"Wait!" Paul shouted after the small figure, taking a few steps as if to follow it. But the being only ran harder, and in seconds it had scrambled up the rise, darted into the meadow, and receded out of sight. Paul stopped, not altogether sorry he hadn't pursued harder. For one thing, he would have run right out of his laceless shoes.
"Funny," Ringo murmured behind him, "they're supposed to scream and run at us." The tambourine jingled faintly in his shaking hand.
"Jesus," squeaked John, hugging his guitar to him like a shield. His cloak of insanity, put on so he wouldn't have to think, had fallen off, leaving naked fear. "Oh God oh God oh God we're gonna die."
George closed his eyes and repeated his mantra, calming himself.
Taking a deep breath, Paul put his guitar down and went up to the lettuce-bush to look at the fallen sack. He did not fail to notice the little person's footprints, sharply outlined bare human (!) feet in the wet sand near the water. A leprechaun? Hobbit? Glancing at the meadow to make sure the being or its friends weren't going to swoop down on him, he picked up the sack. Made of coarse brown material, it was sodden and caked with sand at the bottom. Paul peered carefully within and got a noseful of fishy-smelling vegetable for his pains. He retched and closed the sack. "Seaweed," he called to the others, most of whom were slowly coming to join him. "Come on, we'll bring it back to him, and maybe he'll talk to us."
But John stayed right where he was, a stick figure in the sand. "I ain't goin' after him, no way!" he yelled.
Oh, no, not again. "Ah, come on, mate," Paul said, a masterpiece of self-control when he itched to grab John and frog-march him along. "You can't stay here forever."
Then George turned to look at John. While he didn't smile, he seemed calm and composed, almost serene. "Look fear in the face and it won't bother you any more," he intoned. Then, following his own dictum, he took the sack from Paul and started into the meadow, trying to keep the bag from bumping the guitar across his body, walking carefully so as not to lose his shoes.
"Wait for us!" Paul barked at George's receding back, which kept receding. "Shit," he muttered, running his fingers through his hair. They couldn't split up, they couldn't, that would be the worst thing they could do. "So what are you gonna do, then?" he snapped at Ringo, who stood quietly nearby. "Stand here till you take root?"
Ringo looked at his feet. "I can't deal with this. I don't wanna be here."
Paul nearly threw up his hands in exasperation, but then he got an idea and said loudly, "Right, I'm not your mum, you're adults, do as you please. I hope you find something to eat." He kicked off his shoes, scooped up them and his guitar, and trotted after George. Almost as an afterthought, he threw over his shoulder, "If you don't get eaten first!"
"Bugger off!" John screamed back. But Ringo gulped and hurried to catch up with Paul.
John watched the others dwindle with an attitude of melancholy satisfaction. "They're all cracked," he said to the air. Never see them again. Fuck knows what'll happen over there." The three little white dots shrank further, now merely snowflakes against the grass. "You wouldn't get me over there in a million years."
The air didn't reply.
The water lapped at the shore. The sun shone down bright and hot. The leaves of the giant lettuce twitched in the breeze.
And suddenly John was overwhelmed by the image of himself as a solitary white bean in the center of a plate that was getting larger and Larger and LARGER
He tore off across the sand, hardly noticing the shoelace-strap as it dug into his neck, the guitar as it bumped his stomach. "Wait for me! Wait for me!"
+How long do you think his shoes'll stay onwhoops, there they go! Gods, can't he think of any other way to curse than to say fuck? I thought he was supposed to be creative.+
/If you'd included some sort of carrying implement for those instruments, he'd never have had to bore you thus./
+Borl, why don't you just make a sign that says You screwed up and flash it whenever you get the urge to point something out?+
/I was under the impression, Varx, that you needed to see the screen occasionally./
[Hush, you two! I want to hear those lovely Liverpudlian accents.]
Although the four were on the lookout for a dwelling in the groundhobbit-hole or somethingthe beachside farm that soon became visible in the distance filled the bill nicely. It boasted a long, low house, a smaller dwelling, a barn, animal pens (currently empty), several sheds, and a tiny dock with another shed on it and a rowboat tied up and bobbing in the water. All the buildings were made of wood and painted olive green; however, the houses and barn sported red, blue, and yellow designs within circles, like Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs.
There were other interesting details, but the four focused on only one: the bald man coming out of the house, dragging the barefoot gray person (a child, they saw now) by the arm.
The moment the man saw the four in the distance, he stopped short. The child slipped out of the man's grasp and darted behind him, clinging to his waist. The man glanced at the barn and whistled: two quick, piercing notes that drew two other men hurrying over, one carrying a pitchfork, the other a shovel. Then the bald man cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted to the four,
"I be but a poor sherder wit' childs an' wife." (English, thank God!) "Be you robbers, we fight you till we die, an' that be ten tousand evil ans for each of you. Be you honest men, only Dalns could welcome you more heartily." The words came slow and clear; the accent sounded vaguely Jamaican, vaguely Scandinavian.
George started toward him right away, and what could the others do but follow, John and Paul padding along in their socks, shoes dangling from their hands.
By the time they reached the spot where the man and child waited, the farmhands had also arrived, and the two sides eyed each other nervously. The four, even Ringo, towered over the adults; the tallest farmhand was perhaps 5'6", while the bald man was a few inches shorter than that. On the other hand, years of physical labor had given the men broad chests and thick, muscular arms, and the pitchfork had wicked points. They were all of the same genotype, ruddy-Caucasian-colored, thick-boned and pudgy-faced, with small blobby noses and brown eyes, and they reeked of sweat and manure. The men wore leather boots that had seen much hard use, and their gray-brown woolen pants and shirts were rough and faded and well patched. The child wore a shapeless long smock. The farmhands, young men in their early twenties, had long dark brown ponytails tied with faded red twine. Their eyebrows were either naturally thin or had been plucked in some fashion statement, and their faces were pocked with acne or smallpox scars. The bald man, fiftyish, had a bushy gray-brown walrus mustache and eyebrows to match. While his face was round and innocent, his gaze was sharp and appraising.
"Ayuh," the bald man said with a nervous chuckle, looking up and up at the four. "When said Peli dere be moon giants on de beach, I didn't believe him...." He reached back and rumpled the hidden child's hair. "Be you just travelers? Not robbers?"
Paul stepped forward and opened his mouth to answer, and he was speaking to aliens his little prepared speech flew right out of his head. "Uh" he stammered.
George stepped forward, holding the seaweed sack out. "We'rewe're not r-robbers." He swallowed to steady his voice. "Here, Peli dropped this."
A grateful, rather surprised smile lit up the bald man's face; clearly he'd expected George to have claimed the bag for his own. "Good jan to you, stranger," he said, taking the bag and handing it down to Peli, telling him, "Take it to amma."
The boy darted one more look at the giants before racing back to the house as fast as hauling the long sack would let him.
The man opened his mouth as if to say something, looked at the farmhands, snapped his mouth shut, and scratched under his mustache instead. Then he pointed at George's guitar. "Be dat a musical instrument? Be you bards?"
Solemnly George played a few chordsthe opening of "My Sweet Lord."
The farmhands' faces went from sullen to rapturous. "By Pasik! Han't heard musc since never," one whispered.
"Play y'fer us?" the other asked shyly. "I gie y'my sivver gry I got f'r diggin' wells a'de cassle." He dug in his pocket and offered a very grimy nickel-sized coin.
"Oh, no, thats very kind of you, but you dont have to," George saidhe hadnt understood most of what the farmhand had said, but he got the gist well enough. "I mean, we'd be happy to play for nothing."
The bald man grinned, then quelled the farmhands' excitement with a quick whistle and a jabbed finger at the barn. "When Seopia sleeps," he told the men, who disappointedly drifted away, with many over-the-shoulder glances and whispered comments.
When they were well away, the bald man's grin faded into a thoughtful, wary, serious look. He drew himself up and crossed his hands over his chest. "I be Stal bes fardohd-Namar, called Stal Lastman as my farm be de last before de empty road to Jaran. Swear I by Dalns and de Vasyn dat my hands will cause you no harm. Be welcome, travelers!" Stal moved his hands away from his body until his arms were spread wide, welcoming, trusting.
"Thank you," George said gravely. "I'm George Harrison." The others also introduced themselves.
Stal stared blankly at their response; no doubt he'd expected them to complete the welcoming ritual. However, before any of the four could worry, his grin returnedtempered with a bit of incredulous delight?and he lowered his arms and said to George, "Your names an' speech be much different, an' you be not like any of de peoples. Glow your shirts like de moonsI could touch one?"
George nodded, so the man reached out and rubbed a corner of T-shirt between his fingers. When he released the shirt, he left a smudge. "Soft," he said in wonderment and satisfaction. He bent forward and sniffed George around the chest. (Despite himself, George leaned back, grimacing from the man's goat-like odor.) "You even smell different."
Then Stal straightened up, glanced around to make sure the farmhands hadnt come back, and said in a low, conspiratorial voice, "Came you cross-Chasm?" From his wide eyes to the quiver in his cheek, every bit of his manner begged Please say yes!
Trusting that God wouldn't let him do anything suicidal this early in the adventure, George murmured "Yes." For it was true, in a way.
Stal breathed in sharply. "Came you not t'rough Tradertown an Focan?"
"No," said Paul, finally finding his voice. "I mean, I don't think so, we don't know the names of things round here." He gave George a glance of disapproval for committing them to a role they knew nothing about, then beamed at the bald man. "Weve only just arrived. It's quite lovely here. Very peaceful."
"Focan be de city pull of here," said the man impatiently. "You did not dock dere?"
Remember: People from cross-Chasm used boats. (Though what was pull of here?) "Oh, no, we came from back that way." Paul pointed. "We landed in the mon the beach."
"Met you anyone elseannuder traveler, an Idri?"
"No, you're the first person we've metunless an Idri is one of those big plants on the beach. Oh, and Peli, of course."
Stal began to tremble. Tears glimmered in his eyes.
Although Paul was used to every kind of reaction when people met him, this man's distress disturbed him more than usual. Hastily he said, "Please don't be scared of us. We wouldn't even think of hurting you."
"Na, na!" The man dashed the back of his hairy, stubby-fingered hand across his eyes, wiping the tears away, and when his arm lowered he was smiling shyly. "I be not afraidI be joyous! Never did I dream to speak with anyone from cross-Chasmde Idris forbid it!"
"Why?" John said sharply. "And what's an Idri?"
Stal scowled. "De Idri'en Tagenit be an old language name. It means de Hands of de Gods. Conquered dey Ketafa forty years ago an' brought back de gods."
On the last word, George rounded on the bald man. "Where were the gods before that?"
"Cross-Chasm." Stal's tone of voice and puzzled expression clearly added What? You didn't know?
Not caring that he had started to tread on shaky ground, George persisted: "Which gods did they bring back?"
"All seventy of dem. Dalns, Pasik, Seopia, Parlani... every one of de gods an' goddesses dat came my ancestors to Ketafa touh, dat had not been in Ketafa for five hundred years."
"How about Lord Krishna? Lord Shiva? Ganesha?"
Stal gave George a strange, oddly pleased look. "Dese be not names I know. Dere be Kasra, goddess of fishers"
"Staaa-aaal!" The thin, nasal cry came from the barn, from which a one-horse cart had emerged. Everyone looked over. The driver waved. When he saw he had caught Stal's attention, he snapped the reins, urged the horse toward the little group.
Stal hissed in exasperation, blowing out the ends of his mustache. "My candle flickers, honored guests. Please, don't leave. I be back swiftly." Muttering under his breath, he trotted to meet the cart.
"My candle flickersI like that," Paul said softly when Stal was far enough away. "Right, that's a hurdle gone over, isn't it? I mean, now we've broken the ice, the rest should come pretty easy. He seems a decent chap for an alien."
"Fallen through the ice, more likely," said John, narrowing his eyes. "He still ain't told us why these Idri people made it illegal to talk to us, or why he's so pleased he's got the chance to. For all we know, those fuckin' Idris'll kill us so no one can talk to us." He gestured expansively with the hand that held his shoes and nearly whacked Ringo in the head with them. "And did you lads notice how he started to talk about his ancestors and changed the subject? He's not tellin' us somethin' importantand he wants somethin' from us."
"I want to know more about their gods," said George, staring after Stal. I don't care if he wants something from us, but I have to know about their gods.
"Look, we have to be careful what we say to him," Paul said, "especially about gods." He started untying his guitar so he could lace his shoes back up. "He seems to like that we're from cross-Chasm, and we don't know how he'd feel about us if he found out we lied about that" here he gave George another annoyed glance "much less if he found out where we're really from. Remember, we're really the aliens here."
"So we shouldn't even try to figure out whether he's gonna fuck us over," John said bleakly. "We should just cheerfully walk into the gas chamber."
"I didn't say that. We should find out what hes up to, but we have to do it subtly. We can't"
"Bards!" Stal called. John and Paul started guiltily. The bald man waved at them to come over. "T'kes must see you!" His tone was heavily sarcastic, even at that distance.
So they came over, John muttering about how they were already Stal's slaves and Paul hissing at him to shut up. T'kesa woman? no, a slender, pale-skinned man with a delicate face, long brown hair, and slightly slanted eyes, clearly one of the other peoples Stal had mentionedwatched with dropping jaw as the four grew larger and larger with each step. The old white-brown horse, equally unaccustomed to giants, rolled its eyes and took a few steps to the side; Stal had to grab its harness and stroke its nose to calm it.
T'kes stared open-mouthed for about a second and then was brought sharply back to whatever planet they were on when Stal cuffed him on the thigh and said, "Seen you dem, now ask!"
Obviously used to blows, T'kes didn't even flinch. "I'm to Focan, Stal, an' Keelan ast me d'ast y'f we needed more...." He turned a shining face on the four again. "Isis dem bards?"
"Ayuh. From Ka Tenid." (This raised more than one eyebrow among the four.) "Tell me de list."
"Ten barrels wheat flour, hand'a strings yellowspice, jar'a sour triz, an' skull'a salt."
Stal glanced at the four. "Get a keg of kessel wine for de bards."
"Kessel wine?" T'kes licked his thin lips, reminiscing. "Had some once.... d'gods drink't.... d'bards be gods? Wears dey clouds...."
"Cease, nubbyned!" the bald man barked, clearly embarrassed by the other's naiveté. "Buy de wine from Ahnahnehsah Lehrehtehreh. He be old an' tipping his jan to good, so won't cheat you." Abruptly he grabbed T'kes's arm and pulled the slender man almost double in the seat. Their faces inches apart, Stal hissed, "Don't flap your tongue about de bards in Focan! Come de Idris fast as fire if dey hear of new bards. If asks any of de keg, speak dat we celebrate de sale of six lambs. Go."
Released, T'kes stayed partially bent, staring at Stal in fear. Turning this glance on the four, he nervously smoothed his hair behind his ears
he had pointed ears
then the hair fell over them again, and he whipped up the horse and drove off.
Stal watched him go, unaware of the four fascinated pairs of eyes staring over his head. "Elves," he sighed. "Would dat I could afford better help." Turning to the four: "Bards, de sun grows older, an' I would talk more wit' youif you will," he added respectfully.
"Sure," said John before Paul could jump in. "First, though, you might tell us what'll happen to us if the Idris find out about us."
The bald man looked dismayed by the question (as did Paul), but he answered readily enough. "I know not. Those from cross-Chasm dock always at Tradertown, an' if dey would see de city, de Idris escort dem. I guess you would be taken to Tradertown."
"But they wouldn't kill us?" John prompted. "If it's illegal for you to talk to us"
"Kill you?" The words came out in a bark of laughter. "Kill de Favorites of de Gods? Dey would sooner destroy de Vasyn! But and Stal's voice dropped "dey might kill me for talking to you."
This wasn't what John had expected, and he could only say, "Oh."
"Dat be why I told T'kes dat came you from Ka Tenid," the little man said. "Dat be de city fardest from Focan, an' such as live dere never come here. De men dere may look like youno one here would know udderwise."
"But if we're putting you in danger, we should leave!" Paul said, though wondering where they could go, if their very presence condemned everyone they met.
Stal waved his hands frantically at the four. "Na, na! Stay, please! It be a risk I gladly take, if you will answer my questions! I must know!"
"Well, all right," Paul said, sharing an uncomfortable look with the others. "Ask away."
But Stal wouldn't say another word until he had led the four down to the beach and out of sight of every part of his household. Then, too nervous to stand still, he paced back and forth across the sand, saying,
"Be it believed by many dat de Idris keep you from de people because you be too holy to speak to us. But believe some de true reason be dat we should not see you don't practice de right rituals or talk of de right gods. Be dere rumors dat people from cross-Chasm don't offer bites of deir food to Komat, or t'row money into de sea to t'ank Waralee for safe passage, or keep janans, or even consult de Tairce." He stopped and faced the four. "Be dis true? You don't do dese t'ings?"
Ouch, thought Paul. How was he to know if real cross-Chasm folks did these things? Choosing his words with care, he said, "No, we don't. But that's just us. I mean, we certainly can't speak for everyone from cross-Chasm." That's the truest thing I've said all day. "It's a big place, and we only know about things in our tiny corner of it."
Stal nodded, pleased. "Say de priests dat all cross-Chasm be holy an' correct. Dey lied," he concluded triumphantly. But then his attitude faded into thoughtfulness. "But spoke dem a small lie or a big one? Spoke dem from corrupt knowledge or honest ignorance? What if some cross-Chasm do not worship de gods, but some do?" He began to pace again, looking at the sand.What does dis all mean, if anyt'ing? If only we could debate dis openly!
"What would it mean if it turned out no one from cross-Chasm worshiped the gods at all?" asked John.
Stal stopped in his tracks, a fierce hope lighting his eyes. "It would mean de Idris lied an' de Vasyn be a fake!"
"The what?" asked several voices.
"De Vasyn. It be a statue dat allows de gods into Ketafa. For nearly five hundred years it was missing, an' while it was gone, de gods could not affect Ketafa. But when began de Idris to conquer, gained dey de support of de people by showing dey had found de Vasyn an' de gods were coming back. De people embraced de gods very quickly," Stal added gloomily.
"You reckon the, uh, Vasyn they have is fake, then," said John.
"I hope it be."
"Because then the Idris would be exposed as the criminals they are and would get overthrown, right?"
"Ayuh, perhaps. Stal shrugged. De Idris be bad, but Focan has been ruled by worse. Deir taxes be reasonable, an' at least deir religion encourages good deeds. No. A fake Vasyn would really mean dat Ketafa still be free from direct godly influencedat we still have de sanity of people radder dan de insanity of gods. I mean no disrespect to de gods," Stal said hastily, seeing the surprise and dismay on George's face. "Belong dey cross-Chasm. But Ketafa was meant to be free of de chaos dey bring. Ketafa was settled to get away from dem an' deir whims!"
George badly wanted to ask a question, but the hundreds roiling in his mind all tried to come out at once, and they jammed in his throat.
Now Stal's manner turned furtive, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "De only ones who dare oppose de Idris an' deir gods are de Raleka, de 'Ten-an'-Two' in an old language, but it be deat' to join dem. Even speaking de word Raleka earns a flogging an' a hundred points of bad jan." He sighed. "I be not a Raleka, because dey want to find de real Vasyn an' rule wit' de backing of de real gods. Dat would be worse even if dey were more benevolent den de Idris. Blow me to de moons, but I dont know what de best solution would be. Perhaps if bot' sides could disappear"
Just then a metallic chiming came from Stal's pocket, and he pulled out a copper pocket watch on a chain. A twitch of his finger, and the cover sprang open. "It be all up, bardstime for midmeal." Stal showed the watch to the four. "Will you honor my table?"
They didn't hear him; his voice had been drowned out by the chiming, his image replaced by the watch. Instead of twelve numbers spaced clockwise round the watch face, it had five spaced counterclockwise. The main face had two hands, one to mark the five numbers and one to mark twenty smaller divisions in each fifth. A smaller face set into the bottom of the larger face had a hand that pointed to four separate numbers. At that moment, all three hands pointed to their respective ones on the two faces.
Looking at that watch was indescribably creepy, warped just enough to tantalize with its normality even as it taunted with its strangeness. Not even the dual moons had unsettled the four so profoundly. Oh, the moons were alien, but they were also untouchable, dreamlike, not quite fathomable. They played no part in everyday existence. Similarly, Stal's talk of Idris and gods was just talk, quaint fantasy dialogue that felt more like fiction than reality.
But the mutant watch was tangible, comprehensible proof that the fundamental rules of existence really had changed. And along with this revelation came the fresh and hideous reminder that the four were elsewheretheir families, their friends, their world thoroughly inaccessible.
Stal held the watch out for the four to stare at for a few moments. If he picked up on their mutual distress, he kept his reaction hidden. Then he pulled his hand back a little, obviously ready to put the watch away though willing to let them look at it longer if they wanted. However, no one protested, so he closed and pocketed the thing and repeated his offer of food. In their collective daze they nodded mechanically.
Stal led them back to the house. A gaggle of little brown heads appeared at the windows and door, peeping in fascination at the giants. A shrill female voice ordered them back to the table, but they stayed until a gray-clad arm started yanking them away.
The bald man's round face grew tender as he regarded his flock. To the four, softly: "Bards, I would not frighten my wife an' childs, so I will again tell dem dat you be from Ka Tenid. Say not'ing of what we spoke of on de beach. We can talk again later, after food and my chores. Ah" He blushed. "I know I said you would play when Seopia sleeps, but play you before den as well? De children must sleep, an' if de music be only at night dey'll be too excited to join de dark."
"Sure," said Paul, snapping out of his nervous reverie at the thought of what this concert could mean to them. "We'd never shortchange kids." And behind his forced friendly smile he thought with grim-jawed determination, The watch won't matter, the Idris won't matter, nothing will matter if I'm right and we play and get sent back to Earth.