The Many-Coloured Land



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The woman held out her arms. Her loose gown was of pale blue, unbelted, with long yellow panels floating from the shoulders like misty wings. She wore a golden circlet about her neck and a golden diadem on her blonde hair. The hair hung nearly to her waist and so, if Richard's eyes didn't deceive him, did her incredibly pendulous breasts beneath the gossamer fabric.
She stood nearly half a meter taller than he did. Looking down with inhuman glowing eyes, she said, "Come closer."
He felt the room turn. And the eyes shone more brilliantly and soft skin caressed him until he was drawn into an abyss of joy so intense that it must destroy him. She cried, "Can you? Can you?"
He tried. And he could not.
The sweet breath of light turned into a whirlwind then, screeching and cursing and tearing at him, not at his body but at something cringing apologetically behind his eyes, worthless and deserving to be punished. Torn out, held up to ridicule, flung down and trodden upon, hammered by blasts of hatred, the shapeless thing shrank into a smaller and smaller mass until it was a blot of utter insignificance, finally vanishing in the white blaze of pain.
Richard woke.
A man in a blue tunic knelt at his feet, fumbling with his ankles. Richard was clamped into a heavy chair, seated in a small room with walls of unadorned gray limestone blocks. The Lady Epone was standing in front of him, her eyes flat and jade colored, her mouth curved in a smile of contempt.
"He's ready, Lady."
"Thank you, Jean-Paul. The headpiece, if you please."
The man brought a simple silver coronet with five points and placed it on Richard's head. Epone turned to a construction on a table beside the chair, which Richard had mistaken for some kind of elaborate jeweled metallic sculpture. The apparatus glowed faintly in its crystalline parts, the multicolored lights waxing and waning in what was evidently some malfunction. Epone gave the largest prism, a pinkish thing the size of a fist, an impatient flick with thumb and forefinger.
"Ah, bah! Will nothing function in this cursed place? There! Now we will begin."
She folded her arms and inclined her gaze on Richard. "What is your given name?"
"Go to hell," he muttered.
A tremendous throb of agony seemed to lift the top of his skull.
"Please speak only to answer my questions. Obey my orders at once. Do you understand?"
Sagging against the chair clamps, he whispered, "Yes."
What is your given name?"
"Richard."
"Close your eyes, Richard. Without speaking, I wish you to send out the word help."
Sweet Jesus, that was an easy one! Help!
A man's voice said, "Minus six farspeak."
"Open your eyes, Richard," commanded Epone. "Now I want you to listen carefully. Here is a dagger." She drew a silver blade from somewhere within her draperies and held it toward him on both open hands. The palms had only a few faint lines in their milky softness. "Force me to plunge the dagger into my heart, Richard. Revenge yourself on me. Destroy me by my own hand. Kill me, Richard."
He tried! He willed the death of the monstrous bitch. He tried.
"Minus two point five coerce," said the minion standing behind the chair.
Epone said, "Concentrate on what I am saying to you, Richard. Your life and your future here in Exile depend upon what you do in this room." She cast the dagger down onto the table, less than a meter away from his pinioned right arm. "Make the knife rise up, Richard. Send it at me! Drive it into my eyes! Do it, Richard!"
There was a terrible eagerness in her tone this time, and he tried desperately to oblige her. He knew now what was happening. They were testing him for latent metafunctions, this one psychokinesis. But he could have told them . . .
"Minus seven PK."
She leaned close to him, fragrant, lovely. "Burn me, Richard. Bring up flames from your mind and let them blacken and cook and turn to ash this body that you will never know because you are not a man but a poor worm without sex or sensibility. Burn me!"
But he was the one who burned. Tears coursed down his cheeks and caught in his mustache. He tried to spit at her but his mouth was clotted and his tongue swollen. He twisted his head because his eyes would not close to shut out the blue and primrose coolness of her cruelty.
"Plus two point five create."
"Interesting, but not good enough, of course. Rest for a moment now, Richard. Think of your companions upstairs. One by one they will come to this room as so many others have come, and I will get to know them as I know you. And some will serve the Tanu in this way and others in that, but all will serve, save a few blessed ones who will find that the gate into Exile is the door into paradise after all . . . You have one last chance. Come into my mind. Feel me. Probe me, take me to bits and reassemble me in a more compliant image." She bent closer toward him until the flawless skin of her face was only a few hands-breadth from his own. No pores, no creases on that face. Only pinpoint pupils in the nephrite eyes. But beauty! Vile and tantalizing beauty of incredible age.
Richard strained against the damps of the chair. His mind screamed.
I hate you and violate you and diminish you and cover you with excrement and I call you dead! I call you rotted! I call you writhing in pain everlasting, stretched on the rack of the superficies until the exhalation of the universe dies and space falls in upon itself . . .
"Minus one redact." Richard fell forward. The coronet dropped from ms head to strike the stone flags with a bell tone of finality.
"You've failed again, Richard," Epone said in a bored voice. "Inventory his possessions, Jean-Paul. Then put him in with the others for the northern caravan to Finiah."
Chapter Three

Elizabeth Orme was so dazed by the shock of the translation that she scarcely felt the guiding hands that urged her up the pathway toward the castle. Someone relieved her of her pack and she was glad. The soothing mumble of the guide's voice carried her back to another time of pain and fear long ago. She had felt herself awakening in a cushioning womb of warm solution where she had been regenerating for nine months in a web of tubes and wires and monitoring devices. Her eyes blinded, her skin deprived of tactile sensation by the long immersion in amniotic fluid, she could nevertheless hear a gentle human voice that calmed her fear, told her she was whole again and shortly to be freed.


"Lawrence?" she whimpered. "Are you all right?"
"Come along now, missy. Just come along. You're safe now and you're among friends. We're all going up to Castle Gateway and you'll be able to relax there. Just keep on walking like a good girl."
Strange howls of maddened animals. Open the eyes in horror and shut them again. Where is this place?
"Castle Gateway, in the world you call Exile. Take it easy, missy. The amphicyons can't get us. Just up these stairs now and well have you lying down for a nice rest. Here we go."
Opening doors and a small room with, what? Hands were pressing her to sit down, to lie down. Someone lifted her feet and arranged a pillow under her head.
Don't go away! Don't leave me here alone!
"I'll be back in just a few minutes with the healer, missy. We won't let anything happen to you, bank on that! You're a very special lady. Relax now while I get somebody to help you. Washroom behind that curtain."
When the door closed she lay motionless until a surge of nausea rose in her gorge. Struggling up, she lurched into the washroom and vomited into the basin. An excruciating pain lanced her brain and she nearly collapsed. Leaning against the whitened stone wall, she gasped for breath. The nausea receded and so, more slowly, did the agony in her head. She became aware of someone else entering the room, two persons speaking, arms supporting her, the rim of a thick cup pressed to her lips.
I don't want anything.
"Drink this, Elizabeth. It will help you."
Open. Swallow. There. Good. Now sit again.
A voice, deep and honey-rich. "Thank you, Kosta. I'll take care of her now. You may leave us."
"Yes, Lord." Sound of door closing.
Elizabeth clutched the arms of her chair, waiting for the pain to come back. When it didn't, she let herself relax and slowly opened her eyes. She was sitting at a low table that held a few dishes of food and drink. Across from her, standing beside a high window, was an extraordinary man. He was robed in white and scarlet and wore a heavy belt of linked squares of gold set with red and milk-white gemstones. Around his neck was a golden torc, thick twisted strands with an ornamented catch in front. His fingers, holding a stoneware cup with the medicine, were oddly long, with prominent joints. She wondered vaguely how he had managed to slip on the many rings that gleamed in the morning sunlight. The man had blond shoulder-length hair cut in a fringe above his eyes, which were very pale blue, seemingly without pupils, and sunken deep into bony orbits. His face was beautiful despite the fine web-work of lines at the corners of his smiling mouth.
He was nearly two and a half meters tall.
Oh, God. Who are you? What is this place? I thought I was going back in time to Pliocene Earth. But this is not . . . this can't be . . .
"Oh, but it is." His voice, with a musical lilt, was kind. "My name is Creyn. You are indeed in the time-epoch known as Pliocene and on the planet Earth, which some call Exile and others the Many-Colored Land. You've been disoriented by your passage through the time-portal, perhaps more seriously than the rest of your companions. But that's understandable. I've given you a mild strengthening draft that will restore you. In a few minutes, if you please, we'll talk. Your friends are being interviewed now by people of our staff who welcome all new arrivals. They're resting in rooms like this one, having a bit of food and drink and asking questions that we're doing our best to answer. The guardians of the gate alerted me to your distress. They were also able to perceive that you are a most unusual traveler, which is why I am interviewing you myself . . ."
Elizabeth had closed her eyes again as the man droned easily on. Peace and relief permeated her mind. So there really is a Land of Exile! And I've really managed to come into it safely. Now I can forget what I've lost. I can build a new life.
She opened her eyes wide. The tall man's smile had become ironic.
"Your life will certainly be new," he agreed. "But what is lost?"
You . . . can hear me.
Yes.
She leaped to her feet, drew breath, cried out in a shattering scream. Vocalization of ecstasy. Life found restored renewed. Gratitude.
Softly! she told herself. Draw back from the pinnacle. Gently. After that first mad interior leap, go cautiously. Reach out at the simplest possible mode, at wide focus, for you are weak with rebirth.
I/we rejoice with you Elizabeth.
Creyn. You permit shallow question?
Shrug.
Elizabeth slipped clumsily beneath the surface of his smile, where a neat reticulation of data waited passively for her study. But the deeper layers were shielded by warning hardness. She snatched up the proffered information and got out quickly. Her throat had gone dry and her heart pounded with the shock of the assimilation. Gently! Gently. Two mental blows within a few minutes on her raw tenderness. Suspend heal allow self redaction. He cannot read deeply or far. But coerce yes. Redact yes most strongly. Other abilities? No data.
She spoke out loud at last in a calm voice. "Creyn, you are not a human being and you are not a true operant metapsychic. These two things contradict my experience, so that I am confused. In the world I come from, only persons with operant metapsychic powers are able to communicate in purely mental speech. And only six races in all our galaxy possess the genes for metability. You belong to none of them. May I probe deeper to learn more about you?"
"I regret that I cannot permit it at this time. Later there will be suitable opportunities for us to . . . get to know one another."
"Are there many of your people here?"
"A sufficient number."
In the split second that he replied she hurled a redactive deep-probe with all her strength right between his pale-blue eyes. It bounced and shattered. She had to cry out with the violence of the rebound, and the man named Creyn laughed.
Elizabeth. That was most impolite. And it won't work.
Shame. "It was an impulse, a social error I apologize for. In our world, no metapsychic would dream of probing without invitation unless placed in a threat situation. I don't know what came over me."
"You've been discomposed by the portal."
Wonderful dreadful pitiless one-way portal! "It's more than that," she said, sinking back into the chair. She did a swift tour of her mental defenses. Up and fairly secure, rawness crusting over, familiar patterns reasserting.
"Back on the other side," she said, "I suffered a serious brain injury. My metafunctions were obliterated in the regeneration process. It was thought that the loss was permanent. Otherwise", she gave it mental underlining, "I never would have been allowed to cross into Exile. Nor would I have wanted to come.'
We are most fortunate. Welcome from all Tanu.
"You've had no other operant metas come through?"
"A group of nearly one hundred arrived abruptly some twenty-seven years ago. I'm sorry to say they were unable to adapt to our local conditions."
Caution, caution. Wall-up. Elizabeth nodded. "They would have been fugitive rebels. It was a sad time for our Galactic Milieu . . . Are all of them dead, then? Am I the only operant in Exile?"
Perhaps not for long.
She braced herself on the table, rose and walked closer to him. His amiable expression changed. "It is not our custom to enter lightly into another's private space. I request you in courtesy to withdraw."
Polite regret. "I simply wanted to look at your golden collar. Would you take it off so that I can examine it? It seems to be a remarkable piece of craftsmanship."
Horrors! "I'm sorry, Elizabeth. The golden torc bears a weight of religious symbolism among us. We wear it as long as we live."
"I think I understand." She began to smile.
PROBE.
Elizabeth laughed aloud. Now you must apologize Creyn!
Chagrin unease. Regrets Elizabeth. You will take some getting used to.
She turned away. "What will become of me?"
"You'll go to our capital city, rich Muriah on the White Silver Plain. It lies in the south of this Many-Colored Land. We'll have a wonderful welcome for you there among the Tanu, Elizabeth."
She spun around and met his eyes. "Those that you rule. Will they welcome me, too?"
Caution. "They will love you as they love us. Try to suspend judgement on us until you have all of the data. I know that there are aspects of your situation that trouble you now. But have patience. You are in no danger."
"What happens to my friends? The people who came through the time-portal with me?"
"Some of them will be coming to the capital. Others have already indicated that they prefer to go elsewhere. We'll find good places for all of them. They'll be happy."
Happy ruled? Unfree?
"We do rule, Elizabeth, but kindly. You'll see. Don't judge until you see what we've done with this world. It was nothing, and we've transformed it, just this little corner, into something marvelous."
It was too much . . . her head began to throb again and vertigo came. She dropped back into the soft cushions of the bench. "Where, where did you come from? I know every sentient race in our Milieu six million years into the future, coadunate and non. There is no people resembling you, except for humans. And I'm certain you're not of our genus. Your mental pattern is different."
Differences similarities parallels star whirlpools in countless numbers to the uttermost limit.
"I see. No one in my future time has managed intergalactic travel. We have not yet been able to supersede the pain barrier of the necessary translation. It rises geometrically with the increase in distance."
Mitigant.
"How interesting. If it were only possible to transmit information about that back through the portal."
"We can discuss this later, Elizabeth. In the capital. There are other possibilities even more intriguing that will be made clear to you in Muriah." Distraction. He fingered his gold necklet and at once there was a tapping on the door. A nervous little man in blue stepped into the room and saluted Creyn by placing his fingers to his forehead. The Tanu gave a regal gesture of acknowledgement.
"Elizabeth, this is Tully, one of our trusted interviewers. He's been talking to your companions, discussing their plans for the future and answering their questions."
"Have all of them recovered from the passage?" she asked. "I'd like to see them. Talk to them."
"In good time, Lady," said Tully. "All of your friends are safe and in good hands. You mustn't worry. Some of them will be going south with you, while others have chosen to travel to another city in the north. They feel their talents will be appreciated more up there. You'll be interested to know that caravans will be leaving here this very evening, going in both directions."
"I see." But did she? Her thoughts were muddled again. She threw a tentative query at Creyn, which he parried neatly.
Trust in me Elizabeth. All will be well.
She turned back to the little interviewer. "I want to be sure of saying goodbye to those of my friends who are going north."
"Certainly, Lady. It will be arranged." The little man put a hand to his necklet and Elizabeth looked at it closely. It seemed identical to the one worn by Creyn except for the dark color of the metal.
Creyn. I want to put this one to the question.
Disdain. He is under our protection. Would you distress him in premature attempts to satisfy curiosity? Questioning would distress him very much. Perhaps permanent harm. He has little data. But do as you wish with him.
"Thank you for telling me about my friends, Tully," she said in a gentle tone.
The man in blue looked relieved. "Then I'll just run along to the next interview, shall I? I imagine Lord Creyn has already answered all of your questions about, um, general matters."
"Not quite all." She reached for pitcher and glass and poured some of the cold drink. "But I expect he will, in time."
Chapter Four

No sooner had the blue-clad interrogator left the room than Aiken Drum was testing the wooden door, discovering that it was locked, and doing something about it.


He used the tough glassy needle of a leatherworking fid to probe the slot where the brass latch bar came through until he was able to lift a concealed pawl that was preventing the notched bar from moving. Opening the door carefully, he saw the device on the other side that activated the locking mechanism. A tiny stone from the floor served to jam it.
He pulled the door shut and went creeping down the hallway, passing other closed rooms where he assumed his comrades from Group Green were incarcerated. He wouldn't let them out yet; not until he looked things over to see how he might take advantage of this strange situation. There was something powerful as well as peculiar at work here in the Pliocene, and it was obvious that it would take more than the simple-minded schemes of Stein and Richard to con the local yokels.
. . . Look out!
He darted into one of the deep window bays that overlooked the castle's inner courtyard. Whipping out his chameleon poncho, he hunkered down in the shadows and tried to blend inconspicuously into the stone floor.
Four sturdy guardians, led by a man in blue, went dashing down the corridor in the direction from which Aiken had come. They never looked in his direction and in a moment the reason became apparent.
There was a roar of rage in the distance and a muffled crash. Heavy blows began to ring against the inner side of one of the reception room doors. Aiken peered from his alcove in time to see the group of castle lackeys cringe away from the first door at the head of the stairway. Even from his viewpoint more than ten meters away, Aiken could see the slabs of thick oak tremble from the force of rhythmic smashes.
The guardian in blue paused outside the door and fingered his torc in an agony of apprehension. The four other men gaped as their leader screeched, "You let him keep the iron axe? You stupid turdsl "
"But, Master Tully, we put enough soporific in his beer to stun a mastodon!"
"But not enough to even slow down this Viking maniac, that's obvious!" Tully hissed. The door vibrated with a particularly mighty blow and the point of Stein's axe blade showed momentarily through broken wood before it was pulled back. "He'll be out of there in minutes! Salim, run for Lord Creyn. We'll need a very large gray torc. Alert Castellan Pitkin and the security squad, too. Kelolo, bring more guardians with a net. And tell Fritz to close the portcullis in case he gets away down the stairway. Hurry! If we can net this bastard as he breaks through we might just salvage this crock of shit!"
The two guardians raced off in-opposite directions. Aiken shrank back into the shadows. Good old Steinie. Somehow he'd seen through the facade of phony goodwill and decided to take direct action. Drugged beer! Good God, suppose the coffee had been doped, too? He hadn't taken more than half a cup though. And he'd tried to play the game their way when Tully interviewed him. He felt certain he had put himself over as a potentially useful but harmless little clown-handyman. Maybe they only drugged the big, dangerous-looking types.
"Hurry, hurry, hurry up, you fools!" Tully wailed. "He's breaking out!"
This time Aiken didn't dare look. But he heard a triumphant bellow and a squawk of splintering wood.
"I'll teach you to lock me in!" Stein's voice called out "Wait till I get my hands on that little white-bellied prick who juiced my beer! Yah! Yah! Yah! "
A very tall figure dressed in scarlet and white went striding past Aiken's refuge, trailed by a jangling squad of warriors, all human, wearing domed kettle-helmets and heavy coats of yellowish scale-armor.
"Lord Creyn!" came Tully's voice. "I've sent for the net and more men . . . Oh, thank Tana! They're here!"
Lying flat on the floor under the poncho, Aiken wormed over the stones until he had a good view down the corridor. Stein, yelling with each blow of the axe, had enlarged the hole in the door until it was nearly large enough to permit his escape. The people from the castle had regained their discipline with the coming of Creyn and stood waiting.
Six armored men had a strong net deployed on the floor. Two more soldiers poised on either side of the disintegrating door with dubs as thick as a man's arm and studded with rounded metal knobs. The unarmed guardians fell back in a protective line before the towering form of Creyn.
"Hee- yah" cried Stein, kicking the last obstructing pieces of oak from the opening. His horned Viking helmet popped out for an eye-blink and then withdrew for the charge.
He emerged with a leap that carried him nearly to the opposite side of the broad corridor, beyond reach of the net and into the midst of the guardians gathered about their awesome master. Men in white flung themselves at the berserker with despairing screams. Stein hewed at them, both hands swinging the battle-axe in short vicious arcs that sheared through flesh and bone and sent pathetic severed things bouncing from walls and along the floor, fountaining crimson as they rolled. The armored soldiers clubbed at him without effect and tried to seize his arms while he kept chopping at the barrier of living and dead men separating him from Creyn. In some way, Stein knew very well who his principal enemy was.


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