[Note: this has been poorly received. Too boring, evidently, with (still) clumsy scene transitions, and (sheesh) too many big words.]
Leon Jordan traced the steps back from the office and through the waiting room, mindful of any unexpected topology that may have developed since he came in. Concentrating on his gait, he did not think to suppress the furtive roving of his eyes as they inspected his immediate geometric environment, not that there was anyone in the lobby to notice. Furthermore, Doctor Reide's business was laid out in a simple, open fashion (positively a requirement for Leon's patronage), which, judging by the dust, hadn't been jogged out of shape for many years, and this patient was more willing than usual to stake some faith in the permanence of it. Most of his attention gravitated to the door at the end of it then, the entrance to this little burrow in space he'd allowed himself to tumble into, and it loomed larger with each of Leon's measured paces. He pushed on, the portal growing before him, menacing.
He held his breath and closed his eyes as he passed, but once outside, nothing seemed changed. His shoulders fell back to their customary slump, and he crookedly wandered his way out of the little town, back to his tidy ditch by the bridge.
Leon Jordan was a homeless man. Unlike perhaps many homeless men, he was sober and relatively well groomed, keeping his brown beard and hair as neatly trimmed as could be managed with a mirror and scissors. The requisite ragged coat and stocking cap of the hobo adorned him in their season, but a memory of dignity and cleanliness still hung about his person. The children in town were aware of his nervous walks through the streets twice a week, but he was not quite strange enough, and perhaps not obviously defective enough, to suffer their taunts. Ultimately, there was something that was just ignorable about Leon, and, truth be told, he didn't notice others much either.
He had been visiting Dr. Reide for about a year, having discovered the practice during his last desperate search for himself. The biweekly appointment was not a particularly drastic move in Leon's twisted chess match with his environment, but the necessary journey through well-defined portals like the office door was always handled with high caution. If he were careful enough about his trips into town, he reasoned, he'd merely untangle whatever path through the cosmos he'd strung together for the visit, and return, at the end, exactly at his launching point, the little gully by the culvert. And as tracability went, Reide's office was better than, say, the post office where Leon picked up his Social Security check every month. The old doctor never had any other clients that Leon could tell, and the course remained as immutable as possible in his absence.
The session that day consisted of its usual mixture of boredom and alarming possibility. Reide, a pallid and squishy old man with a senile grin, didn't offer judgments, and didn't push his client through any horrifying trials of behavioral therapy or drugs (also inviolable requirements for Leon's business), but most typically meandered his way through a conversation on the topic of Leon's unusual notions, frequently entertaining their veracity. Though most of the cost of the therapy was covered by taxpayers, Reide frequently didn't even remember (or maybe didn't bother) to charge at all for Leon's portion, (which, while not strictly one of Leon's precepts, was a nice touch).
"So, a knot hmm?" Reide had been saying, "A knot, you say. Your life. I like this metaphor."
Leon felt he needed to talk to someone about these issues, and Dr. Reide, though paid for it, was someone. The visits were his closest thing to a regular friendship, and outside of the occasional terrifying trips to the other places where he needed to transact life, the closest thing to a professional relationship as well. The old man was Leon's last tenuous link to a lost normalcy.
"It's not just a knot," Leon said. "Everyone's life is a knot. But mine is different. Something went wrong with mine, and I don't think it was my fault."
"...like we're twisting our way through space, eh? A knot...do you think you can unwind it?"
Leon was not prepared for the question. "Untangle it? I don't know."
"Tell me about the doors," Reide went on, turning to look at Leon for the first time in their session. He parted his tobacco-blemished lips in an inarticulate smile.
"Well, look, so life's a knot, right? And here we are stringing ourselves along like that guy in that maze story."
"Yeah, so here we are like Theseus, dangling our lives behind us like rat's tails. We're spinning out these strings, and we're tangling them up in all kinds of stuff. If you go through a door and then another door, it kind of gets knotted up around the jambs. If that door manages to go away before you get back into it, then you're in trouble. You can't unknot it then. If it were somehow possible to find your way back through all of the portals you go through in your life, then you'd make a perfect circle from birth to death, but it gets tangled up instead." Leon's brow was becoming slick.
"A knot in four dimensions, eh? And you can't go anywhere..."
Leon sweated, eyes wide.
"But isn't this the case for everyone? Everyone goes through doors. Are yours different? And isn't the damage done? How do you know?"
"It's different. Yeah, it's like that, but me, I'm in the wrong place, you know? Something happened. Wrong door or something, like Scooby Doo running into one closet and coming out across the hall. But I came out in a whole different building. I'm in the wrong life, dammit, and I'm stuck here."
"I don't like that metaphor nearly as much," replied Dr. Reide. "Are you sure the knot as bad as you think it is?"
Leon stood up, the chair clattering behind him. "I don't know, maybe we could get up above the maze somehow, and make some sense of all that played out twine. If we didn't tie ourselves down to it. Maybe if it was unfolded in just the right way, and we were looking at it from just the right angle, it would all work out, you know? It would make sense."
"Interesting." Rising with effort to meet his client, Reide extended his soft bloated hand to Leon's wiry one. "I think that that is enough for today. We should continue this thought of yours in our next session." And with that, Leon was out through the horrible door, and on his way back to where he lived.
As Leon attended the usual tricky navigation back to the bridge, he was conscious of all sorts of unintentional portals, anything that managed to bound the world on four sides and through which he could pass. He never understood how people managed to wander through life unaware of the maze that is circumscribed directly over their heads. Apparently they were unimpressed with the dangers of passing through archways, doorways, and the ubiquitous warren of power cables on their winding journey through the day. Every one of these holes was a door (and could be the door), and who knew which one (or how many) Leon himself had crossed to get attached to this miserable plane, away from his lamented life. And who knew where the next portal would take him?
As he trudged along his route to the bridge, entering the spare, dry countryside, there were fewer and fewer of these potential egresses. He constantly checked the space overhead to acknowledge every one of those inadvertent doors that could lead him down a rabbit hole, and he carefully re-navigated his way back through those few he'd been forced to pass on his journey in.
Slowly, Leon made his way along the highway until he got to the culvert where he made a home, his private shelter from the wind, with its little fire pit and his meager possessions bundled up neatly next to the concrete. There, he slept in a bag that came up to his chin, supposing that if he ever fell into the hole of it, he could readily re-emerge. He had a smaller collection of things on the other side of the highway, for when the wind blew the other way. He never considered walking through the pipe to get there.
He nudged his bags aside, and pushed himself up against the abutment, shivering in his heavy coat though it wasn't particularly cold. No, it wasn't supposed to be like this. The doctor's talk of old stories was, like so much else, a source of intense discomfort to Leon. It took him back, dragged up memories of things lost and once taken for granted. When the fall came, it had been very quick. Everything stopped making sense, and the trajectory of his life was suddenly aiming much lower. Over the course of a month he'd changed from a promising young man into a nobody, a man afraid to take a step through the next door, tied to the bridge.
His sister, to whom he'd been close, and his beloved fiancée Sheila stopped noticing him. They did not question his existence exactly, but they managed to ignore it, acknowledging him only if he got in the way. He'd checked into a hospital, during which time these alleged loved ones left town without warning and returned no calls. He had been rational, but not healthy. He could not work, and the staff there had arranged a life on the dole as soon as possible, and then encouraged his release. He had been uncomfortable moving around the building, but was judged independent and harmless enough to avoid being an expensive ward of the state. Leon walked away from the building and in matter of several days, began the marginal existence in the bare, open spaces he had been living ever since.
He had been an imaginative child, and had read greatly before whatever transition had doomed him to his present state. In his exile, he'd at first tried to pass the time with novels and magazines, but he soon developed a deep suspicion of literature. Stories, though none of them were a physical reality, were nonetheless portals of a kind into all sorts of alternate worlds. The casual entrance into these fictional universes (and even nonfiction painted stilted substitute realities; he hated it even more than the obviously made-up stuff) seemed to make light of the drama of his life, as though the author were having a joke at Leon's expense. He'd stopped reading altogether before very long, as his dementia became established and routine. Yet he was convinced that he was not insane.
The Labyrinth had been favorite story of his youth, back before he'd known to be afraid of the idea. He still remembered some of the other stories too, and the doctor's conversation had brought to mind one of the ones that had haunted him. There was something unusual about the characters, he recalled--they were robots or something--but they were the same sort of mocking fairytale people as the Theseus and the king of Crete. This king (king robot) had had a magic box built for him that would take him to all sorts of wonderful alternate realities, full of beautiful women, fabulous riches, and splendid food. But there had been some fight between the king and the constructor (or maybe it was a bet), and the man with the box sent the king into a world that was indistinguishable from the one he left. When the king tried to come back to his proper world (there was, of course, a magic box in the new place as well), he again found himself in a duplicate of the original one. The king couldn't find his way out, and he couldn't catch the bastard who put him there.
For the millionth time, tears studded the corners of Leon Jordan's eyes. Like the king, he was stuck here, too. Good Lord, but look at him. He didn't even have the balls to sleep under the bridge like a self-respecting bum. What the hell happened? He needed to step back, to look at his life from a distance, but he couldn't break the bonds. Propped against the bridge, he sat thinking, head in hands. He'd tried to do it before, and his resolve was lost at the first challenge. He knew, however, that this life was surely going to kill him—soon--if he didn't find his way back. It was getting harder to move at all.
It was two days until the next appointment. With something like a spark flickering in his well-worn neural pathways, Leon began waiting, trying to think of a way out.
"So even if you could untangle it," Reide was saying, "would it matter? There are still going to be so many crossed points, hmm? And you can't even get to them because they've already been made, in the past." He was more engaged than usual today.
"Well, I think you really helped me to it on Tuesday, Doc. Just like you said, if I could lay it all out right, then maybe I could see it. Like if you have a pile of rope that looks all knotted up, but when you pull it apart--you know, unkink it, straighten it or whatever--you can see that there are really only one or two real knots that can't be shaken out. I know it's more complicated than a tangled cord, but I think my life is like that. If I shake out the tangled-up parts, then they'll be less confusing, and I'll be able to see where I crossed over wrongly."
"Interesting. Difficult when you are the rope though, I'd think. Hmm."
"Yeah, I'm gonna have to walk my way back to it. But I'm pretty sure that some of those kinks are easier than they look. A twist here, a shift there. Maybe I can find the right door if I can see past all that extra clutter."
"And cross it, Leon?"
"Well, we'll see. We'll see."
Walk his way back. He'd known for years, he supposed, that he'd have to go back the way he'd come. It sounded easy in the office that morning, but those strings were pulled awfully tight. The forbidding concern had always been the number of minor passages he'd have to worm his way through on the way, not all of which could be reproduced thanks to the passage of time. Maybe it would be enough to look only for the biggest twists, and find out whether or not they were invariant.
Leon inhaled sharply and looked at his sparse possessions, at the worn space near the bridge. He could be making the tangle worse, but, he reasoned, he was going to die anyway, and that would be true in any hell he'd encounter from this one forward. The worst he could do was hasten it, and even that was better than sitting here. He stood there, hunched in his green coat, and his eyelids fluttered wetly. He was afraid of death, but it would be better than coming back here. He straightened and put a shaking leg forward, followed by the next.
Since the multiverse had gotten the best of Mr. Jordan, he'd gone almost nowhere that he couldn't retrace. During his hospitalization, and even immediately after his release, Leon did not make it far from the orbit of the ward. He tried to consider the turning points that had driven him out of the hospital's gravity well, and the vagueness of them stopped his stride. Impossible... He looked back up the highway, and thought again about death.
Swallowing, he advanced his mind to slightly more recent memories. He'd stumbled out of town in the middle of the highway, he recalled, aimless and desparate, until he found the culvert and simply stopped walking. He recalled that his stomach had been cramped, as, in fact, it was now.
So from where was he fleeing? He'd been so hungry, and even though he had a few dollars, he couldn't make himself go through the door of the diner. He closed his trembling eyelids, and smells came to him. He did not remember the name of the place, but it didn't matter, he thought he could remember the where. He followed the double yellow line back toward town, waving at the few alarmed motorists who noticed him at the last minute.
The sun shone on Leon's back as he strode into the parking lot, evoking a memory of contentment. It must have been that feeling of security that had brought him to this place in his hungry desperation. He hadn't thought about it for years, but he'd spent countless Saturdays here with his family eating meatloaf and chicken soup and liver and onions (where else could you get liver and onions?). He'd spin around on the stool with its cracked red Naugahyde cover while his sister giggled and his father smiled tolerantly over his coffee. He remembered walking in with them all, the sun warming his shoulders just like this, and there had been the same sense of possibility, the same sense of the future unfolding before him. To his surprise, he began skipping across the parking lot like a ten-year-old before catching himself in the present.
He slowed past the entrance, and kept his steps well away from the long arch of the awning, stomach lurching as forced himself under the power cable strung to the northwest corner of the edifice. His more recent dinner was growing clear in his mind. He reluctantly crept around to the back of the restaurant and into the three-sided fence where dumpsters were still concealed. The fumes of rotten food were overpowering, but he willingly let them invade his senses, probing for whatever memory the odors would elicit. He had no intention of eating, but he felt his stomach rumble in sympathy with the past.
He could feel the cold metal rim of the dumpster on his (then ample) waist, and his shoulder hurt after wrenching open the broad plastic lid. He felt the shame at the ridiculousness of this, at the intense awareness of the cartoonish way his legs were bicycling above him as he rooted for scraps head-down. He'd been delighted to uncover some sandwich crusts, and managed to choke down a half calzone after picking out the cigarette butt. He felt his gorge rising again at the memory of the nasty thing, tasting the ash and glad of it. He shivered against the side of the metal box, much as he'd done a decade ago, trembling pale, yet unwilling to vomit up the precious nutrition in his gut.
Leon hunched over in sympathy with his former self. He did not expect the vision of the past to be so strong. It was too poignant, he thought, too real to not be true; he'd untwisted one loop of his wildly knotted life. Listening to his feelings, he walked away from the dumpster with his eyes closed, feeling a lifetime's worth of resolve crammed into his fractured psyche. He recalled his tentative steps toward the diner, pacing back and forth in cowardly widening loops from the hospital parking lot, where he'd spent several hungry days afraid to move and unwilling to reveal himself to the staff. Even with his eyes shut, he thought he could remember the way.
What would Dr. Reide think of this, he wondered.
Leon did not find out immediately. Before long, he'd found the hospital insecurely boarded up, with placards over its windows and charred fire pits in its weedy parking lot. He spent the better part of the afternoon tracking a circuitous and intuitive path (often with his hands over his eyes) about the environs before pulling off a board and ducking in, ears perked for the voices of the past.
He missed his next two scheduled sessions with the doctor, and when he came in days late, Reide betrayed no indignation at his client's absence, nor at his unscheduled appointment.
Leon, however, was a changed man.
"Doc, I swear I could hear her voice. Ten years gone, and the phone was gutted who knows how long ago, but I could close my eyes and there was her telephone voice in my ear. I could feel the plastic handset and smell the hospital smells too." A frown passed over his face. His conversation with Sheila had not been fulfilling. She had responded to him, but did not encourage conversation. It had been like talking to an uninterested stranger.
"In the old hospital, eh? Where you once stayed?" Occupying an abandoned building was evidently unrelated to the doctor's sense of professional ethics. "Do you feel you're crossing over, Leon?"
Leon's frown deepened. "No. I don't think so at all, but everything's coming to me so clearly now. I'm pushing the strings around and seeing the problem, but not untying anything. Not yet."
"The knot of your life's gone wild, it seems." Dr. Reide revealed his infantile grin and chuckled wetly. "That shouldn't be possible in real space, of course, but maybe you'll find the crossing point and tame out that twist, eh? That would be something."
Leon looked helplessly at him.
"Took your metaphor a little too far, hmm? I'm saying I think you should keep this up, Leon. Even if you can't reduce this thing to something more normal, doing something about it is clearly good for your mind. You're done with the hospital, now? Good. Get back where you left off, and keep searching out your path. Maybe you'll even get where you need to go. And Leon?"
"Yes?" Leon sat bemused at the shift in the doctor's personality. He'd become direct, eyes unglazed, possibly even thinner, and the vaguely incontinent smell was gone. The old man had never given Leon direct advice before.
"If you do find your way back, make sure you stop and say hello to whatever crazy old Doctor Reide lives in that world, eh? I'm afraid I will miss our conversations.
"You should get something to eat, too," he added, rising to give the younger man a pat on the shoulder and a gentle nudge out the door. "Good luck."
Outside the office, Leon felt in his pocket for any remaining cash. Probably foolish to think he'd stop needing that, even if he did manage to return to his own reality; these planes of existence seemed indistinguishable outside of Leon's own experience of them. Nonetheless, it felt time for a last grand meal. He'd been haunting the old hospital for several days, hardly seeing the dank abandoned halls of the present, and though he'd revisited any number of meals, he was fairly sure he had not, in fact, eaten anything. And navigating through the hospital was a remarkable milestone at any rate. The doc had been right about that.
On his way out of Reide's office, he sometimes stopped at the convenience store down the street. He liked it because it had a drive-through window and he didn't have to walk in. It was Leon's habit to walk warily up to the window, order his groceries, and carefully carry them back the way he came. (They were also gracious enough to cash his checks.) He'd indeed eaten little that week, and he splurged on two warmed burritos and a cola. He devoured the first burrito at the window, and, flashing a smile at the familiar clerk (who ignored it), walked back around nursing the second and sipping his Coke.
Calling Sheila had been the first thing he'd done at the ward, and, save finding his way out the door, was the last thing he'd done on his visit this week. He made his way back to the entrance now, where he left off, anticipating now that intense sense of…place to direct him to the next point up the hill of the past, and ultimately to the forbidden crossing at its apex. Leon was excited.
As he ambled his way back through the shifting labyrinth of his own making, he considered how easy he was finding it to negotiate the path. As his confidence grew, he realized that he'd spent most of the last decade cowering in one place, and he looked at himself with a growing sympathy, as though he were someone else, some other poor wretch. He'd have to go to his apartment from there, and he realized he could probably navigate it quickly, having shivered in his room most of that time, desperately trying to phone the loved ones who now treated him like a stranger, too frightened to go to work, too scared to go out and buy food. By the time he'd willed himself to make the hopeless trip to the ward, he'd already learned to count his steps and watch out for hidden passages.
He sat on the stoop of the old hospital door, a battered and happy hobo, finally looking, without that intent gaze, like the more typical variety of crazy. The building still echoed with old voices, though more distantly, and he could hear the intercom crackling and the gurneys squeaking somewhere back in the past. A lonely ghost trudged toward him from a more recent memory, waiting to be mirrored by the Leon of the flesh.
He'd wait till the morning, he thought, and hopefully no one would be home. He hoped they had not changed the place too much. Full and confident, he curled up there on the concrete, wrapped in his tattered green coat, head pillowed by a skinny arm. He watched the sun set over the trees, and drifted off into dreams of mazes and monarchs, of heroes and strings.
He woke shivering in the shadows, and sat leaning against the pillar, his tread upon the step in his ears and the cool brass handle of the door (now gone) on his hand. Leon sat for a time listening to the fading din of the past as he awaited the proper time for his next step deeper into it. At around 10AM, he rose, and paced the younger, cleaner Leon backwards on his nearly forgotten trek. His apartment had changed less than the hospital had, a unit in a series shabby building projects, blocks of brick sprouting from untended rust-colored earth. Early model cars were parked here and there on the cracked lot, some on blocks, and some of these perhaps from Leon's time. He followed his shade toward the old address. The current tenants had strung Christmas lights across the entrance and without passing under, Leon carefully unhitched one end and dropped it before attempting the regular door.
He found the entrance locked, and with regret he broke the window to release it from the inside. He dug out his small dirty wad of dollar bills and placed it guiltily on the counter as he passed.
Leon looked into the kitchen as he entered the place. Very little had changed. He breathed deeply of dried spaghetti sauce, of dirty clothes. It was like looking into a college dorm room--he'd been so young. His ghost seemed to spread around the apartment, and he looked at the pattern of it motions. He realized that it was not just a simple loop--there was a skinny thread out, yes, and the one he followed in, which seemed to have lost some significance, but he found that couldn't precisely pin down any single line in here. He could, however, read the shape of his past motions as though they were filling out a space defined by probabilities. Closing his eyes, he could sense this blur of his old perambulations. He reached his mind out to the pattern, and tried to make his body take up the same space.
Panting, Leon found himself on the sidewalk. It was the afternoon, he saw. He sincerely hoped it was the same day. He felt his arms. They were fuller, he thought, taking up more space even though they looked the same. Maybe it was progress. He realized he was kneeling, and rose and looked behind him. An apartment he recognized was there, but it held little mystery. It was merely a place he used to live.
He stood there and did his best to cast his mind back still further. Sheila sprang in there, and he felt a dying, nearly dissipated anger. There must have been a fight, and though he had no clear memory of the event, he could sense the emotions that decorated his way home from it. A simple line again, and he could sense it, but he could not reach his mind back to its origin. No choice but to follow, but the incompleteness of the thing bothered him, especially after his journey through the house. He felt urgency.
He turned his body to the old complex, and closed his eyes, dropping his chin to accept the fear that had given over from anger. Occupying the same space as the young Leon, he began to walk in reverse, his face watching the old complex fade backwards in decreasing terror. Distantly, he heard horns and shouting, but his mind was more and more occupied with a woman, anger at her uncooling and fear of the future undawning, a sense of presence returning as he fled toward the source of his argument. He was mumbling strange syllables to himself, English, backwards.
The fury grew, and memories of the conversation sprang to his mind, though not with the feeling of simultaneity that his walk produced: he was remembering remembering them. He was muttering loudly now, hotly. He pushed out his fist and then pumped it back. "!taht ekil em teart t'nac uo--"
Leon halted, abruptly. His head was cool, suddenly empty, and time was going forward. He opened his eyes, no longer able sense what he had been following, nor any emotional resonance at all. For a moment he stood blankly, and then the old fears returned, crashing upon him as he turned timidly around.
He was in the shadow of a tall building, somewhat below street level, in a decorated little urban nook. He'd been following a sidewalk ramp downwards for several turns, and was now standing before a little cavern of leaves. Leon stared at the opening. The walk continued into it, and the twining branches were the soapy green fronds of two rows of overgrown boxwoods that were flourishing in concrete planters on either side of the walk, their branches tangling densely overhead. The late afternoon sun lit the entrance of the tunnel such that an arc of illumination, brilliant white on the cement, framed the first couple of steps inward, leaving the rest of the hole in a dappled inconstant shadow. At the end, about thirty feet away, was a wooden door with a carved handle. He had no recollection of it at all.
It was the most frightening thing Leon had ever seen.
As he gaped at the leafy corridor, it seemed to stretch and snap back, like a cheap horror movie special effect. Two weeks ago, he could not have imagined such a place even in his nightmares, but here, he could feel the import of it weighing on his shoulders, and again that feeling of haste.
He would not go back. He squared his shoulders to the cave mouth, filling the bright arch with his shadow, smelling the leaves. As he stepped in, the path again seemed to stretch out before him, more palpably, and with a desperate holler, he charged at the receding door. Legs pumping, he chased it farther, farther. He would not go back.
Sheila Thomson had not been to this town in ages, and she did not precisely understand why she had stopped so early to spend the night when there was still such a long drive in front of her. The hotel had a quaint little back entrance though, and she liked that, a little garden path with a wood door. She was hovering by it now, unsure whether to go outside for that walk or wait just a little longer, when she heard the odd handle rattle. She hesitated, gathered herself, and opened it. A familiar face greeted her.
"Oh, there you are Bill. I'm so glad you're here. I was going to take a walk, but I thought I heard shouting out there. I'm feeling a little uneasy for some reason."
"I didn't hear anything, honey, maybe it's just the hometown ghosts. Didn't you say you almost married a guy from here?"
"You know, it's the strangest thing. I can't even remember his name anymore."
Her husband grinned, "Well, William K. Thomson can have that effect on a woman, I've heard."
"Not funny, Bill. Let's go out the front door. This place is really giving me the creeps."
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
[Note: this has been poorly received. Too boring, evidently, with (still) clumsy scene transitions, and (sheesh) too many big words.]
[Note: this has been poorly received--characters and setting too icky.]
Ma Rat poked her nose out of her nest of fluff and ancient tatters and sniffed the air. Men, she thought, or maybe the city was burning again.
She heaved her rag-strewn bulk from the bed, shedding bits of cloth and paper in the darkness, a grubby phoenix ascending from the midden. She scurried naked, all breasts and dirt, to the old steel door and flung it open to reveal a reluctant trickle of twilight from the crack of the hatch above. She ran up the old gray steps and pressed her face to the narrow breach in the rusty panels. There was no mistaking the wood smells. Maybe her husband had returned.
Rat scampered back down and looked over her hoard. She scratched herself and smelled her hand. The timing was good for this.
For the thousandth time, Tuan Macks contemplated life and the future. This was no career for the aged, he thought, but with no children he knew, it was unlikely he'd be taken care of when he became too feeble to guide the cart. For the thousandth time, he wondered if it would have been better to have reared some sons to take over the operation. But then he'd have to stay in one place long enough to raise (or at least acknowledge) them, and he shuddered at the crippling orthodoxy that infected the insular little hamlets he knew. Tuan could not live in places like that. He longed for freer times to be spent with people, back when the world was young and alive, or back when real men fought with valor against legions of vampires in the fresh ruin of the past. But if the valiant times were gone, at least there were open spaces to roam, endless miles of them. He sighed, and patted the lead horse's neck with a weary arm before turning around.
"Mick, Sancho, Kwak: it looks like we're on the outskirts. If you want to, we can stop here today."
"Hey, we know where we are, jefe," Kwak, the spokesman, said. "We can go another couple miles."
Tuan doubted that Kwak or the others had a very good idea of their location. (No, this business would definitely die with old Tuan Macks.) You could sight ruins peeking through the trees at nearly any point along the ancient crisscrossing ways that ran west of the river, between the city and the towns that clustered about the haunted fields of Skunaplant. They were all largely identical but for a few desolate landmarks known to travelers. Few of the derelict stonescapes were populated, and even in the heart of the Pale City you could come to the same conclusion. But in there, there was almost a civilization in there, if you knew where to look.
He wondered, again for the thousandth time, what in the lord's name drove people concentrate together like that. Even the white savages couldn't stand to be apart from one another for very long. He looked back at his staff. Hayzeus knew, Tuan couldn't get completely away himself.
"All right then," he said. "We'll keep it up to the next big crossing." That would be a large one, great broken monoliths, and Tuan thought they were quite close to it. The trail had recently widened from a dry rutted thing to a huge brushy boulevard, with those wide, soft chunks of ancient paving stones still dotting the surface.
With a sigh, he plodded forward. He had not gone ten steps when he stopped, patting the nearby Kwak in the chest. "You recognize this?" he asked, wrinkling his nose.
"Recognize what, jefe?"
Tuan shook his head. "There are many things to see, Kwak. Earlier, I was wondering if you remembered passing this place earlier in the springtime, but--"
"Of course I remember."
"...but now I am much more concerned about something else. Can you spot it? Any of you?"
No answer. Naturally.
"Can you /smell/ it, maybe?"
Mick laughed. "Couldn't hold it in, eh jefe? Right here in the road?"
Kwak glared at him. "No, you idiot, I've been talking to him all this time. And only savages..." He trailed off.
Hope after all? "It could actually have been any time this afternoon," Tuan told them calmly, "and I don't see signs of a crowd. In fact, bad as it smells, this thing already looks pretty dry." He poked it with his toe. "I think we'd better turn around and set up camp a couple miles back, just in case. Get our signal fire going there. We need to let 'em know we're here, but I don't like seeing 'em this far out."
Sancho, who was just catching up, punched Mick's shoulder. "Try not to step in it," he said.
The smoke smelled fainter than usual, too faint for this calm wind. Ma Rat wondered how far away her husband was, whether it was, in fact, he. Maybe the smell would get stronger, closer. Maybe it was nothing, but she was not comfortable with this change.
She cracked the squealing hatch, and poked her head out cautiously. She would have to ask some questions. The others tended to shrink from her, shying to the other side of the avenue when Rat trundled by, and normally, this was her preference. The skinny pale men would sneer toothlessly at her sometimes--even the smaller ones who could have been her sons--but the women just ignored her as they went about their own scavenging. They did not like being her second, feared her glamour, and resented that Rat was the key to their relative prosperity.
Rat lived differently from the others in the city, and in most ways better. Peering past her strands of dirty yellow hair, she often watched her fellows prowling through the streets after pigeons and other prey, which she rarely resorted to catching. She saw them rushing back from the woods with nuts and fruit, fighting over a fish, or coming back from a far raid, painted with mud and crazed with corn-fed bellies. By contrast, Rat was able to subsist almost primarily on the food her husband brought. Hunks of salty meat and desiccated hardtack were kept in a corner of her dark, dry hole, allowing her to spend days on end in that warm den, suckling her litter, or sleeping alone, depending on the season. Sometimes food showed up on her step of its own accord, and what Rat didn't eat, she stored that too.
When she wasn't curled in her lair, Ma Rat prowled the dark and crumbling corners of the city, hunting for treasures. It was, indirectly, her eye for these things that had bought her status, snagging valuable glass, metal, plastic, and innumerable pretty trinkets that were used by unknown people abroad. She alone had charmed one of the black men with those baubles, arranging them just so on the walk in front of her den. None of the others had thought of it then, preferring to watch with fright or contempt from the shadows as the strange men rooted through the old stone for the shiny bits. And it was true that Rat alone had brought the man below, where, it was said, she not only grabbed his seed but had stolen a piece of his soul as well, acquiring a fraction of his power.
None of which would happen again, if something was wrong. Her unease was growing. She pushed the rest of her body through the crack, and then jumped on the ancient metal hatch until it clanged shut. She darted away, looking for other urbanites.
"Hey, jefe, you going to finally take us in to meet your secret lover this time?"
Tuan smiled into the fire. "It's not a lover, Kwak," he said. "I think you know that. But the savages won't allow more than one of us in their downtown at once." Neither statement was true.
Kwak fidgeted his large hips uncomfortably on his stone as he considered this. "What's it like?"
Tuan's smile broadened. No lies now. "Do you know, it's not much different than the other ruins we walk through--bigger than most of 'em, more imposing, I guess--but the real difference is what you can feel. You can sense the eyes behind every corner, watching you. Every now and then, you see something moving around a corner, a rag fluttering maybe, or a naked ankle. I think half of them don't wear anything all year, but unless you got a guide, you don't see nothing."
In the shadows, Kwak's own eyes floated, disembodied. Sancho made some grunting, thumping noises under the wagon behind them. He was a notorious snorer.
"And it's a small price to pay. They don't value the stuff in there that much themselves, but they know we want it. And it's hard to find these days if you don't know where the stashes are. I remember Old Joe telling me that he would pluck it all out himself when he was young, but it kept getting harder every year. I don't believe a lot of the stuff he told me, but that was probably true. It was certainly hard to find anything when I was a boy. It's a lot better having the savages do it for us."
Tuan didn't tell Kwak how he had found his clever yellow Rat on one of Old (and by then quite infirm) Joe's ruthless and dangerous errands. Fortunately, he'd been carrying a cider jug he'd stolen from his then-jefe. It was the start of a profitable relationship, and was, not coincidentally, Joe's final year of business. Kwak and the boys had it much easier under the current master.
"Do you know, jefe, I don't like waiting without you. I like the other guys well enough, but..."
"You're a good man, Kwak," Tuan said, meaning it. "Let's see how this year works out, OK? Maybe we can think more about how the trade will continue when I'm gone." He'd have to retire somehow.
Kwak jerked his head at his boss, horrified.
"I'm not in a hurry, don't worry." Well, not that sort of a hurry. Tuan sighed and looked back at the wagon. "What do you say we wake up the two idiots over there, huh? I'm tired."
Kwak smiled, Tuan could tell because a few broken teeth had joined the white eyes, and he pulled on Tuan's outstretched hand. The younger man stretched, and trudged a few paces beyond the wagon, uncinching his belt. He stumbled, recoiled.
"Mick? Oh you idiot…" Kwak dropped to his knees and prodded the form on the ground.
Tuan crept up to peek over his shoulder. Kwak held up a bloody hand for him to see by the firelight. Tuan couldn't see his pained grimace, but he could sense it.
"Go over there and check on Sancho, quick."
The younger man bowed lower to look underneath the wagon as Tuan hustled to its side to unlash the bundle of weapons with trembling hands. He glanced back at his lieutenant, who shook his head in alarm.
"Well, get over /here/, then!"
Rat jogged first to Egg's nest, which was not far from her own. It had been several years since Rat had pushed the little one out, but unlike the rest of her brood, skinny Egg spoke to her mother occasionally. Rat liked the girl more than most people. Egg was smart.
Rat looked up at the entrance to her daughter's lair. The girl used a rope to get into the high opening, which she pulled up after her when she was home. Rat followed the path of where the line should be, all the way up to the corner of the opening, where she saw eyes flashing opalescent in the moonlight. Before Rat could call up to the watcher, the clumsy ladder of rags and scraps trailed itself down to the street. She clawed herself up it, hand over hand, short legs scrabbling on the pitted surface of the wall.
She pulled herself over the edge, and could see Egg's luminous forehead floating skull-like in the early moonlight. She could smell the musky otherness of the girl, the dry decay of her nest somewhere behind, invisible in the gloom. Rat sprung back to her feet and regarded the young woman as best she could.
Egg took a step forward, and pale cheeks appeared beneath the smooth arch of brow, pale shoulders as well. "I knows what youz wants, Ma Rat," Egg said quietly. "I knew youz knew."
Rat nodded. She certainly suspected.
"The mens say don't..." Egg stopped and spat. She had no children, but she'd been caught several times (hence the rope). She continued more forcefully. "Mebbe youz know, but I tells you anyway. The mens gunna kill your bargain. Theys gunna kill your husband. Try to take his glammer."
Rat opened her mouth to speak, but her daughter interrupted.
"I think youz knows who. Who's the stupidest man you know?"
Rat smiled evilly, not expecting Egg to see. She had her own suspicions, but her daughter had not exactly narrowed it down.
"Yah. Incher. He's jealous of youz for long time. He hates your power." Egg clutched her own rags more tightly about her. "And I hates Incher. Nasty tooth. He tries, but he can't make me not speaks. I knows youz ferreal, youz has the ferreal glammer."
Rat did not dispute this.
"I tells you where Incher is, but youz gotta promise to keep him away. Kill him mebbe. Mebbe he never touches me again. You do this Ma Rat, and I tells youz where he goes."
Yes, she would have to do something. They couldn't afford to have stupid Incher sabotage the exchange. It was good for everyone. Stupid man.
Kwak and Tuan stood back to back near the fire, listening. Kwak held his spear trembling before him; the older man had recovered the atlatl, but did not linger for the arrows, which would be no help in the dark anyway. He could use it like a club.
"Do you think we should move, jefe? I haven't heard anything for a while."
"They can find their way in the dark a lot better than we can, Kwak."
"But we can't /hide/ here, jefe. They'll see the fire. Why do you think they're attacking us?"
The man had a good point, and a good question. "I don't want to abandon the wagon," Tuan said.
"We could take the horses at least."
Not a bad idea. Tuan had some warehouses, could maybe re-establish an inventory from there, and the horses were difficult to replace. But starting over was a young man's game. "Let's see if--"
The rock missed Kwak and rebounded off the wagon with a crack. A second rock whizzed past Tuan's ear. The old man stepped backward. A third struck his thigh and he fell to one knee.
Kwak bounded over amid the thumps and hisses, grabbed his boss, and dragged him from the firelight toward the trees. A couple more rocks could be heard crackling the leaves, and then there was silence again.
"You all right?" Kwak asked in a low voice.
"I hope to Hayzeus I am." He rubbed his leg, and stood shakily. "They're probably clever enough to go around the fire. Won't be able to see 'em. Watch out from the sides, I think."
"You think they're smart enough to surround us? How many you think they are?"
"Probably. A lot. Shut up, already." They heard a twig snap from the direction of the camp.
"Move," Tuan hissed, and they did. He grabbed the younger man's shirt and limped behind him. They avoided the road, and as their eyes adjusted, they could see the faint shadows arced by the moonlight through the trees. Shadows on their left, Tuan noted. They were heading toward the city. He did not tell Kwak.
Go ahead and burn the wagon, he thought. Kill the horses. If I can't come back here, I'm finished anyway.
As she darted along, Rat worried about her husband: a fire, too far away; a plot by Incher. Her husband was a capable man in his way-- he held amazing knowledge that was completely outside the sphere of the Pale City--but he was like a child against the low scheming of her urbanite clan, and she admitted grudgingly that her enemy possessed a certain shrewdness, if not wisdom.
Rat liked to think she understood a little of both worlds. As a child, she had developed a habit, to a greater degree than most of her peers, of observing the dark visitors. She would follow the men into their stashes in the buildings, and she mentally catalogued the items that most fascinated them. Soon, she began gathering similar items on her own. The black men were not very good at searching, avoiding the narrow dark places as though afraid of them.
The men, with their size and in their groups, were intimidating, but there were sometimes young ones that came around too, and often these were sent after the more dangerous artifacts. She was fascinated by these boys, who were older than she but appeared more childish, and by one in particular. Even as the other boys disappeared from season to season, he kept coming back.
She began to assemble likely items on her walk in front of her burrow. When her husband first saw her, she was sunning herself there, watching her youngest stack up a bunch of milky white bottles and knock them down again. He had first been amazed at her hair, then her body, and then at the junk that the kid was playing with. He showed her the clay jugs he kept his own water in, which broke when she dropped one, and she could still remembered the sound of the tinkling shards, still found it funny. He showed her a smaller jug as well, one he handled much more carefully, and the water inside had a powerful spell in it that made her throat burn and her mind reel.
Lately, some of the other women had begun placing collections of crumbling bric-a-brac on the walks in imitation of herself, hoping to draw in a black man of their own. Ma Rat wished them luck. Her husband visited them as well, but always bought less, and offered less for it. With few other visitors, Rat's status had grown as the sole bringer of trade. She knew, even if the other women didn't, that these strange men still wanted the same things as any other men, no matter how much they talked, or how nicely they touched.
Her husband usually came down from the north, along one of the old ways, far from the river. Egg confirmed that Incher was planning to intercept him. The wind ran in complex patterns around the ruins, but it was Ma Rat's impression that the fire smells were coming from that direction as well. She hunched closer to the ground, and increased her pace. The moon would rise a hand or two before she got to the source, she thought. She hoped it would be time enough. She hoped that this resistance didn't extend beyond Incher's own little cadre of fools.
Eel worked his hands along one of the clasps on the large wooden cart, feeling out the mechanism. He'd already accidentally released the catch for the horses' bridle, and the animals had bolted away when his partner started banging on the other side of the wagon with a rock, as he was still doing now. Large nasty beasts anyway, he thought, though one of them would feed four handfuls of people when he caught it. At any rate, they seemed lazy and loud, and Eel figured they could always get them later. Maybe, if he could discover the magic behind it, he could force them to walk themselves back before he killed them.
Even more than horses, the food inside the cart was extremely valuable because it could be kept forever. Incher also placed a high priority on whatever magical things the black men carried with them, including (and maybe especially) the enchanted water that they peddled in exchange for junk.
There. The thing caught, and dropped. He lifted the lid.
"Stop your banging, cracka," he said.
A balding, dirty moon rose up over the top of the wagon. Eel winced at the oozing white crater just over its right eye. How had that thing not killed him all these years? The man must have some powerful glamour, but Eel couldn't fathom where he'd have obtained it.
"Youz open it?" Pigeonshit said.
"Yah. No glammer in the metal thing after all. Youz just pull it here."
"Bottles is Incher's. Incher smells it if we tastes."
"But we gots to find it. He wants that before any other magic."
"Yah. Let's find summa those foods too. Then we finds those other mens." Eel sighed. Taking the wagon was easy. Keeping track of everything else was more difficult.
"Youz gonna have a bite?" Pigeonshit asked. Incher wouldn't approve of this either, but Eel saw no reason not to compromise. They already had killed two of the men, probably enough, and they had the wagon. And he doubted the little hunchback could smell ham.
"Yah," he said. And maybe he wouldn't miss just one sip from the bottle either.
Tuan blundered in thick underbrush behind Kwak. His partner was hard to see even in the moonlight, just one silhouette among many, a competing shadow creeping across innumerable lonely gray slabs. They had somehow lost the minor trail they had been following, and still had not found the main road. Worse, they were still going basically south but now with an eastward bent, toward the river, trapping themselves. Tuan's stomach fluttered and his feet lightened. He stopped walking and breathed deeply, waiting for the urge for flight to settle.
"Moon's looking pretty high now," he said, making no effort to soften his voice.
Kwak--Hayzeus damn his young body--was still going strong. "You say so, jefe."
"We're far enough away, I think. We should start getting back on track."
A shadow in front of him shrugged.
"After we rest."
A sigh in the dark. "You want me to keep the first watch, jefe?"
"I'm not young anymore, Kwak. Just give me an hour."
The shadow grew larger, crunching twigs. "Not a bad spot anyway," it said. "Nobody will see us in the brush."
Tuan thought it unlikely anyone saw them anyway. If the savages had been making an effort to follow, they'd be caught by now. And what did it matter at this point? Without ceremony, he dropped to the ground, not hearing whatever the young man was mumbling as he closed his eyes.
Much too soon, he opened them. The shadow was shaking him, and not gently. Something was scraping his cheek, and he could feel Kwak's breathing. What in the Goodbook's name had he been eating?
Kwak was hissing at him. "Gets up, stupid man!"
Tuan opened his eyes and turned. "Get back, K--"
Instead of Kwak's shadow, he saw a protruding gray bulge of a forehead, followed by an angular nose, followed by a single gray tooth, jutting at him like a spear. The face, sucking in and out, was emitting a foul exhalation. And it was smiling under a matted beard. Tuan tried to push himself back on his elbows, and found that the creature was sitting on his legs.
"Youz mine, glammer boy."
The smell of wood smoke and more was burning in Rat's nostrils. There was, she knew, an inimitable scent to burning hair, one that she loathed. She hugged to the ground and moved faster, habitually feeling with her hands and feet for loose branches, for stray debris, for anything that would give a report of her presence. Suddenly she stopped, lifted her head and cocked it sideways. Yes, that was a man's shout, but not a close one. Not her husband's beautiful deep voice either, but a barking grunt that sounded familiar in another way. She put her head down and moved in the direction of the noise.
She could hear the men shouting and laughing before she could see the firelight. As she got closer, she could see their bodies as flickers through the trees. The flames were blazing dangerously high. Rat felt contempt twine its way into the knot of her other emotions. She bellied herself to the ground, and inched up quietly among the laurel.
On the fire were two misshapen logs that sent smoke billowing blackly into the night sky, and she could see luminous forms hopping about erratically in front of it. The men--for all their noise, there appeared to be only two--were crashing about like they were sick, delirious. She recognized the feeling, but these two were as stupid with the fire water as they were without it. (The glamour of that liquid only made you a silly version of what you already were). Rat felt red blood pumping behind her eyes. Incher would die for this.
She spied a large rock not far away. She slithered over and closed her hand around it, granite, she noted, and prized it easily from the ground. She moved around on her elbows, coming up behind her husband's vehicle. She was quiet, but she didn't need to be.
Pigeonshit sat back down on the log, contentedly splaying himself out before the fire, grimy finger circling around in his ear. They would have to find some more things to throw on it. People burned, he found, and wood, but not rocks. He could see why the black men liked this stuff. It was warm. What was there to be afraid of?
"Hey cracka," he said, "youz thinks we can keeps a bottle for us two? /Win/ us some womens instead of taking them? How many's there again?"
Eel danced over, and held up two dexterous hands, lots of fingers. He giggled.
"Hey," Pigeonshit said. "Don't forget the jug."
"The jug!," Eel screeched and then whirled around and lurched clumsily back to the big wooden cart. The glamour infected the smaller man quickly, Pigeonshit thought. Not fair. He wasn't feeling a thing himself. He needed another pull.
"Hey Eel," he shouted at the wagon. At the sound of his name, the smaller man spun and dropped. Pigeonshit heard a wet cracking sound. "Youz breaks that jug, I kills you myself. Never minds Incher." He pushed his body to a sitting position, and kept going forward. Maybe the glamour was getting to him after all.
"Youz better not--" Pigeonshit stopped. Before him strode a woman, glowing red in the firelight. Her teeth were bared, and the jug was in her hand. She walked to him cautiously, jug raised, liquid sloshing inside. Unbelievably, his own feet were slower than this, and he discovered that he couldn't gain them. He looked up at her arm: it was raised high, but it was moving sideways somehow, and not quite distinct. "Ma Ra--"
Rat spat on the man's prostate form. For once, the white pustule on his forehead was invisible amid the blood and broken clay. She breathed deeply of burning death, and her head began to feel hot again. She kicked the man, who didn't groan. She hoped he wasn't breathing. She kicked him again.
She looked at the fire. One man was only in it from the waist down, face mercifully undamaged. He could be tumbling from a door if you ignored the lower half of him. She looked down at an expression of frozen surprise, lidded eyes opened wide, mouth agape. His lips were heavy and his nose was broad and flat. Rat did not recognize him, but a friend of her husband's deserved to be mourned. She yanked a filthy rag from Pigeonshit's body, and placed it over the burning man's eyes.
She inspected the arm of his partner, who was not so well preserved. The hand was huge, with rings on it, and the few patches skin which were not blackened by the flame were nearly as ruddy as her own. She breathed deeply, hope and anger wrestling in her mind. Where was her husband?
She fanned out, scanning the ground for signs, uncaring of the noises she made now. Eel and Pigeonshit had made a wreck of the place, but here, she noted, something had crashed through the bushes coming from the camp, moving northward. She dropped to her knees and crawled along the trail, feeling and watching. The track was wide for men, but she did not think her husband knew how to move through the trees. She felt a moon-shaped print under her hand, and then another. Not men, then, but the beasts that pulled the wagon. Could her husband be on top of one? She had better check for other paths.
She circled wide around the stinking fire, light enough from the high moon and from the flames. Nearly opposite the horse track, she found her own serpentine path, where she had shimmied inward. She crossed this, thinking that her husband could only have walked toward the city or toward the river. She got her face closer to the ground and moved.
Not ten steps from her own trail, she found it. Two men, with boots on. Her hand shook as she pressed it into one of the clear prints. Heading south, and clumsily. They could not have gotten far with their skills. She hugged her palm to her breast and scurried after them.
The savage had a hump, Tuan noted, which he swung widely when he walked, but it didn't slow him down. Tuan was uncomfortably gagged, and his hands were tied tightly with the scraps of his own shirt. Right now, since he had been recently cooperating (he was too tired not to), the humped man led him by the bonds. Earlier, it had been by the hair. He did his best to keep up. At least this person he could see.
Sometimes the tusked, verminous face turned back to him, sometimes angry, sometimes smiling, always calculating. Now and then, it spoke.
"Ma Rat's power, and all those foods. I gunna take it from you, little man."
His Rat's enemy, then. She had never introduced him to this one. Tuan shut his eyes thinking what horrible things this creature could do to her. He stumbled.
"Ah! Up, up!," filthy hands groped in his direction again. Tuan stood and waited for them to clutch his hair once more, but the savage only yanked the bonds on his wrists, and pulled him stumbling along once more.
"Faster, faster, little glammerboy," the toothy face said. Tuan was tiring of the nickname.
They had quickly found the old road (it was less than a hundred paces away), and with aching legs and mouth, Tuan tried to distract himself by picking out his normal route. As they walked slowly along, the ruins grew more concentrated, and Tuan could sometimes sense the ponderous presences he knew were about him. The eastern horizon was beginning to turn gray as they passed the place where he usually found Rat. His legs were burning.
They kept walking for maybe another hour, when the monster in front of him suddenly stopped and let go of his wrist. Tuan dropped instantly to his knees and sucked air through his nose. He closed his eyes and tried to treasure the moment of stillness, to pretend that the savage wasn't reaching for his scalp again even now.
And he wasn't. After a pause, Tuan opened his eyes and looked up for the man. He could see quite clearly now, and though he couldn’t yet view the rim of the sun, the tops of city's white towers were glinting with reflected morning light. One was particularly close, and he looked up its height. The impossible building gaped broken holes at him like a smile. He thought of Kwak, probably dead.
He still did not see his captor, and turned around to an even stranger sight. He had come to the downtown of the Pale City many times and had seen many shattered wonders, but none like this. All of the others were gigantic rectangles, built with unknown skills true, but still basically like overgrown country houses, conceivable. Here, old gray stone curved elegantly up over him like a pregnant belly, trees tickling its base like pubic hair. He felt like an ant looking up at an enormous egg, and he stumbled backward in fear that the thing would roll onto him and crush him like a hope. He bumped into something more giving than stone and jumped, fatigue forgotten.
The savage swatted him in the head. "Stupid glammerboy, too stupid to runs." The face was even more repulsive in the light. Its horizontal tooth was yellow, he saw, more diseased than threatening, and it shaped the mouth into a permanent sneer. He wanted to scratch his cheek where it had touched him hours ago.
The face was smiling. "I lives underneath," it said.
Rat still followed a trail of two men, but only one of them was the same. There had been a struggle, and although she had followed three distinct sets of prints out, she could only identify two of them now. Often, she recognized the stamp-and-drag gait of a barefoot track, which was frequently obliterated by the erratic shuffle of the shoes behind it. The latter were probably dragged along against their will, Rat thought, which bought her time.
As the light grew, it became increasingly evident that Incher and his captive were headed to the heart of the Pale City. The morning sun was kissing the ground when she followed the tracks off the highway--easily, because they departed at the expected point. It was enough evidence. She lifted her aching shoulders and elevated her pace, jogging straight to Incher's nest.
She hustled through the trees to the shadow of the great square spire, and then sprinted through the trees and brush to the shadow of the giant clam. She stopped to catch a breath as she surveyed the situation. Incher lived down below the curve of the thing, where there was access to some warm underground rooms. She had been there once, against her will, when she was very young.
One last breath, and she moved to the entrance she remembered. She pressed her ear to the stone, listening carefully. She could pick out a muffled thumping, and also a sound like someone scraping metal against the wall. Creeping inside, she heard a voice as well, the high-pitched lisp of her adversary.
The source of the thumping sound soon became clear, for Incher had not taken the time to pull her husband into the deeper levels. Up here, the black man's legs twitched feebly as he lay bound next to the wall. Incher was scraping some sharp bit of metal on the stone floor, as though he were about to fillet a mouse. Rat felt her blood flowing hot in her temples. Her husband! She scooped up some dusty gravel and hurled it at the little monster.
Incher twitched his head in the direction of the assault. Then he cackled. "That all youz gots, Ma Rat? Your glammer found me mebbe, but I kills him anyway."
Incher glared at her, "I'm gonna take your glammerboy, Rat. I'm gonna take his seed myself, gonna cut it out. I don't needs youz. We just /takes/ the foods now."
The wrongness of this was self-evident to Rat. There was no glamour in the exchange; it worked because both parties brought something to it. Some of the men understood the concept of the bargain. Incher did not. She looked at the little man with hatred, remembering his clammy body, his motile lips moving on her like earthworms, but not tasty. There had been no gloating then, only insecurity in his little black eyes. And later, gratitude.
Oh, he needed her.
"My mens are /taking/ what we wants, right now." As he spoke, his tooth bobbed and threatened like a solitary tusk. "We don't /digs/ for it. Youz stupid womens..."
She narrowed her eyes, lowering herself into a crouch.
Incher cackled. "/We's/ gonna bring foods this ti-- Aah!" He gripped his cheek where Rat had raked him. She showed her own teeth, clean and white, and circled him, shoulders high. She was larger than him, she thought, and faster. There was no end to this man's stupidity. She jerked her head to see him flinch. When he did, gratifyingly, she swung her other hand in a wide arc, catching his opposite cheek with her fingernail. She rushed at him.
Tuan's legs hurt. His wrists hurt. His mouth hurt. He was afraid, and he didn't want to be here. Laying on the hard floor, waiting for death, he pretended he was running away to some rich life of ease, legs ineffectually flopping about like a dreaming dog's. It would be nice if his Rat were here. He'd have liked to have seen her one last time. He thought he could hear her voice. Growling?
Rat was angry, and he could hear that other voice, that freakish little man, shouting at her. He hated that voice. That man was going to cut off his...
Tuan struggled up to consciousness, pushing his legs more forcefully now, forcing his body up the wall to a sitting position. It /was/ Rat, and Hayzeus help her, she was fighting. Did she know he had a blade?
Tuan watched her dive at the man, aiming with impressive force at his waist, but she didn't see the sharpened metal pulled back for a swipe at her. Tuan kicked furiously, grunting through his gag. At the sound, Rat looked his way mid-charge, and dropped further down to knee level. The hand went high, scoring her back, and Rat tumbled into the twisted man's feet, knocking both of them down, scrambling.
Tuan tried to scream through bruised lips and a filthy gag. He tried to push himself up to his feet, but overbalanced and landed chest first on the dusty floor. He heard a few hits land, but much more ineffectual cursing and tumbling. Rolling onto his side, he came face to face with the man, who shrieked and lunged at him with the blade. Tuan watched Rat pounce, seemingly from nowhere, on the outthrust hand, but then the little man rolled her over and her head crashed hard on the ground. He straddled her and held the shiv high over her still body.
Tuan's eyes widened at the scene, recalling the story of Hayzeus's sacrifice of lesser gods at the roots of the Tree of Life, but with an appalling reversal of roles. He could see the shadows of hell gathering behind the man. He closed his eyes and heard the sickening, liquid fall of the blow, followed by silence.
He heard his name. "Tuan?"
That voice. So he was now joining the rest of the dead. No surprise.
"You all right, jefe?"
Tuan opened his eyes to see Kwak's gap-toothed grin. The man was waving his bloodied spear. "Your lover runs pretty fast, but I got here in time."
Kwak rubbed his hand over his curly new beard. It went nicely with his skin, he thought, adding to his dark mystery. But now, days' walk from his familiar civilization, he desired no attention from /these/ locals; they weren't really his type. He strode along without company, leading only one of his horses, and carrying only some token sample wares stuffed into the saddlebags. Back at the peddlers' post, which was now a permanent camp complete with a stockade, his three assistants waited for him to return with the city women that were in charge of trade. It was an outgrowth from Tuan's method, and Kwak also preferred not to share the secrets of the Pale City's heart with his employees.
He trudged along the path, noting how well-established the trail had become since the first year of his return. The savages must be maintaining it, he thought. He walked along through the cleared scrub, admiring the ancient hands that had built these sprawling, sweeping structures for the sole apparent purpose of travel, but finding no fault with the more recent effort either. Up ahead he could see two forms, and he waved at them. The smaller one was quickly coming his way.
"Uncle Kwak, carry me," cried little James, running at the big man's knees to be hoisted with a giggle at the last moment. Tuan, richly bearded like his protégé, but in gray, clasped the younger man's shoulder affectionately.
"Looks just like his old man," said Kwak. He pinched the boys cheek, who scrunched up his shoulder and made a face.
The former peddler shook his head. "They think he's some kind of holy child, you know. I never should have told them the old stories. I think it was Egg that spread them around. She thinks she's a prophet or something."
"How does Rat take all of that?"
"I think she lives for it, actually, and I must admit that it helps business."
Kwak laughed; he couldn't complain about business.
"The place is really growing up, Kwak. Wait till you see it. We've almost got a civilization going down in there."