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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

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“Phaed Girat, though I may live to regret it, I tell you the truth. There are those among the prophets who agree with you.”

“So then, let’s do it.”

“Well, we would do it, save no one knows quite where Stenta Thilion is, there in Ahabar. The Queen has kept her and her family guarded and hid. Which is why I’ve come to you, Phaed Girat.” “You need my nose, is it? Need my nose to sniff her out. Well, we’ll find her!” Phaed puckered his brow in concentration. “Any musician worth her keep has to come out of hidin’ to play a bit, once in a while. I’ll find out, myself, when that is and where that is.”

They drank in silence, not seeing the Gharm who swept the floor or the Gharm who polished the tables or the Gharm who carried bottles up from the cellar. The Gharm were small and ruddy-dark and as human in intellect as any Voorstoder, but they were invisible in Voorstod except when they ran away. Phaed did not think of them as he stroked his whip and frowned deeply, plotting how he would find Stenta Thilion, the harpist, whose family had been three generations in Ahabar and who was reknowned throughout all its provinces; the harpist, whose great grandparents had fled from Voorstod over a hundred years before, but who was still accounted an escaped slave by those of the northern counties.

When he had
drunk slightly more than he could hold, Mugal Pye left the tavern, staggered up the hill and around a corner to find himself at the door of a dark narrow house with blind windows, where he knocked three times, then three again, then one, holding onto the door to keep himself from slipping.

The door creaked open to disclose an old man with white hair to his knees, one Preu Flandry, who looked carefully up and down the street before standing aside to let Pye enter.

“So you’ve met him,” Preu said, as Mugal took off his cap and shook loose his own wealth of hair, like a tangled dark rain falling almost to his thighs. So the men of the Faithful wore their hair, for their power was in their hair.

“I’ve met him,” the other agreed, shortly, thrusting his tangled locks behind his ears and bowing with perfunctory reverence toward the niche with its resident skull. So the Faithful, among themselves, made ritual obeisance to death.

“And what d’you think?” his host asked, leading the way into a dusty room to the right of the hallway.

“About what?”

“About Phaed, man! Will he help us or won’t he?”

“He’s a zealot for the Cause. He’ll help find the Gharm woman.” Mugal Pye hiccuped and shook his head.

“We already knew he’d do that! That was somethin’ for you to talk of, is all. It’s his wife we’re wonderin’ about. He was besotted about her, that we know, too.”

“That was years ago. She was young and pretty then. Likely she’s neither anymore.”

“Did you talk to him of women?”

“I did.” Mugal nodded slowly, for a long time, as though he had forgotten his head was moving up and down. “He did not seem overly interested in ‘em. Rather the reverse, I’d say.”

“Ah, but we’ve been taught that,” the older man said softly. “Oh, yes, that’s what we’re taught. The prophets have said, often enough. ‘Let women go,’ they’ve said. ‘Our faith is a faith for men.’ Throughout all Voorstod, that’s what’s been said.”

Mugal kept on nodding, accepting this as the simple truth it was. “So Phaed had a wife he was besotted about. And so she left, as women do.” He sat down and collected his thoughts with difficulty. “The thing I don’t understand is why you lot want her back.”

The older man shook his head, pursing his lips. “The prophets want her back, Pye. After tellin’ us for generations to let the women go, now somethin’s happened to make them think we may not have women left enough to bear us sons.” The old man said it almost apologetically, but not enough so to stop the flare of anger in the other’s eyes.

“I thought eschatos was imminent, Preu Flandry!” Mugal Pye cried in a strident voice. “The end of things was to be sudden and soon. We’ve been promised the apocalypse. In our lifetimes, we were told!”

“And so it may be,” whispered the other.

“The eschatos, the end of things, when we will stride across worlds with the sword in our hands.” The little man’s voice rose in impassioned complaint, like the wail of a hungry child.

“And so it may be,” the other repeated, patting the air with his hands as though to calm the other down.

Mugal Pye thumped the table in time with his words, “The eschatos, when we stride among the worlds, with the sword in one hand and the whip in the other. When we bring the worlds to their knees. When the unbelievers cry woe and the heathen gnash their teeth, for lo, Almighty God comes as a pillar of storm.” His eyes were wide and staring. In the dark narrow room the light seemed to flicker and pale, as though some fatal and hideous presence had reached into it, shadowing the light even as it stroked their hearts into flame. Mugal’s voice became a chant, “Eschatos: when rivers run with blood, when the bodies of apostates are piled into mountains, when the space between worlds stinks of death!”

“And so it may yet be,” agreed the old man, caught up in Mugal’s drunken reverie. He nodded in time, as he joined the chant, the two voices rising in unison: “They do not know their death awaits them all. They do not know it comes from us. Yet it comes.”

Flandry gulped in air, making a tiny orgasmic sound, a grunt of pure pleasure, as though something had touched him intimately. When he had been a boy, the telling of apocalypse had been accompanied by such touching so that he might always associate the words with pleasure. His chin was wet, and he dabbed at it impatiently.

In the hallway, just outside their vision, the Gharm slave who had been cleaning the stairs heard the crooning and huddled against the wall. At times like these it was not wise to draw attention to oneself. He put his head down and thought, silently, of a snake.

The Gharm often thought of Voorstod so. Like the snake, Voorstod could lie in full sight and look like something else. Like the snake, it could secrete a poison for which there was no antidote. Like the snake, it did not care what it bit, and it could kill before the victim quite realized it had been touched.

The room where the men sat throbbed like a heart clenched tight in a fist. Gradually, the chant faded. The men’s eyes lost their ecstatic opacity and saw the world once more.

“So, if apocalypse dawns tomorrow as we’ve been told it will, what need have we of sons?” Mugal Pye demanded harshly.

“There’s been a delay,” gasped the older man, gulping air through his engorged throat.

“What delay?”

“Somethin’ happened on Enforcement. Somethin’ that wasn’t planned for. Our agents there failed in their duty, so it’s said. The Prophet was white with fury, but when he got control of himself a little, he said he felt we must plan for another generation, just in case. If the end comes soon, there’s plenty of us to do the job, but if we must go on longer than that. …” Preu Flandry’s voice trailed away to angry silence.

Mugal whined, “But the end was to come soon! Practically tomorrow, that’s the word I had. We stood upon the doorstep of the end! I’ve been savoring it, Flandry. Since I was a mere boy.”

“Well, and so have I, but there’s this postponement for some reason or other. What’s certain is, if we must go on longer, we’ll need another generation to do it.”

“Well, then, what’s this nonsense about Sam Girat’s wife? We’ve Armageddon to bring upon the System, and here we are, talking of one silly woman!”

The old man sighed windily, wiping his chin again. “I’ve only told you half. Because there’s so few women left in Voorstod, the hot-bloods have been followin’ their lechery out into Ahabar, out among the Abolitionists in Jeramish, where they’ve been takin’ women by force. And if that goes on, it won’t be long before Ahabar mobilizes the army.”

Mugal Pye shrugged and sneered. “So? That means less than nothing. Authority won’t let ‘em act.”

“Oh, we’ve paid the Theology Panel enough to assure they never give an answer on the slavery question, but rapin’ and abductin’ is another question entirely!”

“They won’t consider that a religious matter, eh?”

Preu scowled at this levity. “Not likely, no. And the army of Ahabar is nothin’ to make light of. Though the Queen hasn’t struck at us over the Gharm, the prophets think it likely she
strike at us over a few hundred rapes in Jeramish, and the one thing the prophets do not want, not so close to the end, is an army of occupation!”

Mugal went to the cupboard and found himself a bottle and brought it back to the table, together with two glasses. He poured and drank deeply, considering this.

“You’ve told me nothing yet to say why we’d want Maire Manone brought back! She’s an old woman by now! Past childbearing. And it’s not likely you want her to preach abstinence to the hot-bloods.”

The white-haired man snorted. “Mugal Pye, I gave you credit for more imagination than that! We need her for propaganda! We must do somethin’ to keep the women here and bring others back, some voice to rally them. And what woman was listened to in all Voorstod more than Maire Manone?”

“Propaganda, you say? No more than that?”

“A symbol, so say the prophets. What I say ten times is true, as we well know, but the thing has to be
! The prophets have told us a symbol is needed. Someone whose voice will be heard, a woman to make the business seem real. Who better than she who was called the Voice of Voorstod? The Sweet Singer of Scaery?”

“Only propaganda!”

“Ostensible, at least, though it’s likely there’ll be recruitin’ done as well. If we’re accused, we can say, ‘A girl kidnapped? Nonsense. The maiden saw Maire Ma-none singing and she came of her own free will.’ ”

Mugal Pye shook his head, considering how far from apocalypse it seemed, this fiddling about with abduction. How small a thing. How insignificant and unworthy. He pursed his mouth, as though to spit, then thought better of it. The true Faithful did unquestioningly as the prophets commanded, and if this had been commanded. …

“That’s why we wanted to see how Phaed might stand on the matter,” said Preu. “He’s her husband still, after all.”

“But you’re not telling him about this.”

“Not yet. Not until we’re closer.”

“And how do you intend to bring her back?”

“We’ll give her good reason to come.”

“You’re not thinkin’ Phaed will go get her, are you?”

“We’ve not quite settled on that yet, Mugal Pye. She must seem to come of her own free will, and we must think up a way to be sure she’ll do that.”

“I’d be careful how you talk to Phaed about this business. She’s his wife, after all. He may still have feelings there.”

“Well surely,” murmured Preu Flandry. “Which is why we had you soundin’ him out, Pye, to see where he’d stand. When it comes to sacrifices, all of us have to make them, all of us.”

“Oh, yes, all of us,” agreed Mugal Pye. “For we will have our reward. For there is nothing to stand against us. Nothing in all the worlds to oppose us.” And he smiled again, his tongue-bitten angry smile, while the skull smiled from its niche in the wall and the Gharm slave crept away from the hallway, wondering if there was anyplace the Gharm might go to escape the holocaust which Voorstod would certainly bring very soon upon all the worlds, wondering if there was anyone, anywhere, who could stop the horror that was surely coming.

Beside the ruined
temple north of Settlement One, shallow in the soil lay Birribat Shum. Shallow he lay, with fragments of roots and crumbs of leaves on his eyes, with particles of sand between his toes, with the small creatures of the soil at work upon his hands where skin gave up its chemistry cell by cell. In the soil lay Birribat Shum, shallow in the soil, with the sunwarm earth over him and the shaded depths below, moisture rising beside him and in him, gasses bubbling up into the porous dirt, a daily percolation as sun rose and hung above at noon and set. In the soil lay Birribat Shum when night came and the earth cooled and all things sank down, as though snuggling more deeply into the bed of earth, only to rise and percolate once more with the dawn. In the soil lay Birribat Shum, and the soil ate him.

In his clothes the small invaders made a home, legged and legless, the ones too small to see, the ones too small to hear, the invisible ones, the unheard ones, creeping along the seams, settling in the wrinkle of a rotting shirt to multiply their legions, to nibble on the soaked fiber, to carry bits and pieces out into the surrounding earth, the troops of dissolution, the army of decay, gathering in ever greater numbers.

The soil above—unmounded over the grave, as though no one had cared to make it visible—sank gradually as Birribat Shum was disassembled, leaving a basin, a shallow declivity where water accumulated and filtered slowly downward when the sun returned and the earth warmed, a declivity where Samasnier Girat sometimes lay, late at night, talking to his friend, unaware of who or what lay beneath him.

On the skin of Birribat Shum, in the tatters of his clothes, on the edges of his shoes, in the sodden felt of his hair, in the cavities of his eyes lay dust from the temple of Bondru Dharm, dust which came suddenly at the moment the God disappeared, dark and fine as pigment ground in a mortar, feathery light. A breath could have dissipated it, but there was no breath here below the soil, where Birribat lay.

The dust brooded wetly in the manifold womb of the earth, brooded and soaked and changed. Individual particles swelled and replicated themselves, and again, and yet again. From a single grain, a filament came, thinner than hair, white as the light of stars; palely gleaming, it snouted its way between infinitesimal grains of sand, among microscopic remnants of flesh, stretching outward through the rags of clothing into the earth beyond. First one, then two, then fifty, then five thousand, then an uncountable number, until the body that was Birribat Shum was thickly furred with fragile fibers, wrapped with them, penetrated by them, eaten and used up until nothing remained but the hard bones around which the threads gathered more thickly still, weaving themselves into a solid, cottony mass, a tough cylindrical mattress of compacted fiber, its edges thinning and fading undetectably into the surrounding soil. There the fibers continued to grow outward in a gauzy circle, now diving under the nearest ruined temple, now encircling it, now moving on toward the settlement, toward its houses and shops, its equipment stores, its fields and meadows, where people were.

BOOK: Raising The Stones
7.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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