The Many-Coloured Land



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Claude held the shuddering Martha in his arms, then pulled out the tail of his bush shirt and used it to wipe her streaming eyes. He led her to the mossy hollow where Madame was working on Burke and made her sit down. The knees of the engineer's buckskin trousers were stained with dark blood and muck, but there were also bright scarlet patches down around both ankles.
"You'd better have a look at her, Madame," Claude said. "I'll take care of Steffi."
He got a Mylar blanket from his own pack and went to the body, fighting to control his own rage and revulsion. He had known Stefanko only four days; but the ready competence of the man and the warmth of his personality had made him a congenial trail-mate on the trek from High Vrazel to the Rhine bottomland. Now Claude could only do his best to smooth the contorted face back into its accustomed smooth lineaments. No need to look so surprised any more, Steffi boy. Just relax and rest. Rest in peace.
A horde of flies had descended upon the ripped mass of intestines and moved only with sluggish reluctance as Claude rolled Stefanko's body onto the metallic sheet. Using the heat-beam of his powerpack, the old man welded the edges of the Mylar into a bag. The job was nearly finished when Fitharn, Richard, and Felice came squelching back out of the jungle.
Felice held up a ridged yellowish object like an ivory marlin-spike. "We got the fuckard for what good it does."
Richard shook his head in awe. "A pig the size of a goddam ox! Musta weighed eight hundred kilos. Took five arrows to finish it off after Pegleg trapped it in a thicket. I still can't figure how anything that big could have snuck up on us unawares."
"They're intelligent devils," Fitharn growled. "It must have followed us downwind. If I'd had my wits about me I'd have sensed it. But I was thinking about how we'd have to hurry to cross the river before the morning mist lifted."
"Well, we're stuck here now that it's broad daylight," Felice said. She held up the trophy horn. "This fellow saw to that."
"Now what?" Richard wanted to know.
Felice had undipped the arrows from the holder on her compound bow and she now knelt to dip the stained glassy heads in the water beside the trail. "We'll have to hide out on this side until sundown and then cross. The moon's nearly full tonight. We could probably get over the narrow strip of east-bank lowland in a couple of hours and then bivouac among the rocks at the foot of the Black Forest scarp for the rest of the night."
The Firvulag gave an exclamation. "You're not thinking of going on?"
She glared at him. " You'renot thinking of turning back?"
Claude said, "Steffi's dead. Peo's in a bad way. He's going to have to be taken back to Amerie by one of us, or he'll lose his leg, or worse."
"That still leaves five of us," Felice said. She frowned, tapping the boar horn against her buckskin-clad thigh. "Pegleg could go back with the Chief. He could get help from his people along the way. And before you leave," she said to the little man, "tell us how to get to the stronghold of this guy Sugoll."
"It won't be easy." The Firvulag wagged his head. "The Black Forest is a lot more rugged than the Vosges. Sugoll's place is up on the northeastern slope of the Feldberg, where the Paradise River comes off the snowfields. Bad country."
"The Tanu won't be looking for us on the other side of the Rhine," she said. "Once we're across, we probably won't have to worry about any more gray-torc patrols."
"There are still Howlers," Fitharn said. "And at night, the Hunt. Airborne, if Velteyn leads it. If the Hunt spots you in the open, you're finished."
"Can't we travel mostly by day?" Richard suggested. "Madame Guderian's metafunctions can warn us of hostile Firvulag."
The old woman had come up to the group, an expression of deep concern upon her face. "I am not so worried about les Criards as about Sugoll himself. Without his help, we may never locate the Danube in time. But if Fitharn does not accompany us, Sugoll may feel that he can ignore the King's directive with impunity. And there is another matter for grave concern . . . Martha. She has begun to hemorrhage from the shock. Among the Tanu, she was forced to give birth to four children in quick succession and her female organs . . ."
"Oh, for God's sake," said Felice impatiently. "If she rests, she'll pull out of it. And we'll take our chance with Sugoll."
"Martha is greatly weakened," the old woman persisted. "She will become worse before she is better. This has happened before. It would be best if she returns with Peo and Fitharn."
Richard looked dubious. "But now that Stefanko's gone, she's the only technician we've got. Without her help, God knows how long it might take me to trace the circuits on that exotic aircraft. And if the zapper needs work, I wouldn't have a prayer of fixing it."
"The expedition could be postponed," Fitharn said.
"That would mean waiting a whole year!" Felice blazed. "I won't do it! I'll go get the damn Spear all by myself!"
Back at the cypress, Martha cried out to them, "We can't postpone the search, Madame. Anything could happen in a year. I'll be all right in a day or two. If I get a little help, I know I can make it."
"We could rig a litter from one of the cots," Claude suggested.
Felice brightened. "And in the rough spots, I could carry her on my back. She's right about anything being likely to happen if we delay." Her eyes strayed to the Firvulag, who looked back at her with bland objectivity. "Others could find the Ship's Grave ahead of us."
"It would be wisest to turn back," Fitharn said. "However, the decision will have to be that of Madame Guderian."
"Dieu me secourait," the old woman murmured. "One of us has already given his life." She took a few slow steps toward the Mylar-wrapped bundle lying on the trail "If we could ask him his opinion, we know very well what he would say."
She turned back to them, lifting her chin with the familiar gesture. "Alors . . . Fitharn, you will turn back with Peo. The rest of us will go on."
They concealed themselves for the rest of the day in a dense taxodium grove hard by the western bank of the Rhine. The gnarled, low-growing branches made comfortable perches. Curtained by festoons of lichens and flowering epiphytes, they could safely observe the river traffic and at the same time be secure from the crocodiles, hoe-tuskers, and other potentially dangerous wildlife that infested the bottomland.
It became very hot as the sun climbed. Food was no problem, for there were plenty of turtles whose meat could be roasted with the power-beams, as well as palms with edible hearts and an abundance of honey-sweet grapes the size of golf balls that drove Richard into raptures of oenological speculation. But as morning dragged into afternoon, boredom and reaction from the dawn violence made the younger members of the party drowsy. Richard, Felice, and Martha striped off most of their clothing, tied themselves to upper limbs of the big tree, and slept, leaving Claude and Madame on branches below keeping watch over the broad river. Only a few supply barges from upstream plantations drifted past their hiding place. Finiah itself lay about twenty kilometers to the north on the opposite bank, where the short Paradise River tributary tumbled out of a deep gorge that almost bisected the Black Forest massif.
"Later," Madame told Claude, "when it is dark, we will be able to see Finiah's lights against the northern sky. It stands on a promontory jutting into the Rhine. It is not a large city, but it is the oldest of all the Tanu settlements and they have illuminated it with great splendor."
"Why did they migrate southward, out of this area?" Claude asked. "From what I've been told, most of the Tanu cities are down around the Mediterranean, with this northern country left pretty much to the Firvulag."
"A very warm climate is more to the Tanu taste. I believe that the division of territory between the two groups reflects a very ancient pattern, perhaps one that goes back to the origins of the dimorphic Race. One might imagine a world of singular niggedness where highland and lowland forms evolved, perhaps interdependent yet antagonistic, With the coming of high civilization and the eventual migration of the race to other worlds in their galaxy, these ancient tensions would be sublimated. But it would seem that Tanu and Firvulag genes never blended completely. From time to time during the history of these people the old rivalries would be resurrected."
"And crushed by the high-tech majority," Claude said. "Until this one group of barbarian throwbacks found a perfect refuge instead of coming to the usual quixotic end."
She nodded her agreement "It was perfect for the exiles, our Pliocene Earth . . . except for the irony that equally quixotic humans should also have desired to dwell on it."
She pointed to a pneumatic barge far out on the river. "There goes one of the products of the human advent. Before the humans came, the Tanu had simple rafts of wood. They had little river commerce because of their dislike of water. They supervised their own plantations and even did honest work because there were not so many rama slaves. The torcs for the little apes formerly had to be made by hand in the same manner as their own golden torcs."
"Do you mean that human know-how enabled mass production?"
"For the ape torcs, yes. And the entire silver and gray system, with its linkage to the golden torcs of the Tanu rulers, was devised by a human psychobiologist. They made him a demigod and he still lives in Muriah, Sebi-Gomnol the Lord Coercer. But I remember the pinched little self-hating man who came to my auberge forty years ago. Then he was called Eusebio Gomez-Nolan."
"So a human being is responsible for this slave setup? Sweet Lord. Why do we screw things up, wherever we go?"
She gave a short bitter laugh. With her hair straggling in sweat curls about her ears and forehead, she seemed to be scarcely forty-five years old. "Gomnol is not the only traitor to our race. There was a Turkish man of the circus, one of my earliest clients, named Iskender Karabekir. His fondest wish, as he told me, was to train sabertooth tigers to do his bidding. But I have discovered that in this Exile world he devoted himself instead to the domestication of chatikot and heuadotberia and amphicyons, which became pivotal in the subsequent Tanu domination of society. The ancient Hunt and Grand Combat were fought by Tanu and Firvulag afoot. The groups were evenly matched, for what the Firvulag lacked in finesse and sophisticated metafunctions they made up in sheer numbers and a more rugged physique. But a mounted Tanu Hunt was a different matter. And a Grand Combat with Tanu and torced human warriors on chalikoback and Firvulag afoot has become an annual massacre."
Claude stroked his chin. "Still, there was the Battle of Agincourt, if you'll pardon my mentioning it."
"Bof!" said Angélique Guderian. "Longbows will not conquer the Tanu, nor will gunpowder. Not while perverse member of our own human race betray their fellows! Who taught the Tanu physicians how to reverse the human sterilizations? A gynecologist from the planet Astrakhan. A human woman! Not only our talents but our very genes have been placed in the service of these exotics, and many, such as Martha, choose death rather than the degradation of becoming brood stock. Do you know how Martha came to us?"
Claude shook his head.
"She threw herself into the Rhine, hoping to drown herself in the spring flood rather than submit to a fifth impregnation. But she was cast ashore, Dieu merci, and Steffi found her and restored her. There are many others like Martha among us. Knowing them, loving them, and knowing also that I am the one ultimately responsible for their pain, you will understand why I cannot rest until the power of the Tanu is broken."
The river was turning from shining pewter to gold. On the Black Forest side, the heights of the Feldberg to the south became luminous with the sinking sun, tinted primrose and purple. In order to reach Sugoll, they would have to go up into that high country and cross at least seventy kilometers of mountain forest, and all this before even beginning their search for the Danube.
"Quixotic," Claude said. He was smiling.
"Are you sorry you agreed to help me? You are an enigma to me, Claude. I can understand Felice, Richard, Martha, the strong-willed ones of our company suchM Chief Burke. But I have not yet been able to understand you. I cannot see why you came to the Pliocene at all, much less why you agreed to go on this quest for the Ship's Grave. You are too sensible, too self-posssessed, too, debonaire!"
He laughed. "You have to understand the Polish character, Angélique. It breeds true, even in a Polish-American like me. We were speaking of battles. Do you know which one we Polacks are proudest of? It happened at the beginning of the Second World War. Hitler's Panzer tanks were rolling into the northern part of Poland and there was no modern weaponry to stop them. So the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade charged the tanks on horseback, and they were wiped out, man and beast. It was madness, but it was glorious . . . and very, very Polish. And now suppose you tell me why you decided to come to the Pliocene."
"It was not because of romanticism," she said. There was no more of the accustomed asperity in her tone, not even grief. She told her story flatly, as though it were the scenario of a stage play that she had been forced to attend too many times, or even an act of confession.
"In the beginning, when I was only greedy for money, I did not care what kind of world lay on the other side of the time-portal. But later, when my heart was finally touched, it became very different. I attempted to have the travelers send messages back to me, reassuring me about the nature of the Pliocene land. Time and again I gave to sensible-seeming persons materials that I felt certain would survive the reversal of the temporal field. Very early tests by my late husband had shown that amber was best, and so my envelopes were pieces of this material, carefully sliced in half, with little wafers of ceramic to insert. These could be written upon with an ordinary graphite pencil, then sealed in the amber with natural balsam cement. I instructed certain travelers to study the ancient scene, write down their considered judgment of it, then return to the vicinity of the time-gate where the translations invariably took place at dawn. You see, Professor Guderian had long ago established that solar time in the ancient epoch was the same as that of the modern world we lived in. I had wished to give the new arrivals maximum daylight to adjust to the new environment, so I always sent them at sunup. Malheureusement, this unvarying program made it most convenient for the minions of the Tanu to control the portal! Long before it occurred to me to try the amber message holders, the exotics had built Castle Gateway and taken steps to seize all time-travelers immediately upon their arrival."
"So you never got any messages from the past?"
"Nothing. In later years, we tried more sophisticated techniques for mechanical retrieval of information, but nothing worked. We could get no pictures, no sounds from the Pliocene. The devices always returned to us in a useless condition. Of course, it is easy to see why!"
"And yet you kept sending people through."
Her face was haunted. "I was tempted again and again to shut down the operation, but the pathetic ones would implore me, and so I continued. Then there came the time when my fearful conscience could no longer be denied. I took the amber materials, constructed a simple trip-lever device to operate the switch of the machine, and came to see for myself this world six million years distant from our own."
"But . . ." Claude began.
"In order to elude my devoted staff, who would surely have stopped me, I made the translation at midnight."
"Ah."
"I found myself enveloped in a terrible dust storm, a hell of choking wind that threw me to the ground and rolled me as easily as a Russian thistle across the arid plateau. I had taken cuttings of my beloved roses, and in my fright I clung to them as the hurricane tumbled and battered me. I was blown to the lip of a dry watercourse and precipitated into its rocky depths, where I lay unconscious until dawn, badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. By the time the sun rose the sirocco was gone. I spied the Castle and had just made up my mind to go to it for aid when the attendants came trooping ou to wait for the morning's arrivals."
She paused and a slow smile stole over her lips. "No time-travelers came that day. My staff was too much in a tumult, you understand. The people from the Castle became very agitated and rushed back inside. Not long thereafter a troop of soldiers came galloping posthaste out of the barbican and rushed off to the east, passing not thirty meters from the bushy cleft where I lay hidden. At the head of the train was an enormously tall exotic man dressed in robes of purple and gold.
"You will understand that I was in great pain from my battering. I crawled into a kind of shallow cave beneath the roots of an acacia tree that grew on the rim of the dry ravine. As the sun climbed, my thirst became dreadful. But this torment was as nothing compared to my agony of soul. Back in the auberge, I had imagined many possible derangements of the Pliocene world, fierce beasts, inhospitable terrain, exploitation of newcomers by the earlier arrivals among the time-farers, even a malfunction of the translational field that would cast the poor travelers into oblivion. But never had I imagined that the ancient epoch would see our planet in thrall to a nonhuman race. All unwitting, I had sent my pathetic, hopeful people into slavery. I turned my face into the dust and asked God to grant me death."
"Oh, Angélique."
She did not seem to see or hear him. Her voice was very quiet, barely audible among the rising evening clamor of the Rhineland birds and insects.
"When I finally stopped weeping, I saw a round object half-buried in the dust not an arm's length away on the ravine floor. It was a melon. The rind was thick and it had not been broken by its rolling across the plateau in the windstorm. When I cut into it with my small couteau de poche I found it sweet and laden with water. And so my thirst was quenched and I lived through the day.
"Very late in the afternoon there came a procession of carts drawn by strange animals. I know now that these were hellads, large giraffes with short necks used for draft purposes. The carts had human drivers and contained vegetables resembling large beetroots, fodder for the Cattle chalikos. The carts entered the fortress by the postern gate and after a time returned laden with manure. As they journeyed back into the lowlands I followed at a far distance. Just before nightfall we came to a kind of farm with the buildings secure behind a stockade. I hid myself in bushes and tried to decide what to do. If I revealed myself to the farm people they would surely recognize me. And was it not possible that they would exact retribution for my betrayal of their dreams? I would accept this punishment if God willed. But I had already begun to suspect that a different role had been ordained to me. So I did not approach the gate of the farm but went instead into a dense forest adjacent to it. I found a spring, ate a small amount of the food in my Survival Unit, and prepared to spend the night in a great cork tree, even as we have sheltered ourselves in this cypress today . . ."
The other three members of the expedition had wakened on their perches among the higher branches. Now they swung down as slowly and quietly as sloths to take places next to Claude and listen. The old woman, sitting far out from the trunk with her legs dangling, did not seem to notice them.
"Very late in the night, after the moon went down, the monsters came. At first there was a great silence, with all of the jungle noises falling still as though a switch had been cut. I heard a sound of horns and a distant baying. And then it seemed as though the moon were rising again over a ridge of land just north of my tree. There was light of many colors coming from some flaming thing twisting in and out of the trees. It raced down the slope toward me. I heard a noise like a tornado, at once terrible and musical. The fiery apparition became an elfin cavalcade, the Hunt!, and it glowed as it raged downhill. It was chasing something. That I saw when the whirlwind of jeweled riders came into a small glen some two hundred meters away from me. By the bright starlight I saw the, prey shambling along, a huge creature, black as ink, with coiling arms like those of a devilfish springing from its shoulders and eyes like great red lamps."
"Fitharn!" Richard hissed. Claude gave him an elbow in the ribs. Madame paid no attention to the interruption.
"The black monster dodged among the trees on the slope below me, coming ever closer, with the Hunt in hot pursuit. I have never in my life known such terror. My very soul seemed to shriek with it, although I uttered no sound. With all of my will I prayed for deliverance, clinging to the large branch of my cork tree with eyes tightly shut. There was a noise of carillons and thunderbolts, a buffeting wind, blinding flashes of light that penetrated my closed lids, smells of ordure and ozone and doping perfume. Every nerve end of mine seemed assaulted and overloaded, but still I willed myself to be safe.
—And the Hunt passed by. I knew that I was fainting, but my fingernails dug deeply into the soft cork bark and kept me from falling. There was darkness and I knew nothing. When I awoke . . . a little man in a tall hat stood beneath my tree looking up at me with starlight shining on his round cheeks and pointed nose. He called out, "Well done, woman, you hid the both of us!"
Claude and the others had to laugh. Madame looked from one to the other in a kind of surprise, then shook her head and allowed herself a small smile. "Fitharn took me in charge and we went to the underground home of one of his confreres, where we were safe from further harassment. Later, when I had recovered my wits, I had long conversations with the Little People and learned the true situation here in the Pliocene world. Because I am who I am, and because of the brief flash of strong metafunction I had shown in concealing us, Fitharn brought me at length to the Firvulag Court at High Vrazel in the Vosges. I proposed that the Firvulag take humans as their allies rather than bedevil them, as had been their custom since the opening of the time-gate. I contacted the soi-disant Lowlife humans of the region in turn and convinced them of the wisdom of the alliance. We engineered several encounters with the gray-torcs to the Firvulag advantage, and the entente was confirmed. King Yeochee bestowed the golden torc upon me after our spies enabled his warriors to ambush and kill Iskender-Kernonn, the Lord of Animals, that same Turk who had earlier used his perverted talents in the service of the Tanu. After that, there were minor triumphs and major failures, refinements of planning, advances and setbacks. But always in my mind I have cherished the hope that one day I would be able to help undo the evil I have done."
There was a harsh little laugh from the dimness on the other side of the cypress trunk. Martha sat apart from the others in a forked branch. "How noble of you, Madame, to take all of our guilt upon yourself. And the atonement as well."
The old woman did not reply. She raised one hand to her neck and passed two fingers behind the golden collar as though trying to loosen it. Her deep-set eyes were glittering; but as always, the tears did not fall.
From the mudflats upstream came the basso bellowing of deinotherium elephants. Closer to the tree-refuge some other creature began reiterating a plaintive hoo-oh-hooo, hoo-ah-hooo . Large bats zipped among the palms that clustered on the high ground. Over the backwaters, patches of mist had already coalesced and now extended thickening feelers toward the mainstream of the Rhine.


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