Grains of Water, Drops of Sand
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"It was so good of you to lend Atrus to us, in that case." Her eyes twinkled like obsidian in the midday sun, peeping over the embroidered rim of the veil that shielded head and face from the sands' blazing. "Do you share?"
Catherine's chin thrust outward. "No," she said mildly, clutching the Myst linking book a little more tightly against her stomach.
The woman laughed and grew suddenly quiet with the speed of a dust devil spawning and fading. Sun-browned fingers reached out to touch one of the many small white feathers woven into Catherine's thick braids. "Now then." After a pause, in which black eyes studied intense green and found their formidable match, another dry peal of laughter spilled from Pran. "Ah, Kathran, do you take me for a fool? What could I make of pale-eyed children that skulk about like dirt-burrowers and have to wear bits of bone to shield their eyes? Come, come see your burrower of a man, and what he's made for us." The woman turned in a swirl of robes and marched towards the spine of rock that thrust its serrated mass like teeth into the searingly blue sky. Catherine drew up the hood of the cloak she had borrowed, one of Atrus' own, and followed, noting with wonder each footstep and the way that soft sand could yield yet feel so hard beneath her boots.
The tawny outcropping of rock lurched and loomed higher as they marched towards it, over the crests of rippling dunes. It was a large stony hill, the worn nub of some ancient mountain, or perhaps a volcanic dike exposed to the upper air by long eons of wear. Catherine picked out patches of green wedged in every crack, especially lower down. In the shadow of this natural barrier was a jumbled camp, a tapestry of awnings stretched out on poles, buff-colored sheets that rattled with a snapping sound every time the wind gave a gust. A few people swathed head to foot in flowing fabric like Pran raised their hands, thumb upwards, in a greeting, then returned to the flapping section of canvas they were repairing. Catherine glanced over at them, trying to determine whether the heavy fabric used for shade was of animal or vegetable origin. This was not, however, their destination; Pran led Catherine away from the tents and towards the lefthand spur of the rocky spine plunging into the desert floor. The desert dweller seemed oblivious to the fitful wind, not breaking stride as gust after gust kicked sand in their faces.
Catherine halted, feeling the light grains sketch her cheek, and regretted that she had left the second pair of goggles with Anna back on Myst. Pran pulled up short a few paces later, standing by the spot where the rocky outcropping ended, and turned back, holding out her hand. "You going to be all right, woman?"
Shielding her eyes with her fingers, Catherine resumed course unhurriedly. "I've just never felt dry rain before," she shouted over the hungry wind.
"Hah. Yes, and it's thirsty, and it takes water. It holds onto it all the year like a spetzi-tree its last nut, and then gives it back all in the space of a month or two."
Catherine took the proffered hand, finding more comfort than she'd care to admit in the touch of a stranger in so strange a landscape. The island-born woman stepped out of the shadow of the wall of rock and squinted past it to an endless vista of sand, spreading out to the burnished horizon like the rippling waves of a nightmarishly motionless sea of gold.
One thing only broke the inhuman expanse of emptiness on the far side of the rocky ridge. A few more sun-shades were pitched in a depression beyond the lip of a huge dune which partly concealed them, and in their midst arose the incongruous yet familiar shape of a windmill's metal vanes. Catherine set off for it at once. "How goes the work, then?"
The other woman shook her head. "Your husband is a most persuasive man. How he convinced us all to break our backs digging in dry sand for water, I do not know. But there it is: the sand we pull up is damp now. We should find water soon!"
The short trek across the dunes was exhausting, and Catherine found herself sweating under Atrus' guild cloak, but she barely noticed. She fairly slid down the huge dune at the back of the camp. There was no doubt where he'd be; Atrus' hunched figure was bent at the base of the open metal frame of the new windmill, tinkering with the screws of one of the joints. Pran, grinning, gave her a little push that sent her flying towards the man, and went to speak to the pair of young helpers assisting him.
Catherine was just patient enough to wait for him to finish with the fastener he was double-checking. As he straightened and reached for the side of his lenses to adjust the focus, she stood on tiptoe and put her hands over his eyes.
"You've been out in the sun too long, Atrus," she told him lightly.
He turned and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off the ground with a trace of his old boyish grin. "You're right, I'm starting to see things. One of Grandmother's djinns appearing in a puff of smoke-- and she looks just like Catherine!"
She kissed him with dry lips, ignoring the inevitable stubble. "And she says it's time for you to take a break." The rasp of her voice reminded her of the water bottle Anna had firmly insisted she carry, and Catherine slipped it from her shoulder with a twist of the cap, holding it up to him. "Drink. Anna's orders."
He obeyed absently, pushing it back at her to ensure that she did the same. Then he set a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face the excavation pit behind the windmill, covered over by the awnings. "I feared we'd hit rock, but it was only friction caused by the lower joints flexing too much. We managed to extract the whole length of the drill intact and replace the faulty sections. By my calculations, we should reach the water table any time now."
Catherine reflected once again how, sometimes, the knowledge of a world's total structure could be an advantage akin to magic. She smiled at the two teenagers kneeling at the base of the windmill frame, tapping the metal and listening for any buzzing signalling a flaw, as Atrus must have taught them. Then she followed Atrus willingly to the stone-paved wide basin around the pit, where more of Pran's people bent their backs to turn the drilling mechanism, a segmented Archimedes' screw.
The mouth of the well was broad. The loose sand surrounding it was now held in place by wide, slightly concave stone slabs, no doubt quarried from the rocky outcropping behind them. The opening in the ground narrowed quickly like a funnel as it descended into the layers of harder-packed sand below the surface. A thick stone grill capped the well, and in the center of this floor was set a pillar-like housing which supported the upper extent of the screw-drill. Its top was a round metal wheel modelled on a millstone, whose spokes stuck out like the spars of a ship's mast. Four people pushed tirelessly against the spokes, plodding in a neverending circle. At the foot of the drill-housing, a pipe was pouring out deep red sand of a different color from that at the surface, sticking together in clumps. A bucket brigade of children was efficiently removing it.
Pran stood nearby watching, hands on hips. "It's quite amazing," she said. "We haven't had a quarrel or duel in the whole camp since the digging began. Everyone's too tired to fight." She gave another fleeting laugh, then sobered. "It's a good thing the sand started showing signs of water, Atrus. They might have turned all their pent-up winds of anger on you if we found nothing, and that is a storm not to be survived. It's been a mighty deal of work. And Trino--"
Atrus stiffened at Catherine's side. She looked at him questioningly, distracted and disturbed by the revelation that he had been in danger from the very people he was trying so hard to aid. "I'm sorry, Pran," he said softly.
The woman waved a hand. "Nah, it's a done thing. The desert is a harsh master. If we find water from this to last us all the year, and if we can dig other wells, make safe-camps out in the deep desert away from the Chochtic raiders, it will be the safety of many more lives."
"The sand fell in, during the early part of the digging," he told Catherine softly, voice heavy with regret. She leaned her head against his shoulder.
There was a sudden excited cry at the drillhead. With a sticky, splattering sound-- the wind had died down, or else the high dunes here cut off the brunt of the breeze-- wet ruddy drops of water had jumped from the rim of an almost-full bucket to cling to the hem of the nearest man's robe. The damp spots began to dry instantly, leaving rust-colored stains on the fabric, but he didn't seem to mind, and halted to shout to those farther away.
Pran, striding forward and stooping, picked up the bucket herself and shoved it towards the gaping girl closest to the drillhead. It was passed along the chain, and Pran gestured for those at the wheel to start moving again. They did so with an eager lurch. A few plop-plop-plops of wet, moist sand fell onto the stone grill from the pipe, and then, with a satisfying splat, real water, no more than a handful or so, gushed out.
That handful landed mostly in Pran's waiting cupped fingers. Hitching her veil down from her cheeks with her thumbs and wrinkling her nose, she drew her lips reverently to the unpromising-looking rusty brown water. The wheel creaked to a halt again as the bystanders watched in anticipatory silence.
Lips pressed together to strain out most of the grit, Pran took a long sip. Then she threw back her head in triumph. "Orndi!" she cried. "Orndi! M'shan!" The closest bucket girl flew to her and bowed her head to take a sip, while Pran held quite still so as not to spill the remaining drops. Others clustered around to try and get a first taste of the new well.
"Orndi?" Catherine asked with a smile, feeling the rush of joy from the desert folk and guessing the sense of what it must mean.
"Drink," Atrus said faintly, several months of hard work and hoping distilled into that single word. "A drink."
She squeezed his hand, filled with silent pride for what he had done.
It was an exhausted but exhilerated group that made their way back to Pran's camp on the shadowed side of the stone ridge, as the sun slanted towards evening and a pale lemon-yellow dusk faded to bronze and brown. Excitedly discussing the day's discovery, they gathered for the evening meal as the first stars crept into the sky.
Language as always was a difficulty, but Atrus had been living among these people now for some eight months, and there were four or five besides Atrus and Pran who could translate simple exchanges for the rest. Atrus was held in high regard; this much was obvious in the way they listened attentatively to his careful words, and his "Kathran" received the same respect. Laughter and words were quick, impulsive matters here, like rare cloudbursts in a dry season. The long silences between them were like words as well, having a weight and texture that Catherine could appreciate from the spare emptiness of Myst Island, its quiet breezes.
As night came on the awnings over the central area of camp were rolled back, and they sat around a wide, low fire of creaking coals passing platters of sweet dried fruits, small hard breads, and smoked meats from hand to hand. Water, too, was shared from one person to the next in the circle, savored in small sips like fine wines. There was also a bitter juice drink from some of the desert plants Catherine had seen growing in the cracks of the rocks.
These were a people who shared stories. Pran began with a tale of their travels from oasis to oasis, and the bustling settlements in depressions in the desert, where fruit trees could be grown and animals supported. She spoke of the coming of the Chochtic, raiders who pillaged and burned, sending many like her small band out in the desert to evade their seasonal depredations and find a living instead through trade and the frugal use of the desert's spare resources. Atrus told the tale of his first encounter with rain, a terrifying cloudburst in the desert where he was born, at which many brown heads nodded and smiled in understanding. Catherine, pressed by Pran, bestowed on them a song from her childhood about the Great Tree. These words they could not understand, but the emotion behind it, the fierce inner fire of memory that illuminated her expression, both came through as clearly as a far-off sound carried on the desert wind.
At last Atrus and Catherine excused themselves from the gathering as the fire died down, and he led her carefully to the pillowed sand on the far side of the rocky hill.
Here they sat side by side, wrapped in Atrus' cloak against the desert's nightly chill, watching the constellations of a different sky as they had done on so many worlds.
Catherine leaned against him, one hand cupping his shoulder more tightly than was her habit, as if to keep herself from falling up into the sky. "The endless stars," she whispered, words formed aloud with the same profound simplicity as ink on a page, the first link to a new Age springing into being. "They are the Maker's gift that lets us know where we are, the round of seasons. They are the source of life for all worlds that cling to their backs like children to their mothers."
He detected the note of regret in her voice. "I remember the Star Fissure," he told her softly.
The slight motion was Catherine shaking her head; that was not what she was thinking about. "You can touch a hundred Ages," she told him, "but you can only go sideways. You can never go to a world that circles that star there--" she pointed-- "but only in a different universe altogether, another branch of the Tree of Possibility. You are a traveller that goes from island to island, setting foot on only one rock in each place."
His arm wrapped around her more tightly. "More than enough to explore," he reminded her with a modest smile.
"Yes." She settled again, resting her cheek over her fingers against his shoulder. "And that way you leave fewer footprints."
He savored the silence with her, more precious than stars, for a long time. Finally he breached the question. "So. Shall we bring the boys here?"
"What do you think?" she returned, too quietly for him to judge her tone.
"That there is much to learn here." Atrus turned his head, looking down and sideways at her elegant profile. "But you be the judge. Are they ready?"
"It is good for a beginning," she said at last. "After all, did not their father start in such a place? And Anna will find a taste of home. Yes, Atrus, we will come stay with you here."
Atrus obediently held still, pushing up his goggles to dare full sunlight, for once, shading his eyes with his hand. "Something?" he queried, noticing her expression.
She shook her head, banishing memories with a light peck on his chin before turning to head for the crude staircase. As they reached the level ground above, she abandoned the planks of the walkway in favor of the grass.
Following her with a faint grin, Atrus observed, "Someone is up early, I see," nodding towards the thin wisp of smoke rising above the dark green treetops. His pace quickened slightly as he spotted the thin figure seated in the library's porch, a sketchbook stretched across her knees and an orderly collection of paint-pots on the stone slab beside her.
Anna looked up at the soft sound of their feet in the grass, lined face crinkling into a smile as she set the watercolor aside. It was an impressionist snapshot of the stone well and the path leading down into the trees towards the half-finished clock tower. She spread her hands with a chuckle. "Back so soon? Desert too spare for your liking, Catherine?"
Catherine turned and seated herself at Anna's side, as always, smoothing her skirts over her knees. "Why, no. We came back to fetch you and and the boys."
"If you wish to come, that is," Atrus put in gently, bending to kiss Anna's cheek, "and not enjoy the peace and quiet here with all of us away."
Anna's face had jumped at Catherine's invitation, but now eased into a fond smile at Atrus' awkward phrasing, a telltale sign in one who had words as his chief legacy. Once upon a time she had spoken in such a way herself, during her father's final months. "The desert holds its own quiet," she replied. "I will be glad to hear it again."
"And the boys have not been too much trouble?"
"They still listen to my stories," she returned reassuringly. Turning to Catherine with an impish twinkle in her old eyes, she gave the young woman's shoulder a shove. "You've got sand in your hair, my dear."
"Yes, and now I see," said Catherine, teasing in return, "that there is sand under your skin. That's what makes you so stubborn: who can keep the sand from moving? It's soft but stone, and shapes itself anew according to wind or change of circumstance."
Anna turned an accusatory eye up towards Atrus and tapped her forehead. "Dreaming with her eyes open again," she grumbled. "Do I have to put up with this nonsense at my age? I ask you!"
Atrus held up his hands in a warding gesture. "I'm keeping out of this," he said faintly, and concluded, "I've got to go pack for the boys."
"Already done," Anna said offhandedly.
Catherine gave her a shrewd look as Atrus opened and shut his mouth. "You shouldn't have troubled yourself--" he began.
"But it's miiiiiiine!" A howl broke out from the direction of the trees. "Nana made it for me! Sirrus!"
"Oh. The children are awake," Anna said mildly as Sirrus appeared on the path leading to the cabin, dashing uphill laughing with a red-faced Achenar in fierce pursuit. Atrus turned and strode towards them, holding out his arms.
"Father!" two voices cried. Achenar changed course and barreled towards him, flinging his arms around Atrus' legs as Sirrus slowed and approached at a more leisurely pace, dangling from his fingers a toy wooden lizard, painted a brilliant green.
Achenar looked up with imploring eyes as Atrus fondled his dark hair. "My sons," he rebuked them gently, "whatever is the matter?"
"He took my lizard," Achenar said doggedly. "He always takes things."
"It was for both of you," Anna put in. "Sirrus, let your brother have his turn."
"Yes, Grandmother?" Sirrus said with a sweet smile, eliciting an infuriated glare from Achenar. He held it out by the tail. "For you, dear brother. I was only teasing."
Achenar's face clouded and his right hand closed to a fist; he made an abortive movement as if to knock the toy out of his brother's hand before noticing that Catherine had risen to her feet with the steely gaze of a hawk about to strike. "Thanks," he said sullenly, taking the toy and clutching it against his chest.
"Now, how can we bring you two to Everdunes if you're squabbling?" Catherine asked them sternly.
Both pairs of shoulders slumped, both heads came up with delight a second later.
"We're going to Everdunes?" Achenar spluttered.
"We can help father with the well?" Sirrus asked, eyes shining.
"Perhaps," Catherine said more mildly, "but no more of this quarrelling." Her skirts swept the grass as she moved to set hands firmly on Sirrus' shoulders. "I want your promise that you'll both be on your best behavior."
"Yes, mother," Sirrus answered calmly.
"We will," Achenar crowed, annoyance at Sirrus almost forgotten in his excitement. "I promise!"
"Then I am content." She winked at her husband, and stooped to help Anna gather up her paints.
Relaxing, Atrus gestured in the direction of the generator's bunker. "I need some help, boys, collecting some tools and materials." He held out his hands to each of them, and they eagerly fell into step on either side.
"What are you going to make now, father?" Sirrus asked as they headed down the slope.
"A water filter to strain out the sand."
"Sirrus and I are writing a book," Achenar crowed, their father's obsession with tinkering having not yet taken full hold of the younger brother. "We're going to be kings of D'ni like Kerath, and ride on great lizards--"
Their voices became unintelligible as they vanished into the trees, and Catherine leaned back against the doorframe with a faint sigh.
Anna, balancing the sketchbook horizontally against her hip to keep the drying paint from dripping, gave Catherine's elbow a reassuring squeeze. "Boys will squabble. You know that, even if Atrus doesn't."
Catherine grinned lopsidedly, thinking of her cousins. "I suppose." She turned and disappeared into the library with the little jars gathered in her arms.
Anna's room opened off the panelled hallway, behind an elaborately embroidered silk hanging that she had made for Atrus long ago. The watercolor was set flat on the small cot to dry, and Catherine arranged the pots neatly along the shelf over Anna's small marble-topped desk.
Glancing at the leather-bound books that also resided there, the younger woman was oddly subdued now that her husband was gone, green eyes turned inwards toward some other realm.
"Katran," the old woman said, turning to find Catherine staring at the spine of a book before her nose, "what did you dream?"
The old name brought back a smile, as intended. Turning back to the room, Catherine met Anna's gaze with disconcerting steadiness. "Last night, I dreamt I was in Gehn's library back on K'veer, searching through every one of his books. But I could not find the phrase-- no, the volume-- I was looking for." She spoke lightly, as if to take away words' power to sting. "Isn't that odd?"
"Very odd," Anna agreed after a pause, compassion in her gaze. "Come. I need help carrying the bags I packed for the boys."
They departed the small room. Catherine closed the door behind them, gaze lingering for a moment on the fifth numbered volume of the books on stonemasonry Anna had salvaged from the ruins of D'ni.
Anna took three steps away from them and fell to her hands and knees, burying her hands in the hot sand.
"Nana!" Achenar's cry of alarm was muffled behind the thin scarf wrapped across his face. He broke away from his mother's grip and stumbled towards Anna.
She held up two handfuls, surely uncomfortably warm to the touch, and let the sands sift through her bony fingers in erratic puffs, making the uneven wind visible for a moment. Her eyes, deeply shadowed by her hood and face-covering, were edged by the fan-lines of a rich smile as she turned back to them, setting her hand on Achenar's shoulder to help herself to her feet again. "It's been rather a while," she said mildly, almost too quietly to be intelligible. "What do you think?"
"It's hot," Achenar complained, predictably.
"And?" she prodded, looking past him towards Sirrus.
"You really grew up in a place like this, Nana?" Sirrus asked, doubtful tone laced by a hint of something that was less than scorn and more than disbelief. "What is there to live on?"
"You'll see," Atrus said, voice gruffer than usual. "Come. Pran will be waiting for us."
Leading the way with certain strides on the yielding footing, he set off towards the flapping awnings.
"There must have been a mighty big ocean, for all this sand to fly in from the beach," Sirrus guessed as they trudged along.
"You think so?" Atrus asked with a keen glance.
"How else could it have gotten here?" Sirrus asked diffidently.
"Maybe," Achenar puffed, trotting beside Anna as if he were afraid she was going to fall over again, "Maybe that stone hill used to be a mountain, and the wind wore it down."
Atrus' voice was smiling, although his face was covered. "And can you think of a way to prove or disprove--"
Catherine interrupted the impromptu lesson, giving Atrus' shoulder a hard squeeze through his Guild cloak, pointing with her chin. "They're taking down the village."
Village was probably too loose a word for the jumble of tents and canopies, but she was quite right; the loud sound of flapping canvas came from those which had been unpegged, and were now being swiftly rolled up around their poles by pairs of people. Atrus hurried over to them, boots churning up small clouds of sand in a way that, unknown to him, drew stares of amazement from his sons.
"Atrus!" Pran's hand shot up, thumb downward, as she stood in the middle of the ordered chaos with a pair of large water-bags slung front and back. "Not so fair a morning after all! Sure you want to stay?"
Her tone was cheerful, and the questioning eyes of at least three of the family turned skywards in puzzlement. It was beginning to turn an odd shade of pink, but then, they had not been here long enough to know what was normal.
"Storm coming?" It was Anna who asked, making her way with more care. The long robe she wore, twin to Pran's own and a gift to Atrus some months ago, flapped sharply as if to emphasize her words.
Pran strode over to greet the woman briefly, tilting her head down. "You must be the Makheena," she said half teasingly, half in respect. "Welcome, Anna. Yes, a wind-storm. These are her skirts." She waved a hand in air, careless of the heavy skins she was carrying.
"Makheena?" Sirrus whispered to his father.
"Matriarch," Atrus told him, smiling faintly behind his mask.
"Is there place for shelter?" Catherine asked urgently, looking towards her two sons.
"Aye. Our Cleft." Pran shifted the water-bags on her shoulders, nodding back towards the stone ridge behind them. "We're going that way. You staying? Then lend a hand. You know how to coil rope, boys?"
Achenar stared at her in bafflement, but Sirrus bowed his head. "We can manage."
"Father?" Achenar asked uncertainly.
Atrus looked to Catherine, who nodded.
"Come," he told them, moving towards the largest canopy, just being taken down with its ropes flying like banners in the stiffening wind.
Anna and Catherine took all their packs, following Pran as she headed for the shelter she'd mentioned. Catherine picked up a water-bag from the pile they passed by. Pran threaded her way skillfully through the frenetic dance of moving poles, bundles of fabric, and other burdens being carried by a line of people like ants around the base of the hill. On the leeward side, all these items were being placed in a large pile against the side of the rockface, periodically weighted with stones.
Pran shook her head as Catherine moved to set down the water-bag, and nodded instead towards a man climbing a short distance up the side of the slope, on a camouflaged stair carved into the rock. "Up there. That's where we'll go. Come on, your man wanted you to see this!" Hopping up onto the stone shelf, she started up, just as the man above them ducked around a boulder fallen from the rocky spine at the peak. He did not reemerge.
Catherine moved more slowly, keeping pace with Anna, who had a strange look in her old eyes. Few words were exchanged between them as they toiled upslope in Pran's wake.
"Are you all right?" Catherine whispered close to the old woman's ear.
"Perfectly, my dear." Her labored breathing said otherwise, but there was a curious excitement in her tone.
Behind the boulder, the stone face of the hill was split by one of many cracks, but this one gaped wide. The stairs, and Pran, descended into the shadows.
Anna nearly lost her footing as a particularly strong blast of wind shoved them, and Catherine leaned against her until she regained her balance. Then they followed.
The warm wind stopped; the roaring in their ears became a deeper, more distant booming, the air passing over openings in the rock above their heads. The narrow, almost claustrophobic staircase went down and down, lit by thin shafts of light from hundreds of tiny holes in the walls above and around them. The passage opened out into a wide cavern. There, squinting in the dimness, they were suddenly dazzled by glittering light.
Countless small holes pierced the walls of the cavern-- whether artificial or natural was hard to say--letting in filtered sunlight from above. Some of the narrow shafts fell on a wide carpet of greens and grains, growing densely over most of the floor of the chamber in a sunken depression. At the back of this unusual garden, a shallow crescent-shaped pool of water reflected the "stars" back again, bathing the nearby stones with flickering patches of light. Catherine smiled, noting a few places in the stone face where the light glinted off of ropy quartz intrusions that glittered with the telltale facets of half-formed crystals.
Anna let out a little gasp of contentment and dropped Achenar's pack and her own with a double thump. Catherine looked back at her for a moment, eyes warm with thoughts of the hand which must have taken the care to write of such a place, and then followed Pran back to the nearest storeroom where the water was being kept. When she emerged, the few inhabitants going about their business with hurried efficiency were giving curious glances towards the pool and the figure dappled in pinpricks of light that was stooping there. Catherine hurried over.
Anna had folded her robe beside her and was kneeling in her pants and shortsleeved tunic, crouched over the lip of the pool. Her thin hands, held flat, rested just above the water's still surface. Catherine knelt beside her slowly, setting a hand on Anna's back, looking with her.
Footsteps followed Catherine's arrival, and Pran's swathed form was reflected beside them.
"May I?" Anna asked formally.
"Touch, and you may have one handful," Pran said quietly. "You island-creatures need more than we. But be sparing. The plants are thirsty, and the pool is hidden by the time the rains come." She nodded towards the garden filling the rest of the low depression, evidently on soil made damp by the shrinking rainwater resevoir. Eyes now adjusted to the light, Catherine could see more small hollows and shelves carved up and down the rock walls with stubbly traces of cut stems; the harvested plants were hung from the ceiling to dry.
"If the well holds, you can take all your drinking water from it and leave this for the plants," Catherine observed.
"Yes, but they must be prepared if it fails. The desert is a stern mother," Anna reminded her.
Pran laughed at the echo of her own words and left them there, hurrying off on another errand.
Taking a deep breath, Anna plunged her arms in to the elbow, although she swam in the sea almost every day. She did not take, however, merely spreading her hands as if drinking through her fingertips. At length she lifted them out of the pool, holding them over the surface to let the water clinging to her skin fall back in small drops, watching the ripples widen. She touched her fingers to her lips, then turned the corner of a very young smile towards Catherine and pointed to some small blossoms clinging to the very edge of the pool on the far side.
Catherine began to smile too. "Come. They need help organizing the stores."
The winds were growing fiercer as Atrus and his sons helped the desert-people stow the last of their tents, which might be ripped to shreds by the full force of the blasts. Then Atrus looked out across the dunes, eyes shielded by his glasses. "The windmill?" He shouted to make himself heard.
"I sent Shirah and Kovashi to take it down, as you showed us," Pran told him. "They will see to it!"
Atrus shook his head, as a roll of thunder growled in the distance. "I'll just make sure." He laid a hand on the heads of each of his boys. "My sons, follow Pran below. I'll be down shortly."
Pran's head bobbed in a nod, and she took both their hands. "Come along, enchai-tu; your mother and Nana are there already."
Reluctantly, they allowed themselves to be led away-- or rather, Sirrus did; Achenar planted himself halfway up the hill and refused to budge.
"I'm waiting for father," he said obstinately.
"Father told us to follow Pran," Sirrus said self-importantly. "Quit being a baby."
"I'm waiting for--"
Pran, not a particularly patient woman, wrapped her arms around the boy and simply lifted him. Achenar wailed and kicked as she carried him down into the cave, Sirrus following her closely.
Catherine was waiting for them as they emerged into the cavern, a basket of dried fruits under her arm. "What's happened?" she asked, depositing it on a shelf in the rock and reaching out to relieve Pran of the the still-sniffling Achenar.
"Papa's out in the storm!" he cried, causing several heads to turn. Pran's people were quiet, even the children.
"Helping stow his precious windmill. Two of my people are with him, don't worry," Pran added smoothly, helping her ease the boy to the floor. "You've got a strong one here; I nearly dropped him." Seizing the basket Catherine had been carrying, Pran strode back into the main cavern, nodding to Anna as the old woman came forward to learn what was happening.
"I dropped my lizard," Sirrus said, frowning.
"Your lizard? Nana gave it to me," Achenar started, voice more sulky than usual from the last spate of tears.
"Enough." Catherine's level voice was as jolting as a whipcrack. "Will you shame your father and me? Hush and be still."
Gulping, Achenar froze, looking imploringly at Anna.
"Atrus knows perfectly well how to be cautious in the desert," Anna reminded them smoothly. "Speaking of which, I was just getting ready to tell the children a story. You've heard it before, but not this way. Come along, boys."
Still looking longingly over his shoulder, Achenar trotted after her. Sirrus shook his touseled head and grinned up at his mother, taking her hand and following after. Catherine allowed herself to be led, but not without a glance towards the dark tunnel leading up to the surface.
"Not yet," bellowed the boy. "Jammed."
Atrus turned and strode towards it.
"We'll dig it out after the storm," Shirah cried, following behind him. "Let's go."
"It shouldn't be stuck," Atrus said, moving across the stone grating that covered the wellhead. There was a large toothed wheel imbedded vertically along one side of the grill, buried so that its ridges protruded just above the surface of the openwork floor. Sand was already blowing over and falling into the gaps. Atrus gave the wheel a shove with the sole of his boot, but his foot slipped on the rough surface. He stooped to examine it with a frown, noting the torn piece of heavy fabric from someone's cloak which was wedged between the teeth of the wheel and its housing.
"Kovashi," he called. "I need your knife! Come down here!"
Shirah turned. "She can't hear you," he declared, hopping up onto the upper ledge that served as the windmill's base. The young woman had just finished folding the vanes of the windmill and was locking them down, when Shirah grasped her shoulder and beckoned for her to join Atrus at the wellhead below. She nodded and started to rise to her feet.
There was a deafening crack, a searing explosion of light. Atrus was thrown backwards against the stone grill and lay there stunned.
"We can help," Achenar said, wiggling at Catherine's feet where she was sitting off to one side of the small gathering. Anna looked past him, to the adults lounging or sitting on the rocky protrusions of the cavern wall, and the dozen children of varying ages sprawled on the floor in front of them, noticing silently how they arranged themselves in a pattern mimicking that of the subterranean garden ringed by its pool.
"Not today, Achenar," she told him gently. "You know the tale. What about our new friends?"
Pran, standing beside Anna with arms folded, did not need to translate the uplifted faces and curt, emphatic answers of the children sitting before them. "You've got customers, woman."
Anna smiled. "Very well. Do all of you know what a wheel is?"
After Pran had put the question to them, several spoke excitedly. One, in D'ni, spoke up proudly, "The well-head!"
"Yes. That round stone that turns and turns and brings up water. Well, the ancient peoples of my land believed the sun was a great well-head. But does it bring up water?"
There was puzzlement and a few whispers. "No," one small girl said.
"No. What does the sun bring us?"
"Heat," was one answer. "Fire," said another. And, of course, "Light!"
"Yes," Anna declared, "the sun gives us many things-- sometimes more than we should like." She held the flame close to herself and mopped her forehead expressively, bringing out spare laughter from the little ones. "Now I have another question for you. Do you have beasts of burden? Animals to help you carry things from place to place?"
More animated discussion ensued. Finally, a tow-headed lad ventured a word, picked up by the other children. "doyheu," they said. "doyheu-ta."
Anna looked to her impromptu translator, who nodded. "Tell me about this doyheu," she asked the little boy sitting directly before her.
Wide-eyed, he stared at her, until prodded by a grinning child next to him. Haltingly, after Pran repeated the question, he mumbled a few things, which Pran repeated for all to hear, before telling Anna what had been said.
"Yes," the storyteller smiled, gesturing with her free hand. "Well, we had doyheu too, tall and strong-limbed, with legs like thin trees and broad muscled backs, and necks that arched like this high hall of stone you live in. But they had four legs, not six!"
There was giggling at this imagery, when it was conveyed in turn to the crowd.
"Now we can begin. For you see, on my world, it was said the sun was a mill-wheel. And something must turn the mill-wheel, you know? And that something was great, huge, giant blue doyheu-ta, the color of the sky. And they had a master to guide them, a powerful being, whose name was Apollo."
She waited again. "In those days, the land was lush and green, and plants and water grew everywhere, in equal measure." She nodded towards the subterranean garden. "And all thanked Apollo for the sun, which gave just enough light, and just enough warmth for everything to grow in its season. He rolled it from one side of the sky to the other, so that every land would have its share, and at the end of day he put it away, so that everyone could rest and sleep."
"Now once upon a time there was a human boy named Phaethon. Phaethon lived only with his mother, a stonecutter. One day all the children of his village were boasting of their great fathers. 'My father has five doyheu-ta said one. 'My father can plough a whole field in a day,' said another. 'My father can carry six sacks of water at one time!' But they all teased Phaethon, who had no father at all."
"Finally, he could bear it no longer. 'My father is Apollo, and he drives the wheel of the sun across the sky!" She paused and looked around. "And what do you think the other boys said, when he said that?"
Warming to the tale, the children answered with giggles, brief bursts of laughter followed just as quickly by eager silence, as was their people's way.
Anna nodded. "They laughed at the boy. But it just so happened that he told the truth. 'Do you not believe me?' he cried proudly. 'Then I say to you, I shall go to my father, and he shall let me drive the wheel of the sun across the sky!' He took off the band of gold that he always wore in his hair, given by his mother long ago. 'See this? I shall drop it down to you as I pass over!' But they laughed the more, and began to taunt him. So he went to his mother and begged for her to tell him the way to the house of the sun. 'I wish to go and be with my father,' he said. His mother was very reluctant to let him go."
Anna hesitated, uncharacteristically, stray memories distracting her from the thread of the tale: Gehn wailing the night before being taken to the Guild school, and Atrus, frail and small for his age, stretching his legs to walk in his father's footprints as they set out across the sand for the volcano's rim. She sought out Catherine's unfailingly steady gaze across the crowd of strangers, and continued with a wistful smile. "Yet she knew that in time, all children must make their own path in the world."
Anna saw Catherine's hand move to rest on Sirrus' shoulder. "So she told him the way to the house of the sun. Phaethon travelled long and far to the east, and saw many strange lands, which I wish I had time to tell you about. But at last one evening he came to a great mountain, like your refuge here, but reaching high, high into the sky. And there he saw the glint of the sun coming from a hole in the ground, and he knew that in this Cleft was the place where Apollo kept the sun until the coming of day.
"First he searched around the base of the mountain, until he found a still, black lake, ringed with white stones. He sat down with his mother's stonecutting tools and, over the course of the night, he hollowed out two large bowls from these stones, which he filled with water. Then he went up boldly, scaling the heights of the mountain. It was very difficult, because he could not use his hands, and he could not spill a drop.
"The doyheu-tu of the sun stood on either side of the cave like great guardians, gray and looming in the darkness. But he was not afraid. His mother had instructed him carefully. He held out the stone basins of water, one to each of them, and tried to keep his shoulders from shaking, for he was very tired. The doyheu-ta of the sun came to him, towering over him, and slaked their thirst. Only when the basins were drained did he set them on the ground. The doyheu-tu bowed their great heads and let him pass within.
"So he came down to the halls of his father. It was very like this place." She held up the lamp. "Here, all is blinding light outside by day, and dark underground, as if you were keeping a piece of the night stored away like water. And when night falls, the world outside grows dark, and you light fires and lamps to stay warm, and the cave fills with light. Just so in the halls of Apollo, all was dark by day, for the sun was busy rolling across the sky. And at night, when Phaethon came into his father's halls, the sky was black, but the caverns were filled with the white light of the sun's fire. It was kept in a huge chamber in the heart of the mountain, far larger than this one here, where Apollo watched over it from his throne. And here at last Phaethon stumbled before his father's great chair, too dazzled to see where he was or how he had come that way.
"'WHAT ARE YOU, MAN OF EARTH?' boomed out a great voice from above him.
"Phaethon looked up, and saw a man clothed in white, white as clouds, standing over him. Blue were Apollo's eyes, and gold was his hair, like the sun itself, but his broad back was tawny red like the sands of your desert and your own people, touched by the sun's heat. And his hair was kept from his mighty brow by a band of gold, like Phaethon's own.
"'It is I, your son, O king of the sky,' said the boy bravely. 'My name is Phaethon.'
"Looking at the boy, Apollo saw that this was true. And the master of the sun greatly rejoiced, for it was seldom that he could leave be his great task, and then only during an eclipse. Therefore, as you see, there was little time for him to mingle with the people of the earth. Apollo and his son talked long, of all the boy had seen in his short life, and of his travels across many lands to find the halls of the sun.
"Apollo was pleased, seeing his son was brave and enduring, and offered to grant him any gift the boy should ask for.
"'There is one thing only, father, that I wish of you," said Phaethon, eyes shining.
"'Name it,' said Apollo, 'and it shall be given you. This I vow.'
"'Let me drive the wheel of the sun across the sky tomorrow,' Phaethon said, standing straight and tall.
"At this Apollo's brows drew together in anger and astonishment, as well as fear. 'No mortal drives the doyheu-ta of the sun!' he cried.
"But Phaethon was adamant. 'If I do not do this thing, I shall be disgraced, and my word forsworn. I cannot break my promise, any more than you can break yours!'
"Apollo frowned a mighty frown that made the rocks tremble, but the boy did not flinch. So with great reluctance Apollo led him out to the mountainside, and rolled the great mill-wheel of the sun up the sloping passageway from its resting place in the hall below. They hitched it to the mighty doyheu-tu, who tossed their heads. Apollo instructed the boy in their guidance, warning him not to go too high, or too low, but to follow the middle way across the sky.
"Then, proudly, Phaethon took the rainbow-whip from his father, and flicked the backs of the doyheu-ta to spur them forward. He rode on the back of the left-hand one, with the sun's heat and light behind him, so that he would not be blinded." She gestured with the oil lamp, making it follow Phaethon's progress over her own head.
"Slowly they climbed the blue hill of the sky. At first, all went well. But looking down, all the lands ran together into one great field of green, and he could not find his mother's house or the valley where he had been born. How could he show his village playmates the truth, if they could not see him, and he could not drop his headband from the sky? Pondering this, he decided to deviate from his path."
She knew from the intake of breath of some of the closer children that they were following the story well, anticipating what was coming.
"The doyheu-tu resisted at first, already uncertain about this strange master who weighed nothing at all. But at last they turned and descended. As they went down, they began to pick up speed. Phaethon grew dizzy as the ground rushed up to meet them, and cried out in alarm. He used the whip and pulled on the straps of the harness to turn them back towards the sky. But now they were confused, and began to run at their own pace.
"Phaethon hung on as best he could, with the sun jogging along behind them, throwing out great sparks. The doyheu-tu were masters now, choosing their own path. Terrified of the ground, they reared up, racing high into the sky, so far away that the earth grew cold and dark, so cold that water itself turned to stone."
Murmurs of disbelief passed through her listeners like a wave.
"Down they plunged again, wild and mindless. Wherever they dragged the sun too near the ground, the plants were scorched away and the people killed. So it was that deserts came to my world, places where the heat of the sun still seems to linger in the ground itself, and nothing dares to grow. Only when the doyheu-tu were tired and exhausted did they stumble to the mountains at the other end of the sky, where Apollo met them and soothed their fears and put the sun away.
"And Phaethon? Some say he was killed by the intense heat. Some say he stayed to serve his father, never again allowed to set foot in mortal lands. Some that he fell from heaven and his tears made rain. But one certain thing people could thank him for." She held up the lamp. "From the sparks of the sun came fires, the first fires to touch the land. At first men were understandably afraid. But soon they learned, like you, to use them for warmth, cooking, and making things, and to light up the night when there was need of the absent sun."
She looked around. "And I think Phaethon must have come here too. Do you know why?" Again she paused, and then smiled sadly. "Where I was raised, it rained very seldom. The clouds were afraid to come to the desert, where the sun had scorched them long ago. When does it rain here?"
"In winter," was the eventual response.
"And when are the days shortest?"
"In winter," they said again.
"Yes, indeed. I think the clouds here are also afraid. In winter, the sun is farther away, the air is a little cooler, and the nights are longer. The clouds and the rains creep back while the sun is looking the other way. And so, you see, Phaethon must have been here too."
As the last word was ferried across to their waiting ears by the translator, a silence fell, so that the faint roar of the wind across the rocks above, a low booming, was all that could be heard. Anna, a true storyteller, understood and relished that silence more than any loud applause. It was the sound of words sinking into hearts and minds.
"That's not the way you told the story to us," Achenar objected, voice querelous in the quiet space.
"No." She winked over at her great-grandson. "But it is true, to match the world where it is told."
Solemnly, one of the young people came around to Anna's side and mutely held up two small bowls of water.
Anna bowed to the youth, took them carefully, and carried them to Sirrus and Achenar, bringing nods of approval from the older people. Catherine was no longer there. The boys took the bowls from Anna carefully, Sirrus with dignity, Achenar with a shy grin, spilling a little on his shirt.
The storm howled on.
Catherine fumbled with Sirrus' lenses covering her eyes. They were set too close together, pinching her nose and the sides of her face. "I must have Atrus make me a pair," she grumbled to herself, the sharpness in her voice having nothing whatsoever to do with eyewear.
Her words were whipped away by the wind battering at her like the rush of air from Anna's pottery furnace. Visibility was low, the windmill was nowhere to be seen, and she had only come this way once before. Was this the right dune? She scrambled over the top of the hard-packed slope and sank into the soft sand on the other side, cascading down from her boots like a dry waterfall. The wind slackened slightly as she descended, her pace quickening as she spied the welcome sight of flagstones and the windmill's metal legs folded flush against the ground, telescoped down to create a low profile.
They were there.
The gusts of sand from the dune behind her obscured the human figures clustered on the far side of the paved area. Two of them lay on the ground. The third was stooped over one of the prone figures, shoulders moving in a regular pumping motion with hands pressed against the person's chest.
The one lying on his side a little apart from the pair was covered with Atrus' cloak.
Catherine's choked cry rasped in a dry throat as she reached the flat and broke into a run. "Atrus!"
The kneeling figure twisted towards her, raising a broad hand to shield his uncovered face. "Catherine?"
Relief washed over her as she drew level with him, nostrils crinkling at the odd tang in the air. She stared down, appalled, now close enough to see what was the matter. The clothes of the girl he was tending were scorched, burned right through at her waist, where a knife-hilt protruded from a scabbard of blackened and curling leather. "How?" Her chin jerked up as another rumble of thunder made the stones reverberate underfoot.
Atrus reached again for Kovashi's hand, setting two fingers against her wrist. "Lightning. Her heart stopped," he grated, rare desperation rising in his voice.
Catherine knelt and slid her fingers under his and closed her eyes, shutting out the storm and all else, listening only to touch. "A pulse." Hurriedly she reached for the unconscious girl's knife, in no frame of mind to appreciate the beautiful blue patterns now etched along the edge of the blade. "And Shirah?"
"Groggy but awake," Atrus answered, moving to check on him. "You still with me, Shirah?"
The young man stirred and moaned something in his own language, peeking out from under the edge of Atrus' cloak to address them. "Kovashi?" was the final word he spoke.
"She's alive," Atrus affirmed, calm assurance already back in place as he clapped the boy's shoulder. "Don't worry."
Catherine bent close to the girl's face, pressing the flat of the blade against Kovashi's lips and then flipping it over. She had to repeat the process three times to be certain; the dry air instantly stole away the telltale mist on the metal surface.
"A breath," Catherine reported, looking over her shoulder at her husband. "I think. We must get her under cover to be sure."
Atrus nodded his relief and turned back to his other charge. "Can you walk?" he asked gently. "We need to get you two back to the Cleft."
The young man struggled to sit up, then stand, with Atrus supporting him. But he seemed visibly disoriented, staggering a step to one side and staring fixedly at Kovashi's prone form. Atrus and Catherine exchanged a glance, all the communication they needed, before setting to work. Catherine helped him to wrestle Kovashi up from the ground and to settle her securely in his arms. Then Catherine moved to Shirah, wrapping one arm around his waist to steady and guide him. "Let's go."
The way back was brutal. No amount of obscuring dust could shield them from the midday heat, and they were fighting against the wind now. It was not so very far, but Catherine was having to master unfamiliar footing that gave way beneath her boots, as well as to keep Shirah upright. As for Atrus, he was struggling under his burden with labored breaths, lips clenched together against blowing sand. When they neared the base of the rocky outcropping, he pulled up short, leaning against one of the blocky boulders that had tumbled down from the spine above. "Go on," he told Catherine, easing Kovashi to the ground. "Tell Pran. I need to rest a moment."
Not liking this one bit, Catherine nodded and pressed on, urging Shirah forward as fast as he could manage.
She was begininng to wonder if she'd missed the crack in the rock and climbed too high, when two hooded and robed figures loomed out of the swirling cloud of dust. She shook her head at their exclamations of surprise, not knowing what they were saying. "Atrus needs help," she said urgently, praying that these two spoke D'ni. "Kovashi is hurt. Come with me." Whether or not they understood her speech, they understood her intent, and one took charge of Shirah while the other followed her below to her husband.
A short time later they were in the welcome coolness and darkness of the tunnel, where Pran was waiting for them just inside. After a hurried exchange with Atrus and the man now helping to carry the unconscious girl, Pran stepped aside to let them pass and fell into step next to Catherine. "You all right, woman?" she asked warmly. "Gave me a shock, your vanishing. Thought we'd have to go looking for you separately. You should have let my people handle it."
Catherine laughed weakly, her throat a little raw from the dry air. "You wouldn't have found me anywhere but at his side."
Pran threw a strap over Catherine's shoulder, passing her own water-skin to the woman. "Silly fool. Follow my folk's law and you'll live longer. Never travel alone."
Catherine flashed her a bright grin with no hint of apology, and hurried after Atrus' echoing footsteps.
They found a cluster of people already gathered around a bewildered Shirah, speaking amongst each other in low voices as willing hands guided him off to a place where he could rest. Others were helping Atrus and his helper lay Kovashi on a temporary cot, a canvas-covered bed of soft sand lying in a trough of stone carved into a bulge in the wall. Anna was sitting on a stone bench nearby, keeping Sirrus and Achenar out from underfoot with her arms cradling them loosely against her knees. Catherine gave them a reassuring wave, then hurried over to where Atrus was sitting on the ledge by Kovashi, watching the others tend her. Catherine held out the waterskin to her husband as she drew near.
He drank deeply, then leaned his head against her breast and closed his eyes. He looked utterly exhausted and disheveled. "I can't believe what just happened."
Smiling, she reached down to peel off his protective lenses and tucked them in her own pocket, since Shirah still had his cloak. Then she began to comb his hair with her fingers, grooming out the sand. "That you just saved one life, and perhaps two?"
He sighed. "The windmill drew the lightning. The grounding wires dissipated most of the current as I'd hoped, but that's small comfort if Kovashi's going to die."
She clucked her tongue. "Not what I meant." But whatever she meant to say instead was cut short by a wiggling Achenar, charging around her into his father's lap, Anna and Sirrus following close behind.
"Papa!" Achenar hugged him. "Your hair's standing straight up!"
Atrus put his arms around the boy, chuckling tiredly. "I'm not surprised."
"They said you brought that girl back to life," Sirrus put in, eyes shining. "And Nana said--"
"They also said it was a lightning strike." Pran stepped back from the huddle of three others tending Kovashi, peeling away her scorched clothes and treating her burns with some sort of oily vegetable paste. "Is this true?"
He nodded slowly, expression ashen. "I'm afraid so."
Pran strode over to them and laid her hands suddenly and firmly on Atrus' shoulders, a solemn joy in her leathery face. "It is a great omen. A very great omen. We are blessed."
Confusion and a trace of irritation flashed across his face. "What about the girl? How is she?"
Pran smiled confidently. "She breathes and lives. We shall see. If she recovers, she and Shirah will be chiefs after me when I am gone."
Atrus exhaled, not gainsaying the woman as he noticed a few pairs of eyes from nearby watchers turned towards them. "Which will not be for some while, I hope. But I am sorry. I'm afraid the strike there was not mere coincidence."
"Of course not. The storm does not choose men by chance. It also chose you." Pran released him with a shake and moved away to rejoin her people.
Atrus looked down wearily at the delighted expressions on his boys' faces. "I have no idea what that was all about," he said in a low voice, choosing to ignore certain suspicions.
"There's sleeping cubicles through there," Anna interrupted firmly, nodding towards the yawning mouth of another passageway. "Let's get you comfortable before that lot starts demanding you tell the whole tale." Her eyes shifted to indicate the group of children on the far side of the cavern, many of whom had dropped the ropes they were weaving and were coming over.
"Grandmother, we've only just arrived, and I haven't had a chance to introduce you properly to anyone."
"We've met," the old woman said shortly, extricating Achenar from his lap. "Now come. I want to take a look at you and make sure nothing's been shaken loose." She gave his forehead a playful tap, which somehow had enough force to send not only him but the whole family moving towards the indicated cave.
"Why, Atrus, you've got flames for tattoos around the eyes! Catherine, take a look at this."
The younger woman needed no urging. The boys had stopped their playing and tumbled over themselves to get there first, peering up at their bewildered father.
Atrus touched the skin of his cheek. "I don't feel anything like a burn," he said slowly. "What do you mean?"
Anna held the oil lamp close to his face so that Catherine, stooping, could see what she was talking about. His wife's brows lifted in surprise. "It's very faint, Atrus," she replied. "There's thin brown lines spreading out from where your lenses were. Like this--" she held up her hand, where bands of light and dark skin alternated on her forearm, a custom of skin-tanning she had kept from her childhood-- "only the pattern is as intricate as one of Anna's designs."
"Is it bad, Father?" Achenar asked worriedly, hands clutching his father's knees as he peered upwards.
Anna answered. "I can't be sure, my dear, but the skin doesn't appear to be dead. Watch." Gently, she pressed a fingernail's edge against his skin. The brown markings were dented by a light curved line until the blood flowed back into the spot. "I'll just have some salve on that to be sure. Now, get on, children; I need space to work."
Sirrus grinned at the common complaint and backed away, Achenar following. They returned to their explorations of the sleeping alcoves lining the walls of the narrow room, horizontal bunks cut into the stone like cells in a catecomb.
Catherine, meanwhile, hovered beside Anna, having caught the silent glance the older woman had given her as Anna shooed the boys away.
"There's one other problem, Atrus," Anna said in a low voice. She brought the lamp close to her grandson's face again, watching his eyes as he faced her trustingly. "Dilated pupils. How well are you seeing?"
"Ah. I wondered why the lamps down here seemed dimmer." Atrus gave Catherine's arm a reassuring pat. "Only slightly."
"My old eyes are a little sun-blind too," Anna fretted. "Catherine, can you tell whether they're reacting at all to the light?" She pulled the lamp away again, and then brought it quickly almost to his nose. Atrus did not flinch, although his eyebrows jerked upwards as if trying to scuttle to safety.
"Yes," she replied, after Anna had repeated the process a few times. "They grow smaller. But not as much. His eyes look more like yours, Anna."
The old woman chuckled. "Well, maybe that's not such a worry after all, then. Perhaps, Atrus, you'll be able to step outside from your study once in a while for a bit of fresh air, without have to strap on your lenses."
He blinked. "My glasses," he said worriedly. "What have I done with them?"
"Right here," Catherine assured him, fishing them of the old guild cloak she wore. "Oh, and I need to give the other pair back to Sirrus."
Atrus glanced past her towards the boys and squinted. "Sirrus!" he exclaimed. "Put that down. Never take without permission."
"Pran said we could have anything we needed," Sirrus replied with childish confidence, not looking up from the bone figurine he was examining. "We're guests."
"Sirrus," Atrus repeated, voice gruffer than usual from fatigue.
"Sorry, Father," the boy replied meekly, and twisted to set the doll in the sleeping alcove where he had found it.
Catherine's stern glance was arrested by the crude toy as Sirrus restored it to its proper place. The doll's large, staring eyes of inlaid glass reminded her a bit of D'ni goggles themselves. She strode over to her younger son to return his own pair, telling him, "They helped me find your father."
Sirrus tucked the glasses carefully into his cloak pocket with a grin of faint pride, peering up at Achenar to see if his brother had noticed. The more rambunctious of the pair, however, was engaged in trying to crawl into one of the upper stone bunks.
"Achenar," Atrus called. "Would you please fetch my journal?"
The older boy wiggled around in his newly discovered cave with a crestfallen expression. "Where is it?"
"My knapsack. I set it down by the entrance."
Achenar stuck his head out and peered down at them. "I didn't see it."
"You will see it, when you go to look," Anna put in, getting out her beeswax salve for Atrus' sand-scoured face. "Go on," she urged gently.
"I'll get it," Sirrus said self-importantly, hopping to his feet and heading for the exit.
"Hey!" Achenar tumbled clumsily out of his lookout to the floor.
"Achenar!" His mother went over to him, chagrinned. She brushed his hair from his eyes and looked him over closely as he righted himself. "Are you hurt? Mind what you're doing."
His sniffle had nothing to do with bruises. "I would've fetched it," he muttered sullenly.
"You can do something else for your father," Anna told him, dabbing gently at Atrus' face. "Go ask for hot water. Your mother is going to make some of my herb tea for us."
"Okay," Achenar said, brightening, and scrambled off, bare feet slapping the smoothed stones, in spite of firm instructions not to remove his boots.
Atrus sighed as Catherine returned to sit beside him on the floor, meeting his eyes.
"They're good boys," Anna assured him with a quiet smile. "They take after their father. Mostly." She gave Catherine a teasing nudge with her toe as she capped the salve-pot and slipped it back into her satchel.
"Or perhaps their stubborn grandmother," Catherine returned, unperturbed. She shook Atrus by the elbow. "You were coming back here to rest, my love. What need have you for your journal?"
He chuckled. "I will," he promised. "Soon. I need to jot down a few ideas before they slip my mind. There must be a way to add a gear-and-pulley system so that the windmill can be taken down remotely."
"Ah." Sympathy lay behind the word. She exchanged a knowing glance with the older woman. "Anna will check on Shirah and Kovashi for you."
He smiled wanly, but his next thought was interrupted by Achenar dashing back into the long narrow room bearing a round metal ball that glinted in the lamplight, a heavy black ceramic bowl, and a small cloth bag. "Pran said Papa knows how to use it," he said excitedly.
"I do indeed," Atrus replied. "Unscrew the bottom of the fire-bowl, and set it in that alcove there." He nodded to a much smaller opening in the wall opposite the bunks. "You'll find a socket for it. See that it's resting securely over the opening."
Achenar had to stand on tiptoe to reach, and Catherine slipped over to assist him. "What's the hole in the rock for, Papa?" Achenar asked, the tip of his tongue sticking out as he twisted the small brazier into place. Sirrus, book in hand, arrived at the entrance in time to see these proceedings, and watched with curiosity from the doorway.
"It's an air duct. It allows fresh air to flow in, and lets most of the smoke flow out."
Catherine took the metal ball from Achenar's hands, shooting Atrus a rather opaque glance. She ran a fingertip along the seam neatly dividing the kettle into two hemispheres, the water sloshing within as she turned it. "Like the catchment pots on Riven that so fascinated you," she whispered.
Atrus grinned apologetically. "It wasn't my idea. Pran's people came up with that on their own; it helps conserve water." He waved a hand. "Achenar, you'll find some white powder and a striker in the bag. Fill the brazier about halfway, and have your mother light it."
"I've got your journal, Father," Sirrus interjected, padding over to him and setting it on his knees.
"Very good, Sirrus." Atrus dropped open the cover and began leafing through it, brows drawn together in thought.
The powder burned with low white flames and surprisingly little smoke, and Catherine set the kettle securely on the brazier, sealing in the fire over the small ventilation shaft. Then she seated herself beside him on the floor, resting her head against his side. "Can I see what you have so far?" she murmured.
Smiling, he passed the book across to her, setting a hand on her shoulder and pointing with the other. "Now, that's the first design. I knew canvas would be easier to come by, but the winds proved too strong, so we had to go with metal, and--"
Anna chuckled. "I'll take the boys and leave you two to enjoy yourselves, shall I?" she murmured. "Don't have too much fun, now. And remember your body needs rest; it's had quite a shock."
"Don't worry," Catherine said firmly. "If he doesn't stop soon, I'll pick him up and shove him into one of the bunks."
Anna laughed at his expression. "Give me a call when you need to lift him," she said mildly, and moved away. "Sirrus? Achenar? Let's go out and explore."
Achenar sent a faint glance of disappointment towards their father as they were herded away.
It was difficult to tell when the walls of the smaller chamber dropped away, until Anna spotted the reflections of oil lamps glinting off the surface of the crescent pool. Looking up, she realized that the flecks of sunlight peeking through ventillation shafts were gone, and that blackness alone stretched overhead.
"The stars are gone," Achenar said, clinging more tightly to her hand.
"Yes," she reassured him. "The sand-clouds are covering the sky outside, so the sunlight's blocked before it filters down to us. But don't be afraid. The winds will pass. This is no different than the storms that come off the ocean."
"Except Myst is on the water, so we have rain, instead of sand," Sirrus observed wisely.
Anna smiled. "Exactly. And sand hurts worse, so we must stay down here safely in our burrow until the storm is over."
Slowly, they made their way through the vaulted cavern and some of the side-chambers, careful not to interrupt the activities of the locals. They found Pran in one of the many rock-hewn rooms helping to erect a large vertical framework of lashed and fitted tent-poles and full water-skins piled up like sandbags around the legs to help keep them steady.
Anna tapped Pran on the shoulder. "May we lend a hand?"
The desert leader finished securing a pin holding a cross-piece of the frame, then turned and looked from the children to their gray-haired guardian. "You know how to string a cresh, Makheena?"
"I think so. I've got one like it, but smaller." Anna gave the boys a pat each on the head. "You know what this is?" she asked, moving to the other side of the frame to hold it steady while Pran secured another joint.
"A meat-drying rack," Achenar guessed, tilting his head to one side.
"A loom," Sirrus corrected. "But so big! You could make wall hangings like Father's from D'ni!"
"But there's no bottom," Achenar said, puzzled.
"You will see," said Anna, looking over her shoulder as Pran's helpers reemerged from the storeroom at the back carrying a large roll of plain, light-colored fabric between them on their shoulders.Two more tilted the loom towards the floor, making it easier to reach the top, and the roll was laid against it. Sturdy loops at the end of the warp-threads slipped onto hooks fitted over the loom's cross-beam, and Anna joined Pran in attaching these methodically. Then the incomplete canvas was unrolled carefully, and in a second more laborious process, the other ends of the warp-threads were unwound from the individual bone spindles upon which they were wrapped. Sirrus and Achenar were pressed into helping with these. Last of all, the thin spindles were passed through holes in heavy stones and turned sideways to lock them in place; these weights stretched the fabric taut when the frame was allowed to swing back to its upright position.
Pran questioned Anna about Atrus' childhood in the desert as they worked, and Sirrus and Achenar peppered the conversation with their own questions, since their father did not often speak of his own past to them. Naturally, Anna's inquiring mind eventually turned to the subject of the fabric itself.
"Yes, we take the fur from the herds that come through after the rains," Pran was saying as she inspected the curtain of hanging loom-weights to make sure each was secure.
"But this," Anna leaned over to brush a fingertip along the hem of the silky white sleeveless garment Pran wore, now that her desert outer gear had been removed and packed away. "This is much softer. Do you have insects that spin, or is this some sort of plant fiber?"
"Ah! You have not seen the garden closely, have you?"
Anna's face shone with keen eagerness. "Not close enough, I think. Do you have a moment to show us?"
Pran chuckled, giving the edge of the suspended fabric a few final tugs to even it. Then she withdrew and nodded towards an older man, standing expectantly with a basket of threaded spools and a fire-hardened leather shuttle under one arm, and a three-legged stool under the other. The taciturn fellow bowed his head gravely and settled himself before the loom with the air of a musician preparing to perform.
"Now I do," Pran said cheerfully, pushing between Anna and the boys and heading for the main cavern. "Come along, then."
Out of the corner of her eye, Anna caught Sirrus staring at their guide, and finally took an appraising glance at the woman. She was surprisingly small, even for the frugal desert folk who doubtless had adapted over generations to a meager diet. But she was broad-boned for her size, lean and tough and leathery with sun-browned skin that made it difficult to judge her age. She put Anna in mind of the sturdy goats that she'd seen in the marketplaces of in her youth. Pran's face was square-jawed with a flat nose, like the rest of her people-- perhaps an adaptation to limit moisture loss-- her hair was naturally streaked russet and brown, and her eyes were wide-set, keen and dark. Sirrus was probably staring at her because, in the caves warmed by the heat of many bodies and lamps, her people stripped down to a single sleeveless garment split at the bottom and tied around the thighs, its fine fabric catching the shadows and firelight in water-like folds. In the dim illumination, it took very little for the laconic desert folk to exude mystery.
Their first stop was at the edge of the garden on the far side from the pool, where low spongy plants with no leaves huddled close to the sandy dry ground. "These gather the water from our breath," she explained. "They last last longest, after the reservoir goes dry."
She continued around to the boundary between cultivated soil and reservoir, where the jumbled plants were thickest and most lush, coming right down into the water. "Here," she said, stooping to touch the broad flattened stalk of one of the aquatic trailers. "And here. Inside there is a heart as soft and fine as a baby's hair. We gather it early, when this whole area is fat with rain-water," with a sweep of the hand, she indicated the depression across the whole of the cavern floor, bare earth and plants both-- "and it grows all over." Next Pran showed Anna the fruits that grew at ground level, and tipped forward a pitcher-shaped blossom to demonstrate how the plants stored up water for the difficult task of making them.
"And what's all this?" Sirrus leaned forward to touch some fine, almost transparent filiaments that glistened faintly in the lamplight. Anna saw that they exended in an all but invisible canopy over the whole garden, floating loosely with long trailing ends that swayed on unseen air currents.
"The finest thread of all, to be harvested only as they die," Pran replied reverently. "Sun-tasters. They gather up all the light that comes down. They share in this way." She bent and folded back the low canopy of leaves, revealing a thick network of ropy tendrils snaking against the earth, weaving all the spaces between the plants themselves. "They give water and food back and forth, even to different species. They all grow or die together."
Anna glanced down and sideways to see Sirrus nodding. "Like all Ages," she told him softly.
"As do we," Pran stated, sharing a knowing glance with the old woman as she finished hammering the lesson home. "We cannot survive alone, we desert people. Everyone has a part, from the root of the community, down to the smallest seed." She touched one of the feather-sprays of dark seeds put up by one kind of plant.
Anna turned to make sure her other charge was paying some attention, and her mouth fell open. "Achenar!"
He was standing on the inner edge of the curving pool, flicking black seeds onto the water and watching them float; he'd already amassed quite a fleet. The pool there was now muddied, and he stood frozen in the act of taking another step, a small patch of broken and trampled plants under his feet.
Heads had turned, and Anna heard startled exclamations echoing off the walls as she rushed over and swooped down on her great-grandson, leaning forward and lifting him off his feet. He was already beginning to cry as she dropped him to the rocky floor, shaking him slightly. "You kill their food, their very water!" she whispered furiously. "You kill them! Open your eyes! They have so little, use it with such care to survive, and you, with so much more, would take it from them?"
Achenar had never seen his Nana angry before, certainly not like this, and the shock was enough to cut off a sob in mid-gulp. He stared up at her with large, frightened eyes, unable even to answer.
Pran drew up beside Anna and rested a hand on her shoulder, the disapproval and disappointment in her gaze a second blow. She said nothing, and Achenar squirmed.
"I-- I'm sorry," Achenar stammered finally. "I didn't think about it."
Anna turned him around to face the murky area in the pool, slowly spreading out now to cover half of it. "Look at this. Can they drink now?"
He gulped. "We could-- I could go back and get some water from the well." He meant Myst Island.
Anna turned to Pran. A few other people were beginning to gather around, arms folded, faces stern and grave, and Sirrus stood transfixed nearby, watching the drama unfold. "What is the punishment for such things?" Anna asked tightly, seeing walls behind their eyes where windows had been before.
Pran looked past Achenar's shoulder to the water, tightlipped. "The water will settle, in time." His shoulders slumped as he started to relax. "But the theft of seeds and the breaking of plants, these are crimes. I have never seen this happen before. There is an old custom, that those who endanger the tribe are cast out into the desert for a night and a day with no food or water."
Achenar did not understand save that this was a bad thing, but he felt Anna's thin hands tighten. "I will take his place, then, since I should have watched him better."
"Nana!" Two voices protested this with varying degrees of fear and comprehension.
Pran was silent, holding Anna's gaze for a long moment before turning to confer with her people in their own tongue. Achenar huddled against her leg, whimpering apologies, as the curt, unknown words flew back and forth.
"No, Makheena," Pran answered at length, after a nod to her fellows. "He is stranger to our ways and lives where he knows no want. He must learn from us. His father has paid the debt-price by giving us water. But the boy may not eat of our food; he must bring it from home."
"Fair enough," Anna said evenly. She sighed. "I am sorry, Pran. This will not happen again."
A glimmer of a smile passed Pran's eyes, although it did not really come to her lips. She pointed with her chin at Achenar, who still stood there petrified. "Not with that in his eyes, no. You have some storm-winds yourself, Makheena."
She moved off to speak to some of those in the dispersing crowd, leaving the three by themselves once more.
Sirrus tugged timidly on Anna's sleeve. "Should we tell Father?" he asked nervously, keeping her between himself and his brother. Achenar's face screwed up, but he was still too cowed by the dressing-down to emit a peep.
Anna frowned. "Atrus needs rest, not trouble," she said warningly, causing Sirrus to duck his head too. She sighed, weariness, or the twinging pain of her back belatedly lodging a protest over her handling of Achenar a few moments ago, starting to take its toll. "Nana's tired too. Come sit with me. I'll tell you a story."
By the time Anna was finished her tale, voice rising and falling with the hypnotic rhythm of the waves lapping the rocks of Myst Island, the boys were asleep where they had sprawled. The old woman rose from the rock on which she was perched with a smile, massaging the small of her back with her knuckles. Her face softened as she looked down at the dozing youngsters, huddled against each other like nesting chicks on one of the sand-filled troughs carved into the stone walls for bed and benches. A memory touched her, of little Atrus at much the same age, tucked up in his sleeping alcove with his thin arm around the warmth of his cat.
That was a sign it was time to look in on her other charges. If Catherine thought Anna was capable of taking a vacation from caretaking after all the losses she had endured in her long life, the Rivenese woman was quite mistaken.
The object of her musings stepped into view as Anna walked over to the dark slot in the wall leading back into the sleeping quarters. Catherine was cradling in her hands the round cookpot, wrapped in an insulating cloth. One look at her dazed expression made Anna suspect she'd taken a draught of the concoction herself.
"Tucked him in, have you?" the old woman asked, eyes twinkling, as she met the young woman by the entrance.
Catherine stumbled in mid-step and nearly dropped what she was carrying. This time it was Anna quickly moving to support her. "Catherine!" she chided.
The younger woman shook her head slowly. "Have you ever had the feeling you've been somewhere before?"she asked somberly.
Anna peered at her. "Yes, occasionally. It's called 'deja vu' in some Earth language or other."
"Have you ever had the feeling that you will someday have--" she shaped her mouth around the strange words-- "'deja vu' as a ghost of the present moment?"
"What did you dream, Catherine?"asked Anna patiently, lowering her voice as a puzzled native slipped past them on some errand.
The young woman fixed Anna with a level gaze, no hesitation in her voice now, face cleared of confusion. "Caves and tunnels, a vast web of stone, but smelling of the damp sea, not the desert sky. Voices. Faces. But they have fish scales over their eyes, like..." she reached out to a small bundle in one of the rocky alcoves, another doll lying on its back, its goggle-eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. "And their bodies are of shadows and of blood. Red and black. They are chanting..."
Anna's frown deepened as Catherine trailed off. "What?"
"A name." The flatness of her voice was like a door closing, and her lips pressed together over the word. Then Catherine gave a little laugh. "I don't know; it's gone now."
Anna eyed her skeptically, but wasn't particularly inclined to press further. "I think," she said firmly, "you've let yourself get parched, and you're seeing dust-devils. Drink up." She reached out with one hand to hoist the bottle slung at Catherine's side, relieving her of the sealed cooking pot with the other.
There were secrets in Catherine's smile as she obeyed, and a brief silence between them as she drank deeply. "He sleeps," she said at last, re-capping the waterskin.
Anna had to think back for a moment to recall what question she was answering. "Good. So do the boys. They--" she paused, regarding Catherine's still wan expression, and concluded-- "they've had the requisite amount of excitement for the day, I believe."
Catherine laughed softly. "Thank you." Finally she glanced out over the darkened chamber, noticing the shadowed figures moving back and forth in the gloom. The childen were still making ropes over in one area, and some people were gathering seeds and small fruits from the garden into bowls made of lacquered fabric. Again, her mind circled a village on a shattered island and shied away. "Shirah and Kovashi?"
A pang of chagrin crossed the old woman's face. "I haven't seen them yet. Now I will." She weighed the kettle in her hands thoughtfully, feeling the warmth still seeping out through the potholder. "This may help."
It took a little while to find a native who spoke D'ni, for directions to one of the countless pocket rooms where the injured had been taken. Stepping into the small chamber, Anna was surprised to see no one there besides the two young people wrapped in light blankets on separate sleeping ledges. Their guide was equally surprised that she thought there should be attendants to watch over them. "They rest," he said, spreading his hands. "That is all."
He left the pair of women with one oil lamp between them, and each went to one of the young people.
Shirah was half asleep, but rolled over and grinned widely when "Kathran" came to the side of the shelf where he was lying under a few blankets.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
"This-- yes-- very better," he replied, sitting up and smoothing back his hair with a furtive gesture.
One corner of her mouth quirked into a bemused smile as she inspected Pran's newly designated heir, a gangly young man whose body was still in that denial stage where it hadn't quite caught onto the fact that he had grown tall. He reminded her of Carel, and she suppressed a sigh.
"It was you?" he queried, his own dark eyes darting over the woman. "Your arm around me, walking back here?"
She chuckled. "You're feeling better," she decided, and poured him a cup of Anna's brew. "Now drink this. It restores strength."
He took it in both hands without question, flat nose wrinkling at the odd aroma. "You have special powers too," he stated, sipping cautiously.
"Special?" she echoed, brows drawing together as she tried to make out his meaning. "Magic? Oh, no. Atrus would not call it that. Only special knowledge."
"But Master Atrus breathed life back into Kovashi," the youth insisted. "I saw. He took off his mask and gave her life."
Catherine winced. "Not quite. Have you ever choked on food, and needed someone to hit your back to shake it loose? It's like that."
He smiled and shook his head. "You know he has powers. Like you. Like her. But different." His eyes twitched towards Anna, who was leaning over the girl on the nearby sleeping pallet. "Will she heal?"
"We don't know yet," Catherine answered honestly. "But I think the chances are good."
Kovashi's raspy breathing grew louder as Anna gently dabbed her burns with more salve. Abruptly the girl's head and shoulders jerked away from the canvas-covered sand as she woke with a shrill cry.
"You're hurt but safe," Anna told her at once, stroking the girl's short-cropped brown hair. "It will hurt for a while. You're in the Cleft. Do you understand me?"
Kovashi whimpered something in her own tongue, hand moving to touch the less damaged skin beside the buckled burns.
Anna spoke her name firmly but quietly. "Kovashi. Can you understand me?"
"Makheena Atrus," the girl replied faintly, eyes squeezed shut. "Where is everyone?"
Shirah called something in their shared tongue. There was a brief, stammering exchange between them, after which Kovashi slowly lowered herself onto her back again, with Anna's help.
"How do you feel, apart from the burning?" Anna pressed.
The girl let out a shuddering breath. "I don't know," she said. "It is everything. Except... why is it so bright? You said we were below."
Anna shared a concerned glance with Catherine, who for her part, looked stunned by the question. But Anna had no doubt she'd heard correctly. She tried her best to keep the sick feeling in her stomach from showing in her tone. "We are." She slapped the stone lip of the sleeping-shelf with her palm. "I'm afraid the lightning may have hurt your eyes. How much can you see?"
Kovashi went terribly silent.
Two other pairs of ears strained to hear her reply, and Catherine took Shirah's hand as he stared across at his friend.
Anna stroked the girl's hair again. "Anything?" she asked, voice cracking slightly.
Kovashi shook her head. "All bright. All bright as the sun. The lightning has got into my eyes." She began to make that faint whimpering sound deep in her throat again, which Anna realized with a wrench must be weeping without tears.
Pran's voice came from behind, speaking in their native tongue, as the desert leader entered the small chamber. Anna rose from her place by Kovashi with a mixture of relief and dread, greeting the woman with a dip of the eyes as she approached.
"I'm not leaving," she told Kovashi under her breath, retreating to stand by Catherine and Shirah.
Pran barely acknowledged her guests, face drawn tight as she sat down at the head of Kovashi's cot and gathered the girl against her, arms draped loosely around her shoulders. She began to speak firmly and quietly, questioning her. Most of the answers were in the form of gestures or curt nods or clipped words.
Anna and Catherine waited powerlessly, Anna with arms folded, Catherine glancing now and then at the silent boy. "What do they say?" she asked finally, as the conversation continued.
"Kovashi tells that her sight is gone," he replied in a hollow voice. "Pran praises her for being a lightning-child. The lightning has never blessed more than one person before. It has chosen to take her to the gods, and to leave me here to lead when Pran goes on."
"To the gods?" Anna asked sharply, as Pran glanced towards them.
The other woman nodded with a sigh. "So it must be. Her eyes already see them. She cannot live here now." She began to help Kovashi to the floor, coaxing her to stand. "The gods give us one, take another. We will have the ceremony now, while the storm still rages."
Catherine seized Anna's hand in silent warning as the old woman drew a sharp breath.
"I am ready," Kovashi said meekly, smiling in the general direction of the two visitors. "Show me the way, Pran Makheena."
"You must gather Sirrus and Achenar and take them back," Catherine told Anna in a low voice. "They should not see this. Or... I will do so, Ti'ana."
The old woman's chin lifted. "They shall not," she said in English, grim resolution coming into her voice. "Let them stay."
They filed out into the main cavern, where immediately a few folk working on stitching canvas fired off quick questions to their leader. Pran spoke curtly as they passed, arm still loosely around Kovashi's shoulders to guide her, and Catherine and Anna could see their faces close up one by one as the news passed into their hearts. Silently, work was laid aside, and the sober folk began to gather in a semi-circle around the main exit to the upper world.Catherine left Shirah among them, noting the fleeting but cheerful smiles that greeted him, the claps on his shoulder as if this were any sort of day, and he were not divided from the condemned only by a narrow stroke of luck.
She went to check Sirrus and Achenar, still with more than half a mind to take them back to Myst immediately, and less than half a mind to stay herself. But then she would have to wake Atrus and tell him what was happening. This she would not do, while there was still a chance.
She found them as Anna had left them, curled on their sides around each other peacefully. Here, too, she hesitated, but Sirrus stirred and opened an eye, roused by the bustle in the chamber. "What is it, Mother?" he asked drowsily.
"Something is happening," she said, stooping low to stroke his hair. "Something sad, I fear. Wake your brother."
She glanced nervously towards the entrance as Pran began to speak in her native tongue firmly and loudly, voice echoing off the rocks with a triumphant note.
"Ow!" Achenar said loudly, having been pinched awake by Sirrus as their mother's attention was briefly distracted. "Sirrus!"
She clapped a hand over his mouth. "No," was all she said. His eyes widened, and he forgot his brother. Her hand moved to his cheek, a reassuring touch. "It's a ceremony. We can't interfere."
Sirrus' eyes lit up, and he immediately sat up slid off the low shelf. "A party?" he whispered, then caught her expression, belatedly remembering her words a moment ago. His eyes turned quizzical. "A funeral?"
"Perhaps," she replied, voice even as she tried to be steady for them. "The girl who was helping Atrus has been too badly hurt to recover fully, and it is their custom not to keep alive one of their own who is suffering."
"Are they going to kill her?" Achenar asked, hushed and awed as he followed his brother.
"I believe so."
"Are you going to send us home?" Sirrus asked in faint disappointment, eyes turned now towards the still gathering surrounding Pran, Kovashi, and-- Catherine hoped-- Anna.
In spite of Anna's command, Catherine was silent for a moment before shaking her head. "No. Come with me. Your Nana is going to speak."
Pran's voice paused as they drew near, and a less confident voice followed, hard for them to sift from the echoes. It was Kovashi, Catherine realized. Her heart clenched again at the girl's plain manner of speaking; even if she could not make out what was said, she could hear courage, resignation, trust and love behind the faltering words.
There was a silence, and then a chorus of voices, all saying the same phrase.
And then Anna's voice.
"I can't see! Sirrus complained, right on cue. "I can't see Nana."
Achenar glared at him. "Oh, be quiet. Nana's talking."
Exasperated, Catherine stooped between them and spoke into their ears, the reprimand clenched behind her teeth. "Just listen. We can't shove our way through; it wouldn't be right."
And this way they would not have to see the killing, if Anna failed.
Dissatisfied, they gave in more quickly than they might have, as a few scattered hisses and grumbles burst out from those nearest to the front.
"Am I right?" Anna was saying. "Your eyes are blind if you look at the sun, but you look away, and they heal. She yet may heal. But regardless, you do not think that it's a sign the gods want you dead before your time. It is only a result of chance, as is a scrape, if you fall and strike your knee on a rock."
"And regardless," Pran answered grimly, "She cannot do anything now without aid. She cannot cross the desert, when the tribe travels. She cannot weave the cloth or harvest the food or draw the water. She cannot eat or dress without help. You do not understand our customs. We are survivors, Makheena, and she cannot survive."
"You do not know what she cannot do," Anna interjected irritably. "A year ago, she could not speak D'ni, or listen to the sound of metal singing to test its strength. These things she still can do, and more. How do you know she will not learn to weave, or find seeds with her fingers, or scoop water into a bowl?"
There was quiet mumbling and whispers as her words filtered back from those who understood D'ni, and some of it was unsettled. Catherine drew her sons to herself, hoping.
"You do not understand our customs," Pran said after a lull in this whispering. Perhaps she had been conferring.
Sirrus and Achenar looked to their mother questioningly, eyes bright. Anna was using her best speaking-voice, and it carried even better than Pran's. They knew what that meant.
"This is your custom?" Pran inquired.
It might as well be, Anna thought to herself, standing at the front in the midst of a half-circle of dubious or puzzled faces. Kovashi was next to her, Pran on the other side, and behind them the dark tunnel through which they would send Kovashi to the surface, with her own knife in her hand, to take her life out in the desert and let the storm take her flesh.
Had it been forty years now, since Anna had stood before the Council and argued for a condemned man? Best not to remember. Memory could not be so easily hushed as an audience, however, as she began to speak. It spilled unwanted into the gaps between sentences as she paused for translation to filter back through the crowd. She resigned herself to ghosts and pitched her voice low, slow, deliberate, so that all had to hold still and practically hold their breath to hear.
"There was once a child who lived in a village, and they called him Little Stone."
"For he was small and mute, since his mother had fallen ill while she was carrying him."
"And as he grew older, the other boys tormented him."
"But he learned how to be stone to the sand of their speech, and he listened carefully to everything around him, so that he heard four times over what he did not say."
"They were thrown into a deep, dark hole in the ground, and left to die."
"The hole through which they had been lowered was too high to reach, but there were other small tunnels leading from their rocky cell. A few children tried to find their way out through these, but grew lost or afraid, and soon turned back."
"He pointed to himself and the tunnels, and made it clear that he would try. He begged for each of them to give him some token. Again they mocked and scorned him, for what could he do, when more able children had failed?"
"He set forth. It was very dark, but he was not afraid, for he used more than his eyes to see. He felt the air currents with his face, the rock with his hands, and listened for the sound of wind. These guided him through the maze."
"Small as he was, he could slip through cracks where the other children would have been stuck. So he found his way to the surface and began to make his way home. He had to pass through the Chochtic camp, but knew very well how to keep silent. In fact, when one of their watch-beasts began to cry a warning, he stuck his hand in its mouth. It bit down hard. He made no sound, although it hurt greatly. He struck the creature's head with a stone to stun it, and went on his way.
"A band was already prepared to fight, so they followed him to the Chochtic camp, and caught them unawares. When the battle was over, he led them to the hole where the children had been buried, and with ropes they pulled up his friends one by one. Never again did anyone mock him, but he was considered a great member of the community."
"And after that, they called him by a different name, Little Seed. For he showed that everyone in the community had a part to play, from the strongest root down to the smallest seed."
"A good story," Pran said, after a heavy silence.
"Pran," Anna pressed, seeing the face of Kovashi turned towards her, now filled with doubt rather than certainty as to her own fate. If Anna failed now, all she would have succeeded in doing is make the poor girl die unwillingly. They would have to kill her. Anna could see her words had made this much impact on the youngster, who seemed to know D'ni better even than Pran.
"Makheena." Anna used the title sincerely, trying to eke compassion from Pran's stern eyes. "Your people are like that garden, you told me, woven together, dependent on one another." She spread her fingers, drawing an arc in the air as if tracing one of the glossy filiaments. "Does the sun-catcher say, 'Ah! Those water plants in the shadow cannot catch the sun, so I will stop sharing the light?' Do the plants with roots sunk deep to catch the water say, 'Ah! Those sun-catcher plants always steal my water. They would not survive without my roots. Let them find their own water, or let them die.' No. They find ways to share, and to make it work, and to survive. Put her on a doyheu to travel, if Kovashi cannot see to walk. Give her a loom and thread to weave. Few things are impossible unless you say they are."
She had them. Pran squeezed Kovashi against her, for her arm was still draped around the girl's shoulders. "You understand us after all," she conceded softly. "Kovashi? Do you agree with what this woman says?"
The girl stammered, perhaps feeling the weight of so many eyes on her. "Let me try, Makheena," she answered. "Let me find what I can do."
Pran answered in their own tongue, then raised her voice again, relaying her decision to the crowd just as sternly as earlier.
Anna noticed how she held the girl even after her words had been heard, and the people began to drift back to their chores, or to surround Pran and Kovashi. They were touching the girl lightly and speaking to her, bringing her back into their hearts and the tribe. Anna saw the sameness in the features of Pran and the girl she held close. Anna sagged abruptly against the stone wall, feeling suddenly drained, and closed her eyes.
"Well done, Ti'ana."
"Oh, go away," Anna muttered. "I could have gotten all of us sent to the storm for my meddling. You were right to try and stop me back in the cave."
Catherine laughed softly under her breath. "I am sorry."
That brought Anna's attention onto her, eyes flashing open. "You wretched girl," she said, shocked. "You knew! Anna is a tired old woman, but Ti'ana has to stick her nose in everything!"
"I am sorry," Catherine said again, dropping her eyes. The guilt in them was more than could be accounted for, considering what had happened. "I am no leader, to be able to sway others by words alone. But someone had to speak."
Anna peered at her in faint puzzlement. "Absolutely." Sometimes she could not fathom Catherine's moods. "Where are the boys?"
"With their father."
Anna followed her gaze through the thinning crowd. There he was, only fifteen yards away, easily discerned among the sparsely-dressed natives in his brown breaches, boots, and longsleeved D'ni shirt. He had his arms around the shoulders of his two sons, and was listening to their excited chattering in both ears with a look of infinite patience. Had he been here all along?
He glanced up, met her eyes across the dim chamber, and gave her sure answer with a relieved, broad smile of genuine adoration.
The storm howled on.
Its presence was made known by the lack of light and the far off booming of shuddering rock from the vault that stretched overhead. Pran's people took no notice whatsoever, and Atrus' family soon grew accustomed to it. The boys found it added to the otherwise tame adventure.
To keep them busy, Atrus had assigned Sirrus and Achenar to help the children in their chores. They had been pressed into weaving ropes, demonstrating their father's nimbleness of hand if not his patience. Achenar was shy among his peers, perhaps still cowed by his recent scolding, and sat hunched with a rapidly growing sprawl of coils all around him.
Sirrus, meanwhile, flirted unapologetically with a girl his own age. She was giggling silently; probably she could not actually understand his words.
"My father," he was whispering conspiratorially, "My father can make whole oceans. He wrote for us an island in the middle of the sea. There are tall trees and green lawns and butterflies and a fountain, and he wrote them all. And now I'm learning to write, so someday I can give you rain."
"Sirrus!" Achenar looked up from the rope he was braiding, brows drawn together. "He is not! He wouldn't start teaching you before me."
"I learn quicker," Sirrus pointed out confidently. "You don't pay enough attention. Look! Mine is better than yours." He held up a neat, precisely-woven section of rope, eying Achenar's uneven plaiting scornfully.
"Too tight," called their mother, keeping half an eye on them from nearby where she was helping prepare food for the evening meal. She put down the knife she was using to scrape away the outer layers of a dried root, the usual way these people cleaned food to save water.
Gathering her skirts around herself and coming over, she settled on her knees between them, holding out a hand to the girl whom Sirrus had been plying with his dubious charm. The girl pinched closed the rope she was working on and held it out obediently.
"See?" Catherine said, manipulating the finished part of the rope between thumb and forefinger. "The strands mingle with one another, but have room to let the fibers slide past one another. This is proof against wind. They stretch instead of snapping when the hardest gusts blow."
"But won't they loosen too much?" Sirrus asked doubtfully.
"Then the slack is taken up and tied off. It works better this way." She patted his shoulder and returned to her own work, giving Achenar an encouraging smile. "Finish up the pieces you're working on, boys; food should be ready soon."
It was less of a feast tonight than before, but the echo of voices in the great hall and the flicker of lamplight added delicious mystery to the meal. The food was all dried, well-spiced, and they sipped a tart fruit juice that made Sirrus sputter and gasp.
Anna was utterly in her element. She had managed to secure a place for herself by Shirah, and was pestering him with questions about this word and that, trading snatches of stories for their language and delighting the nearby children with fables passed through the bewildered boy in faltering translation. She kept a sharp eye on Achenar on the other side of her, however, giving him stern looks when he reached for something on his brother's plate. It was fruits and nuts from her backpack and nothing else for him.
Atrus and Catherine, meanwhile, were reviewing with Pran the proposed modifications for the windmill.
"That's going to have a great need for cable," Pran was saying. "And I thought you said simple is better. Less chance of a tangle."
"I know." Atrus pushed at his nose; an absent gesture, since the small glasses he used for writing were back in his office on Myst. "But I can't see what else to do. You need to be able to stand at a distance from it, or else there's no advantage in being able to lower it remotely."
"Perhaps," Kovashi said in a weak voice, seated by Catherine, "Perhaps the work should be in keeping it standing."
Pran turned towards her, expression quizzical. "I don't see your meaning," she frowned.
Atrus' brow wrinkled as he considered her words. "I think I may."
"Go on," Catherine urged. The Rivenese woman had been checking on her throughout the day, and was quietly snagging food for her as drinks and plates were passed around.
"Well," the young woman said, "You know how the spetzi-tree's branches are? Push them down and they spring back up. That's how we've built the windmill. We didn't want it to fall down, so we made it flexible and internally reinforced." Atrus shared a faint smile of pride with Catherine as the girl rattled off the D'ni without apparent difficulty. "Half of each leg's weight is transferred down the length of the next, so that each anchors its neighbor. The more the wind blows, the more they brace one another. But for most other things--" she gingerly held up her forearm and hand, demonstrating-- "It takes effort to stay standing. Each leg holds its own weight. Relax them, and--" her hand dropped to one side. "So we should set it so that the removal of just a few pins or a single brace would let it fold on on itself."
Pran pursed her lips and looked to Atrus doubtfully. "That sounds like sense."
"No, but it is," Atrus said excitedly. "She's right. We've been trying to design a way to raise and lower it like a flag, using winches or a screw. But instead we need to support it like your tents, so that pulling out one pole will bring the whole of it down. Then all we have to do is get it to fold in sections from the top down, so it doesn't fall too hard or too quickly. We might even be able to set it to collapse automatically when the force of the wind pushing against it reaches a certain threshold. Anna, did you bring your notebook with the wing studies?"
"I'll fetch it," the old woman said, smiling as always at the boyish enthusiasm that bubbled up from him whenever he had a new project. She excused herself apologetically from her listeners. "And so the stonecutter's son fell asleep unexpectedly, since he was very tired from his journey, and you'll have to wait until he wakes up to hear the next bit."
Kovashi slumped back against the wall, giving Catherine a thin smile and shaking her head as more water was pressed into her hand.
Catherine set it aside and whispered a soft, "Well done," then shifted around on her cushion to check on her sons while the windmill-discussion continued. "Well, boys, how do you like Everdunes so far?"
Sirrus' eyes gleamed. "We belong here! We're D'ni, and we're supposed to live underground and build great--"
"Achenar," she interrupted suddenly. "What are you eating?"
"Nothing," he mumbled.
She reached for a nut on his plate, peering at it. "Did they serve these too? Or is this part of what we brought from home? Why don't you try one of these fruits?"
"Don't want any," he said sullenly, looking at his brother, who was smirking again.
"Achenar," she said patiently. "You know how your father wants you to try new things."
"Here's the notebook," Anna interrupted cheerfully, reappearing next to them and leaning across to hand it to her grandson. She patted Achenar's shoulder. "Let him be, Catherine; they've had enough new things for one day. Sometimes one needs something familiar. So," She resettled herself, still rattling on. "As I was saying, when Jack awoke--"
Catherine gave her an odd look, but did not interrupt her talespinning.
Voices had grown quieter. The visitors did not notice until several of the natives turned expectantly towards the black opening that was the tunnel leading to the surface. Sure enough, the slap of footsteps echoed faintly from it and grew louder, and a man soon emerged and hurried over to Pran, raising his hand with thumb down in their customary salute.
A few laconic exchanges later, he nodded to the leader of their small band, gestured, and a handful of the adults rose to their feet. They cleared away the remains of their half-eaten meals, and headed with him towards the exit.
"What's going on?" Catherine asked with a hint of concern in her voice.
Atrus brushed his hand lightly over hers. "Good news, I think." he said reassuringly. "Pran?"
"The winds have dropped," the desert woman explained. "Enough to send a team up to start digging out the stores. The storm has passed over."
Sirrus and Achenar looked up at the roof reflexively.
Pran chuckled. "Not yet, enchai-tu. Night stands over. We'll have no stars in the Cleft until the sun rises."
After the meal had been cleared away and the open space around the garden swept and cleaned, cushions and mats were unrolled around the edges of the cavern for the children to bundle together in a whispering and unruly nest. The adults retired to the peace and quiet of the side-chambers where dark alcoves offered a modicum of privacy.
Sirrus and Achenar had rather liked this arrangement, so they had been allowed to stay up with the other youngsters until they exhausted their pent-up energy climbing up and down the rocky walls and playing hide-and-seek in the shadows and crannies.
Anna had gone to tuck in Kovashi, as she put it, and had not returned to the small side-tunnel which had been reserved for the outsiders.
Atrus himself had fallen asleep very quickly at Catherine's side, to her relief; he had grown quiet before the meal was over, but had refused to retire until the evening's chores were finished.
Now she lay awake with sand under her hip and dry stone all around her, staring into the darkness. Eventually echoes faded, voices stopped, and all was still in the warren of tunnels that served as their underground base.
But sleep did not come easily. A few times she had managed to drift off, but always the weight of rock woke her again. When she opened her eyes she half expected to see a dull orange glow coming through a window, or smell the poisonous fume from Gehn's pipe as he worked late in what passed for night in that place marked by no sun or seasons.
I would go mad here, she thought grimly. My people were not meant to live in caves.
A stealthy footstep made her prick her ears. Someone was creeping past the sleeping ledge where they lay. Catherine recognized the soft rasping breath, and slid out from her place as the intruder fumbled with one of their backpacks, struggling with the straps.
"Anna!" Catherine pitched her voice low. "Where were you? It's so late!"
"Just talking with Kovashi," the old woman told her lightly. "Sharp mind, that girl."
There was a glimmer of light and a soft thud, as something fell from Anna's hands. A green rectangle, glittering like fish-scales, appeared upon the floor, moving and shifting and zooming in on the tiny image of an island.
"Ti'ana," Catherine murmured reproachfully. "No stories. You smell of the sea again. Why did you go home? And why risk linking back here all alone? You could have gotten lost outside!"
Anna sighed. "The digging team is still working up there. They kept an eye out for me."
Catherine knelt and picked up the book, keeping it cracked open with her thumb as she slid it into the backpack, so that she would have a faint hint of light to see by. "So Pran's people knew of your errand." Abruptly, she demanded, "It's something to do with Achenar, isn't it? What is wrong with my son?"
Anna sighed. "Not sick nor ill. Just careless. He blundered into the garden and damaged some plants. His punishment is that he may not eat of their food. I went to fetch the Harvest Age." Catherine's breath caught sharply behind her teeth, anger unseen. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm sorry, Katran. There was Kovashi, and then, I did not want to disturb their father."
Right on cue, Atrus moaned and rolled over. "Catherine?" he called anxiously.
"Right here," she replied steadily, slipping a hand into their alcove to find his arm.
"Come to bed." His voice, muzzy with sleep, carried a wistfulness that brought a smile back to he lips.
"Now hush," Anna insisted. "Pran's just over there, and she can hear all we say, and we're probably keeping her awake."
"I can't, and you are," murmured a wry voice from nearby. "If you're going to gossip, speak up so I can hear the good parts."
"Sorry," Catherine whispered. She helped Anna lever herself stiffly into the sleeping shelf on the opposite side of the narrow tunnel, then crawled in with her husband again, burying her face against his chest to pretend the utter darkness was by choice.
The whisperings and rustlings in the main cavern had finally grown quiet as well. But not for long. Achenar, who had found an out-of-the-way nook to curl up in, was shaken awake by his brother.
"Achenar," Sirrus hissed in his ear.
The older boy turned over, covering his ears with his hands.
"Achenar, listen. I'm going to take a look outside. Do you want to come?"
That brought Achenar awake with a start, and he rolled over with a growl. "Don't be silly, Sirrus. Go back to sleep."
Sirrus put a hand over his brother's mouth, speaking in a low whisper. "I think I dropped Nana's lizard just outside the entrance. It won't take long. Won't you come with me? Father always talks about the stars here."
"It's dark. There's a storm, remember?"
"Pran said the winds have died down. And the digging team just came in. There's no one outside to catch us."
"You'll get in big trouble," Achenar warned. "And it's dangerous. You know what Father and Nana said."
"No I won't," Sirrus declared with smug certainty. "It's not so dangerous at night. It's cool. And we can't get lost as long as we stay right by the rocks."
"I'm not going," Achenar said doggedly. "And you'd better not. Go back to sleep, little brother." He rolled away and closed his eyes firmly.
"Suit yourself, dear brother," Sirrus murmured cheerfully, and wandered away.
Achenar sat up with a start a few moments later. Sirrus hadn't climbed back into the sand-trough where he'd been sleeping earlier, had he?
Cautiously, Achenar slipped out of his hiding place and looked around. There was a dim grayness about the place that hid more than it revealed, but he thought he could make out the cluster of bodies piled together on the floor, and a small shadowed figure on the far side of them disappearing into the tunnel. Those children who had been momentarily awakened by their whispered conversation were dozing off.
Reluctantly, Achenar rose and padded after his brother.
For all his bravado, Sirrus clutched at the arm of his older brother as they drew near to the upper end of the tunnel, feeling their way in pitch darkness. "What is it?" he whispered, trying to keep his voice from squeaking.
Beneath the sound of their labored breathing was a low, thrumming vibration that rose and fell like the purr of some great beast. Achenar set his hand against the wall, slightly warm to the touch even several feet from the surface. "Just the wind hitting the rock," he said carelessly. "Like when father uses his sounder."
"Oh," Sirrus said meekly. Then he rallied. "Look, there's light! We must be nearly there." He hurried forward, leaving Achenar to stumble behind him.
They huddled together as they emerged from the mouth of the cave, two small heads in the moonlight peeking over the lip of their burrow. The rocky slope tumbled away from them towards the desert floor, where sinuous dunes rippled out in all directions like the waves of an unmoving sea. The sporadic wind that touched their cheeks was lighter than silk, warm like living breath, yet dry as chalk. It carried with it spare, subtle scents: emptiness, the oiled-metal smell of snakeskin, plants baked dry to the bone. The moon was behind the hill, masking the boulder-strewn slope in dark shadow.
"Let's pretend we're explorers," Sirrus said eagerly. "This is a new Age we've just made. We're going to map it."
"It's father's," Achenar said crossly. "And we should go back. He'll show us around tomorrow."
"No he won't!" Sirrus laughed. "He'll be busy fixing everything that's been messed up by the storm. Now's our chance. Come on!" He dashed ahead, feet sliding on the pillows of sand that now coated all the hollows and crannies of the hill.
Achenar followed more slowly, cringing at shadows. He could sense more than see the grotesque forms of boulders and outcroppings looming up all around them, shaped like the bulbous ends of bones, scowling faces, misshapen creatures. It was so quiet, above the scrape of his own footsteps, that he could hear the scarce breeze brushing over his face. Here and there upon the slope, he passed through eerily cold patches of still air, or eddies in the invisible current. This wind was an utterly alien, palpable presence. Yet its restless buffeting drove him forward.
Sirrus had already reached the edge of the dunes and was laughing, running free-footed over the silvered surface, kicking up fine grains that glittered in the moonlight. Achenar scrambled after him, sinking into the light new layer that now coated the crust of compacted grains. Looking around, he observed, "I can't see where they stowed all the tents and poles. It's all been buried."
Sirrus came pelting back. "Well, they were starting to dig out the stores earlier. Let's look around. It must be here somewhere. Maybe I put it down on the rock up there while we were helping that man with the poles." Fearlessly, he ducked out of the moonlight into the shadow of the hill and headed for the lumpy piles of sand heaped up against its lower reaches.
Dubious but grown curious, and not about to show his brother he was afraid, Achenar joined him, crawling on all fours over the irregular, yielding terrain.
Sand was between his fingers, in his eyes, between his teeth. As they threaded their way cautiously through shadows, alien forms of rock, Achenar began to feel like he was still dreaming.
"Hey," Sirrus called from above. "Will you look at that?"
"What?" Achenar growled, whirling around with a scrape of gravel.
He could dimly make out Sirrus' lean silhouette perched on an outcrop above him, pointing out over the desert. "There's a white gleam out there. Like glass."
Achenar turned slowly, sweeping his gaze over the numbing expanse of desert. "I don't see anything."
"Don't be silly. Look out there. You can't miss it." Sirrus slid off his perch, then chukled. "On second thought, maybe you can, dear brother. I'm going to get a closer look."
"Shut up." Achenar swung a loose fist at him as Sirrus passed, but missed in the dark. Nervously, he felt his way up the short ramp of rock. Climbing up onto the natural shelf, he turned and peered out over the desert, trying to see what it was that caught his brother's attention. Then he realized Sirrus was nearly to the bottom again, and called irritably, "Sirrus, come back right now!" His brother took no notice, and was already jogging up the nearest dune below. Achenar sat down stubbornly, tired of tagging at his little brother's heels. "You can get lost!" he shouted down. "I'm going to bed."
There was no answer, and the rocks around him seemed to suck the force of all words away. He didn't like following, but he liked being left alone even less. At length, Achenar reluctantly headed after his brother once more. He slid the last few feet and tripped into a drift of sand, cutting his hand on something sharp. Sucking on his knuckles, he sat up and found nothing to glare at. "Sirrus!" he bawled out. "Where are you?"
There was no answer, apart from the dry, maddening breeze just strong enough to stir his hair.
"Sirrus!" Achenar called again. He took a few steps forward, looking around wide-eyed. "It isn't funny!"
He was quite alone.
Abruptly, the boy crumpled and pulled his arms around himself, sobbing into his knees. His muffled howls were swallowed up by the dunes themselves, like blood soaking into a blanket.
Achenar awoke to find his whole body shaking with cold. Cold? Here? But the air was so thin. The sky was a bleak dark emptiness pricked with needles of stars and no moon, when he lifted his head from his arms and uncurled like a crab coming out of his shell. Sand was glued to his itching cheeks by dried tears. His head was pounding. Disoriented and wobbly, he rose to his feet, trying to remember where he was and even who he was.
He remembered rage, anger, cries that had worn his throat raw. Īt was something his brother had done.
His hand hurt too. He felt around with the sand with his shoe, trying to see what it was that had been so sharp, and so hard. Something white... like sticks, like...
Bone. It was a buried hand, and for all he knew, a body. And he had fallen asleep there. Horrified yet fascinated, he reached out to touch a fingertip. There was still flesh on most of the fingers, but it seemed to have been scoured away in places. He could make out a few stone rings hanging loosely or caught on knucklejoints. He stood staring down at the spot, losing his gaze on the nearly abstract forms of grasping fingers, bone, still more shadows. The alien object fused seamlessly with the sand that held it like the rock gripping the ship in one of his father's journals.
He began to cry again, but only barely; he seemed to have used up his supply of tears.
Thirst drove all else from his mind. Fumbling on unseen rocks, he began to pull himself up the hill.
He stopped halfway.
There was movement above. He couldn't see it, but he could hear the crunch of stone, the scrape of gravel. Low voices that sounded to him like growls and muttering, echoing strangely through hollows and stumps of rock. Then a dim blue light spilled down, which only served to bring out more shadows.
Achenar froze in place, unable even to make himself move to take cover. But he was just one more lump on the boulder-strewn slope. His whole body jerked at a shout, and then he was scrambling forward on all fours.
It was his father calling for them. His voice was hoarse and strained, so that Achenar had not recognized the sound before the words.
Achenar's reply was a muffled yelp. "Father!" A few smaller rocks tumbled past him as he crawled, ran, stumbled; Atrus was coming down to meet him in a hurry, abandoning the trail's ledge.
Achenar dove against his legs, and Atrus was stooping to lift him a moment later. The boy sobbed violently against the shoulder of his cloak; he could barely hear or comprehend his father's first words.
"Achenar! Are you hurt? When Catherine found you were gone--"
"Where is Sirrus?" she asked tightly, silhouetted on the ledge above them with one of Pran's people beside her.
The boy continued to bawl as Atrus set him down again in order to look him over by the light of a bare firemarble cupped in his palm. "Achenar. Your brother. What's happened to your brother?" The anger of a parent afraid made Achenar weep all the more.
It was all his father could do not to shake him, but finally words broke through the tears. "He wanted to hunt for the lizard. I told him we shouldn't. But he made me come, he made me do it, and then he left me, and I don't know where he is!"
"Where did you last see him?" His mother's still voice drifting down from above was like a ghost's.
Achenar was in no shape to give a coherent reply. "I was down there and... the sand... we couldn't go far, I said. If the rocks hadn't been so cold... he wanted to dig for ropes, but we couldn't see, and he said this was his age, not yours, father..."
"Where is he?" Atrus demanded in frustration. His anxious face was made alien by the strange light, eyes completely in shadow.
"Out there," gulped Achenar. "He went out into the desert. He saw something shiny. He didn't come back."
Setting a broad hand on the boy's shoulder, Atrus stood, looking out across the gray ripples of dunes marching out into starlit darkness, barely distinguishable from the sky. "Catherine, I'll need your water skin as well."
Carefully, she stepped down off the ledge and joined them, wordlessly unslinging the bag and handing it to him. "I'll ask Pran for fire up here, so that you can find your way back."
The man behind her said something sharply, and Atrus shook his head. "No, they keep fires low so they won't show if the Chochtic are out travelling." He stooped slightly to meet her kiss and turned back to his son. "Obey your mother," he said hollowly. "I have nothing more to say to you right now, Achenar."
Then he turned away. Achenar stared after him miserably. "There's one in the sand," he stammered. "A man, I mean. But he's dead."
"What?" It was hard to distract Atrus from his purpose once he had a goal set, but this had succeeded.
Achenar pointed towards the bottom of the hill. "A Chochtic. He was wearing rings like in Pran's story."
Atrus hesitated. Then he exchanged a few words with their escort, jerking his chin towards his son. "Show him, Achenar." With no more delay, Atrus cut his way back over to the trail and started down with long, heavy strides, head bowed.
Catherine stood very still, following his descent with her eyes until he reached the ground, halted for a moment as if getting bearings, and started churning off across the sand. Only then did she reach down to stroke the boy's head gently, combing sand out of his hair. "Let's see what you've found."
Light was sifting from the east; they had stood there in the cold frozen dawn until the sky turned inexorably from black to deep blue, then a dusty gray that blushed gold on the horizon. The wind had begun to pick up, sending warmer air and fine grains of sand in eddies around their feet as the people gathered around, speaking in low voices.
Neither Achenar nor Catherine could know much of what was said. Pran stood with her hand on Kovashi's shoulder-- the girl had come outside, determined to reacquaint herself with the landscape-- and spoke tersely to some of the elders while the body slowly came free of clinging sand. The faces of the natives were hard, showing no pity for the deceased man lying face down with arms covering his head. The intense storm winds had blasted away most of his clothing and some flesh, especially from his hands and forearms. To Achenar's mild annoyance, his mother had moved him away, ostensibly to keep out from underfoot. But the boy was numbed by the cold and stood huddled against her skirts, and she for her part spoke no word, staring out, as he supposed, towards the desert where Atrus had vanished. His gaze stayed fixed on the glimpses of white bone winking out from between the legs of Pran's people.
"Father will be back soon," he mumbled, aware that his mother's body was almost rigid.
She stirred to life and looked down, hands resuming their grooming. "What's this thatch? Didn't we cut your hair ten days ago?"she murmured fondly, but again there was a note of absence in her voice. Father went away for days and months at a time. But sometimes Mother went away without moving at all. He sighed and resigned himself to more waiting.
Waiting was not, however, an activity he could sustain for very long. "Where's Nana?"
"Sleeping," she replied a little too emphatically.
He gulped. That didn't sound right, but while he was still trying to find his way around it to another question, Pran stepped away from the huddle of elders to join them. The woman had her hood up, but not her scarf, and her face was hidden completely in shadow as she turned to follow Catherine's gaze towards the horizon.
Pran shook her head. "What a thing! So much of sense, and yet he can't keep himself or his family from wandering off like the stupidest doyheu."
"They will not, after this," Catherine said in a tone that make Achenar cringe.
"You'll need chains then," the woman observed grimly.
Catherine deflected the subject once more. "What have you concluded about the dead man?"
"Ah, him." Pran grunted. "Chochtic, as your boy guessed. A scout, I should say, but where his mount is, we haven't found. Maybe it threw him with the storm coming on."
"They don't know you camp here?"
"They did not before." Pran glanced significantly over her shoulder. "The windmill. More of a blessing than a risk, but still a risk. Not only for strength against the wind did we build it low."
Achenar cleared his throat, feeling that somehow his discovery had brought the risk they now spoke of. "What will you do?"
"Leave maybe," Pran said regretfully. "We are still deciding. But it is only the one. And rare chance brought him so far from the towns and trade-roads. We are no less safe than before. Oh, don't look so thirsty, we certainly won't go before your man returns."
"Thank you," Catherine said tightly.
The sand before them was still shadowed by the silhouette of the hill on which they stood, but beyond, the dunes were turning pink and gold. The sun must have risen. Pran peered outwards as the world began to brighten. "For a day or so, anyway. After that..." she grimaced, casting Catherine a sympathetic glance and cutting the thought short. "He's got a good head for the desert. There shouldn't be a worry."
A murmur of raised voices at the cave entrance above could only mean one thing. Anna stepped out onto the lip of rock above them, hood thrown back and gray hair falling in untidy wisps around her ears, gazing out across the dunes with eyes shaded under her hand. Then she shrugged, nodded to the old man who had escorted her up to the surface, and began to pick her way laboriously down to the gathering where rock met sandy desert floor.
Catherine gave Achenar's shoulder a light push. He needed no urging, only permission, to race scrambling up the footpath to meet Anna and clutch her hand. With his help she made her way to the bottom more easily, leaning on his shoulder while he guiltily tumbled out the story of the boys' night foray.
Anna's smile was at odds with her drawn face as she came up to them. "So," she said wearily to Pran, "My great-grandsons finding trouble again."
Achenar cringed away, looking up at his mother's face, but Catherine only sighed.
"Seems so," Pran replied.
Anna raised a hand to point. "I caught a glint of light between two dunes out there. And Achenar says his brother went off after something bright. Know what that is?"
Pran snorted. "Sand can glitter in moon or sun, if there's a grain turned your way. You should know that, Makheena."
"I do," Anna replied. "But this seemed something more. Still, you may be right."
Pran caught Catherine's expression and reached to give her elbow a shake. "You are not going to follow a sunbeam, woman," she commanded. "Show a little more sense than that."
Catherine pulled her arm away with a frown. "I would not. I just hope Atrus saw it too." She turned her shoulder to them, resuming her vigil.
Pran cracked a humorless grin and stepped away.
"Catherine," Anna murmured. "Atrus has a linking book with him. He need only find Sirrus, not find his way back."
"That is true," the younger woman replied, posture relaxing only slightly.
"Should I take Achenar home?"
The boy's eyes started to tear up again as his mother's eyes dropped to his face. She shook her head mutely.
"Well then." Anna seated herself on a hump of stone and patted her knees. "I shall tell you a story. Once upon a time, Sekhmet had gone far off into the desert to sulk, and Thoth the baboon was sent forth to fetch her home..."
All clues having been gleaned from the body, and all clothes, jewelry, and possessions stripped for reuse, the Chochtic had been returned to the desert. Still the waiting continued. Catherine had not moved from her place, but stood taking small sips from Anna's waterskin, listening without hearing the old woman's dry voice as she continued to weave her own particular Art. The craggy slope lay in cool shadow, but not for much longer: the sunlight had reached the boundary between sand and stone at its foot. The air was gathering itself for the heat of the day, and ghost-dunes were beginning to dance above the real ones, just as Atrus has described. Catherine could hear his voice in her mind patiently explaining to the boys about light refraction and air turbulence, astounding them with tales of mirages. Could he himself have been led astray by one?
"Stop dreaming and give us a hand." Pran's brusque voice broke in on her thoughts like a chisel. The three offworlders looked down to see that a good part of the sand had been cleared away from the stores, and an orderly trickle of figures was beginning to carry bundles back around to the far side of the hill. Pran stood on the slope below, hands on hips, looking up at them.
"Of course," Anna said, rising to her feet and leaving Kerath hanging in mid-tale and mid-air, dangling from a precipice. "Come along, Achenar. Maybe we'll find the lizard that's caused all this nuisance." That reminder forestalled the protest forming on his lips. She took his hand and headed down to the bottom.
Catherine capped the skin and followed Pran wordlessly. The shorter woman pressed a hand briefly on her shoulder. "Get your mind off trouble," she murmured. "And I'll have no layabouts in my camp."
Catherine laughed, a sound as fleeting as that of the locals. "Yes, Makheena."
"It's the poles and ropes that need sorting. Someone always manages to lose one."
For a while all was bustle and jostle and mutterings in two or three languages, as the people worked to get everything organized and brought round the giant outcrop. It was coming to the hottest part of the day, and they rested and drank often, conserving sweat and words. Speech was ever a scarce commodity for these people; this made matters a little easier for the visitors, since communication was done as often by gesture as by word. Finally the sun shifted to the far side of hill, and shadows began to give a welcome respite. It was mid-afternoon when they settled down under their awnings and sun-walls for a light meal, fruit drinks, and a siesta, the natives casting off their outer garment to use as a pillow against the sand. Anna, Catherine, and Achenar were given a small canopy set up on the perimeter, so that they could see anyone coming around the spur of the hill.
"Where is father?" Achenar whispered to his mother for the twentieth time. It would have been the hundredth, but he was vaguely aware that Atrus' disappearance was partly his fault. "When is he coming back?"
Catherine shook her head, hands absently twisting the tail end of her longest braid. "Your father is a very clever man," she said quietly. "I'm sure they're all right."
"Knowing Atrus," Anna asserted, "He's found a bit of shelter out of the sun and wind, and is waiting for evening to cool things off. Isn't that what Prince Kerath would do?"
Achenar nodded doubtfully, fidgeting with the toy lizard now restored to its rightful owner.
The women exchanged glances over his head; Catherine dropped her eyes and conceded in a mouthed whisper, "Most likely."
Anna understood. "You, my dear, need a little lie-down. These people have the right idea. I'll warrant you didn't sleep much last night in that mouse-hole."
"Atrus snores," she replied defensively. "I'd forgotten; it's been several months."
"Mm-hmm." Anna reached out and poked her forehead with a thumb. "And you look like you've tasted ghost-beads every time you take a step into that cave. Go on, sleep a little. Achenar and I will keep watch."
Achenar giggled and curled up in his grandmother's lap. Knowing she'd get no peace otherwise, Catherine complied, pillowing her face on her forearm. It was not so hard to imagine the creak of rope and flap of canvas as dock and sails, the faint hiss of blowing sand as the spray of water when wind whipped up the placid sea. Her eyes closed quickly.
The air was cooler when she awoke from a groggy nap, roused by raised voices at the foot of the spur of rock. Blue shadows extended far past the tent village and into the desert beyond, but the blue had seeped out of the sky, leaving behind a pale lemon gold. Anna and Achenar were dozing beside her. Someone had thrown a light blanket over them, now lightly dusted with sand on the windward side. Catherine found her own clothes had been coated, and shook out her braids. She hopped up and hurried towards the knot of people clustered where the faint path turned the corner around the knife-edge of the hill.
Atrus stood in their midst; a younger man was just relieving him of Sirrus, who seemed to have been sleeping peacefully in his father's arms. Pran herself was holding a drink to his lips, and the soft staccato speech of her people flew back and forth around them. As she lowered her hands, Atrus took a deep breath and resumed speaking. "We found his mount, Pran. So you're safe, for the moment; he'll never report your whereabouts. Another good reason to raise the dunes on that side of the windmill. I had no idea your doyheu-ta were so big; it made a good windbreak. Where's Catherine?"
Her laughter was so dry she couldn't find her voice; she had come up behind him while he was talking. Atrus stepped to one side and slipped an arm around her. "Sirrus is fine," he assured her. "Just tired. He walked most of the way."
"But where did you go?" She scanned Sirrus anxiously, watching the rise and fall of his breathing as the stranger held him. "How could he have wandered so far in such a short time?"
"I caught him walking in the wrong direction trying to find his way back."
"What did I tell you?" Pran put in, holding the fruit drink up to him again. "Atrus, your pretty wife and Makheena are welcome here, but leave your little ones at home until they've grown sense. No wonder you keep them on an island."
"I'm very sorry, Pran," he said meekly, with the same humility he displayed during the rare times when Anna scolded. He accepted the drink gratefully.
Anna chuckled from behind the small circle of curious faces; she had come up in time to hear the tail end of this. Sure enough, Achenar pushed his way between his parents a few seconds later, and his "Father!" served to rouse his little brother.
Sirrus lifted his head, and the man holding him set him on the ground, keeping a firm grip on the wayward child's shoulders. "Mother! We saw--"
"You disobeyed your father." Her voice was controlled, but the flash of anger in her eyes was the same one that contributed to Achenar's mercurial moods in its less disciplined form.
Sirrus hung his head.
"He's had a long night and day to think about that. The proper punishment, isn't it, Pran?" Atrus smiled tiredly and motioned for the woman to pass the drink down to his son. Then he reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a curious object, irregularly shaped, obviously heavy, and almost too bright to look at, flashing in the sun. There was a collective intake of breath all around.
Pran lapsed into her own language, a single word, voice suddenly brittle. He handed it to her silently. The short women held it up as high overhead as she could reach, and shouts-- the same word-- quickly brought more people running to see.
Catherine, standing next to Atrus, had a good view of his find. It was about the size and shape of a small treeroot, twisted and knobby like a tubeworm casing, its surface mostly covered in granular nodules, but with small stiff tendrils sprouting from it here and there. It varied in color between white and smoky gray, with geode cavities of a startling red color. The broken end showed that it was hollow, the inside polished and rippling like water. "What in the Maker's name?"
"A fulgarite?" Anna said, an echo of the native's awe in her own voice. "So that's what it was."
"It's glass," Catherine murmured. "The lightning?"
"Exactly." Atrus addressed the desert leader over the sound of excited voices. "Pran. It's quite a large one. You should be able to catch sight of it until the sun sets, but you'd better move quickly; the sand's already starting to cover it over."
The woman's eyes widened before her scarf. "You found the spot it struck?" She turned and began issuing orders. "How did you come to it?"
Sirrus finally had a chance to break in. "I saw it," he said eagerly. "Just from one spot on the hill. The moon made it shine. So I went to find it before the light changed. Then the moon set, and I couldn't see my way, so I sat down."
"Which was the only thing of sense you did. But your father said--"
"No one came," Sirrus said apologetically. "And the sun was coming up. I was afraid to wait any longer."
Atrus sighed. "He took the doyheu's tracks for his own. I caught up with him well after sunrise, sitting by the dead animal, and we took shelter there for the day. We stumbled across his strange light in the sand quite by accident on the way back."
"Never by accident," Pran said sternly. "It's a sign. Two strikes here. We'll stay."
Atrus groaned. "Pran, I hardly think that--"
But she was already moving off again, showing the strange rock to everyone who clustered around with fierce joy and pride.
"Atrus? Now where's he gone?" Pran had found Catherine standing at the mouth of the tunnel, watching the last embers of the sunset fade into brown dusk.
"With our sons," Catherine replied quietly. "They're having a talk."
"Ah." The desert woman chuckled. "I know such talks. Well, what's your plan, then?"
"We're going home," Catherine said flatly. "I won't have my sons causing you any more trouble. Atrus will stay on until the well's working properly and he's finished his modifications."
"Hmph." Pran shook her head. "Back to your hill of land in the midst of a desert of water, with no one besides the Makheena to keep your children from driving you quite mad. You'll stay for tonight's feast, at least? Your son's finding, it's a great thing. We mean to celebrate. The boys should be there."
"That will be up to their father," Catherine murmured distantly, fingers slowly combing the end of her braid as she stared off at nothing.
The woman snorted in exasperation. "There you go again. Listen, Kathran, I have no blame on you for your sons. Atrus has done us too much good, and your youngest found us a gift to tell our grandchildren about. So stop gnawing at yourself. Take our hospitality while you can."
Catherine swung around, green eyes glittering as if there were tears behind them, but her expression and face were as controlled as ever. "I'm sorry. I was thinking about something. Can I help with the feast preparations?"
Pran looked at her closely. "No, that's all right. Enjoy the open air a little longer before you come down." With that, she ducked into the cave mouth and was swallowed up by its shadows.
It was Anna who came to fetch her, finding her in exactly the same spot. "Catherine? They've laid out quite a spread for us. You coming?"She stepped closer and propped her chin on the young woman's shoulder. "Or have you found something else out there?"
Catherine shook her head. "Nothing worth remembering," she said cryptically, and allowed herself to be led down into the caves one last time.
The dream was still with her. It came rushing back to her ears every time she descended into the caves below.
The tunnel wound its way into gray granite, lit by alternating orbs of soft blue light, each jutting out from the wall on a thin stem like a flower. They brightened as she passed her hands across them. The voices... whispering... a rushing sound like the sea, a smell of salt that was both the ocean she loved, and inconsolate tears... a hollow emptiness of anger that turned restlessly in her stomach, like a caged animal pacing and dreaming of prey...
The voices, louder, rising and thundering from a narrow black slit of an opening in the sidewall. One word. One word they were chanting. A name.
Catherine stepped out into the golden lamplit cavern whose air was dry as the ashes from last night's fire. The voices that rose and fell in brief bursts of speech and longer silences were sharp, edged, nothing like the voices of the sea. They sat in small groups, informal gatherings, scattered here and there around the great chamber, dining and drinking comfortably. By slow degrees she forced herself to see with her eyes again and moved determinedly towards the comforting sight of Atrus, seated by Pran and Kovashi with an empty space reserved at his side.
Sirrus and Achenar were nearby, one on each side of Shirah, who was patiently and brokenly telling them a story, a faint smile lighting his eyes. Catherine caught Anna looking towards the young man with a lopsided grin. Sirrus himself had been given a small chair to sit in-- Atrus had refused to let him have the other honors Pran wished to bestow-- and was enjoying himself immensely. Achenar was still eating food brought from home, and eying the candied fruits and meats wistfully.
As she glided across the cavern, she felt the floor pulse faintly to the sound of a drum that was booming from one of the side-chambers. Anna picked a wandering path through the gathering, stepping around clusters of people, bowls of mulled juices exuding delicious scents, and small woven mats scattered here and there, bearing heaps of fruits, nuts, twists of dried meat arranged in radial patterns like flowers, and a few real dried flowers with some sort of fruit at the center. The recovered fragments of the fulgarite had been carefully laid across a rug that was draped over several boulders. A dozen or so oil lamps had been suspended from the ceiling over it, and its glassy tendrils shot pinpricks and flashes of flickering orange flight in every direction. It looked like a fusion of stone and fire itself.
Keeping her face averted from Anna's shrewd eyes, Catherine hurried over and sank down onto the blanket beside her husband, carefully gathering her skirts around her knees.
He must have sensed something was amiss, for he turned on one knee to kiss her, something he was usually too shy to do in front of strangers. "A good talk," he told her. "I've been needing to do that for a long time. I think they will be more conscientious in the future."
"Let's hope so." She smiled across at Pran. "I know they'll want to return. Someday."
"Someday," the woman agreed goodnaturedly.
"Someday?" Kovashi murmured wistfully from the other side of Pran, turning vaguely towards them. "I thought you liked it here, Kathran. Didn't you say you grew up in a village? Not like Atrus. I think he'd be almost as happy living in a hole in the ground as long as he had something to do and think about."
Atrus chuckled ruefully, but his face grew suddenly more attentive.
"Yes," Catherine said slowly, trying to find words that would not hurt the girl's feelings. "This place... it is as special as its people. But it's so very different from my home."
"Shirah will be so unhappy when you've gone. He thinks you're magic, you know."
Catherine laughed. "Well, then, I'd better leave at once." She noticed the girl's faint frown. "Don't be sad. Anna and I will surely visit again when the boys are older."
"We'll hold you to it, woman," Pran said firmly. "Now hush and try the wine. We don't have it often."
"Home?" Atrus whispered in Catherine's ear.
She bent forward and picked up a bowl in both hands, holding it to him with a mischievous smile. "You first. Let's see if it agrees with you better than the nectar on Edanna."
"Catherine!" he murmured, exasperated.
But Pran had risen to her feet, raising her arms for silence. Voices faded at once, leaving behind only the insistent throb of the drum. She spoke first in the native tongue, then switched to D'ni. "Friends. It is a leave-taking night, a feast-making night. We thank the gods for feast and fire, for gifts. Now it is time for story."
The old man who worked the loom by day rose to his feet and bowed to Pran, then begin to speak in halting tones. Pran translated for the guests this time, although Atrus could understand their language fairly well by now.
The tale woven by the elder was of their people's origin, a beautiful story about the love between the sand and the sky. It was a lightning strike that had created the first people, and lightning, to them, was a divine brother, a messenger from the gods. Shirah and Kovashi were not forgotten. They rose to play the roles of first man and first woman. At the end, to great applause, Shirah and the old man lifted Sirrus' chair and carried him beaming around the gathering, representing the first child in the world. A circular metal plaque affixed to the back of the chair flashed like Apollo's disk of the sun.
Achenar, who had scrambled into Anna's lap to watch the story, watched in sullen silence.
"A memento, enchai," said Pran.
Sirrus held up the chunk of fulgarite to catch the moonlight. The boy seemed totally oblivious to his family as they gathered at the heel of the great stone hill; he was too wrapped up in his new treasure.
Anna nudged him gently.
"Thank you," he burst out belatedly.
"You're welcome. Now get on." The desert woman turned and strode off, vanishing into the darkness behind the spine of rock.
Atrus chuckled at the crestfallen expression of his older son. "They don't spend much time on goodbyes, Achenar. No insult was meant."
"Oh." He sighed, huddling more deeply in his cloak against the night's chill. "Can we go home now?"
Catherine and Anna exchanged glances as Atrus held up his linking book. "Now," he replied.
Catherine linked through first, as usual, the boys following in her wake. Anna paused with her hand halfway to the book, and tipped her face back to drink in one final taste of the pure clarity of desert stars.
"You could stay, Grandmother," he murmured softly.
Her lined faced eased into an affectionate smile. "It's a beautiful gift, Atrus. I'll visit sometimes, I promise. Maybe when their winter rains come. Ah! It would be good to see a true thunderstorm again before I die."
He kissed her cheek. The moonlight made her skin as weathered and gray as rock, and he felt a pang of panic at all the time he had spent here lately, time whose warning signs were plain in her whispery voice, her thinning hair and the faint blotches on her arms that were the price of the desert sun. "You will."
She yawned hugely. "All right, I'm going, I'm going," she muttered, as if scolding her own bones. "You got a safe place for that book out here, Atrus?"
By way of answer he moved to the huge irregular blocks of stone that formed the volcanic dike diving down into the sand. Tapping his way across the fractured surface with a fingertip, he found one loose block and lifted it up, tilting it back on one edge like a trapdoor, since it was too heavy to raise one-handed. There was a dark hollow space beneath it. Grinning, he let go, and the block dropped back into place with a thump.
She nodded in approval and held out her hand for the linking panel. "Good, good. See you in a moment."
Minutes later, Pran reappeared around the stone wall, and stood looking down at the shadowed footprints where Atrus and his family had been a short time before.
Shaking her head, she started to tuck the strange wooden toy back into robe to return to him later. Out of the shadow of the hill, however, she noticed something which caused her to pause and examine it more closely.
The painted wooden lizard was chipped and battered as if someone had hammered it repeatedly with a jagged rock. A leg was missing, part of its tail was broken off, and the eyes had been gouged out savagely. Disturbed, she hiked out to the crest of a high dune, knelt, and left the mangled toy there for the winds and sand to claim.
"And Shirah said that they went to an oasis with trees that had purple flowers and grow out in the water, and there's a kind of winged mammal that lives in the branches and eats nothing but fruits--"
"And its fur gets all purple with pollen," Sirrus interrupted, babbling excitedly as his brother, "so I guess it's cross pollinating the trees, and--"
Anna, laughing, pulled the covers up over Achenar. "Enough. You're allowed just one more story tonight, and that's my bedtime story. Poor Prince Kerath is still dangling from that ledge, remember."
"Sirrus, obey your Nana," Atrus said sternly, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
Atrus closed the cabin door behind him quietly, once again in his mind back in his little stone shelf in the Cleft, as Anna's voice rose and fell and painted dreams he would explore more fully in sleep. Heading back upslope, he felt the kiss of fog off the ocean on his face, heard the shimmering sound of crickets, and for a brief moment imagined what it would be like to live in one place, and never link to another world.
He heard scraping sounds inside the front door, as of furniture being moved.
"Catherine?" he called curiously, bounding up the steps.
He barked his shins on something that most certainly did not belong in the middle of the room. Then he tripped and went sprawling. Massaging his leg with a groan, he sat up, peering around himself. Why on earth were the fire irons and wood out in the middle of the room? Charcoal and ash were tracked right across the finely-panelled floor! And not all the footprints were his.
The grinding noise in the wall stopped.
Maybe it was the fall, or another long day, but it took him several moments of puzzling before he leapt to his feet, stooped, and ducked into the fireplace, jamming his elbow against the hidden switch that brought the metal door down with a slam.
Time stretched inexorably as the fireplace turned on its hidden gears, stone grinding against stone. Would Catherine leave when she heard him coming? What was she doing? She had been acting strangely ever since she arrived on Everdunes; he just hadn't been able to guess why. What had possessed her?
The door swished upwards. Catherine stood rigid, motionless, as she had all those years ago when he found her standing alone in the forest of Riven contemplating impossible choices. The Linking Book to K'veer lay open on the wooden shelf; a gray dim image turned slowly under her fingers.
He grabbed for her elbows. "Do not. I forbid it!"
She twisted in his arms, turning a fierce glare upon him. "Forbid?"
Atrus stared down at her, abruptly realizing how tightly he was gripping her arms. He eased off slightly. "Catherine. I'm sorry. I never should have left Gehn there. But please--"
She relented too, her slight form abruptly slumping as the fire left her eyes. "It was the only solution. Anna and I could do no more, and this way, at least, no other Ages will be plundered, enslaved, as Riven."
"Do you want to go home?" He spoke the word gingerly, their conversation at the feast suddenly coming back to him.
She shook her head minutely. "Our whole purpose was to leave him no escape. If we go there, we must again risk bringing a Linking Book with us, or be trapped. I think you would have to kill him."
"If it were the only way."
"No." Catherine traced a finger over the back of his wrist, voice tender. "No. Not my Atrus. I did not marry such a man."
He waited then, just holding her, biting his lip while she continued to stare at the book laid open before them.
"It is like a sheer drop at the side of a cliff, with no railing," she observed.
"Anna's put the boys to bed. She'll worry if she finds the fireplace open," pleaded Atrus.
Sighing, she shut the green cover of the book, squeezed against him, and pressed her palm over the concealed switch. The fireplace shuddered and lurched into motion again.
"Atrus," she murmured. " I'm afraid... I really don't like going to other Ages."
"Someday," he promised her, kissing her ear as the door slid open. "Someday, when the boys are grown, and we have found a way to keep from setting Gehn free, we'll return you to Riven. I promise."
She stepped out into the room, feet crunching on ashes, and spoke in a clear, soft voice, edged with distant anger. "I will dream."
Atrus had left her alone on Myst Island while he had gone to Everdunes to deal with the danger. Not since their last days on Riven had he felt such dread setting his hand against a page. He should tell her he had returned early. He should not leave her worrying.
In a moment.
A blue flower twirled in his fingers as he knelt by Anna's grave.
Catherine came streaming up to him with skirts catching on bark, threading her way swiftly between the trees. "Atrus, what's happened?"
The flower dropped. "Pran is dead."
She stopped short. "Dead?"
"Another raid. Most of her people escaped. She wouldn't leave Kovashi behind."
Catherine dropped to her knees beside him, setting a hand mutely on the stone he had carved for his grandmother only a year ago.
He went on, voice brittle. "The Chochtic stripped the windmill of its metal; it's past repair. Shirah is taking his people to an oasis many day's ride from there, and he does not mean to return. I dropped the Linking Book in the well."
She brushed his cheek with the back of her hand. "Our sons have been gone too long, don't you think, Atrus? Do you want me to tell them?"
Atrus took a shuddering breath and glanced towards the library. "No. I'll go to Channelwood to fetch them. You stay here, my love."
He rose with a soft rustle of his cloak and strode off, leaving behind a sawdust-scatter of yellow sand.