Author's note: I realized that writing Allem as the main character will cause too much trouble when/if the rumored Book of Marrim comes out. I'm playing it fast and loose with too many things already, so I chose a new name. This story was begun on Exilehaven on 6/2/01 and finished 12/31/01.
The characters of Marrim, Atrus, Catherine, Eedrah, Anna, Yeesha, Tamon, as well as The Art and D'ni are © Cyan, Inc. The plot of this story--as well as any inconsistencies or mistakes--is my own.
Perril's Tale: Princess of Birds
"It's poetic. But in practical terms... it's riddled with contradictions, I'm afraid. It breaks almost every single law of D'ni writing. It has no structure, no architecture. And some of the symbols... I've never seen them before. I'm not even sure they mean anything..."
"I'm afraid it wouldn't work, but it does paint wonderful pictures in my mind." -- Atrus, Book of Atrus
I will dream. -- Catherine, RIVEN
Part I: Broken Shell, Empty Nest
"Missing?" Eedrah rocked back in his woven reed chair, keeping his voice low so as not to rouse their daughter, dozing with her arms wrapped loosely around his neck.
Marrim stood at the edge of their balcony, mirror to the one on Tomahna but fenced in by rails of wood not metal, and with embroidered fabric awnings instead of glass. Just now the canyon below, edged by silvery-gray vines spilling down the upper slopes like a living waterfall, held no part of her attention. She was leafing slowly through a hardbound volume, head bowed. "She missed her lessons again today. I found the Book in her room, open on her bed to the linking page."
Eedrah sighed. "So that's why she's been so secretive lately. Where did she get it from? Whose is it?"
"That's the problem." She walked over to him slowly, holding it up so he could inspect the spine. "See now."
He glanced at the script, remarking, "The handwriting is worse than Oma's." Closer scrutiny brought the realization home to him. "A new kortee'nea! One of those I made for Atrus last year?"
Marrim's expression was grim. "You said you thought you'd miscounted."
"Perril Wrote an Age? But how? She's just finished with the Rehevkor. She cannot possibly know enough to put an Age together."
"I found some journals hidden under her bed. They're full of notes, Eedrah. She's been slipping into the New Library and copying phrases and Ages for the last year or so, I'd guess. We wondered why she progressed so quickly through the Rehevkor. She was teaching herself; she probably knew half the signs before I showed them to her."
Marrim fell silent to read the Book slowly, carefully, moving to sit on the bench opposite him. He waited patiently, watching her face and the slight nuances of dismay, surprise, reluctant approval that tugged at the corners of her face during her perusal. At last she glanced up, expression remote, inner gaze fixed on the Age she had just glimpsed in the words. "It's brilliant, Eedrah. She's grasped on her own what it took Atrus and Catherine two years to teach me. The air, the moon, the mix of water and soil, she's borrowed from the most basic Ages she could find. She's tried to construct as simple an Age as will still function."
Eedrah relaxed subtly. "A good start, then, even if she went about it the wrong way? I remember Catherine having to curtail some of your more creative touches in your first Age, before you mastered complexity."
"It would be fine," Marrim said slowly, "But she did not stop there, Eedrah. She went much further."
Anna stirred and blinked awake, turning her touselled head towards the voice of her mother and spotting the book. "Story?" the child asked muzzily.
"Yes, Anna. A story." Holding her husband's gaze, Marrim began to read the book aloud to him. The Book-- no, the Story -- of Perril.
"Master Tamon, I must see Atrus now."
The D'ni guildmaster, resolutely blocking the corridor with two attendants, glared at the impetuous young woman who bobbed her hair like a boy's. Not that he really disapproved of ahrotahntee, outworlders, but Marrim simply would never be one of them, and at times like this he resented the fact that Atrus refused to treat her accordingly. Or remind her of her place. All this lay behind Master Tamon's frown as he addressed her testily. "Master Atrus is preparing for the ceremony and may not be disturbed. You may speak to him during the banquet."
Marrim clutched the Book in her arms, carefully concealing the telltale squiggles of a student's hand and the un-D'ni name upon the cover. "But--"
An intricately-carved door burst open a few paces down the corridor, and Atrus, clad in new Guild robes but looking as rumpled as ever, strode towards them straightening his collar with a harried expression. "Marrim? Tamon? What seems to be the trouble this time?"
Marrim's desperate gaze did not match her deliberately innocuous speech; she hoped he would read her face for the words she dared not say before the others. "I've found a new Age, Master, but I fear there's a problem with it."
"It can wait until after the feast, Master," one of the younger guildsmen objected.
"No, it can't." Marrim's firmness of voice surprised even herself, and she caught Atrus' smile out of the corner of her eye, balm against the scorching glances of the rest.
"If it's a minor matter, Sireal, then it should not take long. If not, then indeed it needs my attention." Atrus planted a hand on Marrim's shoulder and steered her back into the room where he had been dressing. She shut the door behind them and leaned against it, holding out the book to him. "I'm sorry, Master Atrus. You should be enjoying this feast in your honor instead of having to handle others' problems one more time."
He waved the apology aside with an upraised hand. "The ceremony!" His voice cracked with rare frustration as he turned to face his favorite former pupil. "Marrim, I can claim only a small part of that honor. I planted the seeds, but it's Averonese and D'ni hands which have tended the soil and grown Releeshahn, brought it to fruition. We have far greater things to celebrate than the small part I played in the last year. At times like this I almost wish I'd never started trying to bring back the D'ni."
She smiled briefly. He would never understand, or admit, how much he had shaped this new Age, not only with the words he had written to create it, but in the guidance he gave the D'ni and Averonese every day. "No, you don't." She spoke no further, waiting as he opened the book carefully and smoothed out its crisp new pages with his fingers.
"Did you write this, Marrim?" he asked gently.
She shook her head sharply. "No! It's from one of my students, Atrus. She must have stolen a kortee'nea from the batch Eedrah made for you last year. I had no idea until today."
As he turned the pages and began to skim, his mouth fell open in pained dismay. "She'll have to be disciplined sternly, Marrim. The children must learn integrity first, or all their words and deeds will grow crooked from crooked roots."
Marrim knew the names of the ghosts that haunted his eyes, but knew better than to speak of them or offer comfort. Besides, the present was more pressing just now than the past. "It's worse than theft, Master. Look." She flipped past a page that had been crossed out-- using the proper D'ni signs for it, she was relieved to see-- to the beginning of the story.
He stared, at first unable even to understand what he was reading. He puzzled over the convoluted passage for several seconds before beginning to shake his head slowly. "By the Maker. She's tried to create individual people. It's against all the Laws of the Art. I didn't think the signs would even allow it, but she's found a way, using some borrowings from Terahnee."
"It's Perril," Marrim said distractedly. "She must have picked them up from my husband's books."
He sighed. "Ah. Your little prodigy." His eyes were caught by something at the bottom of the page that drew words from him sharp and flat as cut stone. "Marrim. She's written herself into the Age."
Marrim stepped away from the door in startlement, and moved around to peer over his sleeve at the sentence he was indicating. The back of her mind couldn't help admiring the concise turn of phrase, the way Perril had adapted the language to express ideas it had never been designed for. But the knot of dread in her stomach added another few tangles. "The Princess! Why didn't I see it?" Mentally reviewing the part of that character in her mind, she tried and failed to grasp it. "What will that do?"
"I am not certain," he replied grimly. "But we had better not find out. Where is she now?"
Marrim sighed and touched the cover of the book mutely, then elaborated, "Eedrah and I looked everywhere else, Atrus. She is nowhere to be found."
His hands tightened around the edges of the book, and for a moment she thought she might actually witness one of the rare flashes of temper for which he was occasionally known, all the more shocking in a man so patient and composed most of the time. But instead he merely sagged into a chair. "It may be too late already, then. But we should try to bring her back, if we can." He set his hand quickly over Marrim's as she reached to turn back to the first page. "No, not yet. Don't compound her error of haste with yours. You cannot let worry cloud your judgement, Marrim."
She held still, taking some small reassurance from the steadiness in his own voice, his hand. "What should I do, then?"
"Study the book very carefully. I haven't seen any obvious contradictions in the description, but that's at first glance. It will take a close reading of the text to understand the ramifications of the narrative she's added. If there's too many contradictions, it won't be safe for you or anyone else to follow her into the Age. It may well not be viable."
Marrim caught her breath, trying her best to heed his lessons and his example, to keep calm or at least appear so.
He closed the book and pushed it towards her. "You'd best get started," he said quietly. "Go to Tomahna, if you wish. Catherine's home; she can help you with the text. She's had her fill of this sort of ceremony with the Moiety, and even the D'ni know better than to push her where she doesn't wish to be."
And they still don't entirely trust ahrotahntee anyway, thought Marrim, but she was already moving towards the linking book to Tomahna on a podium in the corner of the room.
The two women and Yeesha were eating a spare meal on the verandah overlooking the canyon, when the green glass doors from Atrus' study opened. Marrim sat up straight, a piece of fruit caught halfway to her mouth. The black shimmering fabric the D'ni had cloaked him in for the ceremony contrasted starkly with his pale skin and eyes, giving him an intimidating look that was softened only slightly by the garlands of flowers draped around his shoulders. Yeesha squealed and dashed from behind the plants where she was "hiding" to fasten herself to one of her father's legs. He stooped to scoop her up, priorities of a parent in place, and spoke a few soft words to her before turning to them. "Well? Your assessment?"
"It's stable," Catherine pronounced, then elaborated with hands spread. "An amazing piece of work, Atrus. The child's limited experience means some of the enviromental factors have been left at their most basic: no seasons, little chance for weather variation, no metals. But she chose deliberate simplicity to avoid contradictions, and it seems to hold together perfectly."
"Except for the story," Marrim sighed.
Catherine quietly removed the fruit Marrim was still holding in midair and laid it back on the platter. "And even that appears sound; it contradicts nothing within itself or the rest of the book. We have no idea what effect a narrative structure may have, but considering the passages of poetry and repetition in some of Tehrahnee's old Books, I'd guess it will hold together. The only contradiction is the character of Perril herself-- how can she be in the very Book she's written? But I'm afraid there is simply no way to verify the Age's integrity from here."
Atrus sat down carefully, stroking Yeesha's dark hair. "Ah-na?" she asked him hopefully.
Atrus repeated the age-old mantra heard on a hundred worlds. "If her parents say it's all right for her to visit," He looked towards Marrim expectantly.
"It would suit me well," Marrim said steadily, "if Eedrah and Anna could come here to stay while I am gone." She faced squarely the leaping doubts in Atrus' face, feeling Catherine's silent anchoring presence behind her. "Master. Perril is my responsibility, as we were yours when you first started taking us to search in the D'ni Ages. I must take this risk."
"Very well," he said reluctantly, as Yeesha, ignorant of her elders' difficulties, began to gather flowers from her father's shoulders.
Part II: Carried Away
Marrim linked through with Eedrah's anxious smile lingering on the backs of her eyelids and a breath held so long she gasped on arrival, feet sinking into lush grass. Wet, she guessed, even as she opened her eyes and turned to take in the cool pre-dawn air. Pale mist was rising from the lake she could see through the great stone archway before her.
Where had the walls of the castle come from? But Marrim knew, from her perusal of Atrus' Stoneship Age and Catherine's more creative endeavors, that it was possible to write artificial structures into an Age. It was simply inadvisable, since the results were invariably chaotic. Here was no exception, as she could see: in several places, the stone had pulled away from the ground like clay sides from the bottom of a badly-fired pot, and tree branches thrust through inexplicable gaps in the stone, grasping upwards like huge fingers.
Marrim's gaze panned upwards slowly, observing that the courtyard was perfectly circular like the castle itself. She stood in a soft grassy space hemmed by red-flowering vines that climbed the four-story stone walls enclosing it. Only a few openings for windows and doors gave an indication of the warren of rooms within the inner and outer walls of the cylindrical building. All the people who lived here, if indeed they lived at all, slept on the upper floors, lived and dined below.
She heard muted voices from some of the windows. So that much of the Book held true; they were alive. Marrim turned and walked through the arched gate, following the path the people would soon take down to the water's edge.
It was all as she expected and yet brand new. There was the egg-shaped lake, nestled in what appeared to be an endless flat plain carpeted by low green grass. A stand of trees curved around part of the farther shore. Tall waving hedges of reeds fringed most of the lake, except where they had been cleared to offer mooring-places for a half dozen reed boats. Out on the water, shrouded by mist, she could see bobbing white globes of fruit growing from the lily-like water plants that floated on the surface. Marrim walked down to the water's edge, the Averonese part of her mind noting the simple construction of the boats, which would not be sturdy enough for ocean but were no doubt adequate for the lake. A few jewel-blue winged insects were already darting across the water, etching tiny ripples on its glassy surface; there would be more as the air warmed, to cross-pollinate the lilies and offer food for the fish and fledgling birds. Marrim scanned the purple-tinted overcast sky for birds but saw none.
Removing her backpack and setting it carefully on the ground beside her, Marrim folded her arms and turned back to study the castle, eyes coming to rest on the balcony over the gateway through which she had just walked. The castle of the Princess. The gray stones of the balcony were tinged a soft rose now from the sun rising through the veils of mist and thin cloudcover at her back.
On cue, the people began to file out of the archway in three groups, men to the left, women to the right, children between them. There was an odd sameness about them, but that was true of many places. Every one had sandy brown hair, cut shoulder length, and wore a simple tunic that fell to mid-calf, woven of the off-white flax of the reeds and decorated with smudged patterns with what she took to be wood ash. She frowned slightly to herself, wondering what resources they had to burn, when the reeds and fruit trees were already utilized to the full by this small community. But no matter. She took several paces towards them, hands up and open in a peaceful gesture she had seen Atrus use when visiting Ages for the first time. Thus she stood, obvious but not intruding on their dawn ceremony. Heads turned towards her briefly; curiosity showed in the raised eyebrows and open mouths of several people. But their eyes returned to the horizon almost instantly, fixed on the matter at hand.
The children began to sing first, a high piping melody of words that seemed to have no meaning, reminding her of the pipes her cousin used to play in the lodge at night. The women joined in, layering over their music with lines she realized, to her amusement and dismay, were phrases stitched together from the description of the Age itself. They sang these as a round, splitting themselves into pairs and overlapping, echoing each other. At last the men added their voices, but one at a time, each man speaking a single part, followed by the next one. This time it was in their own language, but Marrim remembered from the Book what the general content must be. They praised the things named by the women, soil and sky and fruit and water, ending each stanza with the refrain, "a blessing from the hand of the Princess." From their joyous tone and the sweep of hands towards the balcony, Marrim had a feeling that this, too, was playing out as written. She groaned inwardly with a feeling of deja vu, profoundly glad that neither Atrus nor Catherine could hear it.
The birds, however, drove all analysis from her thoughts as they took flight, a sudden flurried beating of wings from the reed thickets along the shore, rising up in droves and making their own wind that sent the reeds whispering and swaying with the force of their flight. Some were of a size found on a hundred worlds, plump waterfowl with wide flat toes and beaks, brown and red speckled wings bearing the glossy sheen of natural oils. However, true to the Book, two huge birds of prey of an altogether different type soared low over the lake like the sails of ships. She had not seen them rise from the reeds, and indeed doubted such large birds could find adequate nesting there. Their plumage was white with sky-blue edges and trailing black finger-feathers at the ends of their wide angular wings, which attached from the sides of their heads almost to their feet. These gave them far greater wing area, and a span almost as wide as the castle's archway. The great birds' keening cries clashed harshly with the humans' singing. One of the pair continued to circle the lake, scattering the smaller ones like nervous schools of fish, while the other furled wings to alight upon the balcony, where Perril awaited.
The moment of truth. Yes, Perril was there, garbed in pale white cloth woven from the piths of the reeds, a simple tube-shaped garment falling from shoulders to ankles with two straps over her shoulders. Her hair was bound up in an intricate design like a crown, and woven with blades of grass braided into elaborate shapes. A necklace of carved and polished fish scales glittered in the early sunlight. She raised arms towards the rising sun, sang one note (off-key, and not very well, Marrim noticed distractedly), then dropped her arms, and the people fell silent. Briefly disappearing from view as she bowed to the huge bird perched on the balcony beside her, Perril moved to set her hands on its shoulders and gingerly climbed onto its back, straddling it in a kneeling position since there was no room to let her legs dangle.
Marrim wanted to call out to her, but had learned Atrus' caution, and let things be until the charged atmosphere of ceremony yielded to the day's routine. A stab of understanding brought half a smile to her face as the great bird lifted off in a shuddering leap, falling almost to the faces of the awed and beaming people below before it caught itself in a dramatic downward swoop and carried the girl over the rustling reeds, the rippling waters beyond. Perril had let herself be carried away, literally, in writing this, but those few bald words-- that each morning the Princess rode a great bird at dawn-- could not evoke anything like the actual event. The Art had given Perril the power to bring a schoolgirl's dreams to life with the stroke of a pen, and she had fallen prey to its allure.
Marrim would allow her this moment to enjoy, at least, before the punishment that must come. The people stood and watched. They loved their Princess; that too had been written. Unnoticed, Marrim ventured over to the stand of reeds and cut a few samples with her knife, stowed these in her backpack, gathered a bit of grass and soil to take back with her. She monitored Perril's aerial excursion with rather different reasons from the adoring populace; she wasn't entirely convinced the great bird was strong enough to bear the weight. But all seemed well and sound. Sighing, she waited until at last the girl's avian mount coasted to a landing on the grass before the gathered inhabitants, who clasped their hands together in a sign of respect, perhaps, or thanks. Perril stroked the bird's crestfeathers with a trace of awe and euphoria flushing her face, then was helped by two of her followers to the ground. The bird lifted off and grasped one of the waterfowl in its claws so suddenly that Marrim had no time to flinch before its squawk had been silenced with a snap. Then the predator arced swiftly over the castle's tower and out to the endless plains beyond. The people surged around Perril, talking and laughing, a few touching her in gestures of affection, then began to disperse for the day's work, some returning back through the archway, others heading off towards the nut and fruit trees, and still others down to the boats before which Marrim was standing.
One of the leaders of this group halted and began to address her, expression curious but friendly, if tone were any indication. She smiled apologetically and pushed past them, towards their so-called Princess.
"Perril," she said sternly. "You're coming with me. Now."
More exclamations of surprise came from some of those clustered around Perril-- although not all, Marrim noticed, appeared to see her. The children pointed and whispered.
The girl turned gravely towards Marrim and stared at her wide-eyed. "Who are you?"
Marrim frowned. "This isn't a game, Princess. We can talk on Releeshahn, or your people can watch you be spanked. Which shall it be?"
Perril drew herself up. "I am a Princess, and you will not address me in that fashion."
Exasperated, Marrim stepped towards her, removing the Linking Book from her satchel and reaching for the girl's hand. "You are my student, and you have a great deal to learn."
She knew instantly she had made a mistake, but there were too many people to dodge as the placid folk surrounding them burst into outcries of anger. Nor could she even touch the Linking Book's page before the hands wrestling her away from the Princess had torn it from her grasp. So have I, she thought to herself with annoyance, as a throbbing blow to the back of her head drove out all other thoughts, and then consciousness itself.
Part III: Intermissions
Marrim woke with rays of sunlight battering at her half-closed eyes, and regretted instantly that consciousness was not optional. She was lying, apparently, where she had fallen, nose against dirt, her fingers clutching grass. The moisture of damp earth was seeping into her clothes where her body blocked the sun's drying rays. She groaned and struggled to sit upright, discovering that her hands were hampered by some sort of wrist restraint that rustled when she moved. Braided grasses, she guessed muzzily. A pair of feet in woven sandals finally reminded her that she was not alone, and she craned her neck upwards, squinting against the sun.
"Eedrah?" She blinked repeatedly to clear her vision; the young man standing before her could not be her husband. He clutched a stone-tipped spear and stared down at her impassively. With a sigh she glanced around, trying to get her bearings.
The lake was behind her, echoing with the muffled sound of voices, plashing water, and a rhythmic thumping sound she could not quite identify. The castle archway was before her, under which Perril now sat on an ornately-carved wooden chair, flanked on her left by the sullen youth, on her right by a flint-eyed elderly man whom Marrim recognized with a mixture of shock and amusement. What was the phrase Perril had used? "Steadfast as rock." He could be no other than Pradoglahn, the right-hand man of the Princess, elder of the community. His square jaw, nose, and the line of his thin white eyebrows resembled graven stone.
For an eerie moment it seemed to Marrim as if she were gazing not at living persons, but at an illustration in a book: warrior, princess, elder framed in perfect symmetry by the archway at their backs. The discrete moment of time was broken when Perril's empty eyes turned to meet her own with a cheerful but disinterested gaze.
"You should not have touched me, stranger." The young Princess spoke with what was obviously meant to be regal aloofness; the smug childish smile playing about her lips rather ruined the effect. "My people might well have killed you. They love me, you know."
Marrim grimaced. "I know. I read the story, Perril. As plots go, it was not terribly original."
"You will address me as 'Princess.'" The girl gestured imperiously to the younger of her attendants, who immediately straightened and turned a helpless gaze upon his liege at her careless request. The older man came to his rescue, stepping around the back of the chair to whisper gravely in the boy's ear. Expression clearing, the youth pressed his staff into Pradoglahn's hands, bowing to Perril, and took three steps to kneel before Marrim, unslinging from his back a narrow-necked pottery jug that sloshed when he moved. Regarding her warily, he held the vessel up to her lips, clearly meaning for her to drink.
With a sudden vague horror, Marrim realized the youth did, in fact, bear some of her husband's features, the thoughtful dark eyes too wide apart, the thin kindly mouth with the oddly nervous smile, the gauntness about the cheeks that bore witness to the grievous illness which had nearly claimed Eedrah when they first met. Impossible. Unthinkable. Could Perril have tapped into the same realm of illogical poetry that gave Catherine's Ages their power? And even if she had, how could she have managed to copy a face right down to individual features? Marrim shook her head sharply, and the boy scowled and moved away from her, leaving the jug of water at her elbow. Awkwardly, she took it into her hands and tried to sip from it. The hammering in her forehead made it difficult to think.
The lad made an obeisance to the Princess and resumed his place at her side. Perril smiled at him, holding out her hand gracefully. Eyes lighting, he leaned forward to kiss it with an eagerness that was almost comical. Perril snatched her hand away with a bright laugh and resettled it on the armrest of her chair, eyes twinkling at the kicked-dog expression on his face. Coran, Marrim realized with an inner sigh. The boy infatuated with the Princess, doomed each day to try a new way to win her affection.
"Playing with your pets, Perril?" Her voice would have been severe even were she not suffering from a headache.
"They love me," Perril said again, spreading her arms wide in a sweeping gesture. The youth and old man flanking her chair each bowed their heads towards her and reached to grip the ornate top of the chair in unison, forming a perfect triangle. Again time seemed to hold its breath. There was a sudden stillness that drew prickles along Marrim's spine, as for a moment she could hear no other sound than the faint lapping of water--and even that was strangely muffled.
"Perril?" she asked sharply.
The Princess stirred and smoothed a wrinkle in the white fabric draped across her knees. "Hmmm?" She giggled and leaned forward. "You know, you still haven't given me the courtesy of your name. Please believe me when I tell you that they will do whatever I say, even throw you into the Lake and drown you. And that will most certainly be my command, if you are a threat to me or mine."
"I don't doubt it," Marrim muttered, then rallied behind her temper. "You know perfectly well who I am, Perril, so stop playing a fool. I'm your teacher, whose husband's books you stole to write this broken Age!"
"It's not broken!" Perril cried with sudden animation, drawing a flat-lipped scowl from Pradoglahn which he turned disdainfully upon Marrim. "It's perfect! Everything balances, everything works."
"For now," Marrim conceded dubiously. "But at least you admit you wrote it. You're not one of them, Perril, any more than you're a character in the story."
"I am their Princess," the girl insisted with utter certainty. "Come. I will show you--"
Her words were cut short by a scream from the lake at Marrim's back.
"Atrus, I can't wait." The gaunt young man twisted the hem of Yeesha's shapeless tunic in his hands, bouncing her distractedly on his knee. "Something has gone wrong, or she would have returned by now."
"Anna needs her father here." Atrus leaned forward, resting a hand on the younger man's bony shoulder with firm reassurance and brushing a wisp of hair back from his daughter's bright eyes. "Marrim has wisdom enough to cope with whatever trouble has come to her there."
Eedrah spoke over Yeesha's giggling as she reached for Atrus' scratchy chin. "What if the Age isn't stable after all? What if she's hurt? You can't know for certain!" The toddler's cheeks puckered with the beginnings of discontent, picking up something of her babysitter's mood. She made a querelous squawk.
"Then one of us will find her." Catherine had been listening from the doorway, and now swept into the study, halting by Atrus' chair. "We have more experience in such travels than you, Eedrah."
Atrus smiled wryly. "Too much... Yeesha, if you please." He gently prized her small fingers out of the corner of his mouth.
"And I think," Catherine continued, "I shall go, since Perril knows me well. Beloved, you are quite right: one of us must stay to guard the children."
"No!" It was completely involuntary; Atrus found himself blinking at the fierce edge in his own voice, which drew an indignant whimper from his daughter.
Eedrah turned an accusing eye on the older man. "What, you will let my wife face unknown danger, but not yours, because... because you misplaced her once already?"
Atrus stiffened in his chair with shock and anger, but it was Catherine's steely gaze that made Eedrah swallow, drop his eyes and his voice. "Forgive me, Master Atrus. But you must see this from my position. I can't leave her to the unknown anymore than you could leave each other stranded."
"Let us give her a little more time," Catherine said soothingly. "If she hasn't returned by next gartavo, then I shall set out."
Atrus was still shaken, and his voice gruffer than usual. "Perhaps I should speak to the Guilds about borrowing a Maintainer's suit after all."
"No," Catherine interjected, seeing the resentment beginning to flare in Eedrah's face again. "As you said before, they will probably spend days arguing over whether to burn the Book or let us go at all, washing their hands of this ahrotahntee foolishness. The Age is sound enough, for now. If anything, it is the people who will be giving Marrim trouble." She stooped slightly, lifting up her skirts to reveal the barred-circle hilt of a Moiety knife protruding from the top of her boot. "Which is something, I fear, I have been more trained to deal with than either of you."
Eedrah's mouth fell open; Atrus himself only glanced at her with fond resignation.
Part IV: Here Be Dragons
Young Coran was the first to react, grabbing up his spear and dashing down towards the lake, even as most people scattered in all directions from the shoreline. Most of them made for the castle. Marrim turned to look with a sinking feeling settling in her stomach, bracing herself for the inevitable.
Green waves rolled back from a huge head like a small lumpy island in the middle of the lake, vaguelty reptilian in shape with a spined frill running vertically down its stout neck into the water. Its skin was the color of gray mud, wrinkled and knobby, with bulbous eyes and bits of water weeds dripping from its hide with soft plops into the water. An upended boat lay bobbing nearby, and in the water were an old man and a girl, thrashing frantically for shore.
Coran's feet threw up a spray of water as he rushed into the shallows and leapt into one of the abandoned boats lying with its prow towards the middle of the lake. His momentum caused the little boat to skid forward towards the monster. He brandished his spear fearlessly, shouting a challenge, while waving for the pair in the water to swim behind the flimsy craft.
Marrim prayed that this part of the story would also hold, and whirled on Perril, who had risen to her feet. "Order everyone inside!" she snapped. "And get this ridiculous chair out of the way!" She began wrestling the throne out of the middle of the entryway as best she could with her hands still bound. Terrified inhabitants elbowed their way past her, all struggling to get within the sanctuary of the castle.
Again, there was an abrupt silence. Marrim nearly fell backwards in surprise, having just braced herself for the young woman carrying a laden fruitbasket who was about to careen into her. But there was no collision. There was no movement at all. All around her, figures in the throes of fear and confusion were poised in mid-flight, some on one leg, some with mouths open around words and cries she could not hear. Marrim had just wits enough to lift the chair in both hands and sling it up and around to one side, setting it against the outer wall of the castle and clear of the entrance, before chaos resumed. The woman with the basket staggered past, and all the other people converging on the gates surged forward, shoving Marrim along with them.
Perril, meanwhile, was walking down to the lake's edge, arms raised, chin high. She called three times, and for a second time that morning, all the birds that had not already scattered rose from the reeds and the lake's surface. They boiled overhead, swirling and shrieking in a clamorous uproar that all but drowned out the cries of the people, their wingbeats drumming the air and Marrim's aching head. Coran, out on the water, crouched low in the boat for cover as the birds began to dive at the great lizard, striking it with bills or clawed, webbed feet.
Marrim managed to squeeze her way free of the crush, and saw that those people who had not yet reached the shelter of the walls had turned and were standing frozen in place, watching the tableau in awe. Perril stood erect and undanted at the lake's edge, hands still outstretched like the wings of the birds at her command.
Again time seemed to hold its breath. Like figures in a tapestry, there was the Princess, the churned-up water, the wheeling birds, the huge loathsome head, Coran clambering to his feet, and the two unfortunates still floundering towards the nearest shore. The scene stuttered into motion again as Marrim started down towards them. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Coran draw back his arm and, in slow motion, hurl his spear at the creature's huge red eye. The point struck the nose and glanced off, as, with a bubbling hiss, the behemoth submerged and vanished.
Waves rolled past Marrim, soaking her to the waist, as she waded into the reeds to haul the panicky girl out of the water. "Up you go," she said, fighting waterlogged clothes, wrist restraints, and the child's own thrashings to drag her free. She backed onto mostly-dry ground. Hearing the girl choking and sputtering, Marrim clumsily turned her onto her side and thumped her back like a baby. The girl's coughing subsided, and she lay in a tearful heap in the grass.
Marrim took a few moments to register the sounds of excited cheers, a soft hooting sound almost like birds. The birds themselves were still wheeling restlessly in the sky, and Coran, dripping from head to toe in a boat half full of water, was paddling his way back. The applause, of course, was for Perril, who had somehow managed to stay dry during the confusion, and was now holding the hand of the elder fisherman as he kissed her knuckles, dropping to one knee.
Marrim fumbled with the clasp of her guild cloak and draped it loosely around the sniffling girl. "You're going to be fine," she told the child in a low voice, hoping her tone would convey more than the words. "You're safe now. The monster is gone." She winced to hear herself using the same word that was in the Descriptive Book. How easy it was to fall into the story! But here it was true. And the unsteady smile the round-faced girl gave her was real enough.
Perril was addressing her people, furtively beginning to spill out from the castle again, like small creatures emerging from their burrows after the storm has passed. Marrim wondered how much they understood, since she was using snatches of their language only, and the rest was in D'ni. But it didn't seem to matter. Perril could do or say no wrong in their eyes, and they listened raptly. At least it helped calm them; the girl Marrim had helped was sitting up and smiling now, the recent terror apparently already forgotten.
Marrim's head still hurt. What she wouldn't do right now for a long soak in the hot springs of Tomahna!
"The ancient enemy has returned," Perril was saying in what she probably meant to be grand tones. "But we are brave. We are strong. The birds protect us. Return to your work. I promise you, we shall find a way to overcome this evil, together."
Pradoglahn, beside her as always, bowed his head and spoke a few sentences in his gravelly voice, which carried rather better than hers. Docilely, the people made obeisances to their Princess and began to filter out around the lake, some picking up discarded fruit-baskets, others heading fearlessly out in the water to retrieve the boats that were drifting or capsized.
"Perril," Marrim said heavily. "We should get them away from here. Someone's going to get hurt before you kill that beast."
"I shall keep my people from harm," said Perril firmly.
Maybe you will, Marrim thought, watching as the Princess turned back to Coran, who had finally reached land and was kneeling before her. She set her hands on his shoulders, bent forward, and beamed down at him. "Well done, my champion." He smiled upwards hopefully, but once again the hoped-for kiss was not planted on his waiting brow. Perril straightened and turned away.
"And now," the Princess said cheerfully, "I shall show you the wonders of this land. Come, stranger."
Part V: Steady State
Bona-fide wonders were perhaps scarcer than Perril seemed to think, yet Marrim found herself relaxing and her headache easing as they strolled around the fringes of the lake. It was a busy, prosperous community. Some folk were pruning and harvesting the fruit trees, others the reeds growing around the shore or the lily-fruits bobbing out on the water. The thumping sound came from wooden tables on which the natives pounded out the pith of the reeds, separating the fibers for cloth or making a thin sort of paste which, when dried, turned into a sort of felt that had any number of applications. For fuel, Marrim discovered, they used oil from the lily-fruits or peat from the shallows, which helped keep the lake from oversilting. The familiar smell of smoked fish reminded her of Averone; drying racks were set on the farther shore, where the breeze kept odors away from the castle. Birds, too, were hunted and smoked in limited quantities, but the people were always careful not to catch too many, and likewise had set rules and rituals about the gathering of eggs. One sector of the lake was set aside for rafts of delicate, fine-leafed water plants which the birds seemed to favor most; it also served as a sheltering nursery for minnows. Marrim had to admit, grudgingly, that Atrus' lessons on balanced systems had been well-learned.
How to extricate Perril, then, without disturbing the balance?
"And this is J'anifa," Perril was saying, back in the castle courtyard at the conclusion of their tour. "She is our best weaver."
The woman, sandy-haired and round-faced like all her folk, bobbed her head pleasantly to Marrim as she looked up from her loom, which had been brought out into the courtyard for the day. The climbing sun cast slanted rays down through the ever-present drifting clouds, making the threads of the loom sparkle like fine gold hair. Marrim smiled back, but the woman was already absorbed in her work again, tossing the shuttle from hand to hand through the warp with a practiced motion that Marrim remembered very well from the village of her childhood. It was a soothing, relaxing sound, the soft strum of wood against threads, and she found herself wondering again, almost jealously, if there was really anything wrong with this eccentric Age. But there had been the time-stops. Unless the mild concussion was giving her hallucinations, something wasn't fitting together properly.
And there were the people. J'anifa's singleminded efficiency seemed almost sinister to Marrim, although it reminded her too of the infuriatingly patient D'ni themselves, who could afford to take more time on their work than shorter-lived races. Here, however, Marrim could not shake the feeling that it ran deeper. Maybe they merely did not talk to strangers, or those who did not share their language. Maybe it was simply custom to carry out their assigned tasks with less talk and fuss than she was used to from her own village. But she had the disquieting impression that these folk were always this fixed in their community roles, like herd beasts methodically browsing their way across a field in a straight line. The problem was most marked in those named by the Descriptive Book itself. Other folk chatted and laughed among themselves genially, but those like Coran and J'anifa had yet to speak a word.
A pair of laughing children dashed past, a boy chasing a girl with a whisk made of a frayed reed. Marrim smiled. That at least was normal. Speaking of children.
"Perril, how long have you lived here?" she asked, trying once again to chip her way past the girl's stubborn facade.
"I came to them on the back of a great bird," Perril said serenely, "from the land of my fathers in the sky. All the people gazed upwards in amazement--"
"Yes, yes, I know all that," Marrim said impatiently, moving towards the wall to examine an odd pattern in the stone. "But you must miss home, surely. What about likka-soup? It's your favorite dish! You won't get any here."
The girl blinked at Marrim, unconsciously tracing a fingertip along her elaborate braids. "There are better things to be had in this life than likka-soup," she said solemnly.
Marrim's laughter was cut short. She had ducked under one of the eerie tree branches, and come face to face with the odd ribbed markings that had drawn her curiosity. They were the imprint of wing feathers, framed by the white lines of bones embedded in the rock. "Ugh," she said in surprise. "Perril, your castle has dead things in the walls."
The girl looked troubled at least for a moment. "Yes, I know. I can't help it. I didn't put them there." Then she tossed her head. "Birds, trees, water-plants, fish--the castle is made of everything in this Age. It belongs to this Age and its people."
Marrim was afraid to study too closely some of the other odd textures and glints of white she saw speckling the masonry. The places where the walls had lifted away from the ground in defiance of gravity left irregular arched openings that reminded her of mouths.
"At least you concede it's an age," Marrim pointed out. "So why not admit you recognize me? And what about cutting me loose? You know quite well I'm not your enemy."
Perril's hazel eyes were stern as she tipped her chin up to address her elder. "Will you give me your word, Marrim, that you will not try to take me away from my own people?"
Marrim hesitated, twisting her hands against the scratchy bands that bound them. "I cannot do that," she said finally, meeting Perril's gaze squarely. "You've stolen a book and defied your teachers, and what's worse, the Age you've written may not be stable. I'll do what I must."
"It's perfectly stable!" the Princess insisted, her young face taut with indignation. At her tone of voice, the locals in the vicinity turned and scowled at Marrim. Coran, as usual, tightened his grip on his spear. Old Pradoglahn watched with cool impassivity, but unlike the others, he had been staring at Marrim fixedly throughout the tour.
Perril reined back her temper with visible effort. "At least you have the integrity to be forthright, Marrim. I will try to find a just way to deal with you." She beckoned Pradoglahn and whispered her instructions. Nodding grimly, he moved to Coran's side and gave a curt, blunt command. Marrim, fuming over the fabric of lies and the haughty praise of honesty, found herself nose to nose with the business end of a spear, and had little choice but to be herded into the building.
Part VI: Night Visitors
Marrim awoke in the clammy darkness of a small, oblong room, and struggled for mental clarity. Wherever she was, the air felt cold and damp, and diffuse fog drifted in through a wide window set into the far wall, bowed outward slightly. Wall hangings of grass and reeds woven into pleasing geometric patterns covered most of the stonework, which was probably just as well. Furniture was sparse: some folding stools propped against a wall, a low wicker table laden with woven baskets of nuts and fruits, and a rack suspending a skin of water over a small basin. In the middle of the room, rising like a twisted column, one stout dead trunk writhed its way up from the floor to the ceiling. It looked rather sinister in the dim moonlight sifting through the fog.
Marrim did not care to look at it.
Memory unpleasantly jarred, she knew there was no point in checking the door, since one of the natives had been pressed into service as a guard. Instead, Marrim paced to the window, joints stiff from lying too long on cold, hard stone. Propping her elbows on the deep sill, she leaned out, peering listlessly into the silvered mist rising from the darker blackness which must be the lake. Pretty it might be, but she was in no mood to appreciate the phantom shapes that swirled and teased the edges of her vision. Did Perril's balcony have this view, or did the moon beam down shafts of silver light to etch delicate patterns on the walls of the royal boudoir?
A high, keening sound like a gull's cry made her start. That was what had roused her! She had not heard that sound in so long, and it summoned memories of home. Letting her eyes drift half closed, Marrim tried to soothe herself with the remembered feel of water sliding underneath her feet, through the thin hull of a canoe. The odd noise came again once or twice, never far away, and apparently always at ground level.
Her eyes snapped open again as something glided below on the open ground. She froze, wondering if she could be seen. The stealthy black figure did not move quite like the generally placid and unhurried villagers. Was it Coran? But there was no spear, and from what she could make out, the garments were more voluminous, heavy, like long skirts.
Marrim gave a squawk as she sleepily put two and two together. "Catherine!"
The figure below turned, approached, and almost slipped out of Marrim's line of sight as Catherine traced her way carefully around the building. "Where?" she called up, hands cupped as much to keep the sound from radiating as to focus her whisper for her friend's ears.
Marrim thrust out her free hand to wave frantically. Her captors had partially relented earlier in the evening, freeing one of her hands but keeping the other secured so that she wouldn't think of trying to climb down. Her left forearm was wrapped in a sleevelike cuff whose fibers were cunningly interwoven into a belt that passed around her waist. The craftsmanship was such that it would take days to fray the fibers with her fingernails, although its maker--the girl whom she'd plucked from the lake--had braided it in less time than it took her to copy two pages.
Catherine moved swiftly to the wall directly under Marrim's window, vanishing from view. Marrim set a knee on the sill and crammed her head and shoulders out into the open so that she could peer down.
"Wait. You'll fall," Marrim whispered anxiously.
"Then I'll bruise. Hush." With painstaking slowness, Catherine was scaling the uneven rocky surface, taking advantage of cracks whose origin Marrim was still trying not to think about, and the occasional dead branch protruding from the wall. Marrim waited tensely until Catherine reached her level, then backed out of the window.
Catherine propped her chin on the stone sill and rested for a moment, catching her breath. "I'm not so young now, am I?" she asked rhetorically.
Marrim tried to reach for her hand. "Are you sure you're all right there?" she whispered.
"I'm fine, dear. My village on Riven was all on stilts and ladders, and the Moiety had me scrambling up and down walls worse than this to keep out of Gehn's sight." Her voice suddenly sharpened as she peered into the dark little chamber. "Are you imprisoned?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Help me," Catherine murmured abruptly. "I think I can squeeze through."
Marrim reached hurriedly for Catherine's forearm, locking her hand around the inside of Catherine's wrist so that she could mirror the gesture for the strongest grip. There was an alarming yet comical moment when Catherine nearly wedged herself in, but eventually she managed to get her hips clear and clamber her way down to the floor.
She was stifling laughter at herself as she regathered her skirts. "Not the best outfit for climbing," she concluded, then looked over her friend in the dim light. Her fingers fumbled over the elaborate bindings holding Marrim's hand against her body. "Oh, thank the Maker. I thought you'd lost your arm! Does it hurt?" She stooped, reaching for something tucked in the top of her boot.
"Yes, my shoulder, but don't wor--" Marrim paused, seeing the glint of the knife-blade. "Wait. They'll know you were here."
"Then you mean to stay?" Catherine seized Marrim's elbow firmly while sliding the knife under the belt. "If you're still here in the morning, they'll have no cause to quibble with you. I'm not leaving you like this." She spared no time for argument, slicing through the interweaving that bound belt to wrist-cuff. That was enough to loosen and unravel the latter, and both fell to the floor with a soft rustle.
Marrim's face flooded with an odd mixture of chagrin and relief that found release in brief laughter. "I thought Eedrah would have been here by now to upbraid me for leaving him so long."
"He would be. I fear I persuaded him to wait, so that I could see whether you really needed our aid." Catherine circled the small chamber and returned with two stools and the water skin. This she handed to Marrim, then set about placing seats for both of them, knee to knee. "Now tell me."
Marrim swallowed a few mouthfuls and splashed water on her face to clear her head. Then, clasping Catherine's hands, she methodically reported all that she had observed and experienced during the previous day. The mental focus required to mimic Atrus' scientific mode was oddly comforting.
When the tale had concluded, Catherine sighed. "So, what do you propose?"
Faint resentment drew a frown from Marrim. "I was wondering what you thought I should do." She regretted the words as soon as she'd spoken them. Perril was her responsibility, as she had argued with Atrus.
"We cannot leave things as they are. As you say, the time stops are troubling." Catherine shook her head, briefly sounding like Atrus as she interrupted herself to observe, "The phenomenon is quite fascinating, however. Why aren't you affected? Perhaps because you aren't in the Book?"
"I have no idea." Marrim tried to mull things over again with more detachment, now that she was feeling less helpless and a little more comfortable. "So far, everything has followed the story precisely. I'm afraid to test what will happen if we deviate from it."
"Well," Catherine said thoughtfully, "In normal Ages, natural features may change that were named in the original Description. A forest can burn down. A landslide can alter the profile of a hill. Yet the Link does not shift, nor do we find instabilities. But that is because garo-hevtee is mostly used to describe parameters, general guidelines, not absolutes. Specifics are Written only with great care."
"And the narrative structure of this Book is already dangerously fragile."
Catherine leaned forward. "It sounds as if you have decided that it's better not to remove Perril."
"Right," Marrim said, after a short pause. "Even if I could find a way to accomplish it, I'm almost certain her absence would be enough of a contradiction to cause problems. She's integral to the whole tale."
"I am relieved to hear you say that, Marrim," said a gravelly voice from the shadows at the far end of the room. "We are a peaceful people, and I have no wish to harm you."
Marrim's stool creaked dangerously as she turned and shoved herself to her feet, unconsciously planting herself between Catherine and the intruder. "Pradoglahn?" she asked in disbelief.
"Yes." His sandalled feet barely made a sound as he moved towards them, and all they could see of him was a tall silhouette.
Catherine had risen too, settling her hands on Marrim's shoulders. "Perhaps you will introduce me?" she asked quietly.
It was a little easier to think with Catherine solidly at her back. "This--this is Pradoglahn, the head of the community."
"Ah yes, of course." Catherine held up a hand in greeting. "Catherine. Once Marrim's teacher as Marrim is to Perril." The challenge in her tone was subtle, but deliberate. "How is it you speak D'ni? Has Perril been here so long?"
"Our Princess came to us a short time ago," he answered steadily. "But I know her language and her heart. It was her gift to me. It was I who taught the dawn-singers words from the Descriptive Book she was destined to Write."
Marrim breathed out. "'Pradoglahn, who understands the Princess completely.'" Wonder tinged her voice. "I can't believe it. The Art does not work this way."
"Then perhaps," the old man grated, "you have underestimated the young lady whom I am pleased to serve."
Catherine weighed his voice in the darkness, having little else to rely upon. "Then you know who and what she is--in truth?"
His voice softened with affection, speaking of her in the fond tones of a grandfather describing a headstrong child. "A child. A dreamer. She wrote of us in a great Book, which somehow opened a gate to our home, and brough her to us. She did not make us. But we have been waiting for the Princess of Birds as long as reeds have grown towards the sky. So, you might say, our hearts Wrote of her long before she was born, as much as she has Written us. And you will not take her from us, now that our Princess has come at last."
"But she's not a Princess! If you truly know her, you must know that!" Marrim said, exasperated. "She's living a lie. What's worse, she's making you her slaves. She's just an ordinary girl."
"Ordinary?" He stepped around the intruding tree-skeleton and glowered down at her. "How can you cling to such blindness? You said yourself that the Art should not work this way. She had the beauty of spirit to dream all this, and she has a gift you yourselves can't fathom, to make it come true. This you call ordinary?"
Marrim had no quick answer to that. Catherine spoke behind her ear. "Perhaps not. But one thing puzzles me." She was choosing her words with care. "Was it not w ritten that you are always at her side?"
As if in reply to her words, there came an unsettling rumble, more felt than heard. The nuts on the table rattled together. There was a distant grinding noise, a muted jolt, and then all was still again.
"What was that?" the old man asked, voice laced with suspicion.
"Maybe you had better return to her," Marrim guessed. "It's part of the story, after all."
She had the impression that he was glaring at her, but again it was too dark to be sure. "Very well," he said heavily. "But remember also what you have said here. The Princess has come. Here she must stay." With a stiff bow, he departed.
"There is not much time," Catherine stated with unfathomable steadiness when he had gone. She let her hands fall. "I will tell Eedrah you are safe, and see what, if anything, we can do to stabilize this Age."
Again, Marrim felt that brief taste of unease and resentment, wishing Catherine were not leaving most of this burden to fall on her shoulders alone. Yet all she said was, "Very well." She started back towards the window. "Pity the old man didn't offer to escort you out."
"Now where are you going?" Catherine teased gently. "I think you are tired, Marrim. Aren't you forgetting something?" She drew a slim Linking Book from the large inside pocket of her jacket.
Marrim stifled a startled laugh. "I suppose I am."
Catherine held it out to her. "Have you a safe place to store this?" she asked in a low voice.
"I'll find one," Marrim replied, fingers closing over it in relief as she opened it to the right page. "They took mine when I arrirved, Catherine."
"You will have to find it before you leave, then," Catherine cautioned her.
Marrim nodded. "I know, I know." She held up the Book.
"Good luck." Catherine set her hand on the panel and faded into the mist.
Marrim clutched the Linking Book to her chest, simply standing and thinking for a long time after her mentor was gone. The room seemed darker.
Part VII: Cracks In Stone
The sound of proud singing roused her in the lavender dawn, and this time Marrim observed the morning ritual from above. She nibbled nuts and fruit while she watched as a spectator, noting how regular were the lines of people filing out, how precise their chant, how every single note was the same length. The scene stopped briefly in mid-song, just as the birds launched themselves in a flurry from the cover of the reeds, but this time the many-voiced chorus continued even while the people's faces were frozen with mouths wide open. Waiting, Marrim gripped the windowsill tightly and reassured herself that she was still breathing even if the rest of the world had taken leave of itself. She had time to observe the speckles on the breasts of the nearest birds, caught in midair with wings unfurling just above the tasselled crests of reeds gently bending from the downdraft of their flight. Even the tendrils of mist rising from the lake were motionless, held in static, artistic swirls like the symbols of Narayan. She was beginning to search the sea of sandy heads below for familiar figures, when the dance of motion resumed. Birds hurtled into the sky.
A piercing cry from across the lake heralded the arrival of the great raptors, resplendent in their blue and white plumage; they swung past her window and out of sight to the left with a rush of air. At close range, their size was even more awesome, and she could hear the downbeat of every wing-stroke as they passed. Then a call from above ended the song below, and the people turned as one from the gleaming white sunrise to face the castle. Sure enough, a short time later, Perril swooped out on the back of the larger of the giant birds, calling down joyfully to her people. The last of the night's mist sparkled on her pale green gown like dew on the grass. There was delighted laughter and applause as she let go and raised her hands high with fingers spread like outstretched feathers, feeling the wind's swift passage. After a few more aerial maneuvers she returned to land, and the people began to fan out around the lake for their day's chores.
Marrim paced over to the table in her cell, pulled up a folding stool, and sat down to make some more notes in her journal. This, at least, Perril's folk had left in her possession. She had hardly finished when the scuff of sandals in the hallway alerted her to visitors, and she turned to greet them as the door swung open.
"And now, Marrim," Perril said, sweeping into the room with her pair of followers in tow, "It is time to--" she stopped, staring at the woman sitting with hands resting on her knees. "You are free," she said with disapproval.
"I am still here," Marrim pointed out drily.
"So I see." Perril leaned sideways to peer around the dead tree at Marrim's back, as if searching for accomplices. "How can I be magnanimous if you cheat, Marrim? I am disappointed in you."
"And Eedrah and I are more than disappointed in you." Marrim shut her journal with a snap. "I need my Linking Book back, Perril."
"Oh, come, come," Perril replied, laughing in the face of Marrim's sternness. The girl pranced over and laid hands over hers. "I'm not here to fight with you, not on such a fine morning. I've decided. We're going to have a great feast in honor of our guest from a far land."
Marrim sighed. What game was she playing today? "As you wish, Princess."
Perril beamed. "Much better." She looked over at Pradoglahn and Coran. "What did I tell you? She can be reasonable." As she stood to leave, Pradoglahn's stoic visage was broken briefly by a pleading glance.
Perril gave him an indulgent smile. "Hmmm? Oh. Yes, of course." She addressed Marrim brusquely. "We need your assistance."
The Averonese woman raised her head warily. "Yes?"
"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to wrestle with the monster of the lake," Perril said reassuringly. "That is my responsibility. I need you to investigate something for me. I don't suppose you were awakened last night by a strange sound?"
Marrim's brows lifted. "Actually, I was," she said carefully.
"We all did," Perril said, sobering for a moment. "Many of my people are afraid. I need you to study the castle's foundations and find the weakness. I think you mentioned something about being of the Guild of Stonemasons?"
"We can pretend for the sake of argument that I did," Marrim said with faint sarcasm. "I'm afraid the tremor was caused by the Book itself; it's starting to strain at the seams. But I'll see what I can do from here."
Perril's eyes clouded at the criticism of her precious book, but this time she merely nodded. "Very good. Then you are free to move about."
"I'll need my pack," Marrim insisted, "and my tools."
"Oh, very well," Perril said, waving her hand. "Coran, have the Lady Marrim's things brought to her."
As usual, the youth turned to Pradoglahn for explanation. After a few muttered words, Coran shot a dubious glance at their guest and shuffled out.
Perril beckoned. "There. And now we have a feast to arrange! Fair morning to you, Marrim." As Pradoglahn fell into step behind her, he, too, gave Marrim a measuring look.
Shoulders hunched, Marrim sat down to make a few more notes and review all that she had written, before heading to the door to follow them outside.
The warming sun felt wonderful on her face as she stepped out into the shafted light of the courtyard. The pinkish clouds were thinner today, and a light breeze was blowing off the grassy plain, carrying with it the scents of flowers. The weaver was already at her loom, and some of the younger people were streaming in and out of two openings in the castle wall carrying tables, chairs, bowls, trenchers, and assorted foods. A few smiled at Marrim as she came among them; most still appeared not to notice her.
Marrim set about her survey of the foundations, as much as one could call the distorted lower portions of the castle by that title. She wished she'd had time yesterday to sketch them, for she had a strong suspicion that the tortured stone had lifted farther away from the ground in some places, leaving irregular arched openings all along the groundline. There were definitely a few hairline cracks, most spreading out from the unsettling intrusions in the rock.
She was on her hands and knees examining one such fracture when her pack was dumped with an unceremonious thud in the grass beside her. She turned her head up to smile pleasantly at Coran, trying to disregard his eerily familiar features. He ducked his head and hurried off. Marrim retrieved a small sounding-hammer and a firemarble from her pack, and reluctantly started wiggling her way into one of the larger cavities under the ground floor.
"Why do you need your Linking Book?" Pradoglahn's voice behind her was muffled, but she barely managed to avoid bumping her head in startlement.
She wriggled backwards with an annoyed sigh and sat up, blinking in the sunlight. "Excuse me?"
"Your Linking Book," he repeated carefully, voice lower and more gruff than ever. "What do you need it for?"
"To go back," she replied shortly.
He was standing beside her pack with arms folded. "Will you leave and never come back?"
"Not until I'm sure your world is stable." As if to punctuate her words, there was another distant booming sound. "But in the meantime, I want to make sure none of your people uses the Book accidentally."
"What would happen to them?" he asked grimly. "Would the D'ni harm them?"
Marrim shrugged. "Probably not," she replied. "But they don't trust visitors any more than you do."
His thin lips actually twisted in the ghost of a smile. "I see." Abruptly, he turned on his heel and strode off.
Shaking her head, Marrim crouched down and began worming her way under the stones again, not without an inner shudder at the thought of all that brittle stone overhead.
Some time later, Marrim was standing before Perril's throne under the main archway, notebook in hand. "Long-term, I'm afraid that if we don't replace these sections, they're going to fail and collapse. In the short-term, I think we can shore them up by filling in the cavities with hard-packed earth. But that will only work as long as the rock doesn't distort much more."
Perril said firmly, "We will make it work. Pradoglahn? Do you understand? Will you collect some workmen to fill the holes? Marrim can show you how."
He bowed formally and marched towards the shore to gather a number of willing hands and necessary tools.
Marrim watched him thoughtfully. "He seems to understand your speech," she observed. "Does everyone here speak D'ni? Did you teach them?"
Perril laughed, lounging in her chair. "Who knows? He was first to greet me, when I li-- when I flew down from the sky. And you have heard the singing; they know the Book by heart. But they have their own tongue. It's quite a beautiful language, Marrim; you should stay here and learn it." The girl prattled off a few phrases, smiling. "They say I am already quite passable."
"I doubt they would tell their Princess otherwise," Marrim noted drily, glancing around at the vacant smiles of those who were nearby.
"Jealousy is unbecoming," Perril said sternly.
Marrim stifled the most obvious retort; she was not about to play a child's game of exchanging insults. Instead, she folded her arms and waited for Pradoglahn's return. Behind him marched twelve men and women bearing digging sticks and shovels on their shoulders, expressions alert and expectant. Giving them an approving nod, Marrim beckoned for them to follow her to the weakest point in the wall.
The work would not be finished in a day, or even several, for they needed to clear away a great deal of earth under the edge of the building in order to reach and fill the hollow pockets further in. Marrim could only speak to them through Pradoglahn, but hand motions such as Atrus used when visiting new Ages helped to get across most of her directions. She broke out a few firemarbles to help with the digging; these proved to be such a source of fascination and distraction for them that they were as much a hindrance as a help. Slowly, carefully, often wedged on hands and knees or even on their stomachs, the natives worked with uncomplaining patience in the cramped, dark space. Marrim could not help but be impressed by their perseverance.
Eventually Perril sent messengers to call them to the feast. Marrim and her small team went down to the lake's edge to bathe; she kept half an eye on the deeper water the whole time. J'anifa brought her a clean tunic, loose pants, and sandals, which she accepted with earnest thanks she hoped the weaver would understand. The woman only bobbed her head pleasantly, as before, and then headed back towards the arched gateway, apparently to resume her place at her loom. Returning from the lake, Marrim was met by Noeka, the girl she had fished from the water the day before. Blushing, the youngster stammered something and held up Marrim's Guild Cloak, neatly folded and obviously cleaned. Marrim smiled and touched her cheek before donning it.
The feast was like none Marrim had ever seen. Instead of a few great long tables, small groups of two to six sat on folded blankets around the upended hulls of small boats. Laughing children roved between them, carrying bowls of fruits, nuts, bread, smoked fish and spitted birds; the diners snagged food as the platters passed by. Drink was tossed, literally, from hand to hand; skins were corked and passed back and forth with lighthearted banter. Now and then one of the glittering blue insects from the lake ventured into their midst, settling on or near someone; Marrim noticed that the people held quite still and watched raptly until these tiny but beautiful visitors darted away again.
Marrim had been given the place of honor facing the Princess; Pradoglahn, as usual, was at her side, and there was an empty place for Coran, who was prowling restlessly around the tables at the perimeter of the gathering. Evidently the atmosphere of the banquet did not agree with him. Perril was chattering away about the harmony of the lake's systems and the balance between all the creatures and plants.
"What about the monster?" Marrim queried. "How does it fit into the balance?"
"You must not think of it as a monster," Perril whispered conspiratorially. "It can't help being huge and unsightly. Do you remember the tale of Kerath? I mean to--"
There was a familiar shriek from the edge of the company. But it was not a giant lizard menacing them this time. At first, Marrim truly could not make out what was causing the commotion. Following pointing fingers, she finally spotted Coran standing on the grass before the gateway, spear braced against his shoulder with the point angled downwards. It was aimed squarely between the shoulderblades of a girl lying facedown on the grass, sprawled as if she had been flung there. It was Noeka.
Part VIII: Cracks In Spirit
Eedrah sat in the renovated study, Perril's book spread out before him on the desk. Buzzing through the glass doors, he could hear the rise and fall of sober voices as Atrus and Catherine discussed their findings in the sun porch outside. His hand hovered over the linking panel, covering the image of an oval lake fringed by tall stands of reeds and gently dappled with slight ripples. He brushed his fingers across empty air. A click and rattle made him look up from his anxious musings.
"Anna, put that down at once!"
His daughter slipped the firemarble behind her back and did her best to look innocent.
More exasperated than usual, he rounded the desk with a bound and held out his hand. "How many times have I told you? Firemarbles are not toys! Give it here."
Eyes wide, she edged away from her father and let the marble drop to the tiled floor with a slight flash as it struck the hard surface. Eedrah snatched it up at once and set it back in the lamp. Anna's eyes watered, and she sat down on the floor and wrapped her arms around herself, beginning to cry.
After several years, a parent could still feel helpless in the face of his child's tears. Eedrah was no exception. He had to will himself to remain stern. "They could hurt you, Anna. Someone almost burned up this whole room, and Atrus with it. Promise me you won't play with them."
Full-fledged sobbing erupted as Anna rocked herself back and forth.
He dropped to one knee, unable to mask completely the hint of desperation in his eyes. "Promise me, Anna," he repeated, stroking her hair.
Lip trembling, she nodded and mumbled an inaudible but sufficient answer. He settled the rest of the way to the floor and gathered her into his arms. "I miss Mama too," he told her. "She'll be home soon."
The double doors swung open. Atrus pushed his goggles up and peered around. "Is everything all right?" he asked, catching sight of them.
"Just someone in need of a nap," Eedrah said, not realizing how gaunt and tired his own face was.
"Ah." Atrus smiled down at the girl. "Well, that much can be amended."
Catherine, standing behind him in the door with Yeesha in her arms, suggested, "Perhaps two someones." She slipped past Atrus and glided to the desk, reaching down to flip the Book's cover closed.
Eedrah followed her eloquent hands with his eyes, unknowingly. "Any progress?" he pressed, ignoring the suggestion.
"Little," Atrus admitted. "The Book's style is beyond our frame of reference. If we add to it, we will have nothing to go on except instinct." His gaze turned towards Catherine.
"There may be one other option," she said grimly, "But it holds great risk. The people in the story are embedded in the Book's text like threads in a tapestry. If we attempt to pull them out of context, they may not survive."
"Well, if what my wife said is true," Eedrah argued, "Your tapestry is beginning to unravel."
"Mama?" Anna whimpered, still crying against his shoulder.
He hugged her more tightly. "Atrus and Catherine won't let anything happen to her."
They exchanged silent glances at his unspoken demand.
The festive merrymaking by the lake had come to a standstill. People began surging to their feet, their murmurings more bewildered than furious. Coran shouted something, and everyone halted at once. So did Coran. Time had caught itself up short again.
Without any clear plan, Marrim rose from her place and hurried towards the young man. For once she prayed that the unsettling moment would last. What could she do? She had nothing at hand, nothing except--
Except her Guild Cloak. She pulled it off and cast it over his head, just as he came to life again.
Coran straightened with a startled exclamation, the shaft of his spear tangling with the heavy, dark cloth as he tried to shake it off. Taking advantage of his temporary blindness, Marrim grabbed his shoulders and yanked backwards. He lurched but kept his balance, swinging his weapon around like a club. Marrim backpedalled with a yelp, clutching at her side where the wooden shaft had landed a glancing but painful blow. The natives were converging around them now, some to help Noeka to her feet, and some to tackle her assailant. Perril's shrill reproach cut through the hubbub. "Coran!"
His body jerked as if he had been kicked, and he stopped struggling. Head drooping, he waited dumbly for her approach and incredulous scolding. "What in the Maker's name were you doing?" Genuinely distressed, she waved away those who had latched onto his shoulders and arms, took the cloak by its hem, and lifted it from his head with an unthinkingly graceful flourish. Tears were pouring down his cheeks, but he made no reply. "Coran, Coran," she said again more softly, searching his face. "What's wrong with you?"
There were a few mutterings from those clustered around the confrontation.
Perril looked around beseechingly. "What is it? What was it he said?"
Marrim, standing nearby, had a few guesses, but it was Pradoglahn who answered, his voice brittle with disapproval. "He was shouting that he would kill Noeka if you did not grant him a kiss, Princess."
A kicked animal could not look more dejected than the young man who stood before her, eyes fixed on the ground.
"Oh, Coran," she said with fond sadness. "Not that way. Not that way, my champion." She turned away, moving to slip her arms protectively around Noeka, who was hiding now behind two of her kin. "Can't you see I would never forgive you? You are all my subjects. I cannot have a favorite."
Coran mumbled something as Pradoglahn stepped over to him to convey Perril's words sternly. The old man's frown deepened. "He says he does not know what came over him, Princess."
Marrim's stomach clenched. She knew, of course. She had read the words that bound him.
Coran dropped to his knees, arms spread in a gesture of supplication to his Princess and his people, some of whom would not look at him now. Confused words tumbled from his lips.
"He says that he will do whatever he can to atone for his misconduct," Pradoglahn intoned.
"Then let him--" Perril said, and faltered. She was momentarily at a loss. She looked to Pradoglahn for advice. "What do you think? That is--I mean--what does my counsellor deem appropriate? For it is appropriate that his own people should judge him for acting against the spirit of the community." She rallied behind the grand words, but her voice still sounded strained.
"He is in disgrace," Pradoglahn pronounced flatly. "No one shall speak to him, or see him, until he has proven himself again."
She nodded uneasily. "Let it be so," she whispered, hugging Noeka tightly before releasing her.
Pradoglahn's voice boomed out as he proclaimed the decree in his native tongue. Evidently he added something more, for the people began to file back to their places, scattered conversation starting up again as if nothing at all had just happened. Noeka was shepherded away by Pradoglahn, and given Coran's place at the chief "table."
Coran still clutched the grass, staring into the distance. Perril stood facing him, hands twisting the soft fabric of her gown. For a moment Marrim thought time had stopped once more, but the feast was going on without them, voices gaining volume and cheer as the people reseated themselves and children began weaving between the banqueters again. It was only the Princess and the disgraced warrior who composed this frozen tableau. One would be hard-pressed to say which of the two was more visibly shaken by what had happened.
This was not part of the story, Marrim thought to herself, again trapped in the role of spectator. And what will come of it? Misgivings, not answers, were all she had.
Part IX: The End
"Well, Perril?" Marrim, taking a break from supervision of the diggings, was lounging against the sidewall of the archway with arms folded. A few days had passed, during which the Princess herself had been rather more subdued. It was quite impossible to share a word with her in private, with Pradoglahn ever nearby, but Marrim had almost ceased to notice his existence. He was like a fixture.
"The earthworks are coming along well," Perril said too brightly. "We will have to throw another banquet when the repairs are complete."
"They will not fix all that is amiss here, and you know it," Marrim said quietly. "I found three more cracks this morning. Sooner or later, the Princess of Birds must end the story and let the people begin to write their own."
"I could invite your family, too," Perril continued with obstinate determination. "I'm sure they would enjoy it here as much as you do. And Eedrah--" She faltered, remembering two faces.
Right on cue, Coran materialized silently, just as he had done once each day since his disgrace. He knelt before the throne and laid a gift at Perril's feet. Today his offering was an exquisitely carved staff, the intricate designs carved into its plain wood complemented by a lattice of light and dark grasses braided and wrapped around it in a pleasing pattern.
Observing the custom of the natives now, Perril did not look at him or acknowledge him with a word, but rather, sat stiffly in place until he rose, bowed, and departed. Then she leaned forward and picked it up awkwardly, tracing over the braidwork. "Oh," she breathed. "It's his spear, isn't it?"
There was a distant booming sound, and several birds rose from the lake restlessly, giving piping alarm-cries. They sounded oddly melencholy.
"I think so," Marrim said warily, standing away from the wall as a few sprinkles of dust rained down from the mortar. She sighed as the tremor subsided.
"But he is my warrior," Perril said, lip trembling. "My champion."
"He is no one now," Marrim reminded her, noticing how Pradoglahn stared straight ahead, expressionless, while they discussed this topic. "But still just as much a slave as everyone here. They love you not for who you really are, but because of a few lines written into a Book."
"No," Perril said, without conviction this time. "They are my people. And... and you are my friend, aren't you, Pradoglahn?"
That broke the spell. Almost abruptly, he smiled down at her. "Of course, Princess."
"Not 'Perril,'" Marrim whispered in a low voice. "To them, you will never be Perril."
Pradoglahn's expression transformed rapidly into a glower. "Leave her be," he grated, eyes fierce. "If you can find nothing good here, then go back to D'ni. You do not belong in our story. You cannot understand, for you are not of the same Book. All was well until you came. Now things are out of joint. Matters go ill. You are the contradiction, here."
Marrim opened and shut her mouth, second thoughts stifling her first response. He did have a point.
"Come, come!" Perril cried with a trace of desperation behind her faltering smile. She took both their hands. "You must be friends. I could not bear it were my teacher and counsellor to quarrel--"
Shouts and cries burst from the lakeshore, and people scattered once more as the birds lifted like a veil from the water, squawking loudly. At the center of the lake, the water frothed and roiled in upheaval. The huge spined head of the great lizard rose out of the depths with a wave that rolled back in all directions, rocking boats, lilies, reeds, anything in its path. It crested and crashed on the shore through the fences of reeds which rattled wildly.
Perril stood, face suddenly relaxed, almost bright again, as chaos erupted. "Help my people get inside, Marrim," she said calmly. "It's time."
"Perril, wait!" The first stragglers rushing for shelter pushed between them as Perril headed towards the water. They yielded for their Princess; they did not give way for Marrim as she tried to pursue the headstrong girl.
A firm grip clamped down on Marrim's shoulder. "Let the Princess try. She is our shining hope." It was Pradoglahn. "And we must obey her commands."
Frightened people were streaming past them. Out on the water, the huge head was beginning to sway from side to side, bulbous eyes scanning the shore hungrily. Marrim saw a child running towards the castle stumble and fall. Pradoglahn was right. If the Book's words held true, this would be the ending, and Perril's triumph. And they all lived happily ever after. Marrim set her teeth and began shoving her way out of the crowd, heading for the fallen youngster. Noeka again?
The Princess stood alone upon the muddy bank, framed by the stands of reeds now glistening with beads of water from the recent inundation. She was all in white again today, shining in a ray of sun that fortuitously broke through the clouds. Holding the staff in both hands, she raised it high before her face, chin upturned to meet the monstrous gaze unflinchingly, young face smiling with awe.
"I name you!" she called triumphantly. "I name you-- Garo-Vindah'ee, the great one! Show yourself! You have nothing to fear."
Cold reptilian eyes fixed upon her. Whether time stopped, or whether everyone simply held their breath, Marrim could never later be sure. With a ponderous lurch and a mighty splash that still failed to spatter the Princess' spotless dress, it heaved itself into the shallows, rising up on huge gnarled forelegs that sank deep into the mud and churned the water black. Green lilies and their round white flowers trailed from the ragged spine running down its back.
Perril's hands trembled, perhaps merely from the effort of holding up the staff. "Come to me, my friend," she cooed. "You are no monster. They only fear you for your size and your power. They will know you better soon. Come now." There was one figure, Marrim noticed, that was neither fleeing nor paralyzed by the spectacle. Coran was creeping down towards Perril, eyes fixed only upon her. Marrim actually found herself feeling irritated at the young man. He had no place in this part of the story!
The lizard bowed its great head. Perril reached up with one hand to touch the calloused gray skin of its snout. There the scene halted, giving Marrim ample opportunity to marvel at the sheer unreality of the moment. In fact, the eerie silence continued so long that she feared it was frozen for good. Eyes fixed upon the menace in the lake, Marrim made her way to Noeka lying spilled on the grass, only to find she could not lift or budge her.
Life resumed with a gutteral roar, as the beast opened its jaws wide and bore down on the Princess like a cliff sliding into the sea.
That probably would have been the end of her, and of the story, but of course, Coran was there. Her scream was cut short as he hurled himself at her. They went tumbling in the muddy water and the reeds, Perril spluttering and flailing, Coran with his arms around her, rolling underneath to keep her head out of the water. The lizard's teeth closed on empty air, and it reared back again, starting its search anew.
The birds, circling aimlessly all this time, suddenly found their voices again. They started diving at its eyes and nose, peppering it like living hail. Coran disentangled himself from Perril and kept an arm over her, silently urging her to stay below the scant cover afforded by the now somewhat bedraggled reeds. Then he stood, moving back to the spot where she had nearly met her end, to retrieve the staff from the shallows.
He held it like a spear, waiting grimfaced for the monster's attention to focus in his direction. This time, it raised a massive foot, drawing it out of the mire with a loud sucking sound that left muck dripping from its claws. Coran held his pose with ridiculous futility, his staff braced against the ground, sparing one bleak glance at his Princess. The mighty paw fell. Wood cracked and splintered. Perril's champion crumpled, crushed underfoot.
The Princess cried out his name a moment too late, and the lizard, moving to sniff the fallen youth lying facedown in the mud, turned back towards her. Marrim felt her legs moving. She waved her arms, shouting at the beast to distract it as she moved numbly towards the waterline. The huge lizard paused in its search, head swaying indecisively.
The frenzied onslaught of the birds continued, diving again and again on the monster with very little effect.
One louder shriek from above answered the lizard's gurgling breath. Sailing down through the tumult, the pair of raptors had come at last, striking at its eyes and the softer leathery skin at the sides of its neck. It gave a curious jerk upwards with its head, jaws suddenly distending, snatched the largest of them out of mid-air, and twisted to plunge beneath the surface again with a final muddy rush of water crashing onto the shore.
A small section of the castle wall collapsed behind them with a rumbling shower of dust.
The birds and waves began to settle once more.
Part X: Embers
Marrim knelt by Coran's body, mired in the mud. It took no training to see that he was past all aid; when she tried to turn him, his neck bent in ways it should not go. She forced back tears and rose to her feet to scan for more victims of the attack.
There were mercifully few. Two lily-harvesters were clambering dazedly from the fragments of a boat hurled ashore and splintered, and three of her digging team were clustered around a fourth at the edge of the rubble, who seemed to be struggling to rise. The Princess herself, bedraggled and waterlogged, was stumbling onto dry land, leaning on Pradoglahn's arm. Tears were trickling down her mud-spattered face as she limped towards Marrim and Coran.
Perril dropped to her knees in the trampled grass beside her fallen champion, reaching for one of his hands. "Can't anything be done?" she whispered to Marrim, in a flat voice that held no hope.
"I'm sorry." So much could lie behind two simple words.
"Pradoglahn!" Perril's voice cracked. "Give us a hand. Help me turn him over."
Pradoglahn stood transfixed beside them, staring out over the lake. "It is the end. The King of Birds has fallen."
"What King?" Perril asked shakily, eyes roving over Coran's twisted body as if searching for a missing puzzle piece that could put him together again.
"The greatest of the birds," he replied, expressionless. "Prophecy said that the life of the lake would come to an end when the King was slain. You were the first and last to ride the winds upon his back."
That, too, was not written in the book, some part of Marrim noted abstractly.
"Forget your stupid prophecy!" Perril burst out. "Coran is dead! Don't you care?"
Pradoglahn blinked and stooped to place a gnarled hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "He chose his end," the old man told her. "It was fated."
A thundercrack of grating stone punctuated his words, as if underscoring the contradiction. The whole castle shuddered and boomed like a huge hollow drum. Marrim looked up, searching for more signs of collapse, and scrambled to her feet. "We need to get everyone away from the building," she urged Perril.
The girl did not budge, still clutching Coran's cold hand.
"Princess," Marrim prodded, "Your people need you."
She did not look much of a princess, spattered from head to toe with dark silt from the lake, her tangled braids creeping loose and begrimed with bits of water-weeds. There was no youthful pride in her face now, only the frightened wide eyes of a child. Nevertheless, the title was enough to jar her out of her shell. She rose unsteadily and limped towards the castle. Drawing near, she shouted a few halting words in their own language, making sweeping gestures away from the tower. Heads turned. Some stared at her in numb bafflement, perhaps failing to recognize her. Others seemed to catch her meaning and broke out with frantic cries to their fellows. People began to spill from the main archway and inner courtyard's exits, some running, some hurrying, some carrying whatever they could snatch at a moment's notice.
Marrim joined her, motioning people out and helping those who still clutched baskets or bundles to carry them. Pradoglahn waded through the nervous flock, a head above the rest, exchanging clipped words with the adults and conveying Perril's orders more clearly to those who looked bewildered.
Marrim was helping J'anifa to wrestle her loom out through the entryway when Perril touched her elbow. "I'm going into the castle to make sure no one's still inside," the girl said in a low voice. Marrim nodded.
The milling chaos gradually shifted to a grassy area halfway around the lake, well back from the shoreline, at the edge of the stand of fruit trees. Crying children and anxious murmurings subsided as people began laying out sleeping mats, setting up small tables, and arranging their possessions.
Marrim met up with Pradoglahn at the edge of the crowd. "Is this everyone?" she asked, surveying the gathering of a hundred or so.
"All but one," he said, expression strained. "Find her. You must bring her back." The ground shuddered, and there was another ominous rumble from the castle.
Marrim turned her eyes towards the unstable structure dubiously. A few blocks tumbled down from the upper story. Shaking her head, she threaded her way through the makeshift camp and jogged towards the archway.
The balcony was unoccupied, and Coran still lay untended where he had fallen; Marrim made sure of both before venturing through the gate. The round courtyard was deserted now, cluttered with fallen branches and chipped masonry like the shores of Averone after a winter storm. Beneath one of the arched hollows at the foot of the inner wall was a small heap of splintered rock, and a crack extending upwards that spread out like the branches of a tree at the second story.
Thinking of Tamon's sounding bell, Marrim positioned herself as close to the middle of the circular space as possible, and bellowed towards the curved wall. "Perril! Get down here! Don't make me come after you." Please, she added silently, as another ominous creak was followed by the patter of falling mortar somewhere close by. There was no reply. Grimacing, she turned and selected one of the doorways at random, set on the inner wall just behind the archway.
The corridor was dim, and she had to move cautiously to keep from striking the wall-sconces. Some of the fat-soaked rushlights were still smoking; a few guttered with low flames. She braced herself against the wall as a distant booming sound started up again, but the tremor did not come, and she realized the sound was too regular to be natural in origin. It seemed to be coming from a stairwell she could dimly make out through an opening on one side of the hallway.
Removing a torch from its sconce, she ascended the narrow stair cautiously. "Perril!" she called again, her voice echoing loudly up the steep, narrow staircase.
There was an indistinct cry in answer, somewhere above. She took the third flight of steps in twos and halted at the next landing, peering through an irregular archway into the main corridor on this floor. Daylight was coming in through cracks in the ceiling. The thumping started again, a deliberate pounding of stone against wood.
It was definitely coming from this level, and as she made her way around the curve of the building, she narrowed it down to one of several doors set in the outer wall. The sound was cut short by another tremor and a shriek. "Perril," she called yet again.
"Marrim!" Ah, the third one down on the right. The girl's voice was muffled by the door itself. "I think you had better leave."
"You're coming with me," Marrim replied firmly. "The Princess does not die with the castle, or whatever nonsense it is you're playing now."
There was another loud thump against the wood. "The Princess," Perril stated with a hiccuping gasp that was probably a sob, "is stuck. I don't have much choice in the matter."
"How do you manage to find so much trouble in so short a time?" Marrim asked wryly of the air, moving to the door and stooping to examine the hinges. They were splintered where the wooden pins joined the stone sockets of the doorposts, and it was clear from the way the wooden door was bowed that the weight of the lintel was bearing down on it. "It's jammed tight."
"I told you," Perril said faintly. "Please, just go. I'm sorry."
"Are you in your own room? Have you a window?"
"Well, climb down, then!"
"From the balcony?"
Marrim leaned her forehead against the doorframe with a sigh. "Oh." There was another rumble; from the shuddering vibration, she guessed that a floor or wall somewhere in the building had given way and collapsed onto a level below. "Rip up some blankets and make a rope. Call your birds. Do something." Her voice cracked with frustration. "Pradoglahn will probably kill himself before he lets his princess come to harm, Perril. If I don't fetch you quickly, I'm sure he will come after you himself."
"No!" Her voice rose in panic. "Tell him I forbid it!"
"He won't listen to me. You've got to--" She paused, eying the sputtering torch. "--get away from the door."
Marrim knelt, watching the tenuous flame sputter and nearly extinguish itself as she set it against the offending barrier. "The wood is damp," she observed grimly. "This may take a while to burn through."
"Burn?" Perril's voice was still close.
"I trust that you have good ventilation in there?"
"I'll be back." Marrim propped the torch up with its flame licking against the wood, and scuttled back down the corridor, sidestepping into the first open doorway she came across. She ripped down several wall hangings, draped them and a wicker basket on a chair, and wrestled it back to the entrance to Perril's apartments. "You still with me?"
"I haven't flown away," answered Perril.
Marrim smiled crookedly, set the basket across her knee, and bent it until it snapped into fragments. Shredding the straw mats for tinder, she built a small fire at the base of the door, then applied the torch to the kindling. Flames began to creep up the fibers, which curled and flared brightly. She set to work demolishing the chair to add to the modest blaze. "Move everything flammable to the far side of the room," Marrim ordered, raising her voice. "Including yourself."
"Oh!" said Perril. As Marrim fed more kindling into the rising flames, she could hear the scrape of furniture being dragged away.
There was another jarring shudder, and the fire partly collapsed. Marrim had to dodge pieces of flaming wood skittering out into the corridor. She picked up a chairleg for a poker and herded them back into place, concentrating the fuel into two piles on each side of the door. "I might be able to jump," Perril squeaked, an edge of panic in her voice.
"And you might break your neck. Stay where you are. The door's starting to catch."
Over the sound of popping wood, she heard footsteps. A tall figure lurched into view, hurrying around the bend. "Where is she?" the old man demanded.
Marrim glanced up and thumped her fist against the upper portion of the door in answer. "In here."
He strode up and halted, craggy face strangely lit by the flames as he stared fixedly at the door, its bottom third hissing and smoking, a blackened arc spreading upwards from the fire. Then he rounded on Marrim and shoved her against the opposite wall. "What in the name of the first fliers do you think you're doing?" He reached for the door-handle.
There was a tearful yelp on the other side of the door. "Pradoglahn! Oh, you shouldn't have come. Don't scold; Marrim's doing her best."
"It won't open," Marrim said shortly.
He clenched his hands into fists and beat on the unyielding wood, unwilling to take her word for it. Sparks jumped at his knees. "We won't leave you, my dear," he called.
"I don't want anyone else to get hurt," she pleaded. "I'm ordering you to go."
The door finally started to burn in earnest, flames licking up the sides and following the seams.
"Princess," he said emphatically, defining his duty in a word.
The floor swayed like a raft underfoot.The door groaned and popped loudly, and a hairline crack of daylight appeared running vertically down from top to bottom. Marrim prayed the stone lintel would hold once the door gave way. Pradoglahn disappeared briefly and returned lugging a table-leg to use as a ram. The door repulsed several attempts, but at last, Marrim's boot kicked through near the bottom. The old man seized his makeshift cudgel and began hammering with a vengeance, oblivious to the sparks and live embers dancing and scattering in all directions. There was a scream in the next room as the middle of the door finally crumbled.
Pradoglahn lunged through like a falling tree. Marrim could see flames past him, licking up from the floor in several places. Evidently the fragments of the door had scattered over a wide area. Perril was not in view. As Marrim began sweeping the coals aside, she was nearly run over by Pradoglahn lurching back out into the corridor, carrying Perril clinging to his neck. One of his sandals was burning. He staggered several paces down the hall before setting her down and kicking away his shoe.
"We are leaving," he rasped. As Marrim joined them, there was another grinding crack of stone; the lintel was giving way. They hastily fled the area.
There were no other sounds of collapse as they shepherded Perril to the staircase, but they found fallen blocks and debris on the way, and shafts of daylight making a crisscrossing spiderweb in several places.
"What were you doing in there, Perril?" Marrim asked, catching her breath as they slowed to navigate the stairs.
"Your Linking Book," Perril stammered. "I went back for it. I'm so sorry, Marrim, I couldn't find it--"
"Don't worry about that now, Princess," Pradoglahn said vehemently. "Your safety is more important."
"So is yours," she said faintly. "Tell me everyone else is safe."
"All accounted for," he reassured her.
They burst out into the daylight, shrinking from the glare. A ragged cheer went up from the people gathered on the shoreline as they emerged from the main entrance. Marrim gulped in fresh air, grateful to be out in the open, although the ground seemed to be trembling slightly. Perhaps that was her imagination.
Perril took a few steps towards the lake, and halted. "Coran," she whispered. She turned to her councillor. "Have some of the young men--" she swallowed. "Get his body. Prepare it for-- for the proper rites."
He laid a hand on her shoulder. "It shall be done."
She leaned against him for a moment before turning away, heading resolutely for her people gathered under the trees. "Any injured?" she asked Marrim in a low voice, as the woman fell into step with her.
"A few," Marrim replied softly. "Perhaps one seriously, but the rest seemed well."
The girl's head drooped. But two little children were running up to her, holding flowers in their hands and chattering excitedly. Perril forced a smile onto her face as she hurried to meet them.
Marrim observed the exchange out of the corner of her eye; Perril had gone down on one knee to put her arms around both of them. Past them, all eyes were on their Princess, and people stood motionless; agitated voices were suddenly hushed.
For a moment Marrim feared another time-stop, but the restless chatter of birds by the lake set her mind at ease on that count. She could hear their wings slapping the water, and frequent clucks and squawks of alarm. The sky was dappled with pink and yellow clouds, the sun slicing through them with gleaming spokes. Yet she still felt as if walls were closing in, or a storm coming.
Or perhaps it had passed.
Part XI: Inserted Dialogue
The gathering that met them under the eaves of the trees was subdued, jumbled; people had set up their things in no particular order, and there was no singing now. Boats lay scattered about upside down as benches or righted to serve as chests for blankets, clothing, food, scarce personal belongings. Waterskins hung from the lower branches of the trees, and a few rescued wall hangings were being strung up from tree to tree to serve as partitions. A troop of young people were digging a trench for a large bonfire and stacking dried peat and rushes in alternating layers within.
All heads turned towards Perril as she came among them, some staring, others reaching out to touch her as they had after her flights of fancy each morning. This time she took their hands and held them, when her people greeted her in this way.
Two young women hurried over, whom Marrim had seen attending Perril the day before. They bore cloths and waterskins and a comb, smiling shyly at the princess and beckoning for her to seat herself on a folding stool which an old woman quickly vacated. Perril waved them off impatiently. "Not now." She took the elder's hands and urged her to reseat herself, speaking their language brokenly. The woman smiled hesitantly, licked her finger, and dabbed at Perril's cheek; with effort, the girl smiled back. The two handmaidens whispered to one another anxiously as Perril and Marrim moved away.
It took some while to circle through everyone. When they came to the workman injured by falling stones, Perril seated herself in the damp grass beside him, holding his hands tightly while a healer set the broken bones in his leg and splinted them. After he had been settled as comfortably as he could be and covered in blankets, Perril rose to her feet and stole away deeper into the grove of fruit-trees.
Out of the line of sight of most of the others, Perril pressed her back against a broad trunk and slid down to the ground, tucking her knees into herself and holding them close. She stared into the distance as Marrim paced up beside her.
"A Princess," Perril said softly, "protects her people."
"You were never a princess," Marrim replied, "and they were not your responsibility until you set yourself in their midst with your pen. But they do not know how to be responsible for themselves, so long as you are here to play the part."
"You think I should leave?"
There was another soft shiver in the ground beneath their feet, like muscles flexing on the back of a dozing animal.
Marrim ran her hand along the smooth surface of the nut-tree, noticing that it was slightly warm, like skin. "It may destroy the Age if you do. You are written into its heart. I think they need to leave, and begin anew in a safer place."
"Why do you hate my Age so much?" Perril burst out. "You've depised it since the day you arrived!"
"No, Perril." It was a little easier to be patient with her now. "It has good soil, good people. But it's not yours. It's theirs."
"Atrus calls them his Ages, sometimes."
"He means the Descriptive Books, not the worlds he describes."
"But they love me..." Her voice choked up, and she dropped her face into her hands.
"Princess," Pradoglahn interrupted, approaching from behind them. As always, there was a faint air of hostility in his glance towards Marrim as he came around the tree. "Princess, we have made him ready."
Perril's fingers tightened over her eyes, still concealing them. "Oh." She drew in a ragged breath. "What is the custom, Pradoglahn? What should I do?"
"Speak the words so that we may give him to the fire and the sunset." He stooped like a stork and bent his gray head close to hers, brushing some of the dried mud from her hair. "I will teach them to you while your handmaidens tend you."
"Just a moment." She wiped her eyes, although it didn't help much; tears continued to trickle out. "Marrim? You may be right."
Then she slipped her fingers into Pradoglahn's hand and allowed him to lead her away.
Left behind, Marrim leaned against the tree, letting her eyes travel the spindly spray of thin branches upwards into the dim purple sky. Daylight was always a fleeting thing here, even while the sun was high, and now the clouds were settling in as if to all escape routes for a land blessed by birds. She waited until the Princess and her counsellor had passed into the maze of boats and people, then reached into her satchel, checking to make certain no one had removed her link home when her belongings had been moved back from the castle. Yes. Catherine's Linking Book was there.
She looked around. In the gathering of folk beyond the stand of trees, she could see people passing to and fro, but the trunks made a sort of fence. Presumably someone might yet see her, if they glanced in the right direction, but it could not be helped. Returning would also be a problem. She dared not wait too long, lest the castle come tumbling down on the point of arrival.
Marrim tucked the bag down amongst the treeroots, making it harder to spot, carefully opened the book inside her pack, and slid her hand in between the pages, feeling for the linking panel. The unsettling atmosphere of the dying Age dissolved into welcome blackness.
"I can't write this," Atrus was saying, his pen poised over the blank page. "It's your kind of writing, Catherine. I need time to plan, to test--"
Catherine smiled fondly, looking up from adjusting a lamp so that it shone more fully on Oma's and Esel's Terahnee dictionaries and commentaries, propped up on stands in a semicircle around his unusually cluttered desk. "Throw yourself in," she instructed him. "You do not have to be standing on the edge of a fissure to jump, Atrus."
On rare occasions, her metaphors could be exasperating. "I don't know where to begin!"
"You don't have to. The story has already started. You only need to find an ending which is not an ending."
He stared at her, running a hand through gray hair. "I need to what?"
"Otherwise they will end." She circled around the desk and planted a kiss on his forehead. "Think back, Atrus. Think of Anna's stories. Your grandmother was a storyteller. Where would she take this tale?"
He glanced from their hastily scribbled sheaf of notes to the Descriptive Book. The additions had to be seamless. Imitating Perril's fragmentary style would be even harder than forging his father's writing, as he had been forced to do to keep Riven's discontinuities to a minimum. Oma and Esel had been able to give him some pointers and a list of signs that could best be fitted to narrative, but their knowledge lay more in the area of translation than creation. Eedrah's worries for his wife and violent abhorrence of anything that smacked of relyimah made it too difficult for him to put himself into the Princess' mindset. Atrus flipped back to the Linking pane, now streaked with occasional jagged lines of static, and stared at the cracked wall of stone that lurched into view. He could dimly make out ivy still clinging to it stubbornly by a few wispy tendrils. Its intertwining stems reminded him of the Terahnee script.
How much time did Marrim have left? The picture shivered again, shattering into meaningless speckles like the ripples a perturbed reflection. When it resolved--perhaps it was only his imagination--the image seemed dimmer. He flipped back to the end of Perril's writing and set pen to paper.
And while their Age crumbled, the people called to their Princess to protect them...
There was a rush of air in the room, a faint scent of damp earth and marshwater, and Marrim swirled into view before his desk, jostling against one of the elevated podiums. Only years of practice (and small children) kept Atrus from blotting the ink on the page. The pen dropped back into its stand with a hollow clink as he pushed to his feet. "Are you all right?"
Catherine looked her up and down and pronounced decidedly, "I'll fetch Eedrah." She hastened for the doors of glass, leaving them swinging.
"Yes, but the Age is not," Marrim answered breathlessly. "The story is over and the rest can't last much longer. I think I have a plan."
Smiling away some of the lines of care, he set an arm around her shoulders and steered her towards his chair. "Then let's see it."
Part XII: Eulogy
Marrim's feet slid as she touched down, and she was not surprised to find herself scrabbling for balance as she landed on a heap of overtoppled stone. Picking her way out of what remained of the courtyard, she marvelled that most of the walls were still standing. They were undermined at their base like the sand houses made by children at play on the shores of Averone, when the turning tide sent waves lapping up the beach. As quickly as she dared in the shadows, she hurried to the archway, ducked reflexively under the cracks fanning out from the keystone, and headed for open ground.
Veils of mist were rising up from the lake as night came on, and the few shadows cast by the sun seeping through pink clouds were long and dark. A line of rush-torches down by the waterline led her to the others. She marvelled that they dared to hold the ceremony by the lake in view of all that had happened, but she had travelled to enough different Ages by now to know the strength of traditions.
The torches were arranged in what appeared to be a random pattern, bunched together here and there and set at slight angles. They reminded her of the reeds clustered on the shore, as no doubt had been intended. The flying blue insects lingered here, flashing as they darted between and among the flames. And the singing--the singing made her stop. It was mostly the children, gathered around the pyre holding something in their hands that she mistook at first for flowers. Their voices rose and fell, piping and shrill, like the cries of the birds they loved. She stepped among them and saw that they were holding feathers, dark and faintly iridescent in the fading light. Bowing her head, she took her place with the other adults of the community.
Perril stood at the head of the pyre, looking paler than ever in her white shell of a dress with her hands clasped over a log at the head of the pile. They were using real wood, for a change. It was broken furniture, for the most part, but there were fresh green boughs woven throughout the heap. Coran, cleaned and covered to his neck in undyed cloth, was sprinkled with more feathers, as well as fresh green shoots and a fine dusting of black earth. It was all the elements of this Age, save one, and tears would serve for water.
For Marrim, it was a dreadful feeling looking down at the boy's gaunt face, the echoes of her husband's features made starker by death. She tried to remind herself of who he was and what he had done.
Perril raised her hands as the scattered singing faded to silence like birds at nightfall. She began to speak in a steady, clear voice, using their own tongue, simple stately phrases of a kind used on a dozen worlds. She faltered only once or twice, with Pradoglahn's rock-solid presence at her side and an occasional whisper to get her through. As she finished, one of the young men held a torch out to her, but she did not seem to see him, or want to. The rite came to a halt as she stepped around to the side, climbing up onto one of the bottom logs of the pyre, which creaked dangerously.
"A hero born, a hero raised," she added in D'ni, reaching out to brush a feather away from Coran's closed eyes. "Each day you tried to delight your Princess in a different way. And now--and now--there is no delight left without you, my champion." She bent to plant a light kiss on his cheek.
There was a sudden stillness, almost another stop as if to sanctify the moment, but Marrim, watching, only wished it to pass. He knew. He must have known, at the last, that there was only one way to achieve that prize, his lifelong quest.
"My friend," Perril added in a choked whisper. Then she stepped back and pressed herself against Pradoglahn. Understanding, he took the torch himself and nodded to the others standing ready with more as he touched it to the oiled wood at the base of the pyre. Flames crackled to life.
The sun flared too for a moment as it dropped through a gap between clouds and the horizon. Huge and red, it sank from view as the flames leapt up and sent the drifting mist spinning in ribbons high overhead.
Somewhere out in the open grassland behind the castle ruins, a bird cried out with a long, descending trill.
They stayed with the pyre until it burned low, then transferred the embers to the great bonfire of peat in the center of the makeshift camp. Cold stole in with the evening fog, and the people huddled close with their children on their laps. The talk was sporadic, subdued; normally they turned in early and missed the long span of night, waking before dawn. But everything was strange now, and there were too many crying children, and over all loomed the uncertainty of what they might see when they awoke in the morning. At least Atrus had managed to halt the tremors for a while.
Marrim was seated on Perril's left in Coran's former place, to discuss the future of this Age with Pradoglahn and the Princess, what little remained of it.
"I insist," Pradoglahn was saying, "that we belong here. You cannot take us from this place any more than you can move feathers from one bird to another."
"But the Age is already failing," Marrim stated. "Perril, I've seen the Descriptive Book. The image in the Linking Panel is beginning to break down."
Perril wrung her hands, no protests left anymore. "So it has to be." She looked up bleakly. "But we have no means to evacuate my people, with your Linking Book lost. We've simply got to hold out until some else follows you. How likely is it that they will?"
Marrim open and shut her mouth, noting Pradoglahn staring at her intently. "Soon," she amended. "The best thing now is to prepare everyone for the move. It is going to be hard for them."
"Princess," her advisor said warningly, his expression obstinate.
Perril sighed. "Marrim, will you leave us for now?"
The Averonese woman looked between them, bemused. "Very well." She rose and gathered up her folding chair.
"Tell the children a story like you used to give us in school," Perril suggested, a hopeful look in her eye.
It was the closest she had gotten yet to allowing a memory to slip out, Marrim noticed. "But they won't understand me."
"It doesn't matter," Perril reassured her. "They don't have stories in their own language anyway, so it makes no difference."
Marrim raised an eyebrow doubtfully, but yielded to the request. "All right." She moved away with the stool under her arm, pondering their discussion. Unfortunately, Pradoglahn might be correct. Normally people were not written so explicitly into a particular Age. Could they survive linking away?
Marrim soon found herself surrounded by round, anxious faces painted gold in the light of the bonfire. They would not understand the words, but at least she could speak something soothing. Unfortunately, all she could think of now was the sight of feathers curling up and flaming away in the furnace of the pyre.
That tale? Did she dare? But they would not know. It was a story from one of Atrus' books, which he said he had gotten from his grandmother, after whom her own daughter was named. She fumbled with a small pouch dangling from a chain around her neck, in which was a lock of Anna's hair Eedrah had given her just before she linked back. Just about now he would be up in the loft in Atrus' house, the last of the sunset painting the canyon a deep reddish-purple as the stars came on, clear and brilliant in a desert sky. Anna would be hearing her bedtime story. Focussing her mind on the image of her daughter's sleepy face, Marrim cleared her throat and began. "Once upon a time there was a great craftsman who lived upon an island. His name was Daedalus, and it is said his two greatest creations were a labrynth, and a pair of wings..."
Part XIII: Flight
Marrim had finally found sleep, in spite of the dank chill that seeped into everything. Romantic mist rising from a crystal lake was all very well in theory, but she had made a mental note to herself not to include it in any Ages she wrote. Now she was awakened by murmurings of alarm and awe, and sat up with a faint groan.
The fire was burning low; she could see its red glow against the darkness a short distance away. Heading towards it, she barked her shins against one of the ubiquitous small boats and mumbled an apology to its occupants, a couple of children nestled together like baby birds. She had to choose her steps cautiously as she reached the fire's perimeter, for most of the natives had chosen to unroll blankets and mats and sleep with their feet towards the long trough of dully flickering embers.
Their attention was focussed on something overhead; she could just make out a few upraised arms and pointing fingers. She found herself by Noeka again, or rather, Noeka found her. A sudden grip on her elbow made her jump.
"What is it?" Marrim whispered. "What's going on?"
The girl stammered a few words and pointed up again.
Marrim craned her neck. Above the wisps of fog rising from the lake, the sky was almost clear. Not only was there a perfect egg of a moon, but a gleaming band of stars painted a broad river across the middle of the sky. She searched earnestly, but failed to make out what the girl meant until several sparks popped free of the crinkling embers, and Noeka gestured from the glowing specks in the grass to those overhead.
"Oh!" Marrim laughed reassuringly. "Stars. Just stars. I suppose you don't see them often here, cooped up in that big stone house?"
"They are the spirits of the dead," came a gravelly voice from the far side of the fire. "The small blue winged ones come down to us by day, but we are lucky to catch a glimpse of even a few of them in their night journeys. Something has happened. The curtain between us has thinned."
It was the first time Marrim had detected fear in Pradoglahn's gruff tones. "They won't hurt us," she stated firmly. "They'll stay up there. Tell your people not to worry."
"You are sure?" he asked, as a child began sobbing somewhere.
"Quite sure." She reflected again upon the complexities of altering ages, and how the smallest detail could make such a difference. She could not think why the refinements Catherine and Atrus had discussed with her would have thinned the cloud cover. And even had she known, she could not have predicted the complex beliefs that had sprung out of the soil of a simple Age.
Perril spoke out somewhere near Pradoglahn, moving to the edge of the fire and taking the end of a branch to rake the coals together. "It's a sign." She sounded sure of herself again. "The clouds will part for us tomorrow. All will be clear."
"All things come from the hand of the Princess," Pradoglahn replied ritually, after an awkward pause. The people huddled nearby echoed the refrain in low murmurs.
Marrim sighed. "Tell everyone to get some rest." She stood with arms folded while Pradoglahn's booming tones rolled out across the firelit area, then made her way back to her own scanty blanket and sleeping mat.
Dawn was cold and clear, as the Princess had promised: a sky the color of dark metal, a hint of blue gradually seeping into its edges and lifting away the stars. Exhaustion kept Marrim from waking until shortly before sunrise, when the bustle of people and low voices finally roused her.
Several rush-lights had been lit, scattered about the camp; these were being extinguished one by one by children using clay jugs. Marrim received more smiles than usual as she walked over to the remains of the campfire to dry out her clothes, clammy now from the night air. Even so, there were a number of adults who did not seem to see her. More disturbingly, a handful of people sat or stood fixed in place, staring blankly, a phenomenon she had noticed the previous day. Such people had been roused only by direct orders from the Princess. However, as Marrim reached the fire, they animated jerkily, and the whole gathering began to file out of the makeshift camp onto open ground.
Marrim joined the subdued procession, walking in silence as they made to the dust-choked grassy lawn before the fractured tower. A few more chunks of wall had fallen from the upper story, giving it a jagged skyline and a skirt of broken masonry heaped up in fan-shaped buttresses around its base. The archway and balcony were still holding, but there were alarming cracks and pieces missing from each.
Perril's people sorted themselves into three lines as they had always done, facing towards the east. While the children launched into their wordless descant, Marrim finished her survey of the crowd and confirmed her worried suspicion. Perril was not to be seen. Nor, for that matter, was Pradoglahn. She kept her eye on the balcony while the ceremony continued, noting that a few others did the same even before it was time to turn in that direction. Others were focussed upwards, shielding their faces with their hands against the unfamiliar, vulnerable expanse of open sky. But the ceremony continued inexorably in spite of these few distractions, the women adding their layered choruses, then the men following one by one with somber verses.
Two voices joined from above, one high and a little unsteady, one deep and booming as if the dying castle had found speech. A few of the singers faltered in their parts when Perril first stepped into view on the ruined balcony, with Pradoglahn at her back holding a torch aloft. There were tears, too, on a number of faces. The Princess, Marrim noticed, was missing her glinting necklace of fish scales, and her honey-colored hair fell unbound around her shoulders. She was wearing the same smoke-patterned gown as the natives.
The song built, soared, strengthened with the golden gleam on the horizon, lasting far longer than Marrim remembered. The sun seemed also to linger, as if the world itself were holding its breath to see what the day would bring. At last the birds spilled out of the tattered reeds, crying and shrieking and filling the air with the whispering rush of their wings. Last of all, with a keening call, the surviving royal bird spiralled up and around the castle, its white and pale blue plumage almost vanishing against the open sky.
Now the song was silenced. The raptor alighted on the balcony's stone lip, wings spread for balance and giving an occasional uneasy flutter as Perril clambered onto its back. Pradoglahn bent close to speak in her ear, then passed the torch across to her, its flame faint in the growing light. Below, smaller birds continued to spill from the reed thickets as spectators waited tensely for the moment when, with a shuddering leap, the Princess' mount flung itself over the balcony.
People ducked and scattered as the huge bird dropped among them with a furious beating of wings. Barely, only barely, it pulled up in time, skimming low over the grass before soaring up and over the lake. Several of the inhabitants broke into relieved shouts of applause or affection as Perril swept over them, hair streaming, torch held high. The sun finally crested the distant line of low hills and sent a ribbon of light towards them, striking the lake and turning its ripples to fire.
The ripples spread out in concentric circles from one area close to the center.
Mesmerized by the swirling eddies of the birds circling the lake and Perril falling through them like a fish, Marrim was slow to see the rising bubbles. She was still the first to shout a warning, breaking the spell of the morning ritual.
She cupped her hands to her mouth. "Perril! Away from the water!"
In slow motion, the lizard mountain rose, water spilling from its knobby head and shoulders in cascades as it turned first one way, then the other, ponderously divesting itself of trailing water weeds. The teeming flocks wheeled around to buffet it with hundreds of green and russet wings. Through their midst hurtled Perril, arm drawn back to cast the torch into one of the monster's huge lidless eyes. Marrim sensed a collective gasp of horror around her and watched with equal helplessness as the behemoth exploded upwards, flinging its jaws in a snapping motion, and caught bird and rider both in one gulp.
There was a rumble and a crash of tumbling stone. With a sputtering bellow, the lizard tossed its head to one side, coughing up smoke and indigestible prey. Perril and her mount were hurled through the air, separating and striking the shallows like two fragments of the same comet. The torch, tumbling end over end from the hand of the Princess, fell into the mud and extinguished itself. The beast submerged with a violent splash.
The crowd broke into chaos, some standing in shock, some scooping up shrieking children and dragging them back towards the camp, and a great many running towards the spot where the Princess had fallen. Marrim, after a moment's hesitation, headed in the opposite direction, where dust was still rising from a fresh pile of carved and broken stone before the archway. The balcony had fallen. Spreadeagled across its remains was Pradoglahn, cheek pillowed against a rock and bleeding. His eyes were still open, and sought Marrim's fiercely. "Take Perril."
"Your people will be there in a moment," Marrim assured him, stunned with relief that he could speak. She settled gingerly at his side in the rubble. "Can you move?"
By answer he seized her wrist in a tight grip. "Irrelevent." The hubbub down by the lake had changed to wails and cries. Through the cluster of bodies, Marrim could see the heads of two men striding ashore with the jerky sideways stride that meant they were carrying something between them. "It looks bad," she reported with growing dread.
Pradoglahn spat out a word that sounded like a curse. "Go! I have your Linking Book. Fetch it and take her to your healers." He shook her arm. "My blanket--it's in my blanket. Hurry! Go or I'll have you tied and thrown to the lake!"
Marrim wavered, reluctant to leave him, in spite of the desperate need to see her charge and learn the worst. "If I take her from this Age it may fall apart. Your own healers--"
"Are nothing, as is this Age, without our Princess. Marrim, go now." His unshakeable stoicism was eroding more with every word. "Our lives are all for her."
Was it the ink speaking, or his own heart? But Marrim gave him a curt nod and left him to the rocks.
The crowd parted as she approached, anxious and dazed faces turned towards her. She touched the shoulders of three of her former work crew and urgently pointed back towards the castle and Pradoglahn, then hurried to where others were lowering the waterlogged Perril to the grass. Drawing her Linking Book from her satchel, and taking stock of Perril's condition, Marrim took the girl's cool hand and set it over the gateway image.
Stunned silence, then exclamations of shock and anger followed the girl's abrupt disappearance. The ground heaved underfoot violently, buying Marrim a moment's time before those nearest her began to lunge for her. She was already staggering out into the muddy lake. She stooped low, praying the water would be enough to render the book useless when it dropped. She linked away to the sound of rending stone.
Part XIV: Fledgeling
It was Eedrah who greeted her in Atrus' study, on his feet behind Atrus' desk with his chair tipped over on its side. That was some small comfort. But there was no time for a reunion as he joined her in crouching over the girl, who lay with her eyes closed in a puddle spreading out around her on the marvellous tiled floor. One of her feet rested at a suspiciously awkward angle. "She fell in the lake," Marrim told him shortly, feeling along her ribs. "Help me turn her over."
Tightlipped, he complied, gently rolling Perril over his knee. "I saw," he said faintly. "The picture stopped moving. I was afraid..." He did not bother to complete the thought, pushing thin hands against Perril's back, trying to force water out of her lungs.
"Where's Catherine?" Marrim asked, for her part simply trying to stay calm. "I can't let the wretched girl die, after all this! And there are others wounded."
He licked his lips nervously. "Averone. She and Atrus haven't returned yet." Bracing himself, he gave another, harder shove. Water sluiced out onto the floor. "Come on, come on... are you sure you're all right, Marrim?"
Marrim leaned against him, supporting Perril's head in her hands. "Holding together," she murmured. "Which is more than can be said for her Age." It was all she could do to keep herself from shaking the girl, torn between worry and frustration as she was.
At long last, Perril stirred to life with a violent fit of choking and retching. They supported her until her gasping for air changed to panicky sobs. Then Eedrah gathered her against himself, relief easing his gaunt features. "You're on Tomahna," he soothed. "Tomahna. It's all right now, it's over."
Marrim shook her head, glancing over at Atrus' cluttered desk and the book lying open there. "Not until we figure out what to do with that."
Perril's coughing made her faint voice nearly unintelligible. "No! The story's not over. Not over."
"The Princess is dead," Marrim said starkly. "We'll do what we can for them."
Eedrah gave her a reproachful look as choking overtook Perril's tears again. "Have a heart, love," he murmured.
It was Coran that Marrim saw in his face, this time, instead of the other way around. She sighed. "She's chilled. We'd better get her into the sun room. I'll get some blankets."
They had made her as comfortable as possible on the window seat and bundled her up, wrapping her broken ankle tightly and treating bruises and scratches with one of Catherine's salves. Then Eedrah had gone back to the loft to check on Yeesha and Anna. Perril had fallen into a deep sleep which worried Marrim, who shook her groggily awake now and then to be sure. When roused, she seemed dazed and only dimly aware of them.
Sitting on the adjacent bench with feet tucked under herself, Marrim had the Book of Perril spread out before her on the shelf, poring over the text again and again. The gateway image was different and unsettling, swinging over the lake at such a steep angle she could only see the water, then diving beneath the surface and coming up in the shattered wreckage of wood and stones that must be the castle's shell. The walls seemed to have splintered into thin piers like the stone spires in Tomahna's canyon, but they were tilted or twisted in some strange fashion.
Abruptly, Marrim shut the book and pushed through the glass doors into the office, seating herself in her master's chair and taking up his pen. Atrus would surely not approve, but she could not bear to leave this to chance. Trying to put herself in the mind of the Princess, she began to adjust a few key phrases.
"...called Old Stone, who understood the Princess completely. Support and counsellor, always at her side until the world ended...capable and adaptable..."
"What," growled the subject of her concern, "do you think you're doing?"
Already rattled, Marrim's hand jumped as she looked up in startlement, leaving a blot of ink on the page. Hastily, she scratched it out with the proper negation symbol, and slumped in the chair. "Don't ever disturb a writer!" she snapped, eyes darting across the sentence to make sure nothing had been damaged by the slip.
Pradoglahn staggered and braced his hands against the desk, staring down at the book with haggard awe. "Is that it?" he whispered. A bony hand reached out to touch the final words she had written, taking away a trace of ink on his fingertips. He licked it away, grimacing at the bitter taste. "Perril's Book?"
She nodded, fascinated by his expression. Had she looked this way the first time Atrus showed her the Book of Averone? "We've fixed a few things," she told Pradoglahn with deliberate vagueness. "But now that she's gone-- I don't think they will be enough."
He continued to stare at the book. Marrim would never feel comfortable again with anyone holding still like that. She rose and circled the desk, getting a better look at him. The tunic he wore must be new, for it was not torn, but she felt some sort of stiff bandaging around his midsection when she slipped an arm around him to support him. But he did not seem to be in any pain, like a rock too hard to be shattered, only chipped away flake by flake. "Pradoglahn," she pressed again. "Talk to me. What is happening over there?"
A groan deep in his throat was the only answer.
Marrim sighed. "Let me come back with you. We have a plan. But I'll need you to help me speak to your people."
"Let me see her."
"Of course," she said, pushing aside impatience. "She's resting. This way."
She steered him through the iridescent doors into the sun-drenched porch spattered with squares of gold, green, and blue light in the midday sun. It spoke of his state of mind that he noticed neither these nor the red canyon sending dry gusts spinning up over the balcony. Leaning heavily on Marrim, he sank to the flagstones beside the shelf where Perril lay, bringing his head close to hers.
"Perril," he whispered.
The girl's eyes remained stubbornly closed, in spite of Marrim's silent prayer. He turned and looked up at the older woman searchingly, but the accusation that was usually in his eyes had bled away. "The water stole her breath. The little blue shining ones have touched her."
"The blue lights come to those who have tasted death in the lake," Pradoglahn explained. "Most who see them do not live long. But her skin is not blue, so there is a chance."
"A good chance," she assured him. "She spoke to us. Don't lose hope. But we have to think on your people now."
The second set of doors swung open as Eedrah returned. "How is--" he began, expression changing to bewilderment as his eyes fell upon their intruder.
"Dear, this is Pradoglahn," she said.
The old man's eyes widened in shock as he fixed upon her husband's face. "Coran?"
Eedrah cleared his throat uncertainly. "I don't think so, but welcome nonetheless."
"Like and yet not like," Pradoglahn said, dazed. "There is no anger in this one. What magic is here?"
"I couldn't begin to guess," Marrim answered. "You were quite right, Pradoglahn. Perril is a girl of unusual talent. It's not something any of us could have done." Or wished to, she added silently, but scolding was pointless now. "This is Eedrah, my husband."
Eedrah bowed with some grace, a gesture left to him from his forgotten days as heir to the Lord of Ro'jethhe. "Perril is a part of our family; she came to live with us a year or so ago to work on her studies." He glanced sidelong at Marrim, an unspoken plea in his voice. "Anna misses her mother."
Pradoglahn frowned. "You have children, Marrim?"
Eedrah took her hand and moved to stand beside her, keeping his own counsel as so often.
"One," Marrim replied softly.
"And Perril makes two," added her husbland.
"You risked," Pradoglahn muttered, shaking his head. "You risked too much, coming to us."
"Perril is my student," said Marrim. "Her welfare--and mistakes--are my responsibility."
He fell silent, labored breathing hinting at discomfort. "The world ends," he said finally. "If she lives, she may write others, when she is older and wiser. She has gifts her masters do not possess. She must be given the chance to use them." He turned back to Perril with a gentle expression, stroking her damp hair. "The Age of Birds ends, my dear. Find new dreams." A dry kiss was planted on her cheek. "Find new dreams."
Again Marrim held her breath, but Perril was not to be awakened by a kiss. Pradoglahn's face was resolute when he rose stiffly from his place at her side. "We are in your hands, Marrim of D'ni. What must we do?"
"Did you leave my Linking Book where it can be used again?" Marrim asked urgently, squeezing her husband's hand as he opened his mouth in protest. "Let's go back."
Part XV: Entropy
They linked back to a land of no shadows, the sun fixed exactly overhead in a perfect blue sky. All was eerily silent. Nothing was as before.
The courtyard where they arrived was unrecognizable, a circular pool of still green water that reached Marrim's knees. White lilies and dead birds, or parts of birds, lay scattered about the surface, suspended alike as if fixed to a table of glass. As for what remained of the castle, Marrim gaped. It had pulled almost entirely away from the ground in total defiance of gravity and physics. The structure soared high into the air, walls and disjointed aggregates of stone twining upwards in a spiral band like the paring of a peeled fruit. Birds were perched at irregular intervals on the remains of branches jutting from the stonework, or on bits of flooring or stairs that had not crumbled away. But the birds, too, almost seemed to be made of stone, all hunched in the same position, unmoving.
The water soaking into Marrim's boots was icy cold.
Pradoglahn stood motionless while she tried to assimilate what she was seeing. He stared rigidly towards the lakeshore, now visible through the gaps in the broken walls. "Come," she urged again, eying the old man worriedly. Had the hastily-added words damaged him worse than the fall? Mechanically, he began to slog through the water towards the place where the archway once stood, now barred by a loop of the stone wall. The gap between courses was wide enough to squeeze through sideways.
Little could be worse than the skeletal remains of the tower, but the tableau spread out before them was ominous in its own strange way. The lake was black, truly black, reflecting no sky, only--was it Marrim's imagination? -- tiny pinpricks of stars as if the water had lost touch with time. Then there were the people.
Most were milling about in the camp over by the orchard, but a few still stood fixed upon the bank where Perril had been carried ashore. A handful were scattered here and there in the grass like small trees, standing at attention, staring straight ahead with arms loosely at their sides. The children romped among them, playing a silent game of tag in utter disregard for the surreality of the dying world. Marrim found herself struggling against an urge to stand still and stare in numb fascination.
"Maker let us not be too late," she prayed under her breath. "Pradoglahn. You've got to speak for me as you did for Perril. Try to rouse them. Have them gather whatever stores and blankets they can carry, and assemble under the fruit trees."
He nodded stoically and strode directly for the children, voice booming loudly in the unnatural stillness. Heads popped up and the little ones began to dart among the adults, tugging a hand here or a sleeve there, making a game of waking up the grown-ups. Some responded bewilderedly, coming back to life, but a few could not be budged. The other adults had no more success than the children in rousing them.
Marrim spent a long while trying to revive a woman stooped by the water's edge and staring accusingly at empty air, where Perril had vanished who knows how long ago. It felt like years had passed since yesterday, and even now time seemed to seep away at a rapid rate, nevermind that the sun did not seem to be moving. Marrim was ravenously hungry by the time that Pradoglahn limped to her side, more lines of care in his craggy face. "They are gathering," he said flatly. "But not all. What is wrong with my people? Why do they stand like stone?"
Marrim wrung the edge of her Guild Cloak with her hands. "The story ended," she told him. "They cannot do what Perril wrote them doing. So they've stopped too."
His jaw clenched. "But we are still here." He glanced towards the edge of the line of trees. "What now? How will you save us?"
"By taking you to a place where you can make your own story," Marrim answered, avoiding his eyes. "Are the others like you, Pradoglahn? Can they think past what they see and know and face something new?"
"New?" For once, inexplicably, his understanding seemed to fail. He looked at her quizzically. "What is new?"
Marrim did not know whether to laugh or wince. With another helpless glance at the woman stuck on the bank, she took his elbow and headed for the signs of movement under the trees. "Nevermind."
As they reached the eaves of the wood, Marrim pulled up short. "Oh, no."
She stared in horror at one of the transfixed figures she had not yet seen, frozen in place between two stately trunks as if the whole had been carved in surreal relief. It was J'anifa herself, caught sitting at her loom, quite literally. Warp threads passed right through her arms, her dusty blond hair was woven into the fabric, and bits of the wooden frame had flowed out and incorporated parts of her body into its structure. Her left hand was now a spindle. Her eyes were like two black buttons, glassy and unseeing.
Pradoglahn, leaning heavily on her arm, had mute tears tracing the wrinkles of his old face. He spoke no word, and did not rebuke her when Marrim snarled, unthinkingly, "A blessing from the hand of the Princess."
There was obviously nothing to be done, and those with more life in them were waiting, huddled in a hushed crowd on the far side of the grove from the macabre human fixture. Numb with defeat, Marrim slogged towards them. She knew too well from her own work that there was sometimes no way to make amends for a slipped chisel. But this was her task.
The natives stood or slouched or sat with their belongings in their hands or stacked beside them; a few of the folk were still gathering or discarding things from last night's camp. The expectancy from Pradoglahn was almost worse than the blank passivity of the rest, faces more bewildered than distraught. How long would they have to wait? Would her father even agree?
She sat down with her back against the tree where Perril had taken refuge a lifetime ago. "There is something you need to do," she said, steepling her hands on her knees. "Each of you must tell a story about yourself. Name yourself. Say who you are, and what you do, and what you hope for."
Pradoglahn stared at her blankly. "What is this?"
"A beginning," Marrim replied, some part of her noting cynically that she had obviously been spending too much time with Catherine again. "Please trust me. Help is coming, but I need to give Atrus and Catherine a little more time."
He grimaced. "Very well." Leaning a shoulder against the tree where she had seated herself, he took a long breath and began to address the disorganized assembly, flinty eyes coming to rest on one young man who happened to be standing in front of him. The fellow blinked and stammered an answer. Pradoglahn spoke stern words and gestured, sweeping his hand across the assembly and pointing back at the youth for emphasis. Obediently, he answered in faltering statements, curt and direct like the proper phrasing of a descriptive book itself. Marrim sagged back against the warm bark, listening with eyes half-closed as first one native and then another hesitantly met the old man's challenge.
Perril had said they had no stories of their own.
Marrim prayed to the Maker that she had been mistaken.
Part XVI: A Closed Book
The sun blazed overhead. There was no sound save the speakers--plural, for when it came to the women, they seemed to find it easier to discuss back and forth, groups of three to five weaving a sort of verbal tapestry. Marrim hoped they understood what was being asked, and hoped even more that her instincts were right and that it might help stave off the stasis that seemed to grip them whenever there was silence. The children simply chattered, but for them she had no fear. Eventually, however, hope and fear alike lost all meaning. It seemed as if they had always been here, the people and the trees, the bright sun, the uniform grass. It seemed as if she had always been here, mute observer.
"Marrim." The voice was too gentle to be Pradoglahn's, but she barely noticed it or realized she was being addressed. She was only vaguely aware that the curious descriptive ritual had halted, and that people were staring, pointing, whispering among themselves in a rather more natural manner than before. She did not come to herself or her own name until Atrus shook her shoulder lightly, voice growing concerned. "Marrim, not you too!"
Marrim's head was swimming as she tried to focus upon the figure standing over her. "Atrus! It's been so long--" she paused, looked up at the sun, and slewed her head around in confusion. "Where was I?"
He peered owlishly at her through his lenses. "Right here. Marrim, you don't look well. Maybe you had better go back to Tomahna."
"No, thanks. I'm seeing this through," she said firmly, awareness reasserting itself.
"And who is this young man?" Pradoglahn was staring at Atrus from the other side of the tree as if sizing up an opponent. "Is this your help? More books?"
Indeed, Atrus had a Linking Book under his arm, and Catherine, who was standing nearby, carried two. She was scanning the faces of the shellshocked natives with compassionate curiosity. "It's Pradoglahn, isn't it?" she asked, turning towards them. "Has Marrim explained to you what must be done?"
"She said," the old man answered hoarsely, reluctantly, "She said we must go to a new place. A new Age. And one of you has written it? And are you going to write yourselves as lords to replace the Princess?"
"Absolutely not," Atrus said vehemently, sharing a pained glance with his wife. "It's utterly against the spirit of the Art. We are not conjurers, friend. We can only give you passage to a safer place. From what Marrim has told us, I think you'll find it to your liking. We won't force you, for it must be your choice, but I fear greatly what will happen, if your people stay here any longer."
"And it is already too late for some," Catherine observed steadily. "Allow us to help you while we still can."
Pradoglahn nodded slowly, but did not stir to address his people, eyes unfocussed and elsewhere.
"Perril wants this too," Marrim pressed. "The last thing she said to me was, 'Let the story not be over.'"
"'A blessing from the hand of the princess,'" he said ritually, face expressionless. "Until the world ends." Then he lifted his hands, calling loudly to the crowd and beckoning them. At his command, most surged to their feet, still staring at the strangers without comprehension. But they knew how to obey.
Catherine and Atrus took up places on either side of the tree, holding up the Linking Books for the people to file through one by one. An extra one had been brought for Marrim, and the familiar title of the book brought a fleeting smile to her lips. Her mind drifted back to memories of a great tome being lowered into a well of stone by chains of nara, and rock closing it over forever. There was nothing left to do now except blow out the lamps and shut the door.
It could be no accident that the men were funnelling towards Atrus, the women towards Catherine, and the children, whispering and shoving and wide-eyed, were approaching Marrim's book timidly. She tried to look each one in the face at the exact instant they slipped away, as if she could memorize their features, keep a picture of them and this moment. Then she thought better of it and stopped trying.
"Your father sends his love, Marrim," Atrus told her, voice unnaturally loud as the people stepped up to them one by one, faces slack with shock as those before them vanished. "He asks when you'll be stopping by to let him see his granddaughter again."
"Oh." She was snapped out of stupor again by the sound of his voice. "I had better, after this."
"Did you know," Catherine asked, "that there are a number of large and uninhabited islands just over the horizon from the bay where you grew up, Marrim? You should go exploring sometime."
"Oh, really?" Marrim replied distractedly, searching the faces of the youngsters anxiously for one she had not yet seen. "I suppose I will, then."
The parade of people was sadly thinner than it had been for countless dawns when the sun still rose and set. Laden though they were, it was not long before only four people remained under the silent trees, and only one who had been born in this world. Pradoglahn carried nothing save Marrim's missing Linking Book, which he handed to Catherine wordlessly.
"They'll need you more than ever," Marrim said as encouragingly as she could manage. "Come. Perril was born there, so it's not really a strange place for you."
"Indeed." Pradoglahn's expression grew remote. "And are there birds?"
Marrim smiled faintly, hearing the cries of gulls in her mind. "Absolutely."
"Unless," Catherine prodded, "you need healing and rest. Eedrah said you'd been hurt?"
Marrim glanced worriedly at her former mentor. Would he not jump at the chance to stay with Perril a little longer?
His gazed fixed on Atrus' shielded eyes. "Wounds heal. What of those left behind?"
Atrus sighed. "It may be that linking will snap them free. We'll try to send them on."
"Thank you." His gray head turned, expression shifting only slightly as he gathered his last glimpse of home. Then he set his hand upon Marrim's copy and fell through the link, vanishing.
There was a crunch of breaking stone, the ground shook, and dust billowed up as the castle gave way, crumbling in upon itself. Atrus raised his eyebrows.
"The keystone," said Catherine.
Marrim propped her shoulders against the tree as the tremors continued, intensified. Her eyes widened. "I think you're right. We'd better hurry." She held up her Linking Book. "Set it against their hands and hope?"
"Pray," Atrus agreed. "Let's scatter."
The frozen people were almost the only thing not moving as the earth shuddered, cracks gaping across the ground in places. Marrim's first attempt was a success, or at least she hoped; the old woman she had stumbled across vanished immediately when the linking window was held against her fingers.
But the man beside her would not budge.
The link would only respond to organic tissue.
Marrim shuddered and moved on.
The tremors slowed as they hurried around the lake-shore, but became more regular, almost monotonous. If they had paused to examine their surroundings, they might have noticed that the land had flattened out. The soft rolling hills to the east were gone, and the green grass spread out to the horizon in all directions as flat and featureless as the ground in a child's drawing. The lake's perimeter had subsided into an unnaturally perfect oval. But they had other things to worry about just now, not least their own safety.
"I'm afraid that's everyone," Atrus called at last. "I'll take another look at the Book when we're back in Tomahna, but I don't think there's much more that can be done."
Marrim surveyed the area anxiously. "Wait. I think there should be a girl. A head shorter than me, honey-colored hair..."
Catherine, rejoining them by the castle ruins, pointed towards the stand of reeds with her chin. "Down there, working on nets." Her face creased with sympathy at Marrim's expression. "A friend?"
"But none of the other children were trapped--" Marrim covered her mouth with her hand. "'An unlucky girl.' Oh, no."
Atrus and Catherine followed her and stood side by side with her as she knelt to take Noeka's hands. The girl was neither warm nor cold, but stone would have had more presence. She resembled an illustration in a storybook, youthful face caught in a half-smile as deft fingers twisted a knot in the net draped around her knees. Marrim touched her cheek. "We could carry her," she pleaded.
"None of them," Atrus answered regretfully, "can be budged. I'm truly sorry."
Marrim glared at the black water, devoid of all ripples. "What color would suit Perril better?" she demanded. "Blue or red?"
She unclasped her Guild Cloak and draped it around Noeka's shoulders. Then, without a word, she dropped her hand to the linking panel and vanished, letting her book tumble into the water.
It sank without a ripple, and continued falling slowly into the star-pricked depths. Atrus and Catherine looked at one another in shock. She caught his hand as he started to lunge for it. "The Fissure knows which ends are best. You can't overtake the book now."
He continued to stare at the starry expanse with awed fascination, totally oblivious to the tremors that still rocked through the ground with hollow, dull booms. "I suppose you're right. But don't you still wish to see what it's like?"
"And go swimming among the stars?" She kissed his cheek lightly. "We will someday. And return to the place where we began."
For the moment, however, they returned to Tomahna, leaving the pair of Linking Books at Noeka's feet as an offering to hope.
Part XVII: Sequel
"... and so I close, realizing that the ending --we hope-- has not yet been written." --Journal of Marrim
Marrim sniffed the sea air, feeling life return along with shadows and sounds. She stood at the edge of a towering stand of Jarras trees on a headland overlooking a narrow stretch of beach far below. A freshly-beaten path led back into the forest, bushes clipped and trimmed to allow passage. Island did not begin to describe it. She could see the shore curving around in both directions, and before her was a single mountain, probably ancient and volcanic, rising up in green terraces that were cleared in places and probably would make excellent fields. A stream meandered its way down the broken ground to her right. Atrus had outdone himself again.
She breathed a sigh of relief. The air tasted right. She would never have trusted anyone else to tamper with the book, but there had been no time to design and test a new Age, or to search the Common Library on Releeshahn for something suitable. This one, as she well knew, was a comfortable one. She turned back towards the sea, shielding her eyes against the glare, trying to catch sight of distant land or perhaps the clouds hanging over the hills behind the bay. But Atrus had been careful. It would be at least a full day's sail to the mainland. For of course, it wasn't as if these channel islands had been made yesterday. No, they had been here all along. It was simply that her people ventured away from the bays and inlets of the coast too seldom to take much notice what lay further out.
She smiled tiredly. There was a medium-sized fishing boat drifting out to sea past the breakers, and marks in the sand where a small dinghy had been drawn up on the beach above the tideline. Of course. No wonder it had taken them so long.
Stooping to touch one of the blue flowers that seemed, mysteriously, to pop up in most of Atrus' ages, she turned and headed into the forest.
The refugees had gathered around a pond cupped in a forest glen, the source of the stream, where a fire had scoured away old growth and larger trees a handful of years ago. New saplings were sprouting in the meadow, which was rife with wildflowers and small white butterflies glittering in the afternoon sun. Small brown birds darted and flew back and forth from tree to tree, and from a single dead tree rising like a tower at the edge of the cleared area, she could hear the sharp rap of a beak against hollowed wood.
Above these sounds was the welcome murmur of conversation, subdued to be sure, nervous and hushed, but the refugees were setting up camp for themselves in this sunny space, stopping only to stare around them wide-eyed at the alien landscape. It was far more complex than the one they had known.
One of her old work-crew recognized her with a bark of surprise and animated chattering. She could not tell whether he was angry, or merely agitated. Raising her hands slowly, she made a cautious request. "Pradoglahn?"
The man peered at her doubtfully, then nodded and led her to the dead tree.
Pradoglahn was sagging on a folding stool, his back propped against the smooth wood, giving directions in his old gravelly voice to a cluster of the older members of the community. As Marrim approached, she was recognized and singled out for greetings or sharp words by many.
The old man started to rise to his feet, frowned, and stayed where he was, beckoning him towards her. She scanned faces out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge their mood, reminded of her reception by these people on her first day in their country. Now she had brought about that which they had fought to prevent.
"Elder," she said respectfully, inclining her head. "Is it satisfactory? You'll find the soil rich for growing things, and there's plenty of fish in the ocean, nuts and berries in the woods. Watch the little fourlegged animals you'll find in the forest to see which are good for people to eat. Is there anything you need from us to make it easier to settle in?"
"Only one," he said wanly, "And I believe she is lost."
Marrim swallowed. Story and fact, truth and gentle lies were twisting in her tired mind like the walls of the fallen tower. "Your Princess is dead. She belonged to the Age of Birds and could not survive the journey here. Now you must do all you can to honor her memory, and to build an Age for yourselves that would have made her glad. Take care of each other. Harvest fruits, sow the seeds, make things grow. Make fine things with your hands to please the eye, stories with your minds to please the children. She has given you the future. Take it for your own."
Pained comprehension creased his face. "I will tell them your words." He spoke softly to some of the young men pressing close, and they backed away a few paces. "Look after the child, Marrim of D'ni. Teach her better wisdom, but do not break her for trying to fly too high."
Marrim nodded guardedly. "I will."
He closed his eyes. "Go."
Dismissed, she bowed again and retreated the way she had come. As she disappeared into the forest, she thought she heard the beginnings of scattered singing behind her, the dawn music which had once defined a world.
Catherine was waiting on the small spur of land where she had arrived, in the process of lighting a small fire as Marrim stepped from the trees. The Rivenese woman blew gently on the flames, then looked up as Marrim stepped to her side. "They might have killed you."
"They might at that."
Catherine sat back on her heels and turned slowly to survey the place. "I think this one will be a good story." She smiled enigmatically. "Come. We should let this one run its course, without our interference."
Marrim reached over her shoulder as Catherine held the Linking Book above the fire-ring; by now, this was an all-too-familiar procedure. But as Marrim set her hand on the picture window, she saw Catherine drop something with her other hand, an almost casual gesture, and sparks flew as a thicker volume landed on the fire.
The Book of Perril, she read, as flames claimed the cover, and the link claimed her.
Atrus leaned against the railing of the sun-porch, pushing his glasses back to watch the deepening shadows of the canyon in summer twilight. His mind was in some other Age. Behind him, Eedrah was telling the children a story, while Catherine listened from the open doorway of the study, working late at her husband's desk.
"And as their world crumbled, the people cried out to their Princess to save them. So she sent them away to a new home. But she did not go with them. From that time forward, they chose their own lives. And they lived--"
"Happily ever after?" Anna asked hopefully.
Eedrah shook his head. "And they lived as well as any folk can, through good times and bad."
In a different Age, speaking to a semicircle of upturned faces gathered for the evening ritual, an old man was telling the same tale. "Yet their descendents will never forget the Princess of Birds, as long as reeds grow towards the sky."
In a darkened chamber elsewhere still, a girl stood hesitantly before a small, secret pool. Her teacher's instructions still burned in her ears. "You will not return from Myst Island until you have found all of Atrus' journals, which I have scattered among four Ages you can reach from here. You must discover the meaning of the scorch marks on those two shelves in his library, and find out, if you can, what has become of the people in each Age."
Perril pressed a button, and the waters flickered to life with an image of a much younger Atrus, minus many lines of care in his face.
"Catherine, my love," the recording began.
Marrim bowed her head, set her hand upon the dusty banister, and began to climb the stairs leading up to the docks.