Crossing the River

They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon.  Tam was much the worse by then.

“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,”  Abel decided.  “Not tonight, not now.”

Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came.  The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south.   Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him.  They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.

 “We’ll rest here.”  Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees.  His companions understood.  The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black.  Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.

“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,”  The boy said.

Abel patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Here’ll do.  Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye?  We should eat well.  It’ll be raw tonight.”

There was their plan, then.  The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while  Abel gathered wood to make a fire.  And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.

The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers.  Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long.  He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.  

Fortune smiled:  she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock.  The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it.  It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.

Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned.  In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay.  Abel was his father now, if any man was. 

The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone.  No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence.  No birds sang.

It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind.  The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox?  A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws?  A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain.   Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.

Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar.    Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.  

And so it proved.  Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth.  With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs.  A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned:  let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam.  If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.

Abel and Tam were waiting.  They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.

 “’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us!   Run!”

Abel started to his feet.  Tam did not move at all.  Could he move?  But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them.   “The creature will not cross the water.  It is as the legend tells it.”

Abel frowned,  “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore.  There are  tales told then, of a worm?”

 “Some say it’s a worm,”  Tam agreed;  “some will have it as a dragon.  Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly.  No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts.  It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”

“You knew of it?”  Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”

“I have heard the legend.  I did not know the legend was true.  Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature.  And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”

The two men exchanged glances.  The boy could see the fear in their eyes.

Tam shifted himself uneasily.  “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye?  It pains me.”

Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot.  The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.  

“Poison.”  The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.

“Aye.”   Tam caught Abel’s glance.  “It’ll serve me long enough!”  He snapped.  “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”

They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep.   For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers.  He woke long before the sky returned to light.

Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river.  One fit man and himself.  If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel.  Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.

Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them.  Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon.   They were in no condition to run.

Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword.  As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.

Did he have a clear idea of his intentions?  Beyond crossing the river probably not:  could he slay the worm?  He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.

The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank.   It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful.  He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns.  The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere.   His companions would be wakening.  They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…

Progress was still painfully slow.  The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence.  Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.

When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun.  Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming.  It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot.  This glade could be its amphitheatre.  With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.

“Greetings,”   Said a voice, conversationally.  “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think?  I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”

‘Be still!’  In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him!  Think before you move!’

 All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option.  However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid.   Obviously this was a fellow traveller.  Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.

“Who are you?”  He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice.  “Where are you?”

“Oh, over here!”   A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless. 

The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then!  I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”

“Destination?  Well, nowhere, really.  Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose.  I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”

“Anything!”  The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”

The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents.  “Thank you.  I am so grateful!  Do you see the book over there in the grass?”

Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally.  This was his first.  Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification.  It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.

“Aye, I see it”  He said, anxious to oblige.  “They told me these were dangerous woods.   I’m happy to find them otherwise?”

“You heard they were dangerous?  Oh, dear!”

“Aye, they say there’s a worm..”  The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!”  He breathed.

“Isn’t it?”  He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him.  “A man in a grey husk dropped it there.  Would you read from it?  That would oblige me awfully.”

“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean.  I‘ve never seen the like.”

“Oh, that is a pity!”  said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now.  “I thought all humans could read books.”

“Humans?”  The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped.  “You said ‘humans’?”

“I did, didn’t I?”  Replied the voice.  “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”

Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat.  Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected.  The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation.  Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered.  It just wouldn’t work.”

“You’re the worm!”  The boy managed to stammer.

“Worm?  My dear child, do I look like a worm?”   The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be.  The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine.  You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”

“Are ye going to kill me?”

“Kill you?  Yes.  Eat you?  Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”

“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”

“Yes.  How do you think I got the book?”

“But you’re so … so…”

“Polite?  Well-mannered?  Of course.  The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”

“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason,  “why don’t you simply let me go?”

“Why.  Why.”   The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration.  “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me.    I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth.  I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!”   It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth.  “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all.  The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting.  That was what induced me to move away from Persia.  I suppose it’s why I’m here.  ‘Why’, you see?  Your word, your word!”

It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we?  I admit to being a little peckish…”

“No!”  The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised:  “Leave me alone, creature!  I don’t want to have to harm ye!”

“Harm me?”  The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you!  A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it?   Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!”  It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane.  “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see?  Are you familiar with pork, at all?”

The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet.   “Suppose I could be of use to ye?  If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer?  It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”

The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound.  “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows?  I have so many weapons, child.  What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”

“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”

“I don’t want them back!  I simply grow another set.”  The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws.  “But this is intriguing.  What else can you offer me?”

“I can hunt deer for ye?”

“No!  Ah, no.  I can do that for myself.  I like doing it.”

“I can catch fish!”  The boy said.  “Basically, you’re a cat.  You must like fish!”

The Manticore cocked an eyebrow.  “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct.  I adore fish!”

“Well, I can catch them for ye.”  The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face.  “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”

“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat.   I loathe the water!  I hate the water!  I despise it!”  In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail.  It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.

“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid.  Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods?  Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour.  Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”

“Really?  Could you do that?  My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”

“Oh, aye!”  Said the boy, “We can do that.”

So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river.  Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount.   When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.  

The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health.  While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.

By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.

The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.

Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return.  They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops.   There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.   

At least, that is the legend…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – The Final Episode: The Valley of Carr-Villoise

Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse.  The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.

Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds.  With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.

Now read on:

  It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels.  It is first morning, and Alanee is there.  In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well.  Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours.  Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill.  An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever?  Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel.  Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.

Where was she when the darkness came?  When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die?  And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?

Deeper dreams, explanations:  ‘I am here.  I am always with you’.

Stirring.  A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another.  Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves.  Rest is all this heart can ask.

But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her.  She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.

Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.

Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle.  They speak to her of safety; they invite her in.  It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise.  They are there, and there is a world behind them.

She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala.  She is not human, in a way Alanee knows.  A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being.  A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding.  She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.

In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again.  Darkness and light, sadness and happiness.  A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them.  In the cradle of their care she sleeps.  And come the morning, wakes once more.

As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her.  The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress.  The same hempen substance covers her.  It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose.  A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall.  Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand.  The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door.  Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing.  She can see little against that strong, glaring light.

Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching.  Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair.  She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it.  Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened  knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting.  There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.

One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously.  Alanee is glad to drink.  Expectancy!  She feels its twang upon the air.

A shadow falls across the floor.  A dark being stands framed within the doorway.   “We thought we had lost you.”

That deep voice!  That is the voice!  Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!

“Dag?”

“None other.  You remember me, then?”

Remember!  Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want.  Oh, Dag!  He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.

“Of course I remember you!”  Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude.  “Let me look at you!”

He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart.  Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face;  featured with sufficient flint to make a man.  ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs:  ‘you are all I remember you to be.’

“Who designs your clothes?”  She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible.  He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool.  It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.

Dag grimaces.  “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation.  They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here.  They don’t see much sense in them.  I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though.  I’m boiling in this thing!”

“So normally you don’t wear anything?”

“Don’t look so worried!  They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”

“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”

“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’.  I wish I knew.   I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti.  It will do, anyway.  They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”

A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee:  her newly regained strength is ebbing.  She sinks back on the bed.  “Sala.”  She says:  “Is Sala here?”

Dag asks:  “Who is Sala?”

Sleep saves her.

When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed.  Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed.  It is clean and crisp:  it feels cool against her skin.

Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children.  They gather about her legs,  pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face.  Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge.  He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you.  I’m sorry.”

There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring.  Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.

“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”

“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs.  They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine.  Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”

“Not quite.”  Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her.  The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.

He covers her hand with his own.  “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear:  part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat.  We thought it was yours.  Maybe it wasn’t.”

She forces herself to breathe calmly.  Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself.  Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.

“What did happen, Alanee?”  Dag asks.

She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water.  He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide.  The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind.  Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males.  A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.

Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend.  It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power. 

When she is done, he says gravely:  “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more.  Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna.  You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more.  You can’t have come that way.”

The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.

“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”

Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict.  With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”

She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species.  “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”

Dag looks puzzled.  “Like a garden?”

“I believe so.  When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.”  Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water.  “And he was real.  Everything else…”

Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.

“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own.  He was lonely.  He wanted a mother so he created one.  Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.

“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real.  Oh, there were limits:  he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.

“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out.  So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him.  There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city:  I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones.  But there were successes too.”

“The Miroveti?”

“I guess so.  Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.”  She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”

“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans.  His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.”  She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see?  His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan.  Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”

  “Were you even real?”   Dag grins.  “You look pretty three-dimensional to me!  What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City?  So you can’t be real?”

“Let me explain.  He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete.  All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”

“Shut down – what, everything?”

“By gradual stages, yes.  We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum.  It was Hasuga throwing switches:  he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being.  He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”

“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this?  When does it happen?”

Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own.  “Dag, it already has.”

“Oh, for sure?  And how do either of us know the difference?”

“A secret that was kept by The Ancients.  The final key to my transition, if you like.  Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down.  A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”

Dag pales,  “But you didn’t…”

“Yes, I did.   Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually;  I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.” 

“|They brought you back from the dead?”

“So it seems.  They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like.  He modified me so I could survive without him.  I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”

For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered;  “What about me?  I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I?  Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”

 She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain.  Her words are carefully chosen.  “I know you did.”

He stares at her:  “My healing – was that you?”

Alanee does not answer.  She has said enough.

Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river.  She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.

For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone.  In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch.  He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence.  Yet he speaks to her still.

She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden.  And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.

“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”

In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:

“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we?  One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we?  Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”

And he will reply, inside her head.  ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’

Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play.  Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.

‘There is more for you to know.  Have faith in me.’

Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away:  for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river.  There is another.  It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago.  While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.

This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too.  Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.

After all, he is a man of  perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.

The End

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.