Odd little collection, this. I’m quite a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson. Like just about everyone else I know I’ve got those durned Mars books and I’ve wound my way through The Years of Rice and Salt, and there’s even a well thumbed and well loved copy of Escape From Kathmandu perched high on my ‘faves’ bookshelf, so I almost felt guilty whilst reading the first part of this anthology because, well, I didn’t really like it, you see.
Not only that, but I couldn’t really tell you why I didn’t like it. The stories were okay, but really, that was all. Okay. For a bloke whose work over the last decade or so has been a triumph of complexity the stories in this anthology seemed kind of simple. This isn’t to say that there were any duds amongst them, but as good as they were they felt like finger exercises done before the day’s ‘real’ work. It wasn’t until I got halfway through and ran across a story I’d read a couple of weeks beforehand while relaxing with a copy of an old Terry Carr-edited Universe anthology that I realised my mistake.
This ain’t a new book kids, it’s a re-release. It’s a Frankensteinian sewing together of two previous anthologies, 1991’s Remaking History and 1986’s The Planet On The Table, given new skin and a good dose of lightning to the bolts in its neck. The stories within stretch back as far as 1976.
If you were a David Bowie fan, how would you feel if you came across a bunch of old David Jones songs packaged as a brand new album? Or what if that Mariah Cary album turned out to be a Miami Sound Machine re-release? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example, but ask yourself this: is there any reason (not involving cashing in) that you can think of which would explain why Voyager would take two anthologies over a decade old and re-release them as a new book? Me neither.
That’s not to say the stories in the collection are bad. They’re not. Robinson has always been a good writer. It’s just that compared to the level he’s working at now, a story like “The Disguise,” written way back in 1977, stands as less of an indicator of current ability than a curio: look at what he was doing all those years ago. And while some of the stories are still strong (“Black Air” is an example, published in 1983), others have suffered with time and there are a couple, the title story included, that are so ephemerally speculative that they feel out of place and trip the reader up. There is an expectation of content that is not fulfilled.
That said, there are enough Robinson trademarks to make the anthology worthwhile as long as you realise that what you have in your hands is an historical document and not a new work. What has made Robinson stand apart from most of his contemporaries is his ability to write complex characters, and there are stories in here that display that power in concentrated form. The title story is one such, in fact it is little more: as I’ve noted above it’s speculative content is slight. Another powerful piece is the story “The Lucky Strike” from back in 1984. An alternative history of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, it’s resonance lies not in the acts but in the powerful and contradictory emotions experienced by the crew of the back-up bomber Lucky Strike, thrown into the limelight when the Enola Gay and it’s crew is killed in a training run. Other standouts include “Black Air,” set in the time of the Spanish Armada, and “Venice Drowned,” a speculation on the future of great art in a post-disaster future.
Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that what you are reading are vignettes of a greater talent yet to come. Overall the book is a curate’s egg, and less of a ‘Best Of’ collection than a primer toward the work that has made Robinson’s reputation. If Voyager had really wanted to release a truly enjoyable selection of his shorter, older works I’d have been happier if they’d released a new version of “Escape From Kathmandu:” my copy’s nearly knackered.
The cliffs of Fair D’Ellene blush pink in the evening, just as they did when the dragons dropped from them like falling stars, flaming in the last darts of light from the setting sun, falling until they caught the wind in the great sails of their wings. They soared up over the sea, the very last of the sunset gilding their bellies as they flew.
The dragons had to live on the cliffs, you see, for they were too heavy to launch themselves from the ground. They had to fall before they could fly.
When I was young, my mother took me to see them. We borrowed a dory and sailed out of the harbour and around the headland to the cliffs. My mother’s strong hand guided mine on the tiller; the wind made the boat buck like a pony and I laughed and licked spindrift from my lips. When we reached the cliffs, we turned the boat into the wind, dropped the sail, and waited while the sun rolled down the sky to the horizon. At the exact moment that the edge of the sea nibbled the first edge of the sun, the dragons began. Only a few at first, then many, falling and flying, until they filled the sky like — like nothing else at all. You would have to see them to understand what they were, but they have gone and you can see them no longer.
When they finished and the sun was gone, we sailed home, my mother and me, rowing when the wind died. The sea cradled our boat, its waves smooth around us like the humped backs of whales, while clusters of stars gathered in the sky, flocks of glittering birds that guided our way home.
My mother is gone now, as the dragons are.
Atop the cliffs now stands a battlement. Stark, gray, slotted with cannons and dotted with squat towers. Soldiers bearing arms pace the wall, their bleak eyes turned outward, seeking enemies.
We are safer, now. But the dragons have gone from the cliffs of Fair D’Ellene.
The hermit was dozing, but he woke as soon as he heard hoofbeats on the path through the ravine. Two riders, by the sound of them, and he had no doubt they were coming his way; the ravine didn’t lead to anywhere else that anyone would want to go. He looked around his cave, and grabbed his crossbow and his battered Bible. He nocked the bow and hid it under a thin blanket beside him, then let the Bible fall open to the psalms. It was too dark to read in the cave, but the hermit understood the value of appearances.
The cave was located high on a cliff face, and the only path that reached it was too narrow for horses, or even for faint-hearted goats. Any sound made in the valley echoed from the cliff opposite into the cave’s small entrance; the hermit listened to the men’s voices, only slightly distorted, and to their breathing. They sounded weary, and not angry, except maybe with the terrain. The hermit waited until a shadow fell across the entrance of the cave before calling out in Latin, “Who’s there?”
It was the younger man who replied, also in Latin. “I am Forese, squire to Sir Charles. We seek the hermit Anselmo. Are you he?”
“I am,” the hermit replied, blandly. “Why do you seek to disturb an old man who desires only solitude?”
“Do you speak French?” called the knight.
“Not well,” the hermit lied; he spoke it well enough, but tended to lapse into langue d’oc when he did, and that could prove fatal. In Latin, he continued, “But I understand it, if it’s all you speak. Come in, before the perytons see you.”
The first one to enter was a broad-shouldered stocky man whose mail coif and grizzled beard didn’t entirely hide the scars on his face. The hermit judged him to be somewhere between forty and fifty, and though his helm and hauberk appeared new and expensive, he wore them as though they weighed — and signified — nothing. His squire was younger, probably no more than sixteen; his armour and surcoat were of the same quality as the older man’s, but because he wore them with obvious pride, they appeared newer. Probably a younger son of one of the Florentine merchant families, the hermit realised: well-born, well-educated, well-trained, and naive. Good. “You’ve seen the perytons?” the squire asked, before Sir Charles could speak.
“Not often,” replied the hermit, diffidently. “I rarely leave this cave while the sun shines, and they never fly at night. They don’t trouble me here, and I take care not to trouble them.” Sir Charles stared into the gloom, watching the hermit carefully. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you much hospitality,” said the hermit. “The stream barely provides enough fish for my own needs, but few people come this way. Where are you bound?”
“It’s the perytons we seek,” said Forese, his eyes shining. “Where may we find them?”
“If you keep going out by day, they’ll find you, but that’s likely to be the end of the matter. Why do you seek them?”
“This is my land,” said Sir Charles, curtly. “It was given me by the Count. We’ve been riding through it for days, and haven’t seen another living soul in all that time. We’ve passed through villages, or places where villages have been, but they’ve been deserted.”
The hermit shrugged. The soldier’s words and Navarrese accent confirmed his suspicions that the man had been but recently elevated to knighthood after a long career as a mercenary. “Perytons never kill but one man each in their lives, or so the sages say; if your estate is empty, it’s because it’s poor farmland, and far from the pilgrim trail, so it’s has never been an easy place to make a living. Most of the men from the villages nearby went to war when called upon, and few returned. Many of the women left, too; those who stayed were slaughtered when the armies came through, or by bandits after the wars had ended.” It was a fine distinction, but one he suspected the knight would appreciate. “Only after the bandits left did I see the perytons.”
“What do you know about them?” demanded the knight.
“Only what I’ve seen, and what the sages have written. They look like deer with the wings of birds, and gather in flocks or herds. They fly well, but only by day. They prefer large rocky islands or dry, mountainous lands like these, with few people. They eat grass and plants from ledges and cracks that are beyond the reach of goats; that much I’ve seen.”
“And do they cast the shadows of men, as the tales say?” asked Forese, eagerly.
“They cast shadows, I can tell you that, and smaller shadows than they should, but whether they are the shadows of men, I don’t know.” He shrugged again. “Some say they are the ghosts of evil men, of men who died far from home, or of men who died violently or by drowning and who never received a proper funeral…but Latin has but one word, umbra, for ‘shadow’ and ‘ghost’,” he said slowly, in hesitant French, then switched back to Latin, “and maybe someone misunderstood. It’s also said by some that they came from Atlantis; that, being ghosts, they cannot be harmed by swords or other weapons; and that they attack men on sight and eat their hearts so that they can regain men’s bodies. How much of this is true, I do not know; I can only swear to what I’ve seen.”
The squire seemed disappointed. “But they’ve left you alone?” asked the knight, suspiciously.
“I’ve become good at hiding,” replied the hermit, dryly. “As I told you, I rarely leave this cave by day, and while they’ve trapped me in here many times by waiting outside, they’ve never come in. The entrance may be too narrow for their antlers, and while I’m sure they can run, they seem to avoid places where they cannot spread their wings.”
The knight nodded, as though he’d made a decision. “We’ll camp here for tonight,” he said. “We have some food you can share. Tomorrow, you can take us to where you’ve seen these creatures. Forese, go and get the saddlebags.” The hermit watched the squire leave, and sighed.
Forese returned a few minutes later, with hard bread, hard cheese, dried meat, dried figs, skins of wine and water, and a small lamp which made a faint puddle of light in the centre of the cave. The hermit chewed on a piece of bread as well as his few teeth allowed. “Do you know the tale of the labours of Hercules?” he asked the squire. Forese nodded. “Does Sir Charles?”
“I’ve heard of Hercules,” said the knight, when the question had been translated. “Some old Greek, strong enough to carry the sky. What of him?”
“Hercules slew many monsters,” said the hermit, quietly. “After he killed his own children in a fit of madness, he was advised by the Pythoness, an oracle, to perform twelve labours for King Eurystheus, after which he would be granted immortality. But Eurystheus feared Hercules, knowing that he wanted his kingdom, and sent him to slay monsters such as the Nemean Lion, whose skin was impervious to any weapon, and the Hydra, a great venomous serpent with many heads. No doubt he did this hoping that Hercules would be slain; he even sent him to Hell to claim the demon Cerberus.”
“You think the Count wants me dead?” asked the knight, quietly.
“I don’t know the Count,” replied the hermit, “and I mean him no disrespect, but no doubt he asked something of you in return for this land; some form of tribute, perhaps?”
“I’m to bring the body of one of the perytons back to him,” replied the knight, a faint growl in his voice, “and to keep the land safe for my tenants.”
The hermit popped a dried fig into his mouth in an attempt to hide a smile. “He wants the peryton for your coat of arms?” The knight glared at him, then nodded sullenly. It was easy for the hermit to guess the rest; the old soldier had been useful to the Count during one or more of the battles that had ravaged Tuscany in recent years, too useful to discard entirely during a period of tenuous peace, but also something of an embarrassment. He suspected the knight had guessed this much, too. He wondered idly whether the knight had a pretty wife or daughter that the Count would have liked to know better. “It seems a great risk for very little gain.” He noticed that Forese seemed reluctant to translate this, but Sir Charles didn’t erupt as he’d half-expected; he merely bit down on a piece of dried meat, chewed for a moment, then washed the mouthful down with wine.
“I’ve been a soldier for most of my life,” he told the hermit. “A soldier with land is a knight; a soldier without land is merely another mercenary. I’ve fought for less.” He cut a bite-sized piece off the chunk of dried meat with his dagger. “You say Hercules fought monsters for his immortality? I’ll do the same for mine — to leave something for my sons apart from my arms and my horses.” He stabbed at the meat, then offered it to the hermit, who shook his head. “You don’t like meat?” asked the knight.
The hermit attempted a smile, showing what remained of his teeth. “I haven’t had any in many years,” he replied. “I doubt I could chew it.” He paused, then said, “If you’re determined to fight the perytons, you’ll never be able to do it with swords. Even if weapons can harm them, and many tales say they can’t, the creatures are fast and strong, and there are many of them. But there may be a way.”
“There are cracks in the rocks, and crevices, where you can hide and they cannot reach you,” the hermit continued. “From there, you could hurl javelins at them. If it doesn’t harm them, you’ll still be safe, and you can escape when night falls.”
Sir Charles smiled. “I have a crossbow; would that work?”
“If any weapon would,” replied the hermit, with a slight shrug.
Forese turned white. “Crossbows? The Pope issued an anathema against crossbows—”
“Only when used against Christian souls,” growled Sir Charles. “They’re still used for hunting, and against heathens. What do you think, old man? Do these perytons have Christian souls?”
The hermit was silent for a moment. “If you can judge them by their shadows, they may have men’s souls, but even the most evil and unChristian men may have men’s shadows.”
Sir Charles smiled, and cut a piece of cheese, which he offered to the hermit, who shook his head. The knight bit a piece off the cheese, and said, “Not that you’d care a fig for what the Pope says, eh?” The old man didn’t answer, and Forese looked curiously from one to the other. “I thought your accent was familiar — Provencal, right? — but I wasn’t sure until I saw you eat. No meat, no cheese… nothing that comes from a living body.” No reply. “You’re a Cathar, aren’t you?”
“There are no Cathars now,” replied the hermit, thickly, in his accented French. “There’s only me, and I’ve lived here since before your squire was born. You can hardly accuse me of speaking heresy if nobody listens.”
Sir Charles looked at Forese, who seemed shocked into immobility. “I wonder if the Inquisition would see it that way,” he mused.
The hermit shrugged. “I’ve told you how you may slay the perytons,” he said, bitterly, but without any sign of fear. “If I knew where they roosted, I’d tell you, but I’ve never seen it; it’s probably somewhere too high for men to climb. You may have this land, and much good may it do you; what more do you want from me?”
The knight looked at him for a long time. “I fought in the crusade against the Cathars,” he said. “It was, as you say, a score of years ago, and the money I was paid is well and truly spent, but I won’t return to the Count empty-handed,” he warned. “If I can’t take back one of these creatures as a trophy, I can take back the lying heretic who’s been frightening people away from my land with ghost stories, and maybe killing a villager every now and then so that the stories will be more convincing.”
“I’ll show you a place among the rocks where the perytons will never enter,” said the hermit. “I’ll take you there before sunrise. I can do no more.”
Sir Charles nodded, sat with his back against the wall of the cave, and drew his dagger. “You take the first watch,” he told Forese. “If he moves from that spot, kill him.” And he closed his eyes.
The squire looked at his knight in horror, then stood and drew his sword. The hermit shook his head sadly. “It’s not what you expected, is it?” he asked, quietly.
“Being a knight. It’s not like the ballads. Shall I tell you about the crusade he fought in? When they captured Beziers, a knight asked the Abbot commanding the army how they could recognise the Cathars. ‘Slay them all,’ he said, ‘God will recognise his own.’ Thousands of people ran to the church for sanctuary, only to have it burned down around them. They slaughtered everyone in that town, including women and children, and many other towns after that. Many who surrendered were mutilated or blinded or used for target practice.” He stared at the squire’s pale face. “You don’t even know why, do you?”
Forese took a step forwards, and pointed his sword at the hermit’s chest. “I don’t need to hear your heresies—”
The hermit didn’t flinch. “I won’t try to convert you. My faith isn’t very strong any more, anyway. The credentes, the believers, embraced the fire; they believed that all worldly things, including their bodies, belonged to the Prince of Darkness, while only their souls belonged to God. Death destroyed their bodies and freed their souls, if they’d led perfect lives. But my faith failed me, and I fled to save my body.” He looked down at his legs. “Such as it is. What do you believe in, boy?”
“If you speak again,” said Forese, coldly, “I’ll cut your head off.”
“That’s what Sir Charles would do,” replied the hermit, almost approvingly, “but it’s not as easy as it sounds, not with a sword. You might do it if you had an axe; I’ve seen it done.” Forese didn’t reply. “You want to be a hero like Hercules or Saint George, don’t you, slaying the monsters who ravage the land…but that’s not so easy either. You can’t always tell a monster by looking at it—”
“—especially when they have human shadows,” said the hermit, and closed his eyes.
The sky was still dark when the hermit led the way down the path and through the twisting valleys to a crack at the face of a steep cliff, a natural trench four feet wide and seven deep; it looked as though someone had hit the rocky soil with a gigantic axe, then removed it. “The grass down here is good,” said the hermit. “I can’t swear that they’ll come here today, but you shouldn’t have to wait too long — and now, if you please, I’d like to return to my cave before the sun rises.”
Sir Charles looked at him suspiciously, then nodded, and they watched him hurry away, sticking close to the cliffs. “I don’t trust him,” muttered Forese. “He lies.”
The knight grunted in amusement. “Everybody lies, boy. What did he say — no, don’t tell me. I’ve heard it before, and much of it’s likely true; the best lies are always mostly true. What matters is that you obey your orders, whether they come directly from God or from your sergeant, and your orders come from me.”
Forese was silent for several minutes, and sunlight began edging down the cliff face opposite. “I should have asked him more about the perytons.”
“Even though you know he lies?”
“I was wondering what happened to the perytons once they fed on human hearts — do they get their old bodies back, or those of their victims? And if they have men’s shadows, doesn’t it follow that they have souls, and might be saved?” The knight shrugged. “They might be the ghosts of the villagers who were slain here and never buried, or even of knights….”
“They might,” agreed Sir Charles. “Or they might be heathen Atlanteans, or Cathars, or other heretics. God will know his—” He froze as three human shadows appeared at the top of the shadow of the cliff, and looked up and back. Three perytons stood above them, then one leapt from the cliff, wings spread, and circled down to the grass, barely five yards away. The knight raised his head and shoulders above the edge of the crack, raised the crossbow, and aimed at the peryton’s ribs. The creature ignored him, and Forese stared in wonder at its magnificent antlers and huge black and gold wings before remembering to look at its shadow.
A hint of movement made him look back, and he shouted a warning. The perytons on the crest of the cliff had kicked rocks free. He grabbed the knight’s arm, spoiling his aim, and pointed upwards at the boulders that were rolling towards them. He tried scrambling out of the crack, and the peryton on the grass sprang towards him. The points of its antlers tore through his surcoat, his mail and the padding beneath as though they were gossamer, then dragged him onto the grass. Forese reached for his sword and hacked at the creature’s neck, but the peryton’s hide was impervious to the steel. Forese looked across at Sir Charles; a rock had dented his helm, and blood was coursing down his face, but he was also trying to climb out of the trench. More rocks tumbled into the crack, hitting his back and legs, but he struggled out onto the grass. He stood there for a moment, and another peryton swooped down and slammed into him, tossing him into the air. Forese watched in horror as the knight was repeatedly smashed into the ground and the cliff until he was reduced to a bloody scarecrow.
Forese blinked, as he saw the hermit running across the grass towards Sir Charles’s body. The peryton twisted, its skin splitting, and a human shape emerged from its hide — a peasant woman, weather-beaten and scarred but scarcely older than Forese. The hermit helped her out of the gory mess, then looked over at the squire. Forese stared through glazed eyes as they walked towards him.
“Do you want us to bury you?” asked the old man, almost gently, as the woman glared down at him.
“If we don’t bury you before the sun rises again, your ghost will become another peryton,” said the hermit. “If we do, it’ll be a Cathar ceremony, but I think God might forgive you.” The woman snorted. “Better decide quickly,” advised the hermit.
The hermit shook his head. “He wanted this land; I think he should stay here until someone else comes, whose body he can steal. I’m sure your Count will send another inconvenient knight to claim this land, one day, when there isn’t another crusade to send him on.” He smiled thinly. “After all, that’s what all of his predecessors have done.”
It was sometime before late day when Mantkin Fredly frazzled himself over the wendings and windings, near splatting himself in his pell-mell, to drop the horrendous tidings.
“Bat’s piss!” exclaimed Figal Scrigley, he being the recipient. He flung his quill across the desk, black-spattering his whiskers. “There’s an end of me then! And before I’m properly mellowed too.”
“You might go undamaged,” suggested Mantkin, hopefully.
“No such blessing,” grumbled the Mathematician. “I’ll likely be hauled aloft by my jonglies for all to see and then dropped on my head to complete the tale. It’s a turd of a business, my curse on it. Who swung the vote?”
“None argued against the motion. But Saran spoke loudest.”
“Saran. Ah. I found against him once. Bitter fruit, and now the aftertaste.” Figal rolled the parchment at his desk, rising to his feet.
“I urged your cause the best I could,” stammered Mantkin, “pleading frailty, blindness, even bedwetting.”
Figal glared at him.
“The huntsmen were too few,” said the youngster, “and there it stood. They said you were needed.”
Along the walls hung the charts describing the numbers. Mantkin watched sadly as the old man straightened them with brittle fingers. How spiteful of the council to insist on his presence now, after so many years of veneration. The yearly hunt was a beastly business, not at all fit for a lawmaker. They’d never dared to demand it when Figal had presided as village magistrate.
Mantkin still thought fondly of those days, of the times he’d bolted from his mother’s skirts to slide the slopes to Scrigley-Sir’s cottage. Day after day he’d slipped wide-eyed onto the Mathematician’s knees to learn of the numbers: Eidon, the primary; One shall serve the community. Eudos; One shall not injure one’s neighbor. Then, Trifor; One should work for one’s own ends. All were of Figal’s own design and Mantkin had learned near the full set, enough in total to blot a tapestry. Only one remained unknown to him: Infinus, the greatest number, that beyond all others.
“You’re too small to know it,” Figal had snapped. “And when you’re larger, it might still pass you by.”
And so it had remained, the hallowed number never even invoked in legal judgments, for Mantkin had many times listened to Figal’s deft summing of village disputes. On the one hand, Eudos, but outweighed by the sum of Edren, and Teleth. Always, his calculations were received with equanimity by petitioners. It was the fizzle of his deportment that carried it, one could see.
Glued fast to unfolding sobrieties, Mantkin’s bladder had once swelled beyond fetter, sending him hopcricket to the scullery, where he’d peed into the furnace. Calath was the verdict, delivered upon Figal’s acquaintance with the steaming rankness: There’s nothing useful to be made of it.
“Calath,” grumbled the old man, in summation once more. “Here I am, a super attenuated crotchet in the coda of my allotted span, and I’m to be cast anew as a wild-haired mutt, all gristle and grunt. Bah! What effluent wisdom to wade.”
He made busy with the tidying of his books while Mantkin hung his head, a posture he maintained until the end of the day’s light.
On the morning of the hunt, Mantkin was early at Figal’s door, and was surprised to find the old man dutifully regaled. A sheepskin jerkin swelled the Mathematician’s girth, while able boots thumped him insouciantly about the boards. His sad wife set them both a mug of minted tea, before Figal broached the farewell business amongst the colanders of the scullery.
“Well, wife, here we are, come to the crunch. Me off to the hunt and you to the dishes. A predictable finale to our calendar, one might say.”
She barreled into his arms, desperate tears and no mistaking it.
“The papers will gather dust,” he whispered, stroking her white hair.
“Husband, your papers will be in good order.” She held him tight, breathing him in. She wiped her eyes as she broke to face Mantkin. “Now, little soul, I place this fool into your care. See he doesn’t give our good name to japery. Bring him to me whole again.”
Over her shoulder, Figal gestured as if to say, ‘take no heed, she’s a surly wench and sees no good in any rough and tumble’. Mantkin nodded, schoolroom-like, with flushed cheeks.
Figal made to put himself up the stairwell.
“Now, what distraction, curmudgeon crow?” snapped his wife.
“Why, the sun is high, and my crap is low. A solid evacuation will see me in good fettle for manly trekking; it’s a matter of less weight, as science tells us.” And up he went, closing the door at the top.
Mantkin wanted to hold Figal’s wife and give her his full assurance, but secretly fearing the worst, he made himself as still as the house, and cast his eyes no higher than its foundings. Nothing good came into his head. “On the trail, we might even speak of Infinus,” he offered, but she cleared the pots, unsmiling.
After much silence, Figal not showing, Mantkin felt compelled to hail him. The bellow from above shook the rafters.
“Peace, boy! I shall appear before you presently, uncrapped and ready to kill.”
And in fairness, the bowel-tending seemed to fluff him into a fine fettle. After shedding the final matrimonial ministrations, Figal and Mantkin traipsed under the warm sun to the market square, where long shadows toppled onto an array of grizzled faces.
Saran was the first to speak, a hog of a man, truffled in greased leather. “You’re late,” he oinked.
“And you’re primordial,” snapped Figal, “though let’s not into philosophy, shall we, as there’s murder waiting.”
Saran ruffled his nose, and held his bluster for a later moment. Gorath loomed at his side, infinitely oafish, axe two lengths his own height. He kept his quiet, as he stammered quite preposterously.
Joran, a spindly jigger, unsuited to legging it over the wilds, offered his mesh net up to Figal. “Sincerely, sir, I offer this implement as I think the lightness of will go well with your gait. The number of the principal is Teheth, I believe,” he chuffed proudly, “With lesser burden, freedom harks.”
Mantkin bounced in front, shrill and panicked. “No! The net will bring him to quarters with the Korrach.” He cast around the group for support.
Figal brushed him aside. “Boy, we’ll make no show of it. I was netted some while ago. So it goes.” He took the mesh, hefting it onto his shoulders, while the whole sorry gaggle of them took to the trail like a caterpillar of cutlery, all sloth and sharp points.
Figal fell in behind Gorath, whose axe trailed a whirl of dust in its wake. “To which point of the compass are we set, heroic fellow?”
“T-t-t-ttt-to the f-ffff-ff-” Jaw bouncing like a sprung trap.
“Hell’s gums. We’ll be arrived before I hear it.”
Mantkin fell in beside Figal, keeping pace with the sway of his hem. “Master, might we speak of Infinus before the journey’s out?”
“Before I’m killed, you mean to say?”
Mantkin was shamed to silence.
The whole packet of them wound their way over verdant downery, past pee-jaundiced busheries and through to the silvered draperies of the forest, where birds and beasts hocked and clicked their dismay. By midday, the sun was blinkered with smudgeons of sky, and several of the hunters being grumble-gut, they flattened a circle of stems and snuffled into muslin sacks with a euphoric display of dribble.
Figal sat beneath a birch tree, his head set against the ghostly bark, Mantkin folded attentively at his toes. “This is more renovation than I had thought,” smiled the old man. “I find my conduits engorged and my circulation free. This vaudeville enterprise may yet tickle me, given I return untrampled, naturally.” He watched as Mantkin drew absent circulations with a twig. “And how goes your painting, these days? Are you yet become proficient in capturing the moment?”
“I have practiced it little, Master Scrigley-Sir, I must confess. I had hoped for more tutelage in the numbers.”
Figal frowned and scratched his knee.
“I am curious,” added Mantkin, forlornly, “why you have never tutored another in the skill.”
“Well now,” burred the oldster, jouncing his leg a little to trumpet irksome vapors, “that is certainly a matter of housing.”
This brought stupidity to Mantkin’s features.
“Yes,” continued Figal. “We are raised vapid, I fear; perambulatory but unseeking. Goatish, one might say, tethered to our region. Who amongst the sediment creatures should I entrust to vault the enclosure, becoming irreplaceable?”
Mantkin’s spirit was doused at this, and as he morosed, Toruth — one of the few huntsmen blessed with rudiment musicality — rose to his feet and papped on his horn.
Figal rose to his feet. “Ah, the martial belch summons us, boy. There’s no shirking this cabaret, and there’s the truth.” Mantkin lifted the net for him, while Figal laid a gentle hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “One must first view the portal to see beyond it.”
Saran had gathered himself up, thrusting his breast to address the motley gallery. “Now friends, to order our campaign, I commend to you our comrade Gorath, who has fought many a struggle.”
“The greatest being to issue cogent thought,” hissed Figal into Mantkin’s ear.
“I hand the matter to his able sergeantry,” concluded Saran, ushering forward the axe-bearer.
“W-we ss-shhss-,” stammered Gorath, eyes submerged beneath an avalanche brow.
“Friends, an idle contemplation!” hailed Figal, finger flung skyward. “As our leader has depleted himself of his stock of sibilants, perhaps an illustration might lead us home earlier. We’ll be spared the spit, in any case.”
Some snorted their amusement but Gorath glared. Striding into the midst of the clearing, he trailed his axe to complete a circle, jabbing his finger about to indicate the current assembly. A further scribble in the center depicted the beast, and pointing directly at Figal, he speared the axe head within the circumference.
“Hung to the hub by my own wit, no less,” Figal glummed, knowing his mistake.
The whole party rumbled into progress, soldiering onward past protean limestone knucklery and through to ocean pastures where the Korrach likely grazed.
Figal trailed at the rear, Mantkin at his heels.
“Master Scrigley-Sir, might this not now be the moment to address the question of Infinus? I am only thinking of the worst possibilities of the day.”
“Boy, the direst fear was your persistent interrogation, well-founded I might add.” He said it without turning. “Here I am, striding into the sun, a battle titan in the making no less, yet you insist on dragging your muddy contemplations across my porch.”
Mantkin watched the oldster as he made his way, short-stepped and tall, rays flying from his silver hair. He was indeed a palace of man, much grander in design than any of the tumbledown throng he accompanied. Disgraceful to topple such proud architecture into the humdrum fallows. And doubly sad that the old cussmongerer would not impart his greatness.
Presently, the hunters came upon the Korrach, the prized beast grazing, as expected, in the lush carpet of the meadow. All dropped to their bellies in a scuffling tumult, leaving only Figal standing, his joints rusted beyond such strenuous articulations. The beast saw them at once, a buffoonery of whispering twig creatures, and thought nothing much. Shaking the flies from its crown of horns, it sneezed, and munched on.
“The beast will see you!” hissed Saran.
“One hopes it does not judge by the company, then,” retorted Figal.
“I have a thought!” cried the prone Toruth. “We might wait until the creature sleeps!”
“A solid conceit, full of spunk and mettle!” resounded the Mathematician. “I second the scheme of somnolence!”
Joran hustled over the weedlings to Saran’s side. “The beast is docile now, amiable and not disgruntled in any fashion. Now is the time to net it!”
Saran nodded and gestured to Gorath, who waved Figal forward with a swoop of axe. The old man hesitated.
“Look, look!” bursted Joran. “The beast is unloading. Now is our moment!”
Sure enough, the Korrach had squatted on its armor-plated haunches, chewing contentedly as it unleashed its bowels.
“Now! Now!!” bellowed the huntsmen in unison.
Figal looked into Mantkin’s eyes, recognizing perhaps the divorcing of their fates. “Well here we are, boy. My day turns toilet, as the beast is likewise engaged. There’s wisdom in it somewhere.” With this, he launched himself forward, hopping and bouncing with the sprite of a one-legged chicken across the flat grass, hefting the net from his shoulders. The huntsmen cheered him on, bellowing and mooing at his spastic gait.
The Korrach watched the wild-haired old man’s approach, its dim beadlets fixed on his erratic advance. Just as he drew close, the creature discharged the last of its wastage and stood full upright, pawing the ground. Steam piped from its nostrils.
Figal piled to a dismayed halt. “Oh, crap!”
Before he could muster himself to leg it, the Korrach charged him down and hurled him over its horns, tossing him ragdoll over its back. The old man bounced on the grass and crunched to a halt.
“Quickly!” cried Mantkin. “We must make a rescue!”
“We should wait until the creature sleeps,” suggested Toruth once more, encouraging a babble of general agreement.
Meanwhile, the Korrach, having quite forgotten the reason for its expenditure of energy, paused for breath, collapsing its rear quarters onto the still Mathematician.
Stoked by grief, Mantkin burst from the thickery, armed with fearsome inanities and a spear, and ran full tilt toward the Korrach.
The alarmed beast hustled up and turned tail.
Witnessing its thunderous retreat, the huntsmen rallied themselves into cacophonous pursuit across the meadow, racing past Mantkin as he stopped to tend the felled Figal.
Joran paused, breathless, to collect the net. “A fine job, Scrigley-Sir. You’ll be remembered well for it.” And with that, he helter-skeltered himself away as the hunt disappeared over the horizon.
Mantkin listened for the oldster’s breath, then pulled him to the shade of a tree. Clearly, the wound was mortal, the essences too impoverished.
Figal’s eyes fluttered. “Why, this is a sorrowful mess, look,” he groaned. “My gizzard is all about the place. Undignified is what one calls it.”
“Yet a surgeon’s work might restore you?”
“Boy, are you blind? The pastry is broke, the juice is spilled. I’ll not be sloshed about the landscape as a kindness to beggarly birds.” His left foot twitched. “I fear my wife will bear this badly. She’s a good woman, in truth. Always kept her flatulence muffled until dead of night.”
As Mantkin had no medicinal tricks, he made do with pulling the old man’s jerkin tighter, as if to ward death from the scent.
A faint smile tugged at Figal’s beard, as if some prize was for the giving. “As it would seem I am done and dusted, I have a burden to pass. You will find it in my lower pocket, dry and well-folded. Always had you in mind for it.”
Mantkin stared a moment, then picked open the woolen pouch to withdraw a modest parchment, which he unfolded with tremulous digits. Unfurled, the parchment carried a drawing in black, a puzzle of geometrics that tumbled and skewed in perfect chaos. Mantkin’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Infinus?” He could scarce believe it. The ultimate truth, on a sketching no greater than a napkin. “Master Scrigley-Sir, you have handed me the universe. How will I thank you?”
“I would not have it as common knowledge,” he whispered, “that I was fatally ended under some beast’s rump.” He reached with sudden urgency to seize the youngster’s sleeve. “See the portal, boy; vault the enclosure!” With this, the life passed from him in a fitful expulsion that ruffled the leaves overhead.
Mantkin held the old man’s head, running his fingers through the white of his hair. Before the light had gone, he had swaddled him in a blanket and placed him on a makeshift hurdle cut from green saplings. When the stars alighted over the world, he heaved the hurdle onto his shoulders and toiled the path home, a faerybug cortege at his shoulders.
Presently, the huntsmen rowdied past him, yowling their kill, the trophy head bundled high-spiked and dripping. Mantkin did not see how many depleted they were, if any. He hid in thick bushery, and waited until they had past. Dirith, he thought with bitterness:
One shall mourn the passing of one’s neighbor.
When Mantkin arrived back at Figal’s cottage, he found the Mathematician’s wife already waiting. She stood in the porchway, her lamp-lit features freshly dry of tears.
“There was nothing I could do,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.”
She hugged him and thanked him for his kindness, and they set the body in the sleeping chamber, where she retired after sitting Mantkin to the table with a pot of minted tea. Pulling the parchment from his jerkin, he frowned over the mysterious conundrum of lines and angles, falling eventually to slumber with the croons of grief at his ears.
The morning sun brought him to his senses and he jerked his head upright, the parchment pasted in sweat to his brow. Unpeeling it, the puzzle of angles taunted him still. Perhaps he’d been gifted an unknowable thing, forever taunting him with its impossible riddle.
As he had not unloaded for the best part of a day, he elected to unburden himself into the upstairs latrine. He ascended the stairwell, folding the parchment into his pocket before dropping his breeches for business. Pots of Mercurine and blossoms of Theam glowed against the white stone of the latrine walls. A solitary beam of sunlight percolated through the crumpled glass of the skylight, throwing a crazed jumble of rainbow squares.
As Mantkin stared, the world telescoped to the moment. He tore the parchment from his pocket, not trusting the mind’s eye.
It was true. Before him, in sunbeam and stone, Figal’s pattern!
See the portal, the old man had said.
And there it was.
Hoisting his breeches, Mantkin clambered onto the stone trestling above the pot, finding it already grimy with boot prints. Figal himself had stood here; it was beyond wonderment! With butterfly heart, he grunted the window open and perked his freckles over the sill.
The sight below perplexed him, for there was nothing stupendous to be viewed, only the back yard to the washhouse, where freshly lavendered suitments hung to dry from wooden frames. Mantkin began to wonder if Figal might not have lost the reins to reason.
Then, movement: a wash girl with basket, plumpishly pretty, no spring bud to be sure, an evergreen perhaps. Mantkin ducked his head a little.
Carrying the load to the wooden frame, the girl hung the wet clothes one by one, stretching up with slender wrists to peg them. Mantkin could see the pale squeeze of her largish jollies deep in the blue fold of her bustle. Even as his eyes googled, she glanced up, catching his gaze. She stared, steaming Mantkin’s cheeks red. Then she smiled, a sly grin, quick as a thunderbolt. With a furtive glance, she unlaced her bodice, allowing her weighty womanlies to spill out. When she lewdly jiggled, Mantkin nearly dropped from his perch.
Gathering her strings, she giggled and flounced from his view, as jaunty as the leaves that dizzied at her feet.
Mantkin sat heavily onto the cement throne, a thousand hopes dissolute at his feet. It was cruelty beyond compare, the pinnacle of learning no more than squalid peepery. The old man had led him false.
He sat with his head between his knees and wept.
When Figal’s wife found him, she knocked gently at the door. “Do not cry,” she beseeched. “We must honor his name now.” Leading the youngster to the study room, she brought him a teeming broth and her husband’s pointed hat, which she pulled over his ears. “Will you make the numbers?” she asked him. “Figal would have wanted it.”
He gave no answer, and she left him sitting at a window desk, pencil and parchment at his fingertips.
He sat in silence as shadows creaked across his brow. Beneath the glass pane, a flower of Mercurine had grown through the wooden frame, its gilded petals dancing in the half-light.
Mantkin found himself transfixed. Perhaps the blossom’s span was nearly ended, the sight of it gifted to him, miraculous, intransigently beautiful.
Taking up the pencil, he began to sketch on the parchment, carefully capturing each petal’s brave flourish; forward and back, side to side; the quietest whispers of movement. As he drew, he thought of the washgirl, of her smile, of the leaves dancing at her feet, careless of time.
The unknowable thing. The capricious allure of a world of possibilities.
The number of hope.
Figal himself might have smiled, placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder, and hugged him.
Mantkin’s eyes welled with tears.
When the drawing was done, the sun was dull and low in the sky. Mantkin tucked the parchment under his arm and left the cottage. Crossing the street, he came upon Saran and Toruth, who were much surprised to see him.
“Ho, young sir!” greeted Toruth. “Not at your studies?”
“I have decided to make myself a painter. So I go in search of beauty.”
“We thought you locked to the numbers,” jibed Saran, “by Master Scrigley’s decree.”
“Not so, brave hunters,” he replied. “I had locked myself.” He hugged the parchment tight and smiled. “But my friend left me the key.”
October turned out to be a big month for Ideomancer — we received favourable reviews from Tangent and SF Reader, started a feedback newsgroup at SFF.Net, and moved oh so close to releasing Ideomancer Unbound. Look for the anthology in December.
In November, James Allison teaches us “The Making of the Numbers,” Stephen Dedman walks us through the “Valley of the Shadows,” and Sarah Prineas invites you to wonder at “The Dragons of Fair D’Ellene.” In our classic story, Frank Stockton poses us the most difficult of questions.
Lee reviews Vinland the Dream and Other Stories.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.