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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

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BOOK: Raising The Stones
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The trip was improved, so far as Jep was concerned, when a wind came up to clear the mists and disclose the rock-pimpled surface of the heaving seas, the stone-fanged coastline, and the clustered clutterings of towns and hamlets. They flew over Old Port in Odil County, with its timbered houses staggering down the steep hills toward the bay; they viewed the pastures of Bight County, puffed like piled green pillows between the mountains and the sea, then turned inland to fly along the base of the mountains.

Preu pointed out the town of Scaery, away to their left, its markets and stone streets netted among golden hills. On the right gaped the black maws of mines, horizontal holes in the sides of mountains, with long dun dunes of tailings trailing down the mountainsides and pools along the streams stained green and blue and red by leached minerals. Neither the tailings nor the edges of the pools showed any signs of life. Both were too poisonous for any seed to sprout. From the mines, tiny cog railways climbed down over the cliffs to dump their contents in other dunes beside the roads at the bottom.

“What are they digging for?” Jep asked, as they passed the hundredth such mine.

“Voorstod makes its living out of rare ores and gems,” said Preu Flandry, pointing out this and that, as though Jep were a tourist.

Though Preu did not mention it, the workers in the mines were Gharm. The supervisors were Voorstoders, with whips. The flier was close enough to the cliffs that Jep could see that for himself.

In midafternoon they came to the fields of Cloud, soil black as tar and rich as a glutton’s dinner, said Epheron, with the town of Cloudport standing on a level plain above the sandy beach—” the only sand beach in Voorstod,” he said. The castle and the cathedral towered above the town on a stony arm thrust out from the mountain chain. It had become a day all blue and gold and white, with the sun taking the curse from the wind’s chill and no mists remaining at all. As they swung above Cloud and Jep looked down at the people busy in the marketplace, at the children playing in the schoolyard, he thought how little it looked like the Voorstod he had learned to know. It did not look like a land steeped in violence and such hatred that there was no part of it unstained by blood.

The flier side-slipped up the hill and over the castle wall, coming to rest in the courtyard. The first things Jep saw when he climbed out of the vehicle were the hooks set high onto the wall, some of them burdened with dried bundles from which bones protruded, others of which held bodies still twitching or moaning. The second thing he saw was the blackened and twisted loop of a Door framed against looming walls of lichened stone. Above those walls and behind them, the towers of the citadel stabbed jeering fingers into the sun’s eye.

“What’s that?” Jep asked, pointing out the Door in an effort to distract himself from the walls and their hideous burdens.

“The Door we came in by,” said Mugal Pye. “We leave it here as a reminder.” He did not say a reminder of what, and Jep did not ask. The Door looked burned past any use.

“Are we going into town?”

“Not likely, boy. There’s spies in town. The meeting is here, in the citadel, where we hold our secrets to ourselves and where the prophets will look you over without let or hindrance.” The words had a snigger in them, and Jep shivered, wondering if he knew anything they might want to know which he would feel guilty telling them. They would not hesitate to encourage him, he knew. He wondered if he would survive the encouragement.

A figure approached them, a tall man in a long robe with a headdress covering his hair. His eyes were deep set and burning, his mouth was a slit. He carried a staff, thrusting it down onto the stones with each step, like the slow beat of a drum.

“Holy One,” murmured Epheron Floom, falling to his knees and bending forward until his forehead rested on the floor. Preu Flandry was a little slower getting down, but he bowed as deeply.

“We have a message,” snarled the prophet. “Get up.”

“What message, Beloved of God?” whispered Preu.

“The woman remains in Jeramish until the boy is brought out, unharmed. Then she will come in. So she vows.”

“Then she will come. Maire Manone will likely keep any promise she makes,” said Pye.

“All women are creatures of Satan,” snarled the prophet. “An apostate woman is the devil’s toy.” Actually, since he had talked with Faros, the whole matter of Maire Manone seemed less urgent. Probably even unnecessary. He had thought Faros and Ornil might need to be replaced, a project which could take generations. But this was not the case. The delay had been only brief. The end was approaching soon. The end was coming, in his lifetime.

A younger prophet approached, bowing deeply to the one who confronted them. “Awateh, we’ve already agreed to send the boy back. He is of no use to us, but the woman may be.”

“Satan!” cried the first, thumping down his staff so that the stone quivered beneath it. “He is one of Satan’s spawn, and we are commanded to extirpate them all. Our war is a holy war.” Even as he thumped and howled, he considered the matter of the blockade. Perhaps it would be better to allow them to placate him.

“Awateh,” said the other, shaking his head gently at Preu and Epheron. As the younger prophet led the elder one away, the Faithful sank into another obeisance, pulling Jep down with them.

Mugal Pye approached them as they rose, his eyes on the prophet’s retreating back. “He’s in a fury,” Mugal whispered. “He’s been like that ever since he received the message from Maire Manone. Women do not tell prophets what to do, particularly apostate women. This may upset our plans a trifle.”

They took Jep through an echoing stone hallway into a smaller place hung with banners and set with high seats, in rows. On the back of each seat was carved a different device, and many were filled by men wearing the same devices painted or beaded upon the leather tabards they wore. Their heads were bare; their hair hung loose to their buttocks or knees with ornaments of feathers or beads or bone studding every inch of the lengthy strands.

The seats upon the dais at one end of the hall were fully occupied by prophets. The highest chair was that of the deep-eyed, slit-lipped man, who sat silently fuming while others leaned at his shoulder, murmuring. Mugal thrust Jep out of sight, onto a low bench behind a pillar. By leaning forward, Jep could peer between men’s bodies and see without being seen.

One of the younger prophets rose from his high seat and called silence.

“We are assembled tonight to witness the celebration in Fenice,” he said.

“Death to all unbelievers,” cried a lone voice, the words immediately taken up by others in a monotonous chant. “Death to Satan’s spawn,” cried the cheerleader, and everyone intoned that for a while.

The prophet silenced the room with an upraised hand.

“While we wait for that event to begin, we thought it expedient to examine this spawn from Hobbs Land, brought here as hostage to stimulate the return of the apostate woman.”

Spontaneous cheers, catcalls, and suggestions which Jep tried not to hear.

“However,” said the prophet, “the woman will not come out of Jeramish until the boy reaches her there, without injury, so we will not question him …”

Beside the speaker the slit-lipped prophet glared at him and thumped his staff, putting on a show of fury.

“The hell with what the woman wants,” screamed a voice from one side. “Give us the lad and give her what’s left.” A chorus of agreement rose and fell.

Two prophets knelt beside the Awateh, holding up their hands, begging him. The speaker held up one hand and waited for silence.

“If he had anything to tell us worth hearing, we could do that,” the young prophet said, almost consolingly. “However, he knows nothing of interest. He scarcely knows Maire Manone. He knows nothing at all of Ahabar, and what he does know of Hobbs Land is of no interest to us.”

A murmur of questions ran around the high room. “What does he mean, scarcely knows his grandma? Isn’t this the grandson? What does he mean?”

Other voices making explanations. Jep put his head in his hands and wiped chill moisture away from his brow and cheeks.

“We can at least
ask
him questions,” the violent voice screamed.

The prophet shrugged and sat down. Immediately there was a babble. The prophet let it go on, then stood and raised his arm once more. “He can no more hear you than he could hear one bird in a poultry yard. One at a time.”

“How come you don’t know your own grandma, boy?” the violent voice howled at him.

Jep was pulled to his feet and pushed out where they could see him. He kept his head down as he answered, willingly enough, that in Hobbs Land she was not his grandma. The angry mutters made him wish he had had some other answer to give them.

“You’ve heard her sing, though, haven’t you?” Another voice.

He could not lie and say he had. He had already made a point of the truth, before he knew what it meant. “I haven’t heard her sing, no,” he said honestly, by way of explanation adding only, “but then, I’m not very musical.”

Either Phaed and his cronies had disbelieved Jep or they thought it wisest to let sleeping beasts lie, for they did not contradict him or amplify his answer in any way.

“Many Voorstod women there in Hobbs Land?” someone asked.

“I don’t know,” said Jep honestly. “I guess kids aren’t very interested in where people came from. I think I’ve heard my mother say that most of the people in my settlement came from Phansure.”

“Not worth making it a target then,” said someone, sotto voce. Jep heard it, was glad of it, pretended he had not heard.

“Hear you’re quite a Gharm lover,” sneered the original questioner, provokingly. “A real Gharm sucker.” The taunt was obviously designed to create fury.

An angry mutter swept through the hall.

“The men who took me put me with two Gharm,” Jep said in as calm a voice as he could muster. “They feed me. I talk to them when I must, and nobody told me not to. I try to keep busy.”

Laughter, one angry voice, others, drunken or amused, the slit-lipped prophet declaiming to his neighbors, the quieter prophet standing before them once more.

“What’s your own preference?” the prophet asked him, as though actually curious. “Whose company would you keep?”

“How would I know,” said Jep. “Preference for what? My preference would probably be to be home with people my own age, since that’s what I’m used to. I miss my school.”

The prophet seemed to find this interesting. “And what do they teach you there? About Voorstod?”

Jep shook his head. “They’ve not mentioned Voorstod to me. I don’t know whether they will later or not. Mostly we learn about agricultural methods. Like how much fertilizer to put on different kinds of crops.”

Despite the efforts of the provocateur, the group was losing interest. Blood might have excited them, but this ignorance of their very existence was merely dull. Jep could feel them cooling, turning away. Only the slit-lipped prophet still glared, balefully. That prophet, left to his own will, would have him killed simply because he was not of Voorstod. That prophet would have him hung upon the walls to die. So much was clear. Cooler heads had prevailed, for the moment. Jep had given them nothing to get angry at. Some of the prophets and others left their seats and went into a neighboring room where food and drink were laid out upon long tables.

“You can go eat if you like,” Mugal told Jep as he stared at the platform where the prophet had sat.

Jep decided Mugal Pye was a fool. The slit-lipped prophet was being served food by his colleagues, and the last thing Jep wanted to do was go where the fanatic would see him. “I’m not hungry,” he said, adding, “Who’s the man who wanted me killed?”

“The Beloved of God, Teacher of the Just.”

“Does he have a name?”

“The prophet, Awateh.”

“How come you have both prophets and priests?”

“We have prophets for men, priests for women, pastors for Gharm and animals,” said Preu. “The prophets are of the Cause. The Cause is for men.”

“Are they the same religion?”

Epheron gave him an intense, weighing look. “No, boy, and yes. Long ago they were of the same lineage, but not of the same strength. Our God is the same, but the Holy Books are different. One book for the priests, a similar book for the pastors. A different book for the prophet.”

Jep raised his eyes to the room where the food was spread. The prophet Awateh was standing there, staring at him. Jep ducked his head and breathed deeply.

“Relax, boy,” said Preu Flandry. “He wanted to eat you, but he didn’t. Enjoy yourself. This is a celebration! Later we’ll be watching how they do it in Ahabar.”

There was laughter among those seated nearby who overheard this comment. Jep tried not to hear it. He sat sweating as workmen came into the hall carrying the parts of a large, portable information stage. They assembled it at the center of the room, then turned it on to disclose a huge concert hall beginning to fill with brightly dressed people. Others were arriving, moving up and down aisles, finding their seats. Jep tried not to watch, afraid of what he might see.

There was a stir at the entrance, and a tall, bulky man came in with a few others. He had an angry face, which grew even grimmer as he saw Mugal Pye and came toward him with a heavy stride.

“What’s this they’ve been telling me?” he demanded. “What fool’s business is this?” His eyes went over Mugal Pye’s shoulder to the stage. His face grew very red, and he cried out in an enraged voice, “That’s Maire!”

Jep’s eyes were drawn to the stage. He saw her at once, Maire Girat. Beside her was Sam Girat, and … yes, Saturday, Saturday dressed in beautiful scarlet, all three of them in colorful, festive clothing, all of them taking seats next to a stout, uniformed man with many medals on the honors sash he wore across one shoulder.

“What in all the demons of hell is she doing there?” screamed the man. “Why wasn’t I consulted about this? What have you sucking idiots been doing with your brains!”

“Now, Phaed,” said Mugal Pye.

“Don’t ‘now Phaed’ me,” he cried. “Is this your doing, Pye?”

BOOK: Raising The Stones
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