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Authors: Suzy McKee Charnas

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BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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Kelmz shook his head; but he could no more shake free of these visions than he could shake the roar of the fires out of his ears while he stood within reach of their heat. He hugged his ribs with his elbows, blotting the tickling runnels of sweat on his skin. He was bruised from his struggle with the DarkDreamer. Kelmz was too old for such tussles.
It looked as if Senior Bajerman had gotten what he wanted now. He was winding up the conversation, expounding on the need for the raw strength of young men to be curbed by the wisdom of their elders.
‘So true,’ murmured d Layo. ‘You’ll permit me to take a mature man with me on this journey so that I can have the benefit of his wisdom? A man with experience running Rovers would be most helpful.’ His dark eyes mocked the captain.
‘No!’ Kelmz blurted, but he had to pause to calm the Rovers, who reacted to his own agitation. This pause gave him time to steady himself as well. He said, ‘I mean, Senior, if d Layo means me, I’d rather not.’
’D Layo means you,’ the DarkDreamer said. He rose and arched his back, as if bored with a matter already settled.
‘You are commanded, Captain,’ the Senior said.
Kelmz bent his head in submission and to hide his angry face. It was clear from the Senior’s smug look that he had expected d Layo’s request.
The Senior said he would take over direct control of Kelmz’ two Rovers for his trip back upriver to the City, adding in a kindly tone, ‘It should be welcome to you, Captain, to be relieved of your ordinary responsibilities for a time.’
Saying nothing, the captain unclasped his bracelet of office and surrendered it to the Senior. In its compartments were the carefully measured doses of manna with which an officer bound his Rovers to him. Kelmz looked at the Rovers, the best of the new squad. He didn’t think he would command them or their like again. His arm felt as light as if he had given up its bones.
‘Hero!’ said the Senior to the Rovers. ‘I need your escort through danger!’
They stepped forward, speaking passionately and both at once of their prowess as escorts through danger. There was no actual resemblance between them, but the eagerness of their expressions made them look alike. They were very tense; transferring command was always a touchy business. The Senior spoke the traditional calming responses several times; this would serve until he could take time to bind them formally under his control with a manna-dream.
The imagined dangers dream-fixed in the Rovers’ minds made them not only alert and fierce, but indiscriminately dangerous unless skillfully handled. Each Rover, in his isolated vision of himself as a hero constantly on guard, imagined all orders to be for his ears alone and himself to be the sole subject of all events. Rover-egotism was considered a sign of healthy, manly individualism and was encouraged, so that getting even two to work efficiently together as a brace was difficult.
Kelmz momentarily wished that the Senior wouldn’t be able to hold them; but whatever happened to Senior Bajerman in that case, the Rovers would have to be destroyed as rogues, so it was hardly a thought worthy of an officer.
‘Safe journeys,’ said the Senior. He drew aside his mantle for a parting salute. The skin of his shoulder was elaborately patterned with the dark dyes of high rank.
Kelmz and the Rovers all touched their own shoulders and bowed. But the DarkDreamer smiled.
‘Have you forgotten your salutes?’ the Senior said, sharply.
‘Have you forgotten that when a man is expelled his shoulder is stripped? He has no salute to give. It’s one of the charms of being
without standing in the companies.’
‘Do this job, and you’ll have standing again.’
‘Provided the Senior remembers me when the job is finished.’
‘I’ll remember you,’ Senior Bajerman said drily. ‘You are a memorable young man.’
He turned and left them, the Rovers pacing alertly at his back.
‘We’ll give him time to get off the beach,’ d Layo said. ‘We have one stop to make that doesn’t concern a person as important as the Senior; and then we’re off.’ Kelmz remained silent, ‘Don’t you want to ask me where we’re going? I could see you weren’t listening to us just now.’
‘Nobody was talking to me,’ Kelmz said.
‘I’m talking to you now.’
Kelmz discovered painfully that though he was older, he lacked the store of haughty tones and cutting phrases used by mature men to keep their juniors in place. None of that had ever been necessary; he had lived with his Rovers, among whom age meant nothing. Now he found himself unarmed against d Layo’s mockery and shaken by what the DarkDreamer had to say. Their mission had to do with Endpath.
Apparently a party of pilgrims had returned from there early that same afternoon with the unprecedented news that Endpath was closed. Now it happened sometimes that pilgrims found the Endpath Rovers standing sentry on the roof of the building and a black flag snapping from the mast. That meant that the Endtendant in service had died and would have to be replaced. Alone with four stone-headed Rovers and a stream of death-bound pilgrims, each Endtendant eventually succumbed to the temptation of mixing an extra cup of death-drink for himself. Some young criminal was always speedily appointed to his place. Being chosen for the job was in fact a death sentence, though merciful; the wrongdoer was given
time to purge his wicked soul by service until he himself was ready to die like a man.
Never, however, had pilgrims found the flagmast bare, the doors barred and the parapet deserted. It seemed that the present Endtendant had simply withdrawn, locking the pilgrims out.
The purpose of Endpath was to provide Seniors whose souls were ripe for departure with a simple, painless release and remembrance in the Chants Commemorative. To dream into one’s death at Endpath was said to assure the life of one’s name among younger generations for as long as the sun shone on the manna-bearing hemps that made all dreaming possible. Closing Endpath to death-seekers was an appalling act.
What d Layo had agreed to do for Senior Bajerman was to go to Endpath and dig the Endtendant out of it — no easy feat, since the place was so constructed that one man could hold it against hundreds. Historically, there had been some attacks on Endpath — by Juniors avenging young friends who had gone there prematurely, driven by shame or by the despair of lost loves. Old men, some said, could maneuver young rivals into death on the Rock instead of meeting them fairly in the Streets of Honor, like men.
‘Scared?’ d Layo inquired.
Of course Kelmz was scared. He had run Rovers too long and survived too many intercompany skirmishes to retain any fascination with death or any illusions about it. In fact, he had been advised more than once by his age-superiors that his own soul was ripe for release at Endpath. But Kelmz had no desire to join his peers — not in wearing the mantle of Seniority, not in walking with stately tread to a dignified death on the Rock. Seniors were not officers; it was, in ordinary times, beneath their dignity to run Rovers. So, as Kelmz had declined to take his mantle on turning thirty years and each year thereafter, he had several times declined the pilgrim robe also. He would not give up running Rovers for the privileges of higher rank or for the dreaming-death. Both meant being cut off from the only company that gave him any pleasure, that of his mad-eyed Rovers.
When d Layo judged it was time they walked out under a lattice from which bunches of cooked lammin were hung to drain – like little gray beasts that had once hung in clusters from the walls of caves, Kelmz thought with a shiver. A melancholy dripping sound surrounded them, and an acrid seastink had soaked permanently
into the sand underfoot.
The moon was up, brightening the beach. Rows of small clay lamps dotted the sand. A few were still alight among the crouching forms of fems who were wringing moisture from the lammins with cord-nets. Young men walked in pairs among them, carrying switches with splayed ends. Occasional snapping sounds, followed by yelps, punctuated the plaintive, blurry singing of the fems. The young men wore their hoods up, being nervous about the moon, which was the mistress of all fems and of the evil in them. Older men outgrew such timidity.
These were hags too worn out for other work. Each squatted with her carry-cloth stretched out from her head and over one extended knee, to make shelter from the wind for her hands and for the flickering lamp-flame by which she worked; each fem’s fingers shone darkly with the juices of the lammins.
The sky was wide out here. Kelmz preferred to see the night tamed into neat rectangles between compound rooftops. He searched out the four stars that marked the cross-sign and traced it on his own chest. It signified the opposed wills of Father and Son. Though the old religion was discredited, the sign had survived as a recognition and acceptance of its one great truth.
They walked between rows of extinguished lamps. On the left, the town sloped upward in lamplit tiers. On the right, the black sea shuffled emptily under the stars. Kelmz put up his hood. He was glad that Endpath was beyond sight.
D Layo walked bearheaded, humming to himself. He said, casually, ‘Have your Seniors been trying to get rid of you for long? Well, it’s obvious that they must want to. A man like you with gray hair and nothing but Junior-stripes on your shoulder must make them nervous, wondering why you persist in standing out of order, so to speak. Maybe they feel insulted that you hang back as if the company of your peers isn’t good enough for you.’
‘I like my work,’ Kelmz said.
‘Too much for your own Seniors’ taste; though others are more appreciative. Did you know that there are men of the Chester Company here in Lammintown who boast that their second squad of Rovers was trained by Captain Kelmz of the Hemaways? You must have earned your company a fortune in the renting of your services. They show their gratitude very oddly, I’d say.’
Muffled thumping sounds and the drone of fems’ voices came faintly from the shredding-shed ahead of them. In the moonlight the shed’s walls were nearly black with the stencilled emblems of the companies that had succeeded one another in charge of it, five-year after five-year.
‘Does Bajerman want to unload you because he’s jealous?’ d Layo pursued thoughtfully. ‘Does our esteemed Senior have his eye on some young Rover of yours?’
‘Rovers make poor lovers.’
‘Or have you an admirer outside Rover-ranks whom Bajerman wants for himself?’
‘I haven’t the looks for it.’
‘But the lads love scars,’ d Layo began, raising his voice above the growing noise from the shredding-shed. He stopped. Someone was beckoning to them from the open doorway. ‘Now what’s this? I keep some things of mine in the back here, things we’ll need.’
He advanced again, warily. Kelmz walked behind him and to one side; he had no intention of catching anything that was meant for d Layo.
The man at the shed door was one of a pair of young ‘Wares in charge of the shredding-gang. He peered out of the yellow light and said irritably to d Layo, ‘Somebody’s in back waiting for you.’
‘What kind of somebody?’
The ‘Ware wrinkled his nose. ‘One of the pilgrims that got turned back from Endpath today, and by the stink of him they should have let him in. He’s been sitting in the storage room all afternoon. I hope he hasn’t contaminated the place with some famishing disease. See you get him out by morning, and if any of your stuff’s missing, don’t blame me; he’s the only one been back there.’
D Layo nodded. ‘Thanks, Jevv.’
‘Thanks yourself,’ the ‘Ware muttered. He turned and shouted down the length of the shed, ‘Pull it in, you bitches! If you make the masters touch you in passing, you’ll pay for it!’
He cracked his switch down on the table-end. The fems, working in teams across the narrow surface, pressed their lean bellies against the table’s edge. They didn’t miss a note of their song. The two-handled shredding-blades jumped without pause between them, chopping and feeding the lammin-fragments steadily back into collecting sacks at the far end.
The storage room smelled strongly of the pickling-tubs along one wall. A pyramid of lammin-packets occupied the center of the floor. Beside the mound a lamp burned, and a man sat straight-backed at the edge of the glow.
‘Christ-God-Son!’ cursed d Layo. ‘Shut the door, those bitches have ears and so do the ’Wares.’
The sounds of the shredding were reduced to a low, vibrant drumming. D Layo bent and lifted the lamp so that its light fell on the stranger in pilgrim gray. The man’s hair was black, and his face appeared startlingly pale except for the bruise-blue shadows around his eyes and the dark stubble on his jaw. It was a young face, mid-twenties at most, but it was as hard and cold-looking as a limestone mask.
‘How did you know where to find me?’ d Layo asked.
‘Who is this with you?’ The stranger spoke haltingly, as if out of the habit.
‘A man of mine,’ d Layo said off-handedly, obviously pleased with the idea. ‘Captain Kelmz of the Hemaways.’
The stranger’s mouth turned down. ‘So the Hemaways have mixed into this already.’
‘It was Bajerman who came to see me, remember him? He used to teach Deportment when we were in the Boyhouse. Now he claims to speak for the entire Board of Seniors. Thus is virtue rewarded with advancement.’
Kelmz knew, unhappily, who the stranger must be. During the previous five-year the Hemaways had taught at the Boyhouse. They had lost control of two boys to the extent of having had to expel them: one to become Endtendant at Endpath, and the other — d Layo — to his presumed death in the Wild. Kelmz had been training Rovers in Lammintown at the time, but the entire Holdfast had buzzed with the news.
‘You’ve made a deal with Bajerman,’ the Endtendant said.
‘We dealt together, yes. I’m to get you out of Endpath and deliver you to him in the City, to be handed over to the Board’s discipline committee for abandoning your post.’ The Endtendant made an abrupt, impatient movement of his head. ‘If you have other plans,’ d Layo added, ‘you’d better tell me.’ He settled himself cross-legged on the floor and with an expansive gesture invited Kelmz to sit, too.
These were the kind of smart lads Kelmz had never felt comfortable
with. Besides, they had been boys together, which shut Kelmz out. He remained standing.
D Layo shrugged and turned again to the other, studying him critically. ‘Jevv was right,’ he said, grimacing. ‘You do stink. You’re not really sick, are you?’
‘It’s the robe,’ the Endtendant replied. ‘I took it from one in the last group of pilgrims to be admitted. The smell of illness discourages curiosity.’
‘Who knows you’re here?’
‘No one. A few men know that a pilgrim has been asking for you, that’s all. Tell me what the Hemaways have offered for me.’
D Layo grinned. ‘They offer Senior status on the Board! How do you like that? Think what I could do, under a Boardman’s immunity! They think they could keep me in hand with their plots and alliances, but with a little imagination and nerve there’s no limit to what I might do from a position like that!
‘Now tell me how it’s all more complicated than I think.’
‘Simpler. Mishandling of our cases has cost the Hemaways a great deal in standing. They want us both dead, Servan.’
D Layo glanced up at Kelmz. ‘I know they don’t like me, but they seem to have found a use for me anyway.’
‘Yes, to deliver us both into their hands.’
‘Oh, I can get what I want from them and leave them stumbling over their own feet,’ d Layo said, carelessly. ‘I’ve made a bargain, Eykar. Can you stop me from going through with it?’ He coughed delicately behind his hand. ‘We must consider my manly honor, after all.’
The Endtendant gave him a long and chilly stare, and d Layo smirked derisively back at him. Yet some alternative deal hovered in the air between them. They approached that alternative with the easy indirection of men who knew each other well. This was not d Layo baiting Senior Bajerman; these two young men were building on something long established. What they built would have no place in it for Kelmz.
‘Come on, Eykar, bribe me,’ d Layo said. ‘There must be something you can offer that would make it worth my while to hide you from them.’
‘I don’t want to hide,’ the Endtendant said. ‘I only want to stay out of their hands long enough to find my father.’
Kelmz looked away uncomfortably. This pale young stranger had been a unique person in the Holdfast long before becoming Endtendant. In a society that took pains to sink the identities of individual fathers and sons into the mass-division of Seniors and Juniors, this man knew his father’s name.
In all the Holdfast, no blood-ties were recognized. All men were brothers – that was the Law of Generations – though some were older brothers and some younger. Thus, men avoided the fated enmity of fathers and sons, who once known to each other must cross each other even to the point of mutual destruction. The sons of the Ancients had risen against their fathers and brought down the world; even God’s own Son, in the old story, had earned punishment from his Father. Old and young were natural enemies; everyone knew that. To know your father’s identity would be to feel, however far off, the chill wind of death.
BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
3.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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