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Authors: Suzy McKee Charnas

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BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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There were mutterings at this. The Chesters shot sidelong looks at the outsiders or frowned at the floor and avoided looking at them at all.
D Layo smiled. ‘Brothers,’ he said, stepping forward with casual grace, ‘I have a story to tell.’
By these words, he took on the role of story-box, and with it the right to speak.
‘When I was some years into my education,’ he began, ‘a certain boy was put into my class. Everyone talked about him, not because he was smart and was being moved ahead of his age-peers, but because he was special in another way: he knew his father’s name, and his father knew his.’
They groaned; he had them. Not one of these young men could fail to recall the fear of his own early years, that somehow his father would identify him and have him destroyed. There were a few well known historical cases of Seniors arranging the deaths of boys whom they suspected to be their own sons. This was the basis of the insecurity that afflicted every boy as soon as he understood the natural enmity between generations. That insecurity was never fully outgrown.
It made sense, after all: sons, fresh from the bellies of fems, were tainted with the destructiveness which characterized their dams. Therefore they were dangerous. It was natural for fathers to protect themselves from their sons’ involuntary, irrational aggression by striking first.
On the other hand, the Holdfast needed these sons to live long enough to outgrow the fem-taint and join the world of mature men in their turn. This was the reason for the existence of the Boyhouse and the justification for the strict lives led by its inmates. The rules were harsh, designed not only to wipe out the unmanly streak as
soon as possible, but to protect boys from the righteous wrath of their fathers in the meantime.
There had been times when adult men had organized deadly raids on whatever concentrations of boys they could find. This sport had served as a reminder that men would not forget the Freaks, the sons of Ancient men who had turned against their fathers in the Wasting and paid for their treachery with their lives. The raids no longer occurred. The Boyhouse kept the boys, and with them the future, safe; here their souls were beaten into a hardness that would be fitting to the souls of men.
Later, men grew old enough to breed and to search the faces of young boys for likenesses to their own. But no one ever forgot his own time within the Boyhouse walls, hiding in the anonymous mob of his peers.
The young Chesters squirmed in their places, thinking of the boy who had known his father’s name and whose father had known his.
‘Now, how could this be?’ d Layo said. ‘It goes against the Law of Generations. This man — the father – who was a Tekkan from Lammintown called Raff Maggomas, took a fem from the Tekkan breeding rooms the first night of her heat and kept her with him in a secret place until she had cooled again. He marked her neck, here at the back just under the hair, with blue rank-dye —’ The Chesters buzzed with outrage at this. ‘— and slipped her back into her place. During the time Maggomas kept her for himself, no one noticed that a cold fem had been substituted for her in the breeding-rooms, one fem being very like another. This man Maggomas had put together enough standing and favors-owed to accomplish the deed.
‘Next, he arranged to be in the City when that fem was sent to the Hospital to drop her young. Now, what do you think would have happened if the bitch had dropped a fem-cub?’
Laughter; someone called out, ‘He’d have gone home again a lot faster than he’d come!’
‘Since you ask me, I’ll tell you,’ d Layo said. He was good at this, making a play of expression and gesture to wring the full degree of delicious disgust from the unnatural events of which he told. ‘Maggomas had a confederate at the Hospital, and that man marked the cub with the same blue mark that was on the neck of the fem that had dropped it. So when Maggomas sneaked into the Boyhouse next day, he found the marked cub and read off the name the
Teachers had inscribed on its boy-tags.
‘But having accomplices means sharing secrets, and you all know how the cloth-cocks talk, sitting with their lumpy old feet up to the hearth-fire day and night. Some years later, word got out.
‘By that time, nothing could be proven, and there was always the chance that some youngster had started the rumor as a way of getting at Maggomas for a private reason.’ Knowing nods from the young Chesters, who were familiar with such private reasons. ‘Maggomas himself had nothing to say on the subject, though I doubt he was ever asked point blank. He was a Senior himself, and among themselves they are so standing-proud and courteous that they don’t even have words to frame such a question. So the fem was burned on suspicion of having witched a man into breaking the Law of Generations, and the Board left it at that.
‘Now, think a bit about the son, Eykar Bek. There he was, knowing that something set him apart from his peers and wondering what it was. When the rumors reached him, he heard the name of his father for the first time. Think about living with that: listening for the footfalls of a murderer at night, studying the faces of the Teachers for one who had been paid to strike for Maggomas …
‘Well, if such plans were made, they never came to completion. What did happen was that an unfortunate friendship was permitted to develop between Eykar Bek and another boy – a bad boy, a boy of clearly corrupt character, a boy who was in fact destined to become a DarkDreamer.’
D Layo bowed facetiously, and some of the Chesters applauded.
‘Now, what do you think came of this attachment? Why, trouble came of it, as any fool could have foreseen. The bad boy’s curiosity led him to explore the art of the DarkDream. He involved Eykar Bek in his activities; they were caught; they were punished. One of the boys was dumped into the Wild to die. The other — Raff Maggomas’ son, as it happened – was exiled to Endpath to become Endtendant, even though he was not yet invested as a Junior.’
Suddenly d Layo shot out a pointing hand: ‘And there he is. While he’s here among you, you might ask him why he abandoned his assigned work-turf. Ask him why he turned away a mob of sick-stinking whiteheads (with perhaps a few broken-spirited lads mixed in among them) and left the death-manna for someone else — or no one else — to brew. Ask him where he’s going and who he’s looking
for and what he means to do when he finds him!’
The sullen-faced man gnawed at his thumbnail, saying nothing. No one spoke. They all looked at the Endtendant.
Kelmz heard Bek’s voice rattle rustily in his throat a moment, before the words came out: ‘I have a question for Raff Maggomas.’
‘Only one question?’ a Chester shouted. It wasn’t a joke; nobody laughed.
Another cried, ‘Why hasn’t he had you killed?’
‘Have you any real, blood brothers that you know of?’
‘My question,’ the Endtendant said, over their excited murmuring, ‘is this: I want to know why I was singled out from among those who otherwise would have been my peers. I want to know the reason for blackening my whole life with the shadow of another man, of another generation.’
A Junior stood up and said, ‘I have a question I’d like asked too, as long as you’re going to be asking questions. This Maggomas must be an old man now, maybe he’ll know the answer. I’d like to know how come Seniors live on limitless credit for doing nothing while working men have to get by on the pitiful rations they give us. That’s what I’d like to know.’ He sat down again.
Other questions followed. The Chester Juniors asked what they would never have dared to ask any Senior to his face: how was it that the cloth-cocks took the most powerful manna to dream themselves into fitting strength of mind and virtue, but still acted with spite and self-indulgence when awake? How was it that they said one thing and did another, all the time cursing the Juniors for famishing deceitfulness? Enforced the age-line except where it cut them off from the objects of their own lusts? Would hear no petition from younger men unless in the presence of the Boardmen, whose power over young men’s lives was utterly intimidating? Ruled that a young man had to carry all his life a name picked from a list drawn out of the Boardmen’s dreams, though he might wish to call himself after some friend or hero in respectful memory?
Their voices raw with fury, the Chesters gave the Endtendant no chance to speak. He stood silent, ice-eyed, like a personification of the cold heart of their rage.
When the excitement began to die down, Hak made one last try: ‘How do we know that this DarkDreamer has told us the truth?’
‘Ask one you trust,’ d Layo rejoined. He nodded at Kelmz. ‘What
does the first fighter in the Holdfast, the man who won’t take his mantle, have to say?’
Kelmz cleared his throat and said he thought truth had been spoken.
The Chesters set up a roar and a storm of clapping. Hak bowed to it; he promised on behalf of the whole company to do what was needed to speed the Endtendant on his way. Immediately, d Layo outlined what he wanted.
‘When the rumors of his having claimed a son got out, Maggomas left the Tekkans and went off to Bayo, and we haven’t heard of him since. We can’t go to the Board and ask them where he is, and the men at Bayo are Penneltons assigned there this five-year, so they won’t know anything. Some of the older Bayo fems might remember, though, and anything they know we can get out of them – if we can reach them and deal with them privately. We need you lads to see to it that we won’t be disturbed in Bayo.
‘Set us down on the coast a little way north, and you go on upriver and dock at Bayo as usual. We’ll make our way there through the marshes and try to enter the fems’ quarters after dark. All you have to do is to make dinner in Bayo such a drunken, enjoyable affair that no Penneltons come wandering outside while we’re looking for a way into the fems’ section.
‘After that, we’re on our own – but the longer you can keep our visit among you secret, the better for us and for you.’
‘Done,’ said Hak, promptly, before any more could be asked. ‘Done!’ shouted the Chester Juniors. Someone added, ‘And a DarkDream to seal it,’ a cry which others took up.
Ferrymen were only permitted to dream between runs, under the auspices of their Seniors. Now they were daring in their excitement. Learning that d Layo had only enough manna to serve a few, they quickly put together a group of eight to represent the complicity of them all in the fugitives’ lawlessness. Sullen-face and the freckled lad were both included.
For the others, Hak had kegs of beer broken out to go with the scanty evening meal. Supplies were apt to run short at the end of the coastal run, and the only ferrymen to escape the grip of hunger tonight would be those lucky enough to be caught up in a dream. Some of the more talented chanters performed around the play-pen, improvising lyrics and obscene pantomimes, a welcome distraction
to the others.
Hak was a good chief; he knew how to pull his people together. Kelmz was ashamed of d Layo’s blatant theatrics, and he hoped that the one-eyed ferryman wouldn’t suffer for all this in the end. For a man who bore no responsibility himself, d Layo was adept at maneuvering those who did.
The dreaming-group went back to the story-box area and hung mats from the ceiling for privacy. A ferryman brought a pitcher of beer and some mismatched mugs on a tray; another supplied a mixing-whisk of straws bound with cord. D Layo squatted by a brazier and heated the beer, not bothering with the Chants Preparatory. The others, seated in a circle around him, began to murmur the Chant Thankful, which extolled the virtues of the hemp: it provided fiber to clothe men’s bodies, food for their nourishment, and manna for the dreaming of their souls. Sullen-face sweated a lot, and stuttered every time he chanted the refrain.
It was, Kelmz thought, going to be one sorry excuse for any kind of a dreaming.
D Layo used the doubled-over hem of his shirt to pad the hot handle of the pitcher. A sweet scent rose as he shook powder from the compartments in his bracelet into the steaming liquid. He whipped the mixture in the cups before taking the ceremonial first sip from each one.
A man could grow attached to the rituals, especially if (like Kelmz) he was accustomed to being dream-giver to Rovers who were utterly dependent on him in that role. The Chants Commanding, which went with Rover-dreaming, kept running through Kelmz’ mind. He glanced at the Endtendant, whose angular face showed nothing at all.
It was absurd to impute nostalgia to him, of course. The dream he had given had always been death. He could hardly have put off his own bracelet of office with any feeling but relief.
D Layo began handing out the cups. Bek refused with a wordless shake of his head, and no one made anything of it; but when Kelmz hesitated, he noticed that several of the ferrymen were watching him anxiously. Perhaps they had never DarkDreamed before. They trusted Kelmz’ judgment and were waiting for him to drink.
This wouldn’t be the first time Kelmz had DarkDreamed. He had indulged once or twice to no great effect, with fellow officers. That
had been before he had started seeing beasts, a thing that had come upon him suddenly soon after Danzer had died with his throat torn out by a rogue Rover. Kelmz had not DarkDreamed since then. His waking visions were DarkDream enough.
Now he looked into the cup, warming his hands on the glazed surface, and thought, why not? He was an outlaw among outlaws, his legitimate life was over. He drank.
The manna-beer tasted gluey; d Layo hadn’t taken time to mix it properly, the slovenly brute.
The others drank too. They hunched closer together and listened to d Layo, who had begun a low, singing-chant.
BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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