This short story was conceived, written, and completed in the space of a few frenetic hours of posting on the mystcommunity bulletin board. I posted each chunk the moment it was finished; therefore, there was no opportunity for me to rewrite or think better of any part of the story.
I am therefore rather proud that it turned out so well.
It takes place some years after the novels.
The Ages of Gehn: A Broken Promise KeptYeesha knelt, peering at the shadowed wall in the far corner of her father's library, fingertips sliding thoughtfully along the lip of a stone moulding running vertically up the wall. It was mostly covered by the edge of a tall, heavy bookshelf, but the fact that it stopped only a span or so above the floor intrigued her.
She shook her dark bangs out of her eyes impatiently. Would Mother be angry if she bobbed it like Marrim? She never understood how Catherine had the patience to weave her long braids and strings of white beads. Then again, Yeesha never understood how her father had the patience to write and build so much with such intricate care. That was her problem, as her parents had gently but firmly reminded her on many occasions.
Mindful of this, for once, Yeesha decided to tackle the puzzle at hand with more care than was her custom, although her first impulse was to try and wrench the entire bookshelf away from the wall. With a sigh, she began removing the books one by one, stacking them neatly on a nearby bench so that they could be refiled more easily.
Only when this task was done did she finally grip the sides of the wooden cabinet and pull. Rocking it with every tug, she coaxed it slowly and ponderously away from the wall. Ah! As she thought. There was a low alcove, a gap in the wall just at floor level, a rectangular space as broad as the bookshelf and high enough that she might be able to crawl into it. But there was something blocking the way. Eagerly, she squeezed in to set her shoulders against the back of the tall bookshelf, shoving it further into the room. Then she knelt again.
The recess in the wall held a simple chest of unvarnished pale wood, so huge and heavy that she doubted that she would be able to move it. However, set in the side facing her was a handle, wide enough for her to slip both hands through it. With some effort, the whole chest rolled towards her almost soundlessly on polished runners like the sides of a drawer.
The plain D'ni letters carved into its otherwise unadorned lid brought a soft gasp to Yeesha's lips.
With a mixture of reluctance and eagerness, the girl set her fingers in the shallow groove encircling the lid and lifted it slowly.
Her nose was accosted with the scent of wood, old paper, and older leather as she glimpsed what lay within-- not that she hadn't already guessed. Books! More than a hundred, of assorted shapes and sizes as if they had been scavenged from many different collections. Each one was labelled with an elaborate seal bearing a single number at its center. But superimposed over each label was a large stamp in blood red ink, the Maintainer's glyph for "condemned". Lying on top was a single sheet of parchment bearing her father's bold script, which Yeesha reached for immediately.
Yeesha opened one at random, beginning to flip through it. The Fifty-eighth Age. It sounded almost beautiful, describing a sea on a bed of green sand, islands with white chalk cliffs that she could see in her mind's eye gleaming in the sun, rolling heather and grasses and plentiful cover for the sea-birds on whose eggs and meat the inhabitants probably made their living. She puzzled over the glyphs she knew, trying to guess those she had not yet learned, enjoying the exercise of decipherment. It was hard reading, and her eye was not experienced enough to see any obvious contradictions, but she was mindful of her father's warning. Smiling over an elegantly spare turn of phrase describing shells cast on the beach, she reached for another book, and so continued her browsing.
Brow furrowed, skipping from book to book like a butterfly testing flowers of great color but no nectar, Yeesha came at length to that one Age, the fourteenth, where, just as she flipped past the first page, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye.
For a split second the gateway image cleared, revealling a sun-drenched shelf of gray rock, a pile of stones like a cairn, and a small stooping figure scattering handfuls of something-- petals, perhaps-- across them. The dark-skinned child turned to face Yeesha, unseeing, then stepped to one side, passing out of view.
"Wait!" Yeesha exclaimed.
The image clouded over once more.
A short time later, Yeesha was explaining shamefacedly but urgently to her parents, eyes fixed upon the book with Atrus had snatched from her hands with uncharacteristic anger. He was still scowling, and Catherine's lined face was grave.
"But I saw her clearly! She was there, and there was a knocking sound, and--"
Atrus took a deep breath and exhaled. "Yeesha. What did you see?"
The carefully measured words were a command and a lesson she knew well, and the girl fell silent, wrapping her arms around herself as she collected her thoughts.
"The image was gray and shimmering, as it is now, like snow at night under a dim moon. Then it cleared. There was still a slight haze. I saw a pale sky, blue, almost white. Below it was a sort of ledge set against a stone escarpment: gray stone, piled like granite. It looked like it was falling away on three sides, as if it were on the side of a cliff; to the right there was a jumbled and fractured pile of rock that rose up out of sight. There were scattered outcroppings on the ledge, covered in tufts of brown leafless grasses, waist-high, and orange lichen.
"The cairn was set at the base of the back wall. I don't think the stones were shaped; they were irregular, with rounded contours. It was about this high--" she gestured. "The girl was standing before it with her back to me. She looked a little younger than me, very thin-boned, with dark skin and black hair. She was wearing a shirt and knee-length pants, grayish-blue, an odd texture--" Yeesha squinted-- "almost iridescent, I think. Whatever she sprinkled on the stones looked like white petals, but it can't have been, unless the flowers there are heavy: they fell like pebbles and some of them bounced. When she looked at me, her eyes were in very deep shadow. Then she moved to the left, out of the window, just as the fog returned."
"And the knocking sound?" Catherine questioned.
Yeesha blushed at the omission. "Hollow. Just like a door thumping against its frame when someone opens another one at the end of the hall."
Atrus listened attentatively but with an expression of disbelief as well as dismay, and glanced to Catherine. "It isn't possible."
"An echo?" Catherine wondered, and shook her head. "We'll just have to read it more carefully."
Yeesha stood with her hands at her sides, trying not to fidget under the lingering cloud of their disapproval. At last her father stirred and looked at her with a sigh. "Put everything back where you found it, Yeesha, while your mother and I examine your discovery. And do not open any of the other books."
She saw the fear in his eyes behind his fierce look, and swallowed any resentment she might have felt. They had been honest with her, telling her of her lost brothers a little over a year ago, soon after they first began to take her to other Ages. So she only nodded meekly. "Yes, Father."
She could not guess the level of restraint it took for Atrus simply to nod in return and, with Catherine at his elbow, head for the green glass doors that led out to the solarium and his study beyond.
Atrus ran his hand through his hair. "It's the same old problem. What I can't understand is why this held, when Age Twenty and Eighteen fell apart using exactly the same three phrases--"
Catherine's finger tapped at an emendation. "He changed a word here."
"I know, but it shouldn't make that much difference." He groaned and dropped his hands to the surface of the desk with a thump. "This is going to take me months to unravel. And I don't know how much time they have."
"If they've survived this long a few months more will change little. Do not let feeling cloud your methods, Atrus." She settled an arm behind his back. "Then you do believe the Age is stable enough for people to be alive?"
He glowered accusingly down at the page as if it were Gehn himself staring back. "I hope and fear it, Catherine. I will have to go see for myself."
"Father!" Yeesha's protest from the doorway was echoed only slightly more quietly by Catherine's. The girl closed the door behind her and padded over to them, dusty hands gripping the backs of both their chairs. "Didn't you say the book was dangerous?"
Atrus shifted around to brush at a streak of dust on his daughter's cheek, noticing the trace of tears in the corners of her eyes. "Yeesha," he said patiently. "If what you saw was true-- and I do not doubt your eyes--there may be people living in that Age. I must determine their condition, and help them, if the deterioration has made life hard for them."
Yeesha turned her pale green eyes pleadingly towards her mother, but, with a sigh, Catherine nodded in affirmation.
"You've put everything away?" Atrus asked.
"Yes, Father," Yeesha whispered.
"Then go fetch me a fresh Linking Book from the storeroom."
Jaw tightening, she ducked her head and again slipped out.
Catherine leaned back in her chair. "Must you always be risking yourself, my love?" she asked tiredly.
"Sometimes it has been our friend who faced the danger," he reminded her. "Or you, on Riven and D'lashee."
"Yes. But I meant this. You have no peace. The Maker is always sending you in harm's way, to mend what can be mended." She rose to her feet with a dismissive shrug. "I married a man who is a problem-solver, and we must pay for it. I'll get your things." She, too, slipped out, to gather his cloak, glasses, and such supplies as he would need for a few days' journey.
"I will have this right in my hand," Atrus told Yeesha, taking the Linking Book from her and giving her a faint reassuring smile. "If there is any danger, I'll return at once."
The quiet girl stepped forward and hugged her father anxiously, faced pressed against his shirt.
"I'll see you soon," he promised, giving her shoulders a brief squeeze.
Catherine pried Yeesha away. "You'd better," she said lightly. "I have your favorite dinner planned tonight."
Smiling more widely, he set his free hand on the window of the Descriptive Book, and clung to the image of them both in his mind's eye as the link's void claimed him.
Atrus emerged into sunlight, and for a moment saw the rocky shelf with the stone wall behind curved inward like a small amphitheater, just as Yeesha had described it. But his feet touched nothing solid. With a startled shout, he found himself falling, chin striking stone as the broken and craggy face of a cliff tumbled upwards past him. Desperately trying to grab onto something, anything, with his feet and his right hand, he somehow managed to hold onto the Linking Book until, as abruptly as his fall began, it ended with a painful thud on another ledge a dozen feet or so below. Pain shot through one leg as he crumpled and rolled onto his side, gasping for breath, vision tunnelling for several seconds.
He heard the flap of pages and a faint thump, and willed his eyesight to return so that he could locate where the book had fallen.
It was not immediately in view. The ledge onto which he'd collapsed was no more than a slanted slab, the top of a spur jutting out from the rocky cliff-face. Blinking in the glare, he realized his glasses had slipped upwards, and pulled them down hurriedly, fiddling with the dials. Not broken, thankfully. He sat up with a groan, hands moving to his boot as the merest movement caused his ankle to throb.
"Not broken either," he said aloud, willing it to be true. A sprain, though. Taking his mind off his bruises as best he could, he began to study his surroundings.
The rock face before him was not a mountain nor a cliff, in fact, but a towering pinnacle of stone no more than forty paces wide. Here and there vegetation clung to it, or small patches of soil, but that beneath where he lay was bone-dry and coated with a fine dusting of something white. He sniffed it, guessing from the smell of the sea what it must be. Salt. The air itself, blowing in cool fitful gusts, was far drier than any ocean air had a right to be. And the plants he saw-- sedges, clumps of oatlike grasses-- were dead and brown, rustling forlornly.
There was a wooden ladder here, set against the face of the stone, a few rungs missing. His brows lifted in faint surprise. But there had been trees, once, and perhaps they still grew elsewhere in this desolate Age.
Shifting around, Atrus looked out and away from his lofty perch towards the horizon. There were no clouds at all. However, standing black and stark against the lowering white sun, he saw other giant pillars of rock, standing out from the ocean like the piles of some pier long rotted away, or a fossil forest. Many leaned at strange angles. This must be all that was left of the island described in the book, split apart into fragments like Catherine's lost home.
Fighting vertigo, he peered over the edge, searching after the Linking Book with a silent prayer to the Maker. At first his eyes were drawn to the white fringe of waves striking the base of the cliff far, far below him. Then he spotted the green cover of the book wedged in a crack in the rock. Steeling himself against his body's protests, he inched his way to the lip of the ledge and reached over, hand outstretched, mentally noting that he wasn't as young as he used to be. Try as he might, his fingers brushed air. And there was no way down here.
Then he must go up.
It was a painful process making his way back to the ledge where he had first landed, or rather, missed landing upon, but at last Atrus clambered over the edge of the ladder and moved gratefully to a low outcropping of rock to sit and take the weight off his foot.
The cairn of stones was covered with glinting white fragments of shell and large, flat, diamond-shaped teeth. He examined one of these closely, noting the finely serrated edges under the magnification of his lenses. He set them back carefully, not disturbing the stones, guessing grimly from the size and shape of the pile that it might be a grave.
There were small bare footprints in the white coating of salt that dusted the gray powdery soil here. Four toes, he noted with automatic precision, looking around for their owner. No one to be seen, but another ladder leading upwards, in the same state of alarming disrepair as the first. It was these that knocked occasionally against the cliff-face with the soft "tok" of wood against stone.
With a sigh, Atrus began to clamber upwards, wincing as he set weight on his sprained joint once again.
The view was worth the climb. The sea stretched out all around him, the sun sinking behind the distant towers in a sky beginning to flush with pink. But up here, in a sort of open-air courtyard paved with native rock and pillared with the dead husks of spindly trees and more brown grasses, Atrus discovered a heartwrenching sight.
It was just a few buildings, small cottages made of the same wood as the ladders, thatched with grasses where their roofs had not fallen in. Only one was intact, its door creaking on its hinges in the scant wind. The others were perched at the cliff's edge, with only two or three walls still partially standing. The other walls, and parts of their floors, had evidently plunged over the edge long ago; beams jutted out like bare ribs, fingers clutching at the sky.
There were several more cairns of stone here, more obviously human-sized, in the middle of this sad ghost of what had once been a village. One other grave had offerings of shell and bone. On the far side of the natural platform, Atrus spotted another ladder, and groaned. It could only lead down. A long way down.
Resolutely he moved to see what he might over the far edge. This side of the cliff was shadowed, and so it took a moment's adjustment with his glasses for him to see his worst fears realized: the drop had to be almost a mile, and ladders clung to the rock face almost all the way down, apart from a few ledges here and there. But at the bottom was not only sea.
Something gray and glimmering, even in shadow, stretched across the open ocean like flat webbing, or the smooth surface of a white shell. He could not begin to guess what it was.
"How in the Maker's name do I get down there?" Atrus wondered.
"Very easily!" a harsh voice said behind him in thickly-accented D'ni. "It will only take a firm shove, Master."
Atrus tensed, hands gripping the rock beneath him where he crouched, empty air and a fathom's fall directly before his face. He did not turn, but instead held himself perfectly still. "You have a quarrel with my father," he stated clearly and evenly. "So did I. Whoever you are, perhaps it will please you to know that he is imprisoned forever, to keep him from ruining any more lives or worlds."
"Your father?" Footsteps crunched in the crumbling earth behind him, coming from the direction of the intact hut. More than one set of them, Atrus guessed by the sound.
"Gehn," he replied tonelessly. "I was his son. And I am no one's master."
The stranger halted behind him with an intake of breath. "Turn around," the man said grudgingly, after a lengthy silence. "Let us see the son of our false god."
Atrus complied, moving slowly. "I'm unarmed," he stated, holding up his hands with palms open towards the pair of observers.
The man was very tall indeed, and thin in such a way that Atrus doubted was healthy even accounting for differences of race. His leathery skin, a little darker than Atrus' own with olive undertones, was stretched taut across his bony frame and the planes of his narrow face. His eyes were deeply shadowed under a fierce browline, shoulder-length hair sparse and a grayish-brown that seemed to be somewhat bleached from the sun. The girl at his side was a little smaller than Yeesha, but the lower half of her face lacked the petiteness of a pre-adolescent; Atrus could not guess her age. Pinched lines around her eyes and mouth made him wince inwardly. She, too, was very thin. The joints of her fingers were too distinct, and her much darker complexion bore the same weathered texture that Catherine's was only beginning to show. Both were dressed in wide-necked loose shirts and baggy knee-length trousers made of a smooth gray hide, the girl's decorated at the collar with a border of what appeared to be small fish-scales.
"I am Thormon. This is Kana, whose parents died when the land fell. She does not remember them."
The child pressed against her guardian's legs. Hostility and fear were in their stiff stances and tightlipped expressions, the former predominant in the man, the latter in the girl, but a little of each in both.
"You could kill me," Atrus said, looking up at the stern man frankly, "and I would understand why you did so. But I mean you no harm. And you would do harm. I have a wife and daughter who would grieve if I did not return to them." His eyes darted to the girl hiding behind the man's hip.
"You have children?" The stranger glared at him hatefully. "A healthy family?"
Atrus' eyes narrowed, force coming into his voice to match the challenge. "Yes, but don't even think of aiming your vengeance at them. They are innocent. I am here." He spread his hands. "So, will you show me the fast way down, or the slow?"
There was no light in the man's eyes-- indeed, Atrus could not even see them, so deeply-set were they, and therefore in dark shadow like this side of the cliff. But the firm mouth eased slightly at the corners, not with a smile, but perhaps with grudging respect.
"My name is Atrus," he pressed on, voice softening again. "I came to offer what aid I could."
The man all but snarled. "Aid? So you, too, have the power to make and break our world?"
"My father taught me his skills," replied Atrus steadily, "but not his pride. I cannot make worlds, but I know how to open doors between them, and sometimes I can fix small things. Tell me what's happened here. Please?"
The man dropped his eyes to the frail girl lurking beside him, and touched her ear silently in reassurance. She whispered something to him in a different tongue, and he replied in kind, gruff voice briefly soothing before he addressed Atrus once more. "That is for the village to decide. You will come down the slow way."
He gestured for Atrus to precede them down the ladder.
Bracing himself, Atrus complied in silence, slinging himself over the edge for the long climb down. He reminded himself of the ladders on Myst Island, or the top of the old tree. It wasn't as if he hadn't had his share of heights, or sheer drops. But not so far, nor had he scaled them on an ankle that protested every rung. Gripping the sides of the ladder, he eased himself down by sliding, catching himself with his good foot in a controlled fall. This ladder was steadier than the other, and, looking up, he saw the man was bracing it from above with his hands. Nevertheless, they did not follow until Atrus was safely on the next ledge below.
Two more ladders were descended in this fashion before the man remarked, "You are hurting?"
Atrus nodded, leaning against the rock face. "I fell when I arrived."
The man snorted. "So we noticed." Eyeing him, the native motioned for him to sit, crouched beside him, and took his boot in a firm grip. The man stared at it thoughtfully before giving it an ungentle yank.
Atrus stifled a groan in his teeth. "I'd rather you did not remove my foot."
Thormon peered up at him doubtfully. "This is your foot?" he asked, tapping the boot.
Atrus shook his head. "No, it's clothing, but my ankle is swollen, I think."
The man's brow furrowed at some unfamiliar word, but he nodded, easing the boot off more slowly. "You have a daughter," he observed again as he worked.
"Yes," Atrus said tightly, voice catching as his foot came free. "Close to your girl's size. Yeesha was the one who discovered the-- the door here. She saw her and realized some of you were still alive. I came at once."
"So you say." The adult motioned the girl over to him. "Kana?"
She stood behind them, hands clasped together tightly in front of her.
"Kana," the man said sternly, and spoke a few firm words to her.
Skittishly, she approached and dropped to one knee beside her elder, head bowing. Ginger fingers probed Atrus' foot and ankle where it rested now against the chalky soil. She touched his big toe once and stared upwards at his face, facing him fully for the first time. He caught a glimpse of pale blue eyes, still shadowed by the deep brow-ridges that seemed to be common to their kind, with wide pupils. Atrus smiled down at her, mimicking the expression on the man's face he had seen earlier when he looked at the girl, lips covering his teeth.
Uncertainly, she cupped his heel in one hand and the front of his ankle with the other, and began to squeeze, fingers pressing against tendons. Discomfort was abruptly replaced by an odd tingling warmth and numbness that seemed to radiate out from her hands. Atrus let out the breath he'd been holding and stared down at her in sudden fascination, trying to fathom what she was doing. The sensation travelled right up his leg, soothing bruises and aches he had barely realized were there before.
"Amazing," he breathed sincerely. "Will you give her my thanks?"
"She has the touch," the man said carelessly, but he was watching Atrus' reaction with a faintly smug expression. "Like all children. But there are only three."
"Three?" Atrus nodded to her as she released his foot and scampered backwards, wringing her hands.
"Move," the elder replied, picking up his boot and holding it before his face.
Swallowing worried questions, Atrus took the boot back and reshod himself so he could continue their journey.
"But he promised!" Yeesha picked at her food, jabbing her knife into the cold meat.
"Yes, and therefore you must have faith in your father," said Catherine with that firmness fine-tuned by decades of motherhood. "He will come as soon as he can."
"He must be in trouble," Yeesha protested, staring across the table at her mother with disbelief.
"Yes," Catherine replied again, taking her drink in small sips. "He expected to be. The Age is not stable."
Something in her mother's steady, intent gaze silenced the wail building in Yeesha's throat, although not the last of her tears. "I wish I'd never found that book. You don't know he'll come back. You don't."
"I wish it had not been written, but at least, found, we may be able to bring about some good for its people," Catherine replied.
The girl stared at the remains of her meal sullenly. As long as she was still picking at the scraps, she could not be held accountable for cleaning the dishes.
"Yeesha." Catherine pushed her chair back and came around the table to settle her hands on the girl's shoulders. "What you say is true. And at such times I also am afraid." Her voice gave nothing to indicate it, however, its quiet strength a comfort more than any soothing gentleness. "And he may well have come to harm. There is nothing to tell us why he has not returned as he said he would. But I have faith. I know he is alive, and therefore, all will be well."
"How?" her daughter whispered. "There's nothing in the gateway image to show us what's happening."
"And your father has taught you to judge by what you can see, measure, observe, and reason out, like a good scientist should." Catherine sighed. "It is more reliable. But sometimes the heart simply knows things the mind can't grasp. And mine tells me: be patient. Wait."
Yeesha slumped in her chair, not voicing doubts. Mother would choose to believe he was well even if Father were gone forever, a voice of despair whispered somewhere inside. But the girl tried not to hear it. "All right. But for how long? And what do we do if he does not come?"
Catherine patted her shoulder. "Finish your dinner and do the washing-up. Then it's to bed with you. Don't forget to write in your journal tonight."
"Bed!" Yeesha squirmed in her chair. "I can't sleep!"
"Then I will come sing to you of the river betwen the stars," her mother promised, "and we will wait up for your father. Now, go. I'm going to take another look at Age Fourteen, and see if I can learn anything else about the place your father has gone."
Yeesha turned in her chair, eyes wide.
Catherine embraced her suddenly, briefly. "I'm not going away, dear. Go on. I'll be right here." She nodded in the direction of the study.
Biting her lip, Yeesha nodded, slid out of her chair, and began to collect the dishes, looking longingly at her father's empty plate and the leftovers getting cold.
Catherine left her to clear the table and headed for her own study with a sweep of skirts on the polished floor, smiling worriedly. Yeesha would indeed sleep, hopefully not before she'd finished her chores. Anna's herbal recipes were quite effective.
Catherine, however, needed a clear head tonight. She could feel the whispers in the back of her mind, and paused on the moonlit balcony to stare out across the canyon. Time for her to focus, and listen to that inner stillness.
At last Atrus set foot on the jumbled pile of broken stones and rock, speckled with cast-up shells like much of the lower half of the cliff, and turned to see what it was he had glimpsed from above.
Stretching out on the ocean's surface, bobbing gently up and down on a sluggish swell, was a great haphazard raft of logs, animal hides, and what he took to be mats of kelp. Random bits of floor extended in an irregular amoeba-like perimeter for some hundred yards, a few platforms almost detached from the rest. The integrity of the raft's construction was questionable in several places, with numerous holes where the sea sloshed through between rotting timbers. Most surfaces were caked with salt. Atrus saw many traces of repair, many signs of decay.
Perched at intervals upon this makeshift ground were small huts not unlike those he had seen above. But these were more irregular in shape, and for timbers, they had the gray-white ribs of some large animal, probably something like the wahrk or the whales he had seen in Anna's books. For walls and roofing, there were more bits of blue-gray animal hide, whose oily sheen also suggested a seagoing creature; elsewhere kelp or grass mats were strung from rib to rib to make thin partitions.
Overhead, just barely high enough for the tall natives to walk without stooping, was the strange translucent canopy which Atrus had glimpsed from above. It was suspended from poles made of lashed bones or more precious wood, forming a drooping ceiling that fell in gentle sagging curves. Rising and falling slightly with the motion of the deck beneath and the wind above, the canopy was made of a net of myriad fish-scales of all shapes and sizes, woven together by tiny filaments. Sunlight filtered through this translucent material, making the whole of it shine and glitter like pale stained glass. It whistled faintly in the soft breeze. Wherever this unusual fabric dipped low, there was a small round hole, from which thin strings hung down that sagged or drew taut with every movement of the odd ceiling and floor. The strings were attached to the mouths of narrow-necked stone jars that lay scattered everywhere across the undulating deck.
Atrus barely had time to notice the few drops of water clinging to these threads and to make a quick guess at their function before other people garbed like his two captors began moving towards him with the grace of wading birds, hopping across the logs of their home and speaking in animated voices. Again he waited, while Kana and her elder reported their discovery. While the natives were of many different builds and coloring and age, he noted a uniform gauntness in all their faces. The hostility in their voices and expressions was clear, as was its source; he tried not to flinch when one of the tall natives yanked his glasses away angrily and began to wave the lenses around.
"Please," he told Thormon, thankful the sunset was behind him, "I need those to see."
The middle-aged fellow who had commandeered them made a motion to toss the lenses into the sea, but a spry old woman, face impossibly wizened and lined, barked something at him sharply. The man halted and lowered his arm, still holding the glasses in his hand.
"You are blind?" she croaked, her D'ni showing a more natural inflection.
Atrus shook his head, squinting. "No, but my race lived underground, and our eyes are hurt by bare sunlight."
There was surprised muttering from several of the older people: five or six, perhaps, for the whole group numbered no more than twenty.
"The gods are blind!" she crowed humorlessly, obviously for his benefit. "I might have guessed."
"I'm no god," he replied, "as you know quite well. My name is Atrus. May I have them back?"
"First, Atrus son of Gehn," she said, pronouncing the name with clear venom, "you will make account of yourself. Sit there. Thormon, Kana--" Her command was concluded in their native tongue, and his escorts moved down to the edge of the rocks, springing across to the edge of the raft-village, where the outermost planks were lashed to the nearby rocks.
Atrus seated himself on the shattered boulder where he stood and rested his hands on his knees, peering out at the silhouettes of the people rising and falling before his eyes. He was tired, and the movement of the ocean which made every part of their living space dance was beginning to make him feel quite strange.
Atrus, what do you see?
I see hunger and pain, Grandmother. I see people eaten away like driftwood, until there is nothing left but grief worn thin, bitterness, and the stubborn will to survive. They are dying, and their world is dying, and they know it. I see the hopelessness in their eyes of creatures who know they are about to be eaten, yet struggle for a few seconds more.
I am beginning to think like Catherine, he chided himself.
Mustering his thoughts and his precise way with words, he began to tell them of Gehn, of his own upbringing, of his imprisonment, and the fragile Ages which his father had made and then abandoned.
"Worlds are like the branches of trees," Atrus was saying, spreading out hands and fingers. "Some are brittle and weak, others firm and healthy. My father did not understand what he was doing, and so his doors always opened to the diseased branches that were doomed to fail. Others are more sound. I may not be able to save yours, but if I can't, I can at least take you to a better one."
"You are saying," said Grenl sharply, the old woman who seemed to be the leader here, "that our land was doomed to fall apart even if your father had not come, and so it was not his fault?"
Atrus bowed his head, having pondered this often before. "Yes but no. He did not make this world. But some part of the art of making doors can affect the worlds they touch. So, if he crafted the door clumsily, he may have damaged your world in reaching it. Also, if he told you he was a god, and claimed the right to rule you , then he has done you ill."
"That he did," Grenl rasped, looking around at her haggard people one by one. "We were less even before the sea began to fall; many were killed for his sport. And too many said we should pray for our god to return, take no counsel for ourselves, when the ground began to break." Her shadowed gaze sought out one of the other old people with a grim expression, and the recipient's shoulders and head drooped.
"The sea fell?" Atrus asked, piecing together his observations and glancing up towards the cliff behind him.
"You think we always lived on the water?" she demanded, waving an arm at the rolling village. "No! We were up there! The ocean dropped and dropped, over the course of two years, and still it falls a little from time to time. When the land cracked open, most of the village went with it. Only a few of those on land survived, and the fishermen who were out on the sea at the time, in boats."
"You live off the ocean."
"On the ocean, now. The land is not safe for us." She jabbed a bony thumb upwards. "Now it belongs to the dead. And our boats are gone too. We needed the planks for a place to live."
"What would you have of me?" Atrus asked, cupping his hands out to them in a gesture of offering.
There was a distinctly hostile edge to the laughter that erupted as this last was translated to the younger generation by Thormon and some of the others who spoke broken D'ni.
The old woman listened to the muttering, then smiled at him humorously. "Your life. It was Gehn's we wished to take with us, but you will do: so they say."
"Then you will die after me," he said frankly. "I cannot undo the past. I can make you a future, if you can bring yourselves to trust again." His eyes sought out Kana in the crowd. "For the children?"
There was a collective hiss from the elders; he braced himself, having known he would strike a nerve but not which way the blow would fall, for good or ill.
"We have no children!" Grenl growled. "They died, or die."
"I have lost two of my three," Atrus returned with strained frankness, seeking to bridge their bitterness with his own. "I know a little of loss. Tell me why they are dying. All of you. Haven't you food enough?"
"Food enough," Thormon answered for his elder.
"Aye. Food enough. The sea gives us what the gods took away. The fish and kelp forests have grown since the land fell into the sea," said another, slightly younger woman.
Atrus frowned. "You used to eat grains and fruits from the land, though," he guessed, wondering which nutrients they might be lacking from the change in diet.
"Yes!" the old woman snapped. "But that was before the rains ended. Now we catch the sea's breath, our bellies ache, and our drink tastes of tears."
His gaze slipped upwards to the canopy stretched overhead. "Ah," he said softly. "I feared as much. How long since--"
Atrus' mouth fell open. "And you managed to catch enough water from the sea-fog to hold out this long. Grenl, I beg of you, let me help you. Don't let us lose the chance my child and Kana have given us."
She tottered with the steps of a drunken person to the edge of the raft, stepping from log to log without glancing down once to find her footing, and peered at him sternly. "What can you do, man who cannot make worlds, no one's master, son of a false god, with eyes that shrink from the light of day? Bring back the rain?"
"Maybe. I can try."
She turned back to the other elders, face grim. "Do we trust the words of the humbled god, or give him to the sea where so many of our kindred fell?"
"The sea," said one, and then another. Thormon, at least, was silent.
A sound began to whisper above the sounds of their gruff voices, like the patter of tiny feet or the rustling leaves of an unseen forest. It began softly, or had already begun sometime before they began to notice. One head turned and then another, as they tried to remember where they'd heard the noise before.
Atrus, cheeks wet with the salt-spray, realized only a little while before they did.
It had begun to rain.
The dusk was such that he no longer needed to squint, and Atrus was distressed to see two people beginning to kneel as the villagers' voices lifted in wonder. He choked off his startled laughter and waved his hands. "No!" he said hurriedly. "Grenl, tell them. I'm not doing it. It's luck, Grenl. Maybe it's a good omen, but I'm not the cause of the rain!"
In the confusion, she made a final hop to land on the rocks beside him. As she wobbled, Atrus instinctively reached out to steady her, gripping her elbow gently. Her mouth slid into a tight grin, and she twisted like a fish, grasping his hand with the same firm grip Kana had given him earlier.
Startled, he tried to snatch his hand away, but found himself held fast by fingers stronger than his own. She studied him sternly at close range, the lines of her old face more thoughtful now than angered, but still quite grim. Face to face, he could finally see her eyes; they had pupils far too narrow for the last light of sunset. She must be nearly blind herself.
"Perhaps you are, Atrus of no father," the old woman answered him with a chuckle. "We share a different master." Then, relinquishing her grip and beckoning imperiously with her free hand, she summoned the one who had taken his glasses.
Rain-streaked, they were returned to him with a bow.
"What would you have us do?" she asked him, tipping her face to the sky and the steady drops with a ghost of a smile that reminded him of Anna and rain in the desert, long ago.
With Thormon's aid and long arms, the Linking Book had been retrieved from the crack where it had fallen. They had scaled the pinnacle shortly after sunrise, after the steady downpour had dwindled to a faint mist again. The book had not been much the worse for wear, its ink protected by the leather cover, since it had fallen shut upon landing.
Catherine's smile had been rather more frayed when Atrus arrived bruised and disheveled, but she stayed quiet and composed while he related what he'd learned.
Now a rather groggy-eyed Yeesha, newly roused, was cleaning the last of the blood from her father's beard and hovering close to him. Catherine was looking over Kana, while Thormon watched closely.
"Malnourished," Catherine agreed. "I'll have to take blood to see what nutrients are missing, by comparing them to the grain samples you brought back. Then I can find some equivalent supplements."
"Do it-- ouch!" He winced as the salt still on his skin was washed into the abrasions. He patted his daughter's shoulder as she looked up at him anxiously. "Now, Yeesha, how would you like to help me and Thormon find a new Age for his people to live in?"
Her green eyes brightened. "May I?" She looked up at the dour man fearlessly, too inexperienced to recognize the vestiges of mistrust lingering in his expression. "I know! What about Syldania! The forests are so lush there, and come right down to the sea--"
Atrus smiled across at Catherine as their daughter seized Thormon by the hand and began to lead the startled man towards the solarium and the library beyond. Atrus glanced down to make sure Kana wasn't startled by the abrupt departure of her protective guardian, but he saw the girl smiling thinly, albeit nervously.
Catherine reached for a pitcher on the desk and filled a cup of water, holding it out to her mutely. Wide-eyed, Kana sniffed at it, then took it in both hands and began to gulp it down.
"Yeesha will find a good home for them," Catherine told her husband as he paused in the doorway, catching the glass door with the palm of his hand as it started to swing shut.
"Another dream?" he teased lightly, having resigned himself to her strange brand of illogic some years ago now. It was part of her beauty, after all.
"Perhaps." Her green eyes twinkled, and she closed the Age Fourteen book still lying on the desk with elegant fingers, replacing a pen in its inkstand. "I dreamed of rain."
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