Read Other Earths Online

Authors: edited by Nick Gevers,Jay Lake

Tags: #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Science Fiction - Alternative History, #Alternative History, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction - Short Stories, #Short Stories, #Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Science fiction; American, #Science Fiction - Anthologies, #Alternative histories (Fiction); American, #Fantasy fiction; American, #Short stories; American

Other Earths (12 page)

BOOK: Other Earths
She nodded, still without looking at Mrs. Mad’r.
“Would you like something to drink?”
She nodded again, and Mrs. Mada’r poured water from a pitcher into a cup. Both were made of a thick, green glass with bubbles in it.
“The Daughters of the Moon grow quickly. When the second of those baskets floated down the river, Tölgy carried her sister Bor’ka into the forest, where she raised her among the groves of oak and alder, birch and willow, with foxes and owls for companions. And so with all the Daughters of the Moon. But after thirty years the shepherd woke, to find that his friends no longer remembered him, that he had lost the shining woman who came to him in dreams, and that he could no longer sleep. He spent the rest of his life consulting doctors and magicians, drinking medicines and potions, anything that would allow him to sleep again. But he died with his eyes open. The year after the shepherd she had loved woke, the Moon bore a son, the White Stag, and when the stag was weaned, she set him down on the bank of the Volga, where he was raised by his sisters. But being a stag, it was his nature to roam, and he often left to wander the slopes of the Northern Mountains. Yes? I thought you said something. Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to Ny’rfa and Ha’rsfa. Well, I’ll tell you.”
Ha’rsfa lay in Ny’rfa’s arms. No, they were Magyar’s, and Ny’rfa was standing beside her, looking up at the sky.
“Oh, Mother,” she heard Ny’rfa whisper, “if your arms tightened around us as you lowered us into the baskets, if one tear of yours mingled with the river before you sent us floating away from you to live among the trees of the forest, help me now.”
The clouds shifted above them, gray and white, like floating mountains. Then something flashed in the sky, and Ny’rfa shrieked, a high, piercing sound. The Horsemen covered their ears, and even Hunyor stepped back, startled, kicking the stool so that it toppled onto its side. Something shrieked in response and hurled itself from the sky, like lightning. A falcon, as gray and white as the clouds, perched on Ny’rfa’s shoulder. It turned its head, glaring at the Horsemen.
Ny’rfa glared at them as fiercely, but H’rsfa saw that her hands were trembling. The falcon had dug its claws into her shoulder, and a stain was spreading from her shoulder down the front of her tunic. Instinctively, wanting to help, she reached her hands, aching now from the leather that bound them, toward her sister. But there was another way.
“Let me stand,” she whispered to Magyar, and gestured as well as she could so he would understand. More gently than she had expected, he helped her to her feet, keeping one arm around her. “Oh, Mother,” she whispered, “let me show what you gave your daughters when you mingled your blood with that of a mortal.”
She held her hands over the mud, and so low that the Horsemen heard it only because they had been still since the falcon’s scream, she made the sound of wind blowing through the meadow: “Shhhhhhh . . .”
Green stems rose from the mud, developed leaves, flowered. Magyar bent down to touch the grasses that were spreading around them, the small blue flowers of flax. Then he spoke to Hunyor, and Hunyor answered. Magyar spoke again, pointing to the falcon on Ny’r-fa’s shoulder.
Ha’rsfa turned to Demas. “What are they saying?”
Demas stroked the grasses with wonder and said, “Magyar wants to have you for wife. He says Hunyor should take your sister. He says it is lucky, marrying daughters of goddess. Many tribes of barbaroi are coming from mountains to north. With luck, this tribe will win battles, find land.”
“Many tribes?” said Ny’rfa. The falcon clutched her shoulder more tightly, glaring at Ha’rsfa with golden eyes. “Oh, my sisters, what will happen to you when those other tribes come?” She raised her hands to her face. For the first time, Ha’rsfa realized, she looked defeated. The falcon sprang into the air and flapped its wings.
H’rsfa thought of her sisters, binding their wounds in the cave by the riverbank, waiting for her and Ny’rfa to return. They were not warriors. Suddenly she said, “Let our sisters come here! Demas, tell Hunyor there are many daughters of the goddess, twenty-five, maybe twenty-six more. Tell him we will bring him luck, we will call birds from the air, make his crops grow. Tell him, oh, tell him anything!”
“H’rsfa, no!” said Ny’rfa. “How can we live with these barbarians?”
But Demas had already spoken. H’rsfa could feel Magyar’s arm tighten around her. Hunyor stood silent while the Horsemen waited for his decision. H’rsfa heard the falcon shriek high above them. She looked up and watched him circle once over the village, then fly off toward the west.
Hunyor walked to Ny’rfa and stood before her, then held out his hands. Slowly, reluctantly, she put her hands in his. He spoke, a single word, then untied the leather from her wrists. Ny’rfa pointed to the villagers. “Them too,” she said. “Untie them too.”
Magyar clutched Ha’rsfa’s shoulder and shouted with triumph. He turned to Demas and said—
“This is your tribe,” Demas translated. “This is your home.” And through her tears, H’rsfa saw that the Horsemen were untying the villagers’ hands.
“So Ny’rfa and H’rsfa married Hunyor and Magyar. They learned the language of their husbands, and took names in that language. Ny’rfa became Tünde, and Ha’rsfa became Csilla. Be careful, you’ll spill your water. Is your name T̈nde, then?”
She shook her head.
“Csilla? Welcome to my house, Csilla. You’ve been very brave, like a Daughter of the Moon.”
Csilla put the cup on the table beside the bed. “What happened then?” Her voice sounded hoarse, like a rusted lock.
“The Daughters of the Moon married Horsemen, except for Ibolya, who became a healer, collecting and studying the plants of the countries they traveled through. They traveled west, following the falcon’s flight, which the Horsemen had taken for an omen. Finally, they settled in the lands about the river Danube. Their children played with the children of the tribe, and those children’s pale faces, their hair as green as the leaves of the forest, were seen as signs of luck, the blessing of the Forest Goddess. But they could not touch metal, and they would not eat meat. So the tribesmen called them the T̈nde’r, after T̈nde who had married Hunyor, which means the Fairy Folk, and always regarded them as different from themselves.”
A sparrow was singing in the linden tree outside the window. Csilla could identify the tree by its heart-shaped leaves. Her father had taught her the shapes of all the leaves . . . But she did not want to think about her father.
Sunlight had dried the rain. The linden was in flower, and its scent filled the room. She was sitting up in bed, leaning against the pillows, listening to the sparrow. How cool the pillows were, how clear the sunlight.
She whistled, a tune like the sparrow’s song, and it stopped to listen to her, then hopped down to the windowsill, and onto the table, and onto the finger she held out for it.
“Like Tünde,” said Mrs. Mada’r, standing in the doorway. The sparrow, startled, whistled and flew out the window. “Do you think you can eat some cucumber salad?”
Csilla nodded.
“I made it with just a bit of sour cream.”
“My grandmother always said it was best with sour cream,” said Csilla.
“Well, I’m glad to hear I made it like your grandmother! Here, take these.” Mrs. Mad’r handed her a napkin folded around two slices of brown bread, a wooden bowl filled with cucumber salad, and a wooden spoon. She sat down beside the bed in a carved wooden chair.
When Csilla had eaten the cucumber salad and both slices of bread, Mrs. Mad’r said, “Can you talk about it now?”
Csilla shook the breadcrumbs from her napkin onto the table and whistled. The sparrow flew through the window and landed on the table. He picked up as many of the crumbs as he could, tilted his head to look at her, then flew off again.
“He’ll be back,” said Mrs. Mada’r. “I think he has a family. There’s a nest in the linden tree, and several days ago I saw brown heads poking out of it. I think there’s a Mrs. Sparrow and some young sparrows waiting for him.” She paused, then said, “Csilla—”
“My father sent me away! And I had to lie in the bottom of a car, and that woman only let me out at night, and I thought I was going to die. And then on the airplane and in the train I wished I had died. I wish I were dead now.” Csilla covered her face with her hands. The tears that she had not cried, not since her father had told her, “You have to leave Budapest—as quickly as possible, Csillike,” came now. She shook with them, violently, like a tree in a storm. Then, suddenly, she felt a wave of nausea, and the bread and cucumber salad were no longer sitting quietly in her stomach—
“That’s all right,” said Mrs. Mada’r. “I can wash the blanket. But you have to stay quiet, very quiet for a while. You’re still sick from the metal in the car. Helga tried to protect you as well as she could with blankets, but remember that you breathed in metal for three days. It will be a while before you feel well again.” She took the blanket from the bed and put it in a heap on the floor.
“I could have helped him!” said Csilla, wiping her mouth with the napkin, ashamed of herself. “I was helping him. Why did he have to send me away?”
She could feel Mrs. Mada’r’s hand on her arm. “I’m sure he sent you away because he loved you.”
Csilla turned to look at her, furious. “How do you know! You don’t know anything about him, or me! Who are you, anyway? Who are all of you, you and Helga and that woman who brought me here, who squeaks like a mouse?”
Mrs. Mada’r reached up and unwrapped the turban around her head. Her hair fell down around her. Green as leaves.
“Oh,” said Csilla. For a moment, she could not speak. Then she said, “Not even my grandmother’s hair was as green as yours, and my father says she had more Tünde’r blood in her than anyone in Hungary. That’s where it comes from, doesn’t it? From the Daughters of the Moon?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Mad’r. “My hair and yours, although you don’t have quite as much of the T̈ündér blood as your grandmother. Your mother was not one of the T̈ündér, was she?”
“No,” said Csilla. “She died when I was only a baby. And then my grandmother died last year, and now Papa . . .”
“Hush,” said Mrs. Mad’r. “Remember, you have to stay quiet so you can get well. Let me put this blanket in the tub to soak—and the napkin, while I’m at it. I’ll be back in a moment.”
When she returned, Csilla was still sitting on the bed, staring out the window. “I’ve brought you more water,” she said, handing Csilla the green cup. She paused, then added, “We’ll have to talk about what happened—soon. But for now, why don’t I tell you another story?” She waited for a moment for Csilla to answer, but Csilla was silent. So she began, “The Daughters of the Moon died, eventually. They had mortal blood in them, as well as the blood of the Moon, and they were not eternal. But their children, the Tünde’r, lived peacefully among the farms and villages of Hungary, until the church decided that they were children of the Devil . . .”
Reluctantly, Csilla wiped her eyes with her hands and settled back against the pillows to listen.
Erzsébet’s Story
“Shhh,” said Erzse’bet, putting one finger to her lips. She leaned closer to the chapel door, which was open just enough to let a sliver of torchlight fall on the stones of the courtyard. “I think it’s the landgravine.”
“You’re supposed to be in bed already,” said M’rta, but her voice was low, and she too leaned closer to hear what the landgravine was saying.
“I have sent for Ludwig. He would prefer to stay at the university, but I’ve told him it’s time he assumed his father’s position. How peaceful the landgrave looks, as though he were sleeping. A pity if, as you tell me, his soul is suffering the torments of hellfire.”
“That, I’m afraid, is the penalty for excommunication.”
Poor old landgrave. Erzse’bet had seen him earlier that day lying in the chapel beneath a pall of crimson velvet, looking more peaceful than he had ever looked while alive. How could the landgravine speak that way about him? And who was that other voice?
“I don’t know who the landgravine’s talking to,” she whispered. “It doesn’t sound like anyone in the castle.”
“For his science, as he called it, he risked his immortal soul,” said the landgravine. “I think you will find me quite different from my husband, Father Conrad. I have no interest in old women who gather weeds by moonlight, and I value an alliance with the church.”
“Then I take it the Inquisition can resume its activities in Thuringia?”
“I don’t think it’s in either of our interests to have Thuringia isolated from the Empire.”
“No,” whispered Ma’rta, “he hasn’t come to the Wartburg for many years. But I’ll remember the sound of his voice until the day I die. That’s the Inquisitor.”
Erzs’bet remembered the landgrave muttering, over his pots of agrimony and rue, about “that damned superstitious nonsense, the Inquisition.” Then he would finish watering his pots, make notes on a sheet of vellum, and sit with her in the sunlight of the herbarium. “Someday,” he would say, “we will understand the properties of plants and draw out their essences. And then, my dear, we will cure the illnesses that have bedeviled mankind since we were banished from Eden.” Finally she would read to him from his Aristotle, while he fell asleep on a bench.
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