farthest shore, but even there the land was cinder-fields. In places the ground had cracked open, erupting stones.
I would have kept away from the cots and huts, but it was so difficult to tell now. Everything was down, trees smoldering in the path. A dead child lay on its face; dead birds had fallen from the air. I began to weep, running frantically in all directions to escape this evidence, but always seeing it. Had my sin come already? Even in my unconquerable desire to be free, had I begun to unlock darkness?
And now I seemed to be moving down a narrow alleyway between the ruined walls of little houses.
A corner, swerving sharply, and now an open place. There were about fifty or sixty people huddled together here, their backs to me, ragged and grimy as I was. The sight shocked me. I stopped. A little hot wind hissed through my hair.
And then they began to turn, singly, in groups, sensing me as a wild animal senses danger or food. Their cold reddened eyes fixed on my body, halted, and turned from my face. I wanted to put up my hands to hide my face, but they were wooden and nailed against my sides. A child began to cry somewhere in the throng. Men shouted and women muttered. Their hands were moving as mine could not, in some ancient ritual; against evil, I thought. Suddenly a new voice rang out, clear, but with a little crack in it.
“The Goddess! The She-One from the Mountain!”
And all about me, as if at a signal, they were falling on their knees, entreating me for mercy, and pity, and succor, and all the things I could not give. Mixed in with their wailing was a cry about their sins, and the word Evess. It came to me abruptly that they were speaking in some language I had never heard, and yet I knew every syllable. Evess meant face, but not in the human sense. This was the face of holiness which to them could be both beautiful and ugly, equally terrible, and must never be looked on. Glancing behind them, I saw what they had been grouped around at the end of the open place: a rough-hewn stone, resembling a woman in a red robe with white clay hair. It held a mask against the Evess, which could not be seen, but the hair and stature of it were unmistakable. These people were big and large-boned, dark-skinned and black-haired. The image was not of them, but they and I knew it at once. It was myself.
So I stood facing myself across the humped hills of their bodies. I, who had brought the scarlet death of the mountain, worshiped in fear as the ancient goddess some legend had implanted in their minds.
* * *
I ended the paralysis of my bewilderment by turning to walk away.
Softly, whispering their invocations, they followed me. What now? If I broke into a run to escape them, would they too run to keep up? My eyes grew strange, and everywhere I looked, I seemed to see the glitter of the Knife of Easy Dying. Die, and let them follow me into death if they would. But I was still too new to life to let it go. Finally, sick and weary and in pain, I sat down on the rubble of some wall. I sighed, and countless eyes lifted, hovered, and fell away.
A woman came crawling to my foot.
“Spare us who have seen, unwilling, the Evess of the Goddess.”
“Let me alone,” I said, but too faint for her to hear the words.
She took it as some kind of malediction; perhaps I had not even spoken in their tongue, but in my own, consciously forgotten, yet learned in my first years as a child, before the ending of my race. She began to wail, and beat her breasts, and rend her hair.
“Stop,” I said.
She gazed at me blankly, her hands suspended in midair.
A callous hysteria overcame me, and I laughed weakly at her, at all of them, as I sat on the rubble.
They thought me a goddess. I was quite incomprehensible to them. No need then to explain, only do as I wanted. There would be no hindrance.
I got up, and every joint seemed ready to crack open.
An old long low building, upright, with several shallow steps, and an oblong doorway leading into cool dark. There was a smell there—cold yet close, not unpleasant, but alien. The smell of Human Life, and of something else too. I guessed soon enough when I saw the repeated image of the She-One. This was their temple, and the smell was holiness, fear and incense blended together by generations of unquiet belief.
They were hesitating below the steps, dark against the bronze and lilac sky. I held up my hand, my palm facing out toward them.
“No farther,” I said. “Mine.”
They seemed to understand. I went into the gloom alone. Beyond the altar, a screened door: the ultimate sanctuary. It was only a little cold stone room. Ash had collected on the floor, as it seemed to have collected everywhere. A priest’s pallet lay in a corner. I stumbled to it and lay down.
Would they come now, dare the abuse of a deity, realizing I was not a legend, but something much worse? Would they creep through as I slept, slide by the carved screen, bury a knife or a fire-sharpened pole in my left breast, and so through into my heart? If I slept . . . would they come then . . . ? I slept.
* * *
A vast palace, with golden rooms and crystal rooms and rooms of fire, and great staircases leading up and down. Like a mirage in a desert, surrounded by its fantasy of gardens. Half recalled, my home no longer standing now but hammered flat by time, by decay. What I had missed. The staircases wound up and up, and changed. Narrower, black now instead of white, black pillars and an oval doorway. Beyond it a miasmic beauty, something flickering on a block of stone, out of a stone basin. The power of my race, the fount of knowledge and evil. Karrakaz, grown like a rare plant from the stagnant badness of generations of wicked and unthinking men and women. A flower created by poison, that had poisoned, in its turn, what had created it.
This was memory more than dream, but because it came as dream everything was nebulous, yet strangely intense, with an intensity only unreality could possess. An ornament, a flick of flame, sprang into blazing relief, and a man’s face—father, brother, what kin I did not know—haunted the winds and turnings of the palace. Waking, I could not recall it—only narrow, high-set eyes, like chips of his dark soul, looking coldly at me.
An instant before I woke, I saw the Jade.
The evil one had told me, in the mountain, of this green smooth thing that held some link with my innermost being. I did not understand, only trembled to repossess it, stretching out my hands to it, entreating. But my fingers closed on nothing, and with a great wrenching, I was flung back out of sleep into the world of the broken village, the temple, and despair.
* * *
It was dawn, and very quiet. Night had come and gone without a knife or sharpened pole. I went to the screen and looked beyond it. The main body of the temple was quite empty of anything except its own blue dusts. But in the doorway, on the floor just inside the threshold—I went to it and found a glazed clay bowl of milk, fruit and cheese in a dish. A piece of cloth lay folded beside them, dark red as old blood.
I did not want to touch this garment, though I was not sure why, but I bent and lifted it, and found a long loose tunic in my hands, and under that, left behind on the floor, a painted and enameled mask. The white face stared up at me. The eye-holes were painted around thickly with black stuff, the mouth was scarlet. The curved open nostrils were rimmed with gold, and little golden drops hung in clusters at each side where ears might have been if the mask were a face.
So, their goddess must cover her deadly visage, the Evess so terrible to look on.
I took all the things into the priest’s room, and began to eat. I had not been aware of hunger until this moment. I think perhaps I could have lived indefinitely without food, sustained by the same weird process which had kept me alive inside the mountain. Now this first meal was oddly unpleasant, and afterward several demons rose up in my abdomen and chest, and lashed at me with their red-hot irons.
I lay down in agony, and, as I lay there, I heard a chant begin outside. On and on it went. They called for their goddess as she writhed in the priest’s room, and then was quiet in the lazy aftermath of pain. Eventually, I got up. Without thinking if it were right, I slipped off my garments, and put on the tunic they had left me, and then the mask, which was fixed by hooks behind the ears.
I went out slowly and looked at them.
A sea of people, crouching as before. On the lowest step a bowl of incense smoked over a brazier. Their terrible, almost unhuman faces lifted and fastened on mine, now free to their gaze.
I felt their demand before they made it. I felt their grasping fingers on my soul.
Then a woman was coming up the steps, slowly, holding out the bundle in her arms.
“Take him. Oh, Great One, be merciful—save him—”
Over her head I saw the shadow of the volcano, the reddish cloud still throbbing there like a wound of fire in the sky.
The baby was almost dead, blue-faced, making little sick retching noises and trying to cry. All around the ruined village stretched and yawned. There was a distant smoke pall near the lake. They must be burning bodies there.
She thrust at me with her child, weeping.
I felt nothing.
“Save him,” she whispered. “My son—”
In anger my hand went out to push her away. My palm slapped against the child, and at once it vomited, black vomit, ashes from the volcano, and its face turned pink, its eyes blazed open, and it began to scream and wail, not the feeble voice of the dying, but the healthy fury and terror of new life.
The woman gasped and almost fell down. Her eyes exploded tears. A man came running up, flung his arms around both of them. Their mouths chanted prayers to me, but every sense in them was fastened on their child, to see, to touch, to feel it live.
Like a tide they broke against me then, begging to be cured of their ills, their pains. Hundreds of men and women it seemed, pressing close. Their smell was of the earth, of the smoke, of sweat, of fear. I touched them, feeling nothing, no power go out of me, no ecstasy of giving, no joy in what I did that brought so much joy. They brought a blind man, who pulled my fingers to his eyes, and saw. They brought a girl, shrieking in agony with a pain in her side, and when my hand was laid against the pain, she was still and beautiful again with peace.
It ebbed at last. I showed them my palm, outward, my own demand for privacy, and they shrank away, their voices singing. Into the priest’s room I went, and threw the screen close against the door, and here I screamed and beat my hands against the stone walls until they bled and every nail was broken. How like a prison the room seemed to me, and, even then, I did not realize why.
Three days I lay in the room, not eating what they left for me at the temple door, often sleeping, dreaming sometimes, my eyes wide white jewels behind the mask which I must never take from my face until the Jade lay cool between my fingers.
On the fourth day, there was a hum outside like bees. I went out then, and found a vast crowd of strangers eddying in the street. As I came there, there came also a concentration and congealing. Soon it was no longer many, but one single thing which waited there for me. For miles around, from every ruined village, farm, town, and steading, they had flocked to me, bringing their sores and burns, entreating my blessing. I, the Goddess of Death, who had justly sent the wrath of the volcano against them for their wickedness, would help them now to make better their lives, that they might serve my shrine.
I touched them and they healed. And then there were more, new faces and sores, and these I healed too.
When the streets were empty, and the steps empty of all but their gifts, I went in and lay down to sleep again, until eventually the noise would call me up once more. It was like a poisonous wound, from which the pus must be eased, but in which the pus reformed, gradually, after each easing, until at last it must be eased again.
Then came a long time, five dawns, five twilights, when there was no sound. I lay still, listening, my eyes wide. I lay, like an insect in chrysalis, awaiting some wrenching calamity to break my cocoon, and turn me out, half-formed. I was still not a living creature. I was a sleeping silent thing, without substance or true life.
Then life came, but wrongly, not as I would have wanted, if ever I had been allowed to plan.
There was a great crash of sound: something thrown aside at the temple door, the gifts of untouched food, perhaps. There were steps, brutal, tearing the quiet of the place. I heard and smelled unfear. No terror in this one who sought me, only a raw, uneasy anger.
“Come out, you she-beast!” a man’s voice shouted.
It seemed to burst the temple walls, and break inside my head in brass pieces, that voice which had no fear, the first human voice that had no fear of me.
I got up, summoned irresistibly. I stood by the screen, and already my heart was moving, pounding as it had when I fled from the volcano, although now I ran toward the fire, and not away.
Then the great hand of the voice was on the screen, and the screen was thrown aside, little bits of the lattice snapping against the floor. He was ready to seize me next, fling me aside, my little bones snapping like the ivory. But he was still. No fear perhaps, but ingrained superstition. They had worshiped the She-One, each from birth, and now he seemed to see her here—red robe, white hair, like the red-hot, white-hot spew of the mountain, and the mask, so terrible because it said nothing but “I am here.”
Under the deep tan of endless sun, his face paled slightly. His lips drew back from tiger-teeth, wolf-teeth, snarling white. He was so much larger than I, taller, great bones, a big spare frame, beautiful and alien in its masculinity. Yet our looks seemed level. Long curling black hair ran down from his head to his shoulders like the black wool of a ram. He wore no mask but his face shook me through and through in a way I could hardly bear, for this face, this seen face, was the face in my dream—long, male, with high-set, narrow, black-chip eyes.
He cleared his throat. His tongue darted on his lips to moisten them, and we stood, each one half in the other’s power, and my sex stirred in me, and woman stirred in me, and an ancient humanity I had not known was mine.
And then he made himself move. His hand closed on my shoulder, hurting and immediate. In the other hand came a dull, sharp hunting knife.
“Well, bitch, and who are you?”
I said nothing. I looked at him, drinking him to quench the surge of life burning up in me, which was not quenched but only burned the brighter.
“You don’t make me quake, bitch. Some healer-witch from a cave in the mountain, eh? Come to live off their charity because they’re fools and afraid?” His hand reached into my hair and pulled it hard. “Hair of an old woman, but not the body of one. And your face, behind this mask—what?”
His dislike washed over me, his contempt curdled in the pit of my belly, and if this was all I was to have of him, then I made it welcome. But his fingers touched the hook of the mask, and I recalled my face—the face Karrakaz had given me. I pulled back. I put up my hand, palm flat against his chest.
“To see my face is death to you,” I said.
His skin burned against my palm; I felt the heartbeat start up under my touch. He ripped my hand away from him, took a step back.
“Very well, healer-woman, hide your plain little looks. And stay here if you want. But no more food, and no more worship. If you want bread, you can work for it. Help us build their homes again, help us salvage what we can in the fields. Help their women give birth to replace what the mountain took from them. Otherwise, starve.”
He turned to go.
I said: “You who were not here when the fire came, where were you then? On the far road, bandit, killing for gold and food. That then was your work. Out of the place that birthed you, without a care for it until the light of the red lava brought you back, hard with your guilt, and cruel with your shame.”
I did not know how the words came, or why, till I had spoken, but he looked around at me again, and his face was white now, the rims of his eyes red, and his nostrils flared on anger and pain, and I knew I had read him accurately and to the last letter.
“So someone whispered to you of Darak, the Gold-Fisher. Don’t mouth it at me and think you can scare me with it. I’ve told you what’s for you, and there’s the end of it.”
He went from the temple with great strides, his hands clenched, and now I knew my prison very well.
* * *
Now I could go.
I was free. No more gifts to me of food, and no more entreaties. He had stopped all that. There was activity and work outside. Once there was screaming, and the noise of things falling just beyond the temple door—some women daring to go against his order.
I had not eaten now for nine days, and felt no hunger, or any particular weakness.
I could steal out by night, to be sure no one would see me; I could run across the endless country to the sea, and let them forget their goddess, and let Darak forget her too.
But now that I could go, I would not go at all. I was chained by the roots of my senses like a bitch-dog to a post.
How well Karrakaz had trapped me here, and kept me from all knowledge of where I must walk, and what must be done to free myself. First by the need of these people, now by my need. And if all my powers were dead in me as Karrakaz had said, how had I healed? How? Or had they healed themselves by their own belief in me? It was their hands which had snatched mine. And I seemed to remember a book with an open page:
“Master,” cried the woman, “heal me, for I am sick as you see.” And he said: “Do you believe that I can do this thing?” And the woman wept and said: “Yes, if you will.” “Then, as you believe, so be it,” he said, and went away, not even touching her. And she was healed at once.
The tenth day. Outside: noise, hammering, shouting, sound of moving logs of wood, a work-gang singing. At midday a bell beating to summon who would to a communal meal. Darak and his men had organized things very well it seemed.
Then a great crunching of feet, laughter, voices. After that, quiet. A vast, warm noonday quiet, and a slow, still yellow heat.
I crossed the floor to the doorway of the temple, and stood there. The village was a different thing, caged in places by scaffolding, here and there rebuilt and half-patched with tiles. Far up the street a rough wooden shelter, a brass bell—pulled from some temple roof presumably—swinging a little on a pole outside. A cow wandered lazily in the sunshine. Otherwise, the place was empty. Darak had called them to some council then, on the low hill beyond the houses. Yes, that would be it. A little king on a little throne, lording it because his subjects were smaller even than his smallness.
My eyes slid to the volcano. Dark pinnacle, without a cloud. Asleep again, sated, terrible for all that. A black two-edged sword waiting in the sky, to let fall its red blows on the back of the land, whenever its passion moved it. There then, is the king, Darak.
A darting movement, snake’s-tongue flicker over rock.
A woman hurried across the open space before the temple, casting an indigo shadow. A man stirred uneasily in a doorway, holding a stave, looking up the road to where the people had followed Darak.
“Help us!” cried this woman. “Our three children are sick, and the doctor from Sirrain has said they’ll die. I couldn’t bring them—they screamed when I tried to move them.”
I looked at her closely. She was no more than twenty years. Perhaps I was her age. But she looked old, her young face creased into lines, her hair faded by the sun.
“Quickly, Mara,” the man hissed from across the street.
“Please,” she said.
“Do you believe the goddess can cure your children without seeing them?”
“Then believe I can, and they will be cured.”
Her face changed, the lines smoothed out, ripples running from a pool.
There was noise from the hill.
“Mara!” the man cried.
She turned to run with him.
“Wait,” I said. They stopped, nervous, anxious not to offend either Darak or myself. “Tell whom you wish,” I said, “whoever invokes my name, believing in it, can cure or be cured of any sickness. There is no longer any need to come to me.”
They made obeisance to me, blessing me, then ran like frightened mice.
Dust billowed down the street. The crowd was coming back, noisier than ever. There had been wine up on the hill. A small shrine there, perhaps, some old sacred meeting place Darak had thought would impress them.
There was a stone bench set at the top of the temple steps. I sat on it, waiting.
The cow ran down the street first in fright, lowing indignantly. Then came men, talking, impatient, grasping wineskins, followed by groups of women. Darak’s people were easily spotted. They were better dressed than the villagers, and more gaudy. Leather boots with tattered silk tassels, silk shirts, scarlet and purple. Belts with iron studs, gold rings, fringes on the jackets—torn like the tassels, not so much from wear as from hard fighting. Mostly they were men, but five or six girls slithered by with them, dressed like them for the most part, but with several ounces more gold around their necks, fantastic earrings, and jet-black hair, roped through with ribbons and flowers. This seemed enough. I wanted to go in, almost drunk from the sight of them, but I waited for him as I had known I would. When he came he was thoughtful, discontented, sullen. Whatever he had sought on the hill had not come to him.
More quietly dressed than the others, the two girls, one on either side of him, made up for it. They were incongruous. Their hair was a kind of parody of a court woman’s—elaborate, but too unruly to be kept in place. It stood up on their heads in hills, in plaited ropes, in twists and loops, transfixed by the blades of gold combs and jasper pins. The one nearest to me had wound pearls in and out like a pale snake trail. Strands had unfurled onto their shoulders where they tangled in the masses of goldwork. Their dresses were silk, one crimson, one black and yellow, and under the fringed and embroidered hems were the boots of bandit-bitches, covered with muck and filth and dust.
My eyes were moving away from them to Darak, impatient. No one had seen me yet as I sat in the shadow of the door-mouth. Then I saw what hung from the throat of that pearl-haired, crimson girl. A tiny green and cool shining thing on a gold ring and chain. Jade.
I got up before I could think, my hand went out, and I shouted at her.
The whole procession stopped, stumbled around, stared at me. I did not see their expressions, only sensed them, my eyes pinned to that green cool thing between her brown bitch’s breasts.
There was silence, and then he said: “Bow to your goddess, people. Ask her to do a few tricks for you to earn her bread.”
It was very still then. The hot raw day hung close. I did not look at his face, only at the face of the girl with the jade. She grinned, raised her eyebrows, one after the other, then spat on the ground before the steps. But her eyes were tight.
I went down the steps very slowly, and I was trembling. I stood a few feet from her, and pointed to the green thing without speaking.
She laughed, and spat again. Then looked at Darak.
“What is it you want, witch? You can’t eat a green hard stone.”
“Give it to me,” I said to the bandit girl.
She made her fear into anger.
“Keep off. It isn’t yours. It’s mine. He gave it to me.”
“Not yours. He stole it. Mine now. Give it to me.”
In spite of herself, the girl shrank away, back against his body.
“In our camp,” Darak said softly, “if one of us wants something from another, we fight for it. For food, or gold, or a knife, or a woman. Or a man. Shullatt here fought for me. And I took her. You want the green stone, you can fight her too. Shullatt’s not afraid.”
Shullatt’s eyes altered. Her courage was back. She was on her own ground again. Another moment and she would have me under her, her cat claws in my eyes, hammering my breasts with her hard elbows. I would rather fight a man than a woman. Another moment—I could not wait. My hand went out. The jade leaped into my fingers. I tugged and the chain broke.
Like cool water in my palm, the jade lay sleeping but alive.
Her moment was over, but still she moved. With my other hand I caught her hard and stinging across the whole face. Blood jetted from one nostril as she reeled backward. Darak might have steadied her but did not bother. She went down by his feet and screamed curses at me without getting up.
Abruptly Darak smiled grimly, set the toe of his boot against the girl’s side, and quite gently kicked her.
“Be quiet,” he said. “You’ve lost the stone. She fought you for it, in her own way.”
Someone began crying and shouting. Heads turned. I could not see who it was, but I heard the voice of the woman.
“She saved my children! The doctor from Sirrain told me they’d die—but they’re alive! She made them live!”
Darak’s face set hard and contemptuous. He too spat, and turned down the street to a side alley, pushing the crowd out of the way. His bandits shouldered after him, and the girls ran to keep up. The murmuring was growing all around. I went up the steps and into the temple before they could move about me and close me in.
I pulled the broken screen against the door opening, and lay on the pallet, on my side, my knees drawn up, my hands under my chin, and against my lips the green smooth thing that was made mine, and seemed like a beginning.
* * *
Night came and blackened the world, and red stars ripped their places in the sky. I would go tonight, out, across the wide lands. Nothing mattered but the green promise. Even Darak seemed nothing at that dark twilight. But then the need of food came, unexpectedly, and with it nausea at the thought of eating, and the shrinking from the inevitable pain that would come after, and torture and slow me, and keep me from going away. How long had it lasted before? An hour, or two perhaps? Not so bad. I could bear it because I must. But it was ten days now I had not eaten.
I went out onto the steps.
A few lights flickered in open windows, in ruins, in rebuilt rooms, many in the wooden shelter Darak had had put up for the homeless. Food smells from there, thick and musky. I went that way.
Inside the narrow door fires were burning in stone rings or in iron braziers, and yellow lamps swung overhead. A big carcass was turning on a rough spit, crackling and stinking. The villagers were crowded close as if they liked this nearness to one another. Darak was not there.
As I went in the accustomed first silence slipped over them. They slid into the grooves of it with stealthy ease. I walked up the center aisle, between the fires and cook-pots. Every bit of food that I passed made me sick, but I found a caldron bubbling in a corner, and the smell of this did not repulse me so much.
“What is this?” I asked the girl bending over it, poised now, her mouth ajar at the sight of me.
“Broth,” she stammered, “vegetables—”
“Will you give me some?”
She jumped around, beckoned, and a child came running up with a ladle and wooden bowl. Watched by the countless fixed eyes of the people in the shelter, and the swaying gold eyes of the lamps and candles, the girl began to fill the bowl with the ladle, once, twice—
“Enough,” I said. I took it, and thanked her, and at that moment a big hand knocked the bowl from my grasp, and the girl shrieked.
“Did Darak not tell you to give no food to the witch, slut?” a voice growled, guttural and menacing.
The girl took a step back. But the bandit’s interest was no longer centered on her.
“So, the immortal goddess, who sleeps for centuries under the mountain, still needs to fill her belly, eh? Darak told us you’d come here, and he said, when you came, to take you to him.”
I looked at the bandit through the eye-holes of the mask. A blank unimpressionable face. He knew their legend even, but had not been reared on it, as Darak had. I had no chance with this one.
I said: “If Darak Gold-Fisher has need of the help of the goddess, he has only to ask. I will come with you.”
The bandit grunted and swung out, leaving me to follow.
“Forgive us,” the girl whispered.
I touched her forehead with my finger, gently, as if in blessing, feeling nothing, while her face flooded with color and gratitude. Then I followed my captor.
* * *
He took me along the dark close alleys, telling me which path to follow now, and walking behind me. Here most of the buildings were flat. We passed a marketplace with broken sheep pens, and a burned tree like a huge stick of charcoal at the center. I began to hear music then, savage, bright music, instinctively tuneful and rhythmic, but with no pattern beyond an underlying beat of drums. There was a slope where a large house had stood, facing out over the lake, toward the mountain. Only one court remained, and here, in the hot early darkness, Darak’s people were eating around their own fires, playing this hill music, chipping crudities into the stone walls.
The bandit pushed me through a low arch. Paving lay under my bare feet, still warm. Bones and apple cores were scattered about, with a dog or two nosing around them hopefully. A girl with ink hair was dancing, stamping her feet and turning in endless circles, the golden bracelets on her arms like the fire-rings of some blazing planet.
At the far end, seated on a striped rug, like the hill-king he was, Darak looked up. A few men sat around him, and there was a girl—suitably placed far down the low table. I recognized her, the other who had come from the hill with him, in black and yellow silk.
The bandit began to prod and push me with fervor now. We arrived at the table—an intriguing item, over-carved from some light wood, certainly stolen, obviously kept as a symbol of Darak’s wealth, power, and good taste.
Darak smiled courteously.
“The goddess finally feels hungry,” he remarked. “Sit here, then, and eat.”
“I cannot eat in the sight of others,” I said.
“Of course, your holy mask. Then take it off.”
“No one must see my face. Do you not recall that, Darak?”
My voice, so cold and clear, was the last of my strength. I was weakening now, frightened and angry and bewildered. The stench of food and drink came all around me, and there seemed no escape.
“We’re not afraid, goddess.” He stopped looking at me to peel a fruit. For all his lounging here, he was not a man who liked to be still. I wished him dead, but not hard enough. “Come, goddess. We can tell what you’ve got to hide. You’re albino—white hair, white face. Eyes too—although the mask holes throw a good shadow over them, there’s no color. So. No more pretense. Sit and eat.”
He gave a little nod of his head; I almost did not see. But the big brute behind me giggled like a child, and the fingertips brushed my hair, coming for the hooks of the mask.
No, by all of my lost soul. They should not have my shame as a present in their stinking den.
I ducked under his hand, spinning around. My foot, the long toes clenched inward like a fist, kicked up and jabbed home in his groin. No compunction. I had seen what these things, half animal, used their genitals for, beyond the true purpose, and I was arrogant still with a raw and uncompassionate arrogance. He yelped and doubled and fell over, and I knew I had done enough to him.
I turned back to Darak, and he looked surprised.
“Well,” he said, and stopped.
I grasped the second before it was too late, to throw him now while he was unbalanced in front of his horde.
“You are the leader of these people,” I said to him, “and you have a right as such. I will show you what no other man may look on. Privately. Then you can judge for yourself.”
I felt sick when I had said it, sick and sad, and ashamed already. But I knew what must be done.
After a moment he grinned.
“An honor, goddess, to be shown privately what no other may look on.”
Some of them guffawed, and made their various absurd children’s jokes about the sexual act.
One leaned to Darak and said urgently: “Let some of us come with you. Don’t trust the bitch.”
Darak rose and stretched. The big muscles cracked and slid under his bronze skin.
“The day Darak is afraid to go into the trees with a girl, you can get yourselves a new leader.”
He came over to me, got my wrist, and took me out of the courtyard, taking great strides so that I stumbled and had to run to keep up. They laughed behind us, all except the man I had kicked, who was groaning and weeping on the ground.
* * *
We came into the terrible dead land near the lake. Great stretches of burned trees, brittle but still standing, where the night wind snapped twigs, and blew off a fine black powder in our faces. Only the water seemed clean. A moon was rising, red, and blurred at one edge as it melted into its wane.
In a way I was surprised he had not pushed me over and had me as soon as we came into the terrible trees. He was a hot hardness beside me, a little afraid without properly knowing it, sexually excited, I sensed. He still had my wrist, and now I pulled away.
“Is here far enough for the goddess?” he asked with stinging politeness. I wondered if he would ask next, equally biting and conscientious, should he spread his cloak for me?
“No,” I said, “a little farther. There is a place for all things, and this is not that place.”
I went on ahead now, toward the shore. I recalled the great sharp stones I had seen lying there.
My feet in the cinders, the water ahead of me, I said to him: “Look around us. Make sure there is no one here.”
“You look, goddess,” he said. “Your immortal eyes should be better than mine.”
So I looked. Then I crouched down, beckoned him to do likewise, spreading my hand as if to steady myself, and finding, without my eyes, a stone so perfect I might have planted it here purposely. My right hand was on the hook of the mask, and he watched, fascinated despite himself, the old rotten superstition overcoming him again. He was breathing fast, his eyes on mine, and my left hand jumped forward and the stone struck him on the forehead near the temple. It should have been a blow hard enough to kill, but perhaps I was off-balance myself, as I had made sure he should be; and besides, he knew in the last instant, and tried to throw himself aside, and he was very quick and strong. In any case, it was hard for me to kill Darak, and he meant more to me than my anger would let me know.
So the blow was a bad one. It stunned him and did not kill, and he fell sideways, and his lashes were very long on his high cheekbones, and I got up and ran from him, in every sense like a hunted cat, scrambling, into the dark.
* * *
But somehow the stone was still in my left hand. I could not seem to let go of it, and this slowed me. I was uncertain why I clung to it, but I think I knew he would come after me, and then I must defend myself again. And so it seems I slowed myself by holding it, so he could catch up to me, at the same instant ready to fight him when he did.
This double impulse clouded my mind, and worse, my hunger was on me like a beast. Weak-kneed and light-headed, I found at last I was stumbling along not far from the water’s edge, making back toward the volcano. Once I realized this I checked, panting, turned to the side, and tried to scale the slope there. I should be well away from the village by now. But the cinders and loose topsoil and shale gave under my feet. I slipped and slithered, clawing with my free hand, making so much noise I did not hear the steps behind until it was almost too late. When I heard, I turned, and he was there.
“Come here, damn you!”
His voice slit the night wind. I lost my foothold, letting go the hard-won ground, and fell back, grazed and breathless, a few feet away from him. The bruise was rising like an angry star on his forehead, and his eyes were black with fury. He staggered on his feet, still concussed, but I had done him little damage all in all. He cursed me, some curse of his hill-men I did not recognize except in essence, and then he came at me, and I was on my feet, the stone grasped in my left hand, the sharpest end toward him. He stopped still a moment, coughing a little from the run we had had through the cinder dust; then his hand, too, was no longer empty. It was a wicked-looking knife, thin but strong, with metal bits welded on and sticking out like thorns from the middle of the blade.
We moved around each other, both nervous, at a loss, each again half in the other’s power. And then he recalled that he was Darak, and a man, and that I—mere woman—was something to be conquered and beaten down and back into my eternal submission, not worthy of his knife, and he swung at me with his other arm, and his empty hand struck me across ribs and belly, and that was that.
I lay under the reeling black sky that circled on its crow’s wings closer and closer, the stone a million miles from my hands, and my hands a million miles from my brain.
I remembered enough to shut my eyes as he pulled the mask of the She-One from my face.
I opened my eyes at last, and I think I had lost hold of consciousness a few seconds, for he was sitting some way off, his back half-turned to me, and I had not heard him leave me, or felt him drop the mask onto my breasts.
He was breathing deeply. I could not see his face properly to read it. I turned my head toward the stone, and it lay so near to me now, I thought it must have moved itself. Then it changed, and was the knife that Karrakaz had shown me, the knife that would always be there for me, so I might end my life. And I knew I could tell it to strike into me, and it would; and death would be a comfort. But my lips were stiff and my mouth was full of dust. I could not call to it.
Then he said: “This village has always made me angry. I only remember the beatings I got here as a child, but I always come again to take the fresh blows on my back. So I came again and tried to help them, and they called to you and invoked your name. Let them go, then.”
After that he was quiet for a little while. The wind stirred the lake softly, and the cinders with a sound of dry leaves.
“You,” he said eventually. “I don’t know what you are—a human perhaps, but not of this race. Not of man or woman. Not even of beast. Yes. A goddess, perhaps.”
I put the hooks of the mask behind my ears. The jade I had hung around my neck lay in an icy drop over my heart. I got up and turned away, and began to walk toward the flatter land beside the lake, where I could climb free, and go where I wished.
When he called to me, I wanted to turn and would not, and when again he called, I did not want to, and I did.
He stood some yards from me, and said, “Leave the village. Come into the hills with us. I’d like to deprive them of you, the mewling fools. You can heal, I know it. Heal my people. I’ll see you’re fed, and clothed—better than that.”
In his face there was a sort of fear, and it was his own fear that fascinated him. He wanted to explore it, not run from it. I saw the great strength in him then, a man who could look into himself, and look again and again.
And he had looked into my face—my hideousness.
And I loved him with my body, without much hope or much demand in me; and I despised him, and I knew that he would trap me, and there could be no true mating between us, of flesh, of thought, or of soul.
And I knew I would go with him.
Part II: The Hill Camps
ON THE SECOND day into the hills, the mountain was a shadow, left behind. On the third, over many slopes, I could no longer look back and see it.
This was a strange open land, high up and near the sky. The hills rolled, tangy-brown, patched with purple gorse and blood-red flowers. Outcrops of rock showed like ancient bones pushed through the soil, and in the skull-holes of caves things stirred—bears, foxes—making their stores ready for the lean months. It was late summer. Already the sap was burning out of the year.
* * *
Darak’s band was not a large one—about twenty men. The main camp lay ahead in the hill’s heart. A few village boys had run away with us, anxious to leave the fields for easy pickings on the wide road and cart-tracks south. The men rode shaggy hill ponies, small barrel-chested mounts, hung all over with tassels, bells, gold coins, and lucky charms. The women had a couple of mules between them, and sometimes rode pillion with their particular bandit. Darak rode a black horse, fine and hot-tempered, unsuitable for the climbing, that shied every time a bird rose from a thicket. He went on something different, I thought, when it was a matter of business.
As a woman, I should have walked. As a witch, I had my own mule, brought from some village stable. The red tunic of the goddess was gone, and the goddess’ white mask. I wore dark stuff now, and a face covering—the shireen Darak had seen among women of the plains tribes, whose faces must be hidden from puberty. Across forehead and eyes the cloth was close fitting, with narrow eye-holes decorated by their own raised upper lids, which cast a shadow over the eyes themselves. From the cheeks, over the nose and mouth and chin, hung a loose veil of the same material. A woman in the village had stitched it for Darak.
When I had ridden out with them, the villagers had stood in the streets, among the rubble, staring at me, sullen, and afraid that going I took something from them. Darak grinned, riding his black devil horse. A few women plucked at me, crying. I hardly understood them, my ears closed to their village tongue. They were nothing to me, but what then was Darak’s hill camp? There was a weight of iron in my belly, but it lifted as we left the lake and the volcano behind.
He had not spoken to me since the night on the cinder-slope. All his words had come secondhand, from the mouths of others: “Darak says you are to have this,” “Darak has told me to tell you.”
At night, when he made camp, leather tents went up, painted with five or six colors. One of these was given to me, and here I could be as private as I wished. I ate a little when I must, and the pains grew easier, but never failed to come. The quietest of the bandit girls brought me the food and whatever other comforts Darak thought I might need. She said nothing, but her eyes darted, bright and black, like two agate wasps set in her head.
On the dawn of the fourth day, a man came with a snakebite, his arm swollen and black. He swaggered in through the tent flap, anxious to be cured without losing the arm, anxious, too, to show he set no store by me. If I did him good, that was an accident of his fortune. He was at pains to tell me what he had been at when the snake got him, which was squatting among the rocks relieving himself.
I touched the swollen flesh and looked in his face. He had no blind belief to take the healing from me, as they had in the village.
“I cannot help you,” I said.
He was sweating, and in pain, but he glared at me and lifted his good hand as if to cuff me; then thought better of it.
“You’re the healer. That’s why Darak brought you. So heal me, you bitch.”
A small door opened in my mind. I recalled something, but not much.
I drew his knife out of his belt, and he flinched nervously. I took it and dipped it in the flames of the little brazier the girl brought me at night. I got his arm again.
“Hold still,” I said, and made the quick incision before he could protest. He roared like a bull. “Now suck,” I said, “suck and spit.”
He sat with his mouth wide open, amazed at my abrupt movement and the order—crude in its basic simplicity.
“Do as I say,” I added, “before the whole of your body swells up and blackens too.”
That galvanized him into activity. Kneeling in my tent, he set to work with frantic, wide-eyed speed.
In the middle of this, Darak’s hand pulled the tent-flap wide, and he looked in. He had avoided me till now, and today had been away early, hunting; what had brought him here, I did not know. He stared in amazement for a moment at the rhythmically swaying, sucking, spitting bandit before me, then laughed.
“Some new ritual to the goddess,” he said, and went away.
The man cured himself, but it was mere luck.
* * *
The day after that, the hills were at their highest and most barren, the soil eroded, the bare rock flanks lying like great tortoises in the sun.
A group of tall trees, elegant and thin as some women can be, stood ahead of us. Foliage rested like black ribbon clouds on their tops, and at intervals in the upper branches. At sunset we began to climb toward these trees, up a flight of natural steps, the broad terraces of the hill. I knew from their urgings, jokes, and different manner all around, that we were almost in the camp now, but I could not tell where it might be. The horses’ small sure feet beat under us like little clocks. Even Darak’s horse was quieter, better and more stable, as it sensed its home. Overhead the red sky was purpling, and the stars were coming through. One fell, beyond the hills it seemed, into the plains there, with a train of golden fire. A bandit girl pointed to it, calling to us to look, but it was gone. I knew enough of their old beliefs—not only from their stories, but from the way they spoke of many things. Men who had not feared the She-One had been reared on other milk, and feared instead the earthshaking serpent, or the grave of murderers. There were terrors in all of them, however well they plastered them over with experience and boasting. The falling star had perhaps been, to the bandit girl, a god, visiting from his sky-house. To another of them it was a warrior’s death as he fell in battle.
Already I knew them a little. A sort of kinship had linked me to them beyond what linked me to Darak, even though I was not of them, and their ways disgusted me. Even he, the one I followed here, was their clay, not mine.
A crack of thunder split the sky across. Darak’s horse reared and plunged, its feet kicking loose stones downward to the lower slopes. A blazing dry wind tore by us and was gone, but away behind us the sky was suddenly scarlet and alive.
“Makkatt!” one of the men shouted. It was their name for the volcano.
We turned in our saddles on the uneasy horses, and stared back to the light in the sky.
One of the village boys, who had come with us, began to yell and weep. The nearest bandit struck him into silence.
It was very quick. The sky was red, then orange, then a filthy yellow, then bloodied and muddied back into darkness, leaving only the half-glow low on the horizon, which was the burning villages. The sound came late to us, rumbled deeply, and was gone.
I looked at Darak, and his face was hard and shut. But I knew behind his eyes, as behind mine, the thought of the village would not be still.
Their goddess abandoned them, and the wrath of the mountain came in her wake.
I remembered the altar of Evil, so far away reality had almost faded it. I remembered the voice in my skull: You are cursed, and carry a curse with you; there will be no happiness.
* * *
With a silence on us now, and the reddish lamp still alight behind us, we came up to the trees an hour later.
A rider near Darak made a sound in his throat like the barking of a hill-fox, twice, then again twice, and was answered from the trees. Three or four men untwisted themselves from the shadows, and ran up. I saw the glint of knives, but it was all formality. They must have been able to see us for hours.
A few moments in talk, gesticulations backward toward Makkatt, then we were going on, through the trees, among high jutting rocks. Three more halts and signalings with sentries—elaborate birdcalls and passwords—the gaudy toys of dangerous and well-organized men.
Then the ground seemed to open in front of us. I looked between the rock, and saw, carved through the hills, a long ravine. It was about four miles in length and perhaps a mile across, and overhung by the slopes on every side. Trees leaned over it, pines and staggering larches. Grass grew in the bowl, and pasture land where there would be brown cattle and wild little sheep. On the east side a waterfall smoked down, and there was other smoke also—and the glint of cluster upon cluster of cooking fires, outside and around the lanes of leather tents.
In the black of night, the downward track was hard and treacherous. Men cursed and horses stumbled, and little things ran away skittering, with bright eyes.
* * *
Nearer and nearer the fire blur, the smell of food and huddle and closeness. There seemed no way out now up the steep sides of the ravine.
The track widened out. We were on level ground.
Darak swung down from the horse, his men following his example. Boys came and took their mounts away to horse pens up against the escarpment, but Darak’s horse was taken somewhere else. The place jumped in the firelight, unsteady and uncertain.
I sat still on the mule, waiting.
Darak turned abruptly and came back to me.
I looked down at his face but it was all one with the moving, twisting light. I could not be sure what his look or his eyes said to me.
“They’ll put up your tent for you over there, near the waterfall. I’ll send the girl to take care of your wants—a sort of servant, but she won’t say much about it. If you need anything, get word to me. You’re free to do as you like here.”
“Oh, yes?” I said softly.
His narrow eyes narrowed further until they were glittering slits.
There was a silence between us, through the noise starting up all around. Then he said:
“I’ve work to do, things to get done. You understand.”
He turned, and began to walk away. A tall slight woman with a cloud of black hair came out of the redness ahead of him. Rings gleamed on her hands and on his as they met. He kissed her in full view of me. There seemed no logical reason why he should not.
Then she led him into a tent with blue eye-shapes painted on it.
I slid down from the mule, and the uneasy stares of the bandits flickered, heads turned, as I went by them, into the dark, while behind us all, unseen, the burning in the sky went on and on.
So, I might do as I liked.
This glorious freedom the king had granted me was like a weight around my soul’s neck. He had brought me here—curious about himself, not me—and now, losing interest, he handed me this strange manumission which meant nothing in physical terms, for I was their prisoner in all senses once I knew their stronghold, but meant at the same moment so much: because, by it, he had disowned me. What then had I expected?
The long sleeps came on me again, after that night of arrival. I lay still, as I had lain in the village temple, my eyes often open, in a kind of trance. I scared the girl who came with food and coals and fresh water. She ran out yelling that I was stiff, hard and icy as a block of stone, and did not breathe. Perhaps this was true, perhaps she imagined it, but none of the women would come in my tent after that. Not that I missed them, nor they me. They were a wild bitch race, on their own among women, as I suppose all breeds of women are. They fought for their men between themselves, but did not then ride to a fight along with these men. They dressed half the time as the men did, but cooked and darned and bore their babies as if they had no other function except to be female and subservient. They had their own mysteries, and something in me shrank from their bright golden stupidity, and the sedentary glamour of their lives.
* * *
The dreams came. The shining rooms, the courts with their elaborate paving and fountains, all empty now. In a vast hall, a statue of black marble, glossy like glass. A man dressed simply, with long hair and short beard. Not here that face which haunted me, which later I had met in Darak. This was another stranger.
Where was this place, the ruin of my home? I must find it. And here I sat in the bandit’s tent.
There was in me then silent anger at myself. The piece of jade lay cool on my skin, but my life was in darkness.
So the days passed.
The camp ground was much as I had imagined, pasture dotted with cows, sheep, and goats, an orchard of fruit trees—the leftovers of some old farm, now in ruins, at the southern end of the ravine. There were vines, too, and some vegetable patches. This kind of husbandry was the women’s task. The men hunted when they were not out on other errands, and brought back steaming bloody carcasses with drooping heads.
There were a lot of people in the ravine, and it was a hotbed of their jealousies and quarrels. Some of these came to me—requests for love-potions and death-wishes, which were not granted. As for their sick, when they thought I might help them, it seemed I could do it. Otherwise, I was powerless. This made me afraid. I was the outcast in their midst. They would turn on me at last and rend me as a pack of dogs rend the lame dog when it falls. I had my enemies already—the girl whose jade I took, the man I had kicked in the genitals, and many more now, angry I had not cast their spells for them. Darak ignored, or did not see, this situation. There was a war over the hills, beyond the plains and the mountain ring and the wide river, in the southern desert regions, whose ancient great cities still stood like monoliths. It was another world to the bandits, that land, but it provided bounty. A caravan was going south, packed with war gear, bronze and iron and some gold. Darak would take this, and then barter it, piece by piece, among the plains tribes for their own smaller battles. Or perhaps he would ride south himself (he had done it before), and come into the mountain towns, claiming to be a merchant, with goods and armor to sell them.
I knew little enough of his plans. I picked up some gossip as befitted my station as a woman. At night, when he lay in the blue tent, I eavesdropped by the fires; during the day, I listened here and there as I walked the length of the ravine and back again.
There was a place, high up, near the falling shaft of the waterfall, where I used to climb and sit for hours. Nourished by the water, which broke off in little streams and carved itself channels along the slope, the trees grew thick and dark green here. There was the sweet sharp smell of pine resin, and scents from the various flowers that pushed through the soil. They showed like white bells among the boulders, changing to reds and blues as they neared the stream. Some grew in the water itself, like filmy lavender bubbles, then hardened into purple on the far side where a little mound of stones stood leaning together. There was a slight fume of water over the spot from the falling spray. It was refreshing in the heat of the day. I used to sleep here sometimes, glad to have escaped the claustrophobia of my painted tent for a new and cleaner privacy, for no one ever seemed to come here. Lower down, where the fall had produced a round pool, the women came and filled their jars or bathed. I could see them clearly, small as dolls, and sometimes a snatch of voices blew up to me, the words always drowned by the roaring water. Below that place, I would look down again, and see the whole of the ravine, the tents, the animals and Darak’s men, wrestling and firing arrows into a target, flaying dead animals for their leather. It looked innocent and homely enough from the slope, perhaps because I was no longer part of it. I could see Darak, tiny and breakable as an insect, go into the horse field and pick out his black, or its white mate, and ride them, wheeling and jumping, standing up on their backs, somersaulting and coming down with sure feet. Darak the gypsy and the showman, the boaster, who needed admiration like food, yet seemed to know his needs. I had seen him closer, as he rode in the horse field, his face laughing, open as a small boy’s, but, as he came out afterward amid clapping and cheers, the inward-looking amusement of his eyes. He knew.
* * *
In the middle of the night, a woman screamed and screamed outside my tent.
I got up, drew open the flap. Two girls, one with a pitch-brand that seared my eyes with its raucous light. Their faces were drawn and somehow angry. The third woman was in the arms of a big, dark-skinned man, one of Darak’s “captains” I had long ago surmised. At the moment her body was arched and straining, her hands knotted into fists.
“What is the matter?” I asked them.
The girl who did not carry the torch stepped forward, and I saw her face clearly. She did not look in my eyes but at my neck, from which, she correctly guessed, hung the jade I had pulled from hers. Shullatt.
“Illka’s in labor with Darak’s child, and things aren’t going well. We’ve come so you can cast your spells on her, and save her baby.” She looked scornful, and her mouth opened to say more, but the screams began again.
The bandit holding on to the one they called Illka said furiously: “Keep still, you damned bucking mare.”
“Bring her inside,” I said.
He ducked under the tent flap and deposited the girl, still arched and wailing, on my bed of rugs.
I looked at her and her belly was almost flat.
“In labor?” I asked. “How long has she carried?”
“Five months,” Shullatt snapped.
Illka was obviously in agony, almost unconscious, except when the pain brought its automatic responses.
“I tell her,” the other woman said, “she’s miscarrying, not bearing.”
“Where is Darak?” I asked.
I was not certain why I asked. I felt obscurely that some of this pain should fall upon him, who had helped cause it. But had he been in the camp, the tent with its pattern of blue eyes would have had him, or perhaps another.
I leaned over Illka, and I could not see how to help her. Her eyes were wide now in pain and fear, but I was another shadow revolving around her agony, without a place in it. She had no faith in the witch.
“Have you no midwife?” I asked.
Shullatt sneered. “No.”
“I cannot help this girl.”
Shullatt fastened on my defeat with triumph.
“Can’t help her? Why did Darak bring you here, then, to eat our meat and drink our drink and stroll where you will in our home?”
I kneeled down beside her. Blood was running onto the floor. I did not know what to do. I put my hand on her forehead, and looked into her eyes. At first there was no response but then, after a while, something stirred between us. I reached down into her eyes, into her mind, and closed a coolness on her brain.
“No more pain,” I whispered.
Behind me, Shullatt snapped, “What?” craning nearer.
But the girl’s face was relaxing, her body, arched for the new spasm, was leveling on the rugs. She smiled.
The other woman cried: “You’ve saved her!”
But this was not so: there was not enough belief in any of us to have saved her. I simply held her still and calm in some water of peace at the bottom of the soul, whispering to her of beautiful things. After a while, her eyes slipped gently shut. She turned stiff, and very cold.
I stood up. The man had gone out again. Birth and the complications of birth were not his province, and he wanted none of them. The two girls were still there, but it was Shullatt who moved and sparkled and was alive with venom. The other was quiet, awed by this soft, fearless death.
“You killed her,” Shullatt said.
I stood and looked at her. There was no reason to answer.
“You killed her,” she repeated. “You put a witch-sleep on her so she had no fight left! She couldn’t feel the child tearing to get out—Darak’s child. Illka you kill, and Darak’s child you kill—why, witch-woman? What is it that makes you so jealous of the gifts he gives?”
Karrakaz moved in the gloomy tent. Evil would come to me and I would welcome it. What I had done to help the screaming girl and thought to be a blessing to her in the hopeless agony—was that only my self-deception? Would she have lived had I left her to struggle alone? I had my motives, as Shullatt instinctively guessed. Would I cut the forest of green trees down all around him, one by one, in insidious ways, until he had only the blunted faceless tree to cling to?
The black-haired girl in the tent of blue eyes, how easy it would be to be rid of her. Some drink, some balm, a perfume even. The knowledge of poisons and treachery waited in my brain.
“Take Illka away,” I said to Shullatt and the other girl. “I have done my best for her, but your goddess of bearing did not want another child as yet for the bandit camp. When Darak returns, tell him. If you have a complaint against me, I will answer it to him, not to you. He is the chief here, and you are nothing.”
The psychological ploy worked well enough. The thought of Man, the chief, herself, woman-who-was-nonentity, subdued her. She scowled. Her dark eyes blinked in the torch-glare. The other one went to the door and called. Another woman came in, older, and with no expression on her face.
The three hoisted Illka’s body between them. She had no value now; they could not expect a man to carry her. They went out.
Blood had soaked into the rugs. I picked them up and flung them outside, and saw, in the faint moonlight, women scurrying together from the tents, like little black rats in the shadows. Whispers: “Illka is dead!” Shullatt would explain that the witch had killed her.
It had come, then.
Darak did not come back for three days. Where he was I did not know, but I guessed there might be outposts of his kingdom, lower in the hills, nearer the roadways, and perhaps he had business there.
During this time no one came near me, except once. No food, drink, or coals for warmth—but this did not bother me much. When I went to the round pool to get water, the group of women there drew off and stared at me, hostile but afraid. They would have liked to stone me and cuff me away empty-handed. Soon they would get the courage to do it.
On the third day a man came, and said he was going to move my tent higher up, away from the others. He looked slightly embarrassed for this whole episode was the work of the women, and it came hard to be under their influence. Nevertheless, the men liked me not at all. They were glad things had come to a head and I was to be got out of the way.
He and two others moved the tent, and set it up beyond the horse pens on a raised barren rock. From here, the rest of the dwellings looked small and bright at night, pressed together like nervous fireflies.
Soon I left the tent, and went to live in that flower-place I had found, where none of them seemed to come, and where there was water in plenty. I found berries here too, across the streams, behind the stones that leaned on one another, and gnawed mouthfuls of the bittersweet grass, and this was enough for me.
It seems it should have been easy for me to escape from them. I could have gone by night, up the steep track which was the only safe way I knew from the ravine. Surely I could have got by the sentries; I had learned enough now to know how to be silent. But Darak would come back, and my trial lay with him, and that was the answer to my self-questioning.
* * *
And I saw him come back. One smudgy dawn, stars still vivid in the sky, a group of men came riding in, not from the track, but from some passage in the ravine side, at the southern end. They passed the ruined farm, the orchards, and were about a mile away from the tents, when men and women began to come out, and run across the pasture to them.
Darak stopped. He seemed to be listening to what they said. I thought I saw him laugh. Then he rode on, and they scattered away from him. He came quite fast into the camp, and I could tell he was angry, little stiff black ant, on a black ant pony. Not angry for me, of course. Angry that such trivia should interfere with his plans.
There was more conference then. He ate, sitting outside his own big tent, and while the women brought him food and beer in great earthenware jugs, the complaints against me came and went. The hysteria was out of all proportion to the event, but it is their nature to turn on the different one. They must all be sheep.
--This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback