by Kaas Baichtal
Chapter 4: July
(read chapter 1) (read chapter 2) (read chapter 3)
At summer's height, the peaks still wore a cloak of shimmering white. Snow hissed over rocky scarp, a rush of particles launched up from sheer faces and whipped by the wind into towering, gauzy plumes.
At lower elevations, snow gave way to boulder-fields and treacherous scree. Lichens sketched out a defiant existence tucked into crevices between stones.
Lower yet, where air and sun took hold, true vegetation began: rocky fellfields cushioned by mats of dry tangled wood and white-flowering alpine dryad. Scruffy heath and in the damper hollows, grasses, sedges and dwarf willows. On the severe and ever-shifting talus slopes, tiny individual plants survived, plants with primitive and powerful names like hawk's beard, flea bane, buck wheat, sky pilot, and spring beauty.
Five weeks was all they had to flower and reproduce, and on this July day flies and bees hurried to assist in that task.
The channel was nervous, scowling, his too-thin body brittle with tension. He fretted like a hunting horse under tight rein, weight constantly shifting, handling-tentacles lashing restlessly about his bony forearms. His lateral sensory tentacles flicked out of their sheaths compulsively, their lubricating ronaplin forming a delicate froth that slicked the skin of his wrists.
Behind him, the nagers of his closest advisors fluttered and bobbed, emanating a worry that only heightened his own. Their whispers were not meant for him, and yet the words found their way past the haze that was his need in fits and snatches.
Never so long before....
What if she never comes back?
In irritation he moved farther along the fortified wall that separated the Sime half of Fior from the Gen half, past the high wooden sheds that housed the homing-pigeons, until the cooing and the beat of wings drowned out the voices.
The wind buffeted him, roughing up his already tangled hair. Here where they could not zlin him he turned his face toward the mountain, the one the Gens called Bitter Root. His senses, so much more powerful than an ordinary Sime's, reached up and out, seeking her on that towering face. His hands, wizened and weathered, rested momentarily on the stone of the balustrade, refined and composed. Controlled.
And then they lifted furtively, the laterals licked out again, toward the mountains, searching --
"Garlen," said someone aloud, their nager moving toward him from behind.
He spun around. His face was fox-narrow, his eyes arresting. His nager was awful with need.
The woman flinched back, though she was Sime herself.
"You should come inside," she said, her nager deferential. "There's no use in this you have work. You can't wait for her, watch for her -"
"You go in," he said, his voice so soft the wind took it and hurled most of it away.
But she had heard, and dared not disobey.
Fior rose sheer and black, its fortifications bleak against the grays, greens, and reds of the shales and muddy sandstones that made up the valley's walls. Hewn from the granite under the valley's heart, built using methods more ancient than the Ancients, Fior seemed permanent, immobile, timeless. Indeed, its very name meant 'permanent' in the language of the Simes.
A deep blue lake surrounded it, formed by the quarry from which its stone had come and filled by the overabundance of water that descended upon this valley in spring. Two bridges allowed the only passage across, one on the Gen side and one on the Sime side, and these were overlooked by strategically placed weapons-slits and ended in massive gates.
But few knew of Fior's existence, and that was perhaps the greatest of all its protections.
On the twenty-second day of Serena's absence, Garlen barricaded himself in his house.
It was one of a row, two stories high and made of stone, that backed up against the wall that divided Fior in two. But Garlen's house, unlike its neighbors, had a passage through the wall to an identical house on the Gen side, where Serena stayed when she was at Fior.
In a few days, when Serena came back, everything would change. She would serve Garlen's need, and she would shepherd him through his days and he would be meek and docile as a lamb. He could be quiet, unassuming, unthreatening. Garlen at his most gentle seemed almost saintlike, as generous and as wise as the dove that was his symbol.
But now, when he was in the throes of hard need and Serena gone with no word as to when she might be back, his people were frightened of him. Of him, and for him. He was no ordinary Sime. His need was so great that he would be capable of killing any of them, even the other Simes, if it came to life or death.
It had happened before, when Serena had taken too long to come back.
The barricading, that is.
Nobody knew if Garlen had ever killed for selyn.
Nobody dared ask.
Fior was secret, and it had remained so through extreme and thorough methods.
No one could be allowed to carry away unauthorized knowledge of its existence. And so, Fior's watchers would alert Fior's protectors, and any who came close enough to be seen or zlinned was hunted down and caught. The prisoners were brought before Garlen who pronounced their fate. For adult Simes, that fate was invariably execution. Death came by gunshot or beheading. There were always witnesses. Garlen felt both Simes and Gens should see how to put a Sime out of misery quickly and humanely.
For adult Gens, death did not come so quickly. Those were placed in the Pen from which each Garlenist Sime took a kill once per year. Although he served the Simes in transfer on ordinary months, Garlen did not believe Simes should be sent into junct territory innocent of the kill. He wanted them to be prepared, to understand. He wanted them to be able to fit in.
Children were rarer. Every once in a long while they accompanied an adult intruder. Most were placed in the Pen until they changed over or Established, then went to the same fate as an adult would have. But the littlest ones, the babes and the unborn, had a somewhat different fate.
Those were raised as Fior's own, helping unwittingly to teach budding Garlenists the skills they would one day use when they were sent out into the world.
Those children once grown became the watchers, the protectors, the people who stayed and were truly of Fior for life.
On the twenty-fourth day, a homing-pigeon stooped from the sky, head down and wings arched back. The world stretched out below it, fell away and away all black forest and glinting blue lakes.
Sleek and purposeful, the messenger arrowed down.
Through whitewater canyons, between massive boulders heaved down the mountainside in the springtimes of countless years, past tangled cairns of dead trees and the bones of a deer lodged like a warning at the bottleneck of a ravine. Down past cliff faces ruched and twisted by the forces of time, stained brown-black with carbon where Precambrian algae had flourished. Past tumbled fields of limestone shards bearing delicate ripples like the sand on the bottom of lakes and the curious twining trails of the first, legless, animals.
Until at last it came to a canyon-like narrow valley with cleared land at the floor. Etched into bare earth, a ring-like azure lake and tiny walls described a circle around rows of even tinier houses. A fortress village, hidden between the mountains.
For a moment the pigeon poised, its wings enfolding Fior below.
And then it dwindled, turning over and over until it disappeared against the backdrop of the valley floor.
Garlen could speak both the Simelan and Genlan fluently. Some whispered that they had seen him carry himself like a Gen, dress like one, fool Gens into thinking he was one of them.
He was believed to have hidden allies in the governments on both sides of the border, to have two legal identities - one Sime, one Gen - and to pay land taxes to both sides as if Fior existed in both Territories at once. The Border Patrols and army units of both nations were permitted to camp in Fior's fields and resupply there, as needed, provided they remained on their own sides of the valley. It was expected that they would defend Fior, as necessary.
Garlen never spoke of the past, but it was believed that he had been born deep in Gen Territory in one of the largest and most protected cities, and escaped to the border shortly before changing over to be Sime.
Again, nobody dared ask if this was actually so.
No one knew exactly how old Garlen was. He had founded a religion in his youth and since gone on to outlive everyone who remembered those days. He was gaunt as winter branches, his hair pure silver, his skin nut-brown and weathered.
Those born in junct Sime territories had never seen a Sime older than ten or twenty years past changeover, and in Gen Territory Simes rarely lasted longer than twenty-four hours.
The Garlenists believed Garlen was the oldest Sime in the world. They wanted him to be immortal.
Within hours of the pigeon's arrival, Fior's protectors set out to intercept an intruder that had been spotted by the farthest lookouts.
They travelled lightly and swiftly, stopping only long enough to wait out the dark of night. Two days later they intercepted the Gen just inside the border of Fior's deeded lands, deep in a stony gorge where little more than a game-path marked the way. It was a good place for an ambush. There were plenty of vantage points from which the Gens could aim with their rifles, and there was plenty of cover for the Simes to creep close without being seen. The Simes were supposed to be there to physically catch the prisoner, but one zlin of him made it clear going anywhere near him when he was conscious would be a very bad idea.
The intruder had been a huge Gen once, tall and broad with heavy bones like an ox. Clearly born of wild stock, and his apparent long-term survival in the mountains seemed to support that, but no wild Gen could have a nager like that.
Most of the Sime Garlenists had only zlinned a nager like that once before: Serena's.
The wilderness that surrounded Fior was a harsh and dangerous place. And yet, at the height of summer's growth, the innate optimism of life abounded even here.
Mosquitos formed giant clouds under magnificent stands of white pine, breeding in the pools of water along the edges of streams. Purple monk's hood bloomed along the shores, beautiful and deadly, along with white globe, arctic raspberry, lungwort, and prickly rose. On drier ground, serviceberry bushes invaded larkspur-painted meadows. Bee-plant speared upward with waist-high clusters of pink, lavender and white blooms. And even in the driest sand and the densest stony soil, life abounded: white tufted evening primrose, purple vetch, and the delicate blue flowers and wispy stems of perennial flax.
Edible wildflowers were so readily available that it would be possible to pick more than even a Gen could require: spicy nasturtiums, calendula petals, chives, blue borage, wild squash, and pansies. Rabbits and squirrels could be caught by hand if a Gen was desperate enough to risk injury and willing to eat meat. And there were berries, berries of every sort that could grow in these mountains.
Even for a Gen without weapons, it was therefore theoretically possible to stay alive by skirting around predators, sleeping lightly, and always forging onward.
And that was exactly what the Serena-zlinning Gen was doing when he was caught.
There was once a mother whose children died of starvation on the mountain. So great was her sorrow that the very gods and spirits were moved, and from that day onward the edible bitter-root has grown in the places where her tears fell. And that is how the mountain got its name.
On the twenty-eighth day of Serena's absence, a strange procession came through Fior's gates.
First came the Simes, travelling several hundred paces in the lead. Then came the prisoner, walking free and proud, his great nager shining with a confidence and supreme authority that threatened to outdo the sun. And finally the Garlenist Gens came several paces behind, their guns trained on him, wary of any attempt to escape.
A pigeon sent by the capturing party had alerted Fior to their coming. There had been two days to prepare. As per usual procedure the streets had been cleared. Because he was Gen, there would be no extra witnesses.
They stopped the prisoner on the narrow street in front of Garlen's house, well back from the steps because the Gen was clearly dangerous and because Garlen himself was dangerous this far into need. Garlen would only have to come outdoors briefly, to zlin the prisoner from a distance and make his pronouncement.
But first they had to wait.
The prisoner's attention wandered. His eyes studied the cobbles of the street, the cut stone of the curb, then lifted to the steep-roofed rowhouses looming all around them. And above it all towered the wall that divided Fior Sime from Gen. It occluded the sun, blacker than black, the sky glaring brilliant beyond. A flight of pigeons took off from the top of the wall and circled, wider and ever wider.
The Simes' attentions followed with his helplessly, drawn despite themselves to see and zlin their surroundings in a new and painfully clear light.
And then a loud click from Garlen's door snapped everybody's attention back.
The door cracked partway open, gliding on carefully balanced hinges. Garlen's nager crept from it like fingers of shadow across a field, chill and aching with need. The Simes drew back, briefly averting their eyes and attentions as Garlen himself came out onto the porch, small and ordinary to Gen eyes, but oh, they could not zlin.
The prisoner watched calmly, his own eyes keen, his nager reaching to try to enfold. But even a nager such as that one could not claim a Sime from such a distance.
And now the Garlenists saw and zlinned something they had never seen or zlinned before:
Garlen had no idea what to do.
He stopped rigid and unmoving, staring down at the Gen. He did not speak, did not acknowledge his peoples' presence at all, only stared and zlinned with a wild-eyed intensity.
The Gen moved forward one step, and Garlen flinched back, but his feet did not actually move. He remained rooted there, at the top of the stairs, his back to the house, zlinning. He seemed almost mesmerised, but when one of the Garlenists moved as if to interfere, Garlen's nager gathered and his attention flicked pointedly, warningly, halting that person in his tracks.
This was not for them. This was between Garlen and the Gen. His equal, and none other. To come between them would be to come between a Sime and his Kill.
The prisoner took another step forward, and then a third.
The Simes could zlin the edges of the two nagers intersect, testing one another. The prisoner's nager strobed softly as it tried to mold itself to Garlen's like Serena's did, only from slightly too far away.
He started to take a fourth step, and Garlen's voice licked out, softly spoken but with a crack in the middle like whiplash.
"Stop there," he said.
The prisoner stopped. But the face was different now, the nager. There was more than curiosity and confidence there now - there was horror, and concern.
"Shidoni," swore the prisoner in Simelan. His voice was powerful and deep, his accent that of Norwest Sime Territory. "Where is your Companion?"
Garlen had changed too. He hardened against the prisoner, determined. The moment of weakness was gone. Garlen stepped back against the stone of the house, the opening of the door at his elbow. If the Gen attacked or attempted to entice him, he could escape inside in an instant. The Garlenist protectors with the guns would make sure of the prisoner after that. This Gen might zlin like Serena, but he was not Serena. And with one this dangerous, they would take no chances.
"My Companion is none of your concern," Garlen said sharply. His own accent was colored with Nivet as well as Norwest. "Why have you come here, Householder? Who are you, and where are the rest of your party?"
The prisoner conceded, lowered his hands that had been half-raised to offer assistance. Assistance or control, of the sort Serena usually asserted. He took a half-step back, signalling his compliance. There was no sign of enticement in his nager, though even in a neutral state his field was so powerful it compelled attention.
"My name is Tomas," he said. "I was born Tomas ambrov Naros, though I am no longer of Naros. I travel alone, and I've come here because of a book." He drew the book from his pocket, tiny and thick and worn. He held it clasped briefly between his palms, then raised it up so all could see.
A chorus of quiet murmurs broke out among the Garlenists. It was a book of Garlenist teachings. These were hand-copied by the acolytes during their days at Fior. It was customary to burn one's book before undertaking the most dangerous part of a Garlenist's mission, because during that first mission was when three of four Garlenists died.
The book seemed to burn in his hand, its faded cover made golden by sun and by Tomas' own glorious field.
It was not often that a book of Garlenist teachings survived its owner. It meant that either that primary mission had never been performed, or more likely that the book's owner had been killed unexpectedly without any chance to prepare.
"Whose was that?" demanded Garlen. His eyes, like the others', was riveted to the book. It did not belong in the hands of an outsider. It was a secret, a private source of strength for the one who had borne it.
"It was my mother's," said the golden Gen, and his nager swelled even further with a pure and undying love that could not be denied, only zlinned and wondered at. "I found it after she died, last year. I've been travelling ever since. To come here, to learn of what you do and what she believed in."
Again, the sigh and flutter of breaths around him. She must have been one of the lost ones. Stolen by raiders, fired by her employers, or fled from her duties before her primary task had ever been completed. It was the only way a Garlenist could live long enough to have a child as old as Tomas, the only way a Garlenist could ever wind up in a Householding.
They could see Garlen's disappointment in his eyes, in the reluctant twist of his lips, zlin it in his nager. Nobody likes to hear of a failure, even so long after the fact.
"Throw it here," he said, gesturing.
Tomas only hesitated briefly before acquiescing. He tossed the book and Garlen caught it one-handed. The channel glanced down at it, then tucked it into an inner-pocket of his cape.
And now would come the moment of judgment, when the Gen's fate would be sealed. They waited for it, as Garlen looked down at the flags of the steps, his nager unbearable to zlin.
And then he raised his head.
"He is a Companion," said Garlen to the others. "Like Serena. He cannot be killed the ordinary way. He cannot --" go to the Pen, he didn't say, because even he dared not threaten this Gen, not now. When the end came, it would have to be sudden. It would have to be before the Gen could react.
Behind Tomas, the Garlenist Gens shifted their rifles, a subtle shift of cloth on cloth, of flesh on wood-and-steel. The Simes edged back, shying toward hypoconsciousness so that they would not have to zlin.
But lo, as the Gen's great nager faded from expectant focus toward surprised wariness, Garlen raised a hand to stop them. His eyes, gray as winter cloud, displayed the agony of his indecision to Gen and Sime alike.
"He is a Companion," he said again, his voice low and strained. "Give him a house on the Gen side. Teach him if he wishes it. Don't allow him near me again."
And with that he turned and fled into his house and barricaded the door again.
High above, a flock of pigeons circled. Their barred wings flashed as they rolled and dove, racing one another, honing their escape skills for the day when a falcon or hawk might attempt a kill during a returning flight.
The sun, the sky, the mountains were laid out below them, imprinted in their memories forever as the place that was home.
Elk moved stealthily along the border of the forest that cloaked the valley walls. A fox crouched at the valley's other end, waiting for a field mouse to make a fatal appearance. Trout nosed the surface of Fior's moat, dusky under the water's glittering surface.
All these the pigeons saw, with the keen and forever-wary eyes of the hunted.
But they did not see Serena.
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