The Many-Coloured Land

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Stein drew her close to him again and wiped her tears away with a corner of the bedclothes. "Oh, no. Not you, Sukey. It won't happen to you."
Incredulously, she raised her face. He said, "Go ahead. Look deep inside. As long as it's you, I don't mind."
She took a shuddering breath and plunged into the new place, and could not help crying out when she found that what she hoped for did exist, all new and strong.
After he had hushed her and the pledge was sealed in both their minds, they completed the healing of each other in their own way.
Chapter Seventeen

Claude and Richard and Amerie could have slept for days, but with the sunrise came a distant howling of amphicyons angling up the ridge from the south, and they realized that the Tanu were going to do their utmost to prevent the escape of Felice, whose role in the massacre had doubtless been betrayed by some recaptured prisoner. The remnant of Group Green didn't waste any time trying to destroy traces of their camp but marched on not long after dawn, deflating their equipment and eating a scratch breakfast as they went. Claude had attempted to relinquish leadership to Felice, but she refused to hear of it.

"You've had experience in this kind of travel. I haven't. Just get us off this ridge as quickly as you can and down into thick woodland with a good-sized river. Then I think we'll be able to shake off the trackers."
They skidded and tramped and once even rappelled over a small cliff in their downhill flight, making better time when they found a dry wash that turned into a thin rivulet in the lower elevations. Trees crowded together and became taller, roofing over the widening stream and shading them from some of the sun's heat. As they splashed down the rock-clogged watercourse they startled big brown trout and fishing weasels that resembled pale minks. They took to the stream bank, first on one side, then on the other, in an attempt to confuse pursuit. Claude had them tramp an obvious trail up a tributary creek, relieve themselves to enhance the spoor, then double back in the water and continue wading down the original stream. It was becoming dangerously deep in places, broken with short pouroffs and stretches of white water.
Claude called a halt in midmorning. He and Felice were in good shape, but Richard and the nun sagged with weary gratitude. They rested on half-submerged rocks out in a backwater pool, straining their ears for sound of pursuit. They heard nothing but an explosive splat! a short distance downstream.
"If I didn't know better," Amerie remarked, "I'd say that was a beaver."
"Quite likely," Claude said. "Might be our old friend Castor, but it's more likely Steneofiber, a more primitive type that didn't go in much for dams but just dug holes in the . . ."
"Shhh," Felice hissed. "Listen."
Rushing water, birdsong, the occasional screeches of what Claude had told them was an arboreal ape, a small squirrel chattering its annoyance.
And something large clearing its throat.
They froze on their rocks and instinctively drew up their legs, which they had been dangling in the water. The noise was a guttural cough, unlike anything they had heard before in the Pliocene. The bushes on the left bank swayed slightly as an animal passed through and came down to the stream to drink. It was a cat, massive as an African lion but with large canine teeth protruding like daggers below its closed jaws. It muttered to itself like a dyspeptic gourmet after an overly lavish feast and took a few desultory laps. Its upper body was decorated with marbled polygons of russet edged with tan and black; these merged into dark stripes about the animal's face, and black spots on its underparts and lower limbs. It had whiskers of heroic proportions.
The breeze shifted and carried the scent of the humans to the drinking sabertooth. It raised its head, stared directly at them with yellow eyes and snarled, exuding the studied restraint of a creature in complete command of an awkward situation. Felice met its gaze.
The others were immobile with horror, waiting for the cat to spring into the water. But it did no such thing. Its belly was full and its cubs were waiting, and Felice's mind stroked its feline vanity and told it that the scrawny prey crouching on the rocks was scarcely worth a ducking. So the machairodus lapped and glared at them and wrinkled the bridge of its nose in a contemptuous one-sided snort, and at last withdrew into the undergrowth.
"It will take me five minutes," Amerie whispered, "to offer a Mass of Thanksgiving. And long overdue."
Felice shook her head with an enigmatic smile and Richard turned away looking superior, but Claude came to Amerie's rock and snared the gold thimble of wine and the flake of dried bread from the Mass kit she carried in the pocket of Richard's uniform. And when that was over they went on their way again, chopping a path on the bank opposite from that claimed by the sabertooth.
"It was so incredibly beautiful," the nun said to Claude. "But why does it need those teeth? The big cats of our time got along nicely with shorter ones."
"Our lions and tigers didn't try to kill elephants."
Richard exclaimed, "You mean those monstrous hoe-tuskers they tried to frighten us with in the auberge Tri-D's? Here?"
"More likely the smaller mastodons in these uplands. Gomphothcrium angustidens is probably the common sort. Hardly half the size of those rhinos we dodged yesterday. We won't run into deinotherium until we have to cross a swamp or a large river bottomland."
"Kaleidoscopic," the pirate growled. "Pardon me for asking, but do any of you aces have a destination in mind? Or are we just running?"
Claude said softly, "We're just running. When we've shaken off the soldiers and the bear-dogs, then there'll be time enough to make strategic decisions. Or don't you agree, son?"
"Aw, shit," said Richard, and began hacking at the stream-side shrubbery once more.
At last the brook merged with a large turbulent river flowing in a southerly direction. Claude thought it might be the upper Saône. "We won't follow this river," he told the rest of the Group. "It probably curves around to the southwest and empties into the lake forty or fifty kloms downstream. We'll have to cross over, and that means the decamole bridges."
Each Survival Unit was equipped with three bridge sections that could be married to produce a narrow, self-supporting span twenty meters in length that resembled a ladder with close-set rungs. Moving up the river to a point where the torrent narrowed between two craggy shelves of rock, they inflated and ballasted the sections, joined them, and swung the bridge over to the opposite bank.
"Looks kinda flimsy," Richard remarked uneasily. "Funny, when we practiced with it back at the auberge it seemed a lot wider."
The bridge was a good third of a meter in width and steady as a rock. However, they had used it to cross a still pond in the auberge's cavern, while here surging rapids and sharp rocks awaited below.
"We could inflate another bridge and lash the two side by side if it would make you feel safer," Amerie suggested But the pirate bristled indignantly at the suggestion, hoisted his pack, and lurched across like an apprentice tightrope walker.
"You next, Amerie," said Claude.
The nun stepped confidently onto the span. How many hundreds of logs had she walked over, crossing the mountain streams of the Oregon Cascades? The bridge rungs were less than a handspan apart, impossible to fall through. All that was necessary was a firm step, balanced posture, and keep the eyes on the opposite bank and not on the foaming chute six meters below.
Her right thigh muscle went into spasm. She teetered, caught herself, then overbalanced on the opposite side and went feet-first into the river.
"Dump your pack!" Felice screamed. Moving so fast that her hands were blurred, she dropped the bow and arrows, unfastened her own backpack, slapped the quick-release buckles of her cuirass and greaves, and jumped in after Amerie.
Richard gaped from the other side, but the old man ran back the way they had come, to the relative calm of the smaller stream's outspate. Two heads bobbed in the rapids. The leading one fetched momentarily against a humpbacked boulder and disappeared. The second one swept up to the rock and also went under, but after a long minute both women reappeared and floated toward Claude. He seized a stout piece of driftwood and held it out. Felice caught hold with one hand and he was able to pull her in. Her other hand had the fingers entwined in Amerie's hair.
Claude waded out and dragged the nun onto the bank. Felice rested on hands and knees in the shallows, spewing and coughing. He lifted Amerie's sodden body in a jackknife bend to empty the lungs of water, then filled them with his own warm air.
Breathe, child, he begged her. Live, daughter.
There was a sound of gagging, a first halting expansion of the chest beneath the soaked and torn starship captain's uniform. One last kiss of shared breath, and she returned.
Amerie's eyes opened and she stared wildly at Claude, then at the smiling Felice. A choked sob rose in her throat and she buried her head in the old man's breast. He had Felice pull the warm Orcadian sweater from his pack and wrapped the nun in it; but when he tried to pick Amerie up and carry her across the bridge she was much too heavy for him. So it was the little athlete who had to assist the nun, while the paleontologist toted his own and Felice's gear.
Amerie's pack with its medical supplies was lost, swept far downstream! They had to set her broken arm with the meager first-aid equipment from the individual Survival Units, following steps outlined in a laconic plaque entitled Common Medical Emergencies . The injury was a simple fracture of the left humerus, easily reduced even by amateur medics; but by the time Amerie was treated and sedated, the afternoon was well advanced. Richard convinced Claude and Felice that it would be useless to try to press on farther, regardless of possible pursuit. They went a short distance from the river into a concealing grove of massive oaks. There Richard erected two decamole cabins while Felice went out and shot a big fat roebuck and Claude grubbed nourishing cattail tubers from a boggy spot.
With their stomachs full, cots set on maximum soft, and critter-proof screendoors latched, they fell asleep even before night fell. They never heard the owls and nightingales and tree-frogs singing, nor the fading howls of bear-dogs raging on a cold and futile trail far to the south. They did not see the mist start to rise from the rapids as the stars brightened. And they never saw the glowing grotesqueries of the Firvulag, who came and danced on the opposite bank of the river until the stars paled with the coming of dawn.
The following morning Amerie was feverish and weak. By common consent they dosed her with their limited store of medication, made her comfortable in one hut, and withdrew to the other so that she could sleep and mend. They all stood in need of recuperation, and there seemed little danger that any pursuit party could cross the crag-bordered torrent without their being aware of it. Felice was confident that they had eluded the trackers altogether. "They might even find equipment from Amerie's pack downstream and decide that we've drowned in the river."
So they slept, lunched on cold venison and algiprote, and then sat in the shade of an ancient oak, sipping small cups of precious instant coffee and trying to decide what to do next.
"I've been working on a new plan," said Felice. "I've considered different possibilities and decided that the best place to get another torc would be near Finiah, where there are plenty of Tanu. They might even have a storehouse or a factory for the things. What we have to do is hide out until Amerie is healed, cross the Vosges, then hole up outside the city. We can rustle supplies from caravans or outlying settlements."
Richard choked on his coffee.
Felice went on serenely, "And then, after we've analyzed their defenses and learned more about the actual technology of the torcs, we can work out plans for the strike."
Richard set his little cup down on a tree root with great care. "Kid, you've conned us and bullied us into going along with your plans so far, and I'm not saying you didn't do a damned good job getting us away from Epone and her stooges. But there is no way you're gonna force me into a four-man invasion of a whole city full of exotic mind mashers!"
"You'd prefer to hide in the woods until they hunt you down?" she sneered. "They won't stop searching, you know. And the Tanu will be coming out themselves instead of just sending human Slavics. If we follow my plan, if I get a golden torc, I'll be a match for any of them!"
"That's what you say. How do we know you'll be able to get it up? And what's in it for us? Do we get to be your loyal spear carriers while you're playing Madam Commander? No friggerty golden torcs are going to do the rest of us poor normals any good. Sure as shit some of us'd get chopped by these freaks before your private guerrilla war was over, win or lose. You want to know what my plans are, bull-dolly?"
She sipped her drink, eyes hooded.
I'll tell you!" Richard blustered. "I'm gonna rest up here for another day or two and repair my footgear, and then I'm heading north to the big rivers and the ocean, just like Yosh did. A little luck and I might even meet up with him. When I get to the Atlantic I'm sailing southward along the coast. While you're doing your bandit-princess routine, I'll be getting pissed on good wine and bouncing broads in my pirate shack in Bordeaux."
"And the rest of us?" Claude kept his tone neutral.
"Come with me! Why not? I'll be marching easy, not breaking my butt climbing to hell and gone over the Vosges. Listen, Claude, you and Amerie stick with me and I'll help you find some nice peaceful place the Tanu never heard of. You're kinda old to get mixed up in this crazy kid's battles. And what life would it be for a nun, for God's sake? This one kills people for fun."
Felice said, "You're wrong, Richard," and drank coffee.
The old paleontologist turned from one to the other, then shook his head. "I've got to think about this. And there's something else I've been meaning to do. If you don't mind, I'll just go a little farther into this grove of oak trees and spend some time alone." He got to his feet, felt briefly in the big pocket of his bush jacket, and walked off.
"Take as long as you like, Claude," Felice called. "I'll see to Amerie. And keep a lookout, too."
"Don't get lost," Richard added. Felice muttered an expletive under her breath.
Claude wandered along, automatically noting landmarks as he had done for so many years on freshly tamed planets. An oak with two massively drooping branches like ogre arms. A reddish pinnacle standing out amidst the gray granite. A dry meadow with a maple, one branch turned anomalously golden too early in the season. A little pool dotted with pink water-lilies, with a pair of ordinary mallard ducks swimming lackadaisically about. A spring issuing from the rocks, adorned with lacy ferns and shaded by a magnificent beech.
"How's this, Gen?" the old man inquired.
He knelt down and held out his palms to the trickle, drank, then laved his forehead and the sunburnt back of his neck. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor. Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
"Yes, I think this will do very well."
He took a thin flat stone from the basin of the spring and went to the foot of the beech tree. After carefully removing a pad of moss, he dug a hole, set the carved wooden box into it, and replaced the soil and plants, patting them firm. He marked her resting place with no stone nor cross; those who cared about her knew where her dust lay. When he was finished he went back to the spring for a handful of water to refresh the disturbed moss, then sat down with his back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes.
When he awoke it was late afternoon. Something crouched at the spring and watched him with a wary light-green gaze.
Claude held his breath. It was one of the most beautiful little animals he had ever seen, its graceful and sinuous body not much longer than his hand, with a slender tail adding another twenty centimeters to its length. Its underparts were pale orange and the upper fur tan with subtle black shading rather like a kit fox. The feline face was full of intelligence, mild and unthreatening, for all that it resembled that of a miniaturized cougar.
It had to be Felis zitteli, one of the earliest of the true cats. Claude pursed his lips and whistled a soft, undulating call. The animal's large ears cupped toward the sound. With infinite slowness, Claude slipped his hand into his pocket and withdrew a small piece of cheeselike algiprote.
"Pss-pss-pss," he invited, placing the food on the mossy sward beside him.
Calmly, the little cat came to him, nostrils quivering, white whiskers pointing forward. It sniffed the food discreetly, tested it with a dainty pink tongue, and ate it. Eyes proportionally larger than those of a domestic cat and outlined in black looked at Claude in an unmistakably friendly fashion. There was a faint humming sound. Felis zitteli was purring.
The old man gave it more food, then ventured to touch it. The cat accepted his stroking, arching its back and curling its black-tipped tail into an interrogative curve. It came closer to Claude and butted its forehead against the side of his leg.
"Oh, you are a cutie, aren't you? Tiny little teeth. Do you eat insects and little rock critters, or do you fish for minnows?" The cat tilted its head and bestowed a melting glance, then leaped into his lap, where it settled down with every evidence of familiarity. Claude petted the pretty thing and spoke softly to it while shadows purpled and a chill breeze stole through the grove.
"I'll have to be going," he said reluctantly, slipping one hand beneath the warm little belly and lifting the cat to the ground. He got to his feet, expecting the animal to take fright at the movement and flee. But it only sat down and watched him, and when he moved away, it followed.
He chuckled and said "Shoo," but it persisted. "Are you an instant domestic?" he asked it, and then thought of Amerie, who would face a long stint of convalescence with him and Richard on their way north. If they left Felice behind (and there seemed no alternative), the nun would fret about her as well as brood over her own guilt. Perhaps this charming little cat would be a distraction.
"Will you ride in my pocket? Or do you prefer shoulders?" He picked it up and inserted it into the bellows like pocket of his jacket. It turned about several times and then settled down with its head out, still purring.
"That's that, then." The old man lengthened his stride, passing from landmark to landmark until he came back into the open part of the oak grove where they had set up camp.
The two decamole cabins were gone.
Throat constricted, heart racing, Claude staggered back behind a huge tree bole, leaning with his back to the trunk until his pulse slowed. He peered cautiously out, studying the clearing where the camp had been. It was empty of their equipment. Even the fire trench and the remains of the roasted deer were gone. There were no footprints, no broken ferns or shrubs to indicate a scuffle (take Felice without a fight?), nothing to show there had ever been human beings among the big old trees.
Claude left his place of concealment and did a more careful search. The site had been cleaned up by persons who knew their woodcraft, but there remained a few clues. One dusty place bore parallel sweep marks from the branch that had been used to obliterate footprints. And down by the torrent, on a faint game trail that led upstream, was a piece of emerald-green fluff stuck to the resiny trunk of a pine. A bit of green feather. Dyed green. Claude nodded as the puzzle began to resolve itself. They had found three people and three packs and taken them this way. Who? Certainly not the minions of the Tanu, who would not care about concealing their presence. Then . . .? Firvulag?
Claude's heart leaped again and he pinched his nostrils shut and exhaled gently. The adrenalin flood was stemmed and the pounding in his chest eased. There was nothing to do but follow. And if they caught him . . . well, at least he had fulfilled part of what he had come here to do.
"You're sure you don't want to get off?" he whispered to the cat, crouching and pulling open the pocket to afford an easy egress. But the animal only blinked its big eyes sleepily and cuddled down out of sight.
"It's us versus them, then," Claude said, sighing. He set a good pace and hiked up the noisy river until it was nearly dark. Then he smelled smoke and followed his nose into a stand of sequoias on a rocky slope above the river. There was a sizable fire, surrounded by many dark figures who were laughing and talking.
Claude lurked among the shadows, but he was evidently expected. Completely against his will, he found himself walking up to the fire with his hands above his head, drawn by the same irresistible compulsion he had known in the examining chamber of the Lady Epone.
"It's an old one!" somebody said as he came into the firelight.
"Not such an alter kocker, though," a hulking shape remarked. "He might be good for something."
"Acting more reasonable than his friends, anyhow."
There were perhaps a dozen tough-looking human men and women seated on the ground around the flames. They were dressed in dark buckskin and oddments of ragged costume, eating the last bits of Felice's venison and turning a long spit crowded with spatchcocked birds.
One desperado arose and came over to Claude. It was a middle-aged woman of medium height with dark hair graying at the temples and eyes that displayed a fanatic sparkle in the firelight. Her thin lips tightened critically as she studied the old man. She lifted the fine beak of her nose in a proud gesture and Claude could see a golden torc nestled beneath the collar of her doeskin cloak.
"What do you call yourself?" she asked sternly.
"I'm Claude Majewski. What have you done with my friends? Who are you?"
The mind-grip gentled and the woman looked at him with astringent humor. "Your friends are safe enough, Claude Majewski. As for myself, I am Angélique Guderian. You may call me Madame."
Chapter Eighteen

The River Rhône flowed slow and wide. The boat, even with its sail fully spread and its small engine working, was a long time leaving the Isle of Darask behind. The watery plains of the Camargue shimmered with a golden haze that blurred regions a kilometer or so away into an indistinct scrim backdrop. Later, as the boat traveled farther south, the passengers caught sight of mountains on their left and the tops of occasional rock outcroppings in the swamp; but there was no sign of the sea. Handsome little orange-and-blue reedlings and red-headed buntings teetered on the tall papyrus growing beside the river's main channel. The bubbletop was off all morning and the passengers watched, fascinated, as crocodiles and dugongs cruised around them. Once there was a shoal of marvelous watersnakes, nearly transparent and shining like undulant rainbows beneath the hazy sun.

Around noon they pulled in to another island where more than twenty boats were gathered, cargo craft, small yachts conveying brightly garbed Tanu, larger vessels crowded with silent little ramas sitting five abreast on rows of benches like small unchained galley slaves who had lost their oars. The island had only a few low buildings. Skipper Highjohn explained that they would not disembark here, only stop long enough to reinstall the bubble panels. "Not another damn shoot-the-chutesl" groaned Raimo. He pulled out his flask.
"The very last," Highjohn soothed him, "and not rough, even though it's a bit steep. One of the unreconstructed gorfs who piloted Tanu barges through here back in the earliest days of the time-portal named the thing la Glissade Formidable. Sounds classier than the Dreadful Slide, so that's what we call it today, too."

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