Friday, May 9, 2014

Chapter 35, 36 and 37 of the Bard's Apprentice

Chapter Thirty-Five

It looked like a long drop, and it felt even longer. Fox had fallen down the stairs in Grandy’s house a few times, when he was smaller. The feeling was the same; a curious calmness came upon him, as he hurtled towards the pond. He was facing upwards, and he could see Kandorian looking down at him, his face without expression.

Then he hit the water. He expected to crash into it-— his body was tensed—- but there was none. He felt like he had fallen into thick mud, from no great height. The landing was soft, and before he could think about it, Kandorian and the cave had disappeared. He was underneath the surface, and he could feel himself sinking rapidly.

He had closed his eyes, and his mouth, and he was holding his breath. Now the panic that had been suspended as he fell crashed over him. He felt a spasm of horror pass through his whole body. His life couldn’t end like this; it was too awful to be true. Somebody would save him, he thought...Truevow...Grandy…

He held his breath for as long as he could, trying to swim back towards the surface. But he had never learnt to swim. He fainted, and the water surged into his mouth and lungs.

A few minutes later, he woke up, and realised that he was still breathing. The water in his lungs felt exactly like air, but more…refreshing. Every single breath was like pulling air into his body after a long run.

He opened his eyes. He could see perfectly, but there was nothing to see besides the cabbage-green waters. There was no near or far. There was no shadowy forms. There wasn’t so much as a swirl or a bubble. There was light, but it didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere. He closed his eyes again.

He was still sinking. He kept sinking an absurdly long time; surely the pond couldn’t be so deep? He was beginning to think he would go on sinking forever, when his descent slowed, and suddenly he was floating. Though he seemed to be breathing, he could feel the waters around his body. They were warm, he realised. They were the perfect temperature.

He realised how tired he was. He had never felt so tired. His twelve years lay upon him like centuries of soil on buried ruins. But the tiredness felt good, like hunger before a feast. He felt ravenous for sleep, a sleep like he had never known.

And he slept. And it was a sleep like he never known.

Suspended in the caressing waters, his mind travelled back through time. To the time before time, before birth. All the cares of the years rolled away, and he knew for a second time the utter contentment of the womb.

Then life began again, unfolding just as it had unfolded before. He relived it, not moment by moment, but moving from memory to memory like a bee flying from flower to flower. Sights and incidents that he had forgotten as soon as they occurred returned to him now, as well as all those that had tarried in his memory. Days of life were relived in hours of his dreaming state; months passed in weeks. The pool tended to his physical needs. The waters were full of living things too small to be seen, and they nourished him.

He lived it all again, but differently this time. This time, he saw. Nothing was added to his memories, but he saw them with keener vision now. He remembered Grandy scolding him for wetting the bed when he was eight years old. He remembered Grandy scolding him for crying when a big dog barked at him on the street. He remembered asking Grandy whether a murderer could break in through his bedroom window, and Grandy said: “It’s possible.” He remembered, after that conversation, watching the yellow-curtained window all night, waiting to hear the crash of shattering glass.

He felt what he had felt then; distress, and underneath the distress, anger. Anger towards Grandy for his refusal to comfort him, for punishing fear with more fear. He felt the undending vulnerability of his early childhood, when every day felt like a walk through woods where man-eating wolves are stalking.

But he felt something else now. It was something of which he had been darkly aware even then, but which he only understood now. He felt Grandy’s fear. The world seemed no less frightening to the old man than it seemed to the boy. It was a world where weakness led to destruction, where a sea of harm was flowing around every soul, just needing that one chink of vulnerabillity to flood in and destroy it. He heard again Grandy’s tales of his youth on the streets of Silvershore, the son of a factory hand, in the savage Rubble Quarter of the city. He remembered his stories of the army, of months-long campaigns, disease taking away as many souls as enemy soldiers did. And there were his stories of his years building trains, of the furious determination that had been needed to ram his plans into reality, to get them seen in the first place. Life was a fight for Grandy.

He felt something else, too; he felt it for sure now, where he had only had a desperate hope before. He felt love, love as strong as that of any indulgent mamma felt towards her firstborn. Grandy had loved him as dearly as ever parent had loved a child. All of his harshness had been fear, fear of the world that would grind Fox down if it got the chance. The old man knew the world so well, but still didn’t undestand that nothing gives strength like unconditional love.

Fox basked in that love at last.

He met Jasma again, and spent long hours by the fireside with her. Heard her heaping abuse upon men, upon drinkers, upon the lazy poor. He felt the lash of her tongue himself, every time he knocked over a plate or muddied the floor. He felt the flat of her hand, which was less painful than the shame her lectures planted in him.

But once again he saw what he had not seen the first time around; the cold fury in her eyes when she spoke about her father, who had left his family before Jasma was born. The bitterness in her voice when she spoke about the families in her neighbourhood, hardly less poverty-stricken than Jasma’s own family, but who treated them like underlings. Poverty to Jasma was like fear to Grandy. It was the one deadly weakness, the destroyer of souls.

And so he went through his experiences, living them again, seeing them clearly for the first time. And all the time, he slept a deeper sleep than he had ever known, in the silent sanctuary of the dreaming pool.

Then, suddenly, he felt himself rising to the surface, and his soul rose up in protest. Not yet, he thought, his mind only vaguely aware what was happening. I’m not ready to leave yet…I don’t want to go…

But he had broken the surface, and when he had re-emerged into full consciousness—it was a slow and reluctant process—he realised that Kandorian was calling to him from above. There was upset in his voice.

“Fox! Swim towards the rungs on the wall!”

He looked around. Now he saw that there was a set of metal rungs set into the sheer edges of the pool, leading up to the place where Kandorian was standing.

“I can’t swim!”, shouted Fox. He expected his voice to be rough, since it hadn’t been used in a long time, but it was clear as ever.

“It doesn’t matter”, the Bard called back. “Just move towards it.”

Fox realised he was floating in the water. He thrashed his arms, mimicking the action of swimmers, and he started moving towards the rungs. He began climbing them—they were perfectly firm. He wondered, as he climbed, how long he had been in the pool. He knew it had been a long time. He could feel it. He still felt unhapp. He longed to be back in the waters.

He realised that his body was drying rapidly, as were the night-clothes he was wearing, that he had been wearing when Swan had set up the blade above his head. By the time he reached the top, they were not even damp.

Kandorian was unhappy. His expression hardly changed when he was upset, but there was a tenseness in his body, and the lines of his face were tighter. He reached a hand out to help Fox off the top rungs, and gave him a long, examining look.

“I’m sorry”, he said, when he had looked his fill. “Nothing seems to go right for you, Fox. Nobody should be pulled from the Dreaming Pool before his time.”

“How long was I in there?”, asked Fox, remembering how Kandorian had pushed him in. He understood why he had, now; nobody could explain the Dreaming Pool to you. There would have been no point in trying.

“Seven months”, said Kandorian. Fox was startled. He knew it had been a long time, but not that long. It hardly seemed possible. “Fox, I would never have called you up, but you’re needed.”

“What for?”, asked Fox, beginning to feel afraid.

“Your friends are in trouble. They need your help. Come on”, he said, turning back in the direction from which they had come, seven months ago.

“Where are we going?”, asked Fox, hurrying after him.

“The Lake of Fire”, said Kandorian, over his shoulder. “There’s something that you have to see”.

Chapter Thirty-Six

For all his alarm, Fox felt excited as they approached the Lake. He had only seen it once, but it had already entered into his soul. He felt like an old man returning to the cottage where his boyhood had been spent.

“That feeling never goes away”, said Kandorian, watching him. Fox blushed. He hardly knew why. His feelings about the Lake were as powerful as any of the emotions that caused grown-ups to get embarrassed.

“Look in the Lake, Fox”, said Kandorian, but Fox was already hurrying to the brink of the waters. He ran to the exact spot they had been standing before, by the statue that had once been Swan.

He looked down. The waters seemed to be agitated, in the very spot where he was looking. Waves surged across the surface of the lake here. All around it was almost entirely still.

“Look”, said Kandorian, who had come behind him. Fox realised that—for all his rush to the lake’s edge—he was avoiding actually looking down. He did so now.

The glow of the lake was a blurry shimmer at first, then it began to take shape. Then Fox was looking at an image in the waters. Once again, there was nothing more than a formation of ripples and gleams of light, but they made a perfect picture. After a few moments, he was not looking at shapes in water, but a scene tinged in purple.

It was Greatcastle. He hadn’t expected to be looking at him. Swan had told him that Greatcastle had bought a tavern with his savings. He certainly looked like a man of property now. He was sitting by his fireside, drinking from a tall glass, wearing a long embroidered shirt that looked highly expensive. His hair had been curled, and his feet were crossed on a low table in front of him. He looked very pleased with himself.

Then a woman came into view, approaching Greatcastle from behind. It was not Jasma. She was dark-haired, and very pretty. She was wearing what looked like a maid’s costume. It was very similar to the ones worn by the maids in Swan’s house. She was smiling down at Greatcastle, who couldn’t see her yet. She reached her hands down the back of his chair, wrapping them playfully around his neck.

Greatcastle’s smile broadened, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Their lips moved in silent speech. Greatcastle rose from his chair, moved towards her, and then they were kissing passionately. Fox blushed again, aware of Kandorian behind him.

To his relief, they pulled apart within a moment or two, both of them looking to their side. Greatcastle settled back into his chair, and the maid turned her back, busying herself about something in the background.

Jasma walked into view. She was wearing a fancy dress, decorated with a complicated floral pattern. Her hair had been arranged in braids, each braid with a strip of some fine, silvery material wound around it. She did not look happy, however. She looked miserable and furious—- more furious than he had ever seen anybody—- and from the way she glared at the maid’s back, Fox had no doubt she was knew what was happening.

He saw Greatcastle smile to himself, hidden from Jasma’s view. He realised that Greatcastle knew that Jasma knew, and that it pleased him.

He suddenly felt boiling hatred towards the man. He had never expected to feel so protective towards Jasma. But after his time in the Dreaming Pool, he knew the humiliation and want that had darkened his old nurse’s past. This humilation, just when she was looking forward to happiness at last, was almost too painful to think about.

Then the scene dissolved into ripples and gleams again. Fox turned to Kandorian, and opened his mouth to speak, but Kandoran said: “There’s more. Look”.

He turned back to the fiery water, and saw that another scene was taking shape.

It was a man lying on a floor. A young man. It was Truevow, Fox saw with growing dismay. For a moment he thought he was dead. Then he saw the body stir, and he could breathe again. Truevow looked as if he had been beaten up. There were bruises and cuts on his face, and his shirt had been torn in several places. Blood oozed from his mouth. He lifted his hands above his head, sluggishly, as if he was expecting further blows.

Then Fox saw another man was standing over Truevow. It was a tall, hulking man in overalls and a grimy shirt. He had shouder-length hair, a pockmarked face, and there was blood spattered on his clothes.

He crouched beside Truevow, and dragged him by one arm along the floor, out of view.

“We have to go there now” said Fox, taking another step towards the waters. “Now.” He blazed with guilt, remembering his biting words to Truevow on that day in the wilderness. He felt like a murderer.

Kandoran grabbed him by the shoulder, restraining him. “Not yet”, he said. “There’s more.”

“But Truevow—“

“Luria won’t let you go anywhere until you’ve seen it all”, said Kandoran. “Look.”

The scene had faded away again, and already another was taking its place.

This time it was not a single figure close up. It was a group, he could see, and they were moving. They had horses, and wagons. He assumed that it was the Ezwanya on their way to the Anarchy. But the image grew clearer, and he saw that it was not. It was a group of men he had never seen before; there were perhaps sixty or seventy of them.

Their clothes were worn and somewhat ragged, and they all wore long beards. They had flat caps on their heads, and there was a hard look about them that frightened him. Some of them had rifles.

It was a wild landscape, with enormous mountains in the background, and huge rocks studding the ground. Fox had never seen it before.

“Who are they?”, he asked. “Where are they?”

“I was watching them earlier”, said Kandorian, and his voice was low, even cautious. “I was listening to their talk—“

“How can you hear them?”, asked Fox. “I can’t hear them.”

“It comes with practice”, said Kandoran. “The point is—“ He paused, and Fox looked up, alerted. “The point is, they’re heading towards the Ezwayna.” Another pause, and he said: “They heard about the coldfire stones.”

“How could they have heard that?””, asked Fox.

Kandoran didn’t reply. He just looked back at Fox, and his eyes were soft, even pitying. Fox suddenly remembered Jasma lying on the grass with her eyes closed, in the days before she left for the Anarchy, and the words that had slipped out of his mouth: The cold fire...the cold fire of his courage.

“It seems pretty clear what happened”, Kandoran said, gently. “Somehow Jasma heard something, and mentioned it to Greatcastle. When they reached the Anarchy, Greatcastle went to those thugs, and sold them some kind of map, or directions to the Ezwayna’s camp.”

“I can’t believe Jasma would do that”, said Fox, although he wondered if perhaps she could.

“I don’t believe it, either”, said Kandoran. “I don’t think Jasma knew what coldfire stones were. I doubt she even knows what Hardcastle did. Perhaps she just heard the word coldfire...and mentioned it to him..”

”It was me”, said Fox, sick with guilt. “I told her. It was a slip of the tongue. I didn’t think she’d noticed.”

“I thought that might be it”, said Kandoran, more gently than ever.

“We have to do something”, said Fox. “We could take a hundred Bards—- do you have guns here?”

“Fox”, said Kandoran, and now there was pain in his voice. “That’s not the way of things, here. Luria doesn’t allow it. Only one person can help any of these people you’ve seen.” He paused, and then added—- as if this last word cost him blood—- “You.”

Me?”, echoed Fox, too shocked to feel anything. “What can I do?”.

“There’s always a way”, said Kandoran, though Fox could hear the doubt in his voice. “Luria never shows us these things, unless there’s a way. But...sometimes there’s only the slimmest chance. You don’t have to risk your life, Fox. I wasn’t even going to pull you from the Dreaming Pond. I just thought...I thought you had the right to choose.”

The right to choose, thought Fox, feeling Death’s fingers close around him. “What about you?”, he asked. “I thought I was your apprentice? Why can’t you come with me?”

“I wish I could”, cried the Bard, and he closed his fists. His face was a mask of frustration, and it was marble white. “But Luria…Fox, this tale began with you, and it has to end with you. If I had been there from the beginning, it would be different. If I tried to step through with you, nothing would happen. Luria doesn’t make exceptions.”

“I hate Luria”, said Fox, savagely.

“Me, too”, said Kandorian. “A lot of the time. It doesn’t change anything, though.”

“What am I going to do?”, asked Fox, his voice weak now. He had felt a new strength within him, after emerging from the Pond of Dreams, but it seemed to have failed him now. “I can’t leave them. It’s my fault, all of it!”

“Don’t panic”, said Kandorian. “That’s the most important thing, Fox. Don’t panic, and forget about blame. Those thieves are still a hundred and fifty miles away from the Ezwayna settlement. You have time.”

“What about Truevow?”, asked Fox. “Has he got time?”

Kandorian looked away, towards the lake. “I don’t know. He’s tougher than he looks, remember.”

Not tougher than that other guy
, thought Fox. “What can I do?”, he asked.

“Luria chooses for us”, said Kandorian. “I think it’s chosen already. Look.”

He looked at the lake. There was another image in it now, and his stomach tightened with fear when he saw it. He saw a range of benefactor trees, and there were frolic bears leaping from branch to branch. The last time he had seen that place, he had expected to die.

There was something different about the picture, this time. It wasn’t following any action, any event. It was just there. Waiting.

“That’s where Luria wants you to go”, said Kandorian, his voice hollow. “Its choices are often…strange.”

“I can’t go there”, said Fox. “It makes no sense. And it’s suicide.”

“You don’t have to go”, said Kandorian. “A wise man knows when he’s defeated.” But there was no strength in his voice, and they both knew that Fox had no real choice.

“I’ll do it”, said Fox, after a long silence, and the Bard gave a miserable nod. “What do I do? Just step in?”

“There’s no need to go like that”, said Kandorian. “We can get you something warmer from our wardrobes.”

“How about getting me a gun?”, asked Fox.

“No”, said Kandorian. It was the answer Fox had expected. “You can only take the clothes you’re wearing when you step through the Lake. Nothing else. Not jewellery, or money, or even so much as a tinderbox. None of makes it to the other side. I’m sorry Fox.”

Fox’s eyes were still upon the frolic bears. He couldn’t help it. He was remembering what it felt like to be clutched in a frolic bear’s paws.

“Come on. Let’s get you ready.” Kandorian took the boy’s hand, and they moved back towards the warren of passages where the life of Luria was lived.

He was given a solid meal, and he was dressed in thick black jacket and trouses, with an overcoat of thin brown leather. He had never seen as many clothes as were contained in the cave that Kandorian called “the wardrobes”. At least a dozen Bards were rifling through the huge wardrobes. They were all watching him, and he heard whispers. He wondered how much they knew.

They returned to the edge of the lake, Kandorian and Fox, walking like prisoners going to their execution. They stood staring into the waters. The frolic bears had gone, and the benefactor trees stood alone. They were probably sleeping.

“Remember”, said Kandorian. “You might be able to flash from place to place now, of your own accord. But even older apprentices can’t fully control that…I don’t know what will happen. You can try.”

“I’ll try all right”, said Fox, staring at the benefactor trees. It was dusk in their world.

“Then here it is”, said Kandorian, and he put an arm around Fox’s shoulders. “Good luck, Fox. Good luck”. But the look he gave Fox said: He’s just like the last one. The girl who never lived to become a Bard.

“Thank you”, said Fox, preparing himself. He stepped towards the Lake of Fire, sure he would never see it again. Sure that the last place he would ever see would be the savage home of the frolic bears.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Putting one experimental foot into the lake, Fox was surprised—- but not too surprised—- that his foot didn’t even feel wet. It felt warm, instead. Warm, and somehow more solid and real than before. He could see the fiery water flowing over it. He hesitated a moment, and then followed it with the other foot.

He fell, and the cave disappeared. He was surrounded by a purple glow just like the one that had whisked him from the Empire to the home of the Ezwanya. His entire body now felt awake, more intensely alive. For a moment he forgot all about the frolic bears, and Truevow, and the thieves. He rejoiced to feel one with Luria. For a few seconds, he felt like he was the Lake of Fire. He felt immortal, and as old as the night sky.

Then he struck ground, and the glow and the ecstasy faded.

He was underneath the benefactor trees, as the autumn twilight closed around him. Fear clutched him again, all the stronger for its brief absence. He was already bracing for the paws of the frolic bears. He looked around. It was getting dark, and monstrous shadows stretched from the trees. He couldn’t see any bears, or any creature other than birds.

He felt lonelier than he had ever felt in his life.

He had already decided on the first thing he was going to do. He was going to try to flash to some other place. Any other place would do. He closed his eyes, and imagined the inside of the Eldest’s stone house. He pictured the low ceiling, the generations-old furniture, even the slightly curved poker. He willed himself there with all his heart. But nothing happened.

He hadn’t really expected anything to happen.

He stood there for ten or twenty minutes, the fear inside him thickening every moment, trying to imagine himself in other places; in the Spiral House; in the tamzan where he slept; sitting beside Armala’s fire. Nothing worked. There was only the gathering wind, and the deep footprints of frolic bears all around, and the heavy scent of their bodies on the air.

The old-fashioned way, then, he thought. When Truevow had rescued him from here, it had taken them almost a week to get back to the village. He knew he could remember the way. But was there enough time to warn the Elders? The thieves were a hundred and fifty miles away, Kandorian had said. Would he find anything left of the Ezwayna in a week?

Thinking about Kandorian made him realise that the Bard must be watching him now. The thought comforted him. It made him feel less alone. And now the strength that the Dreaming Pool had given him was flooding back. Twelve years was really a long life, he thought. Three of Jasma’s sisters had died as babies. If this is how it ends, he thought, I want to make it a good end. To be worthy of Luria.

But another voice, deeper in his mind, said: This isn’t a heroic story to send people off to their beds. This is your whole life, and you don’t get another try.

He started to make his way towards the crest of the hill, trying to move fast and slow at once. He didn’t hear any frolic bears. Maybe they were sleeping. Their snores had been almost deafening, in the cave where he’d been trapped. But even the loudest snores would hardly reach here.

The evening air was exhilarating. After his seven months in the Pool of Dreams, he felt fresher than he could ever remember feeling. The miles ahead suddenly began to feel…almost enticing. He quickened his pace.

Then he heard the screech of birds and the creak of branches from behind him. He felt the ground vibrate beneath his feet, and the sound of a heavy thump on soil. He started to run, not even needing to look behind him to know what was there. All his fear disappeared, and all that occupied his mind was the need to escape.

But he could hear something enormous gaining on him every moment, and then pain filled him. It was the sensation that had haunted his nightmares for months; the paws of the frolic bear closing around him, squeezing the breath from his body. The overwhelming smell of the bear filled his nostrils, like the smell of dog multiplied by a hundred. The heat of its breath eveloped his neck, his shoulders. It had grasped him around his middle, and it was lifting him in the air.

It was yelping now, the yelp that sounded so innocent, like the yapping of some enormous puppy. So it might have seemed to somebody far away, somebody who had never encountered a frolic bear. To Fox, it was the sound of pure horror.

And then a cry echoed all around, like the death-cry of a savage beast. Fox was already too terrified to pay much heed to it, but the frolic bear did. It froze, and its suffocating grip on him relaxed a little. Air poured back into his lungs, making him feel suddenly light-headed. Colours swam before his eyes. He was only dimly aware that the frolic bear was setting him down, almost gently. He was lying on the ground, and his ribs felt like they had been smashed in.

He became aware of something else looming over him. It was another frolic bear. This one was even bigger. It was the biggest he had seen. And it was crouching to the ground, watching him, its eyes glowing green in the last light of day. He tried to crawl backwards, but he was too stunned to move at all.

He must have passed out for a moment, because the next thing he knew, somebody was standing beside him.

He stared up, his vision blurred as he swam back to the light of consciousness. It was a man, he saw after a few moments. It was an old man.

It was Grandy.

Despite the pain from the frolic bear’s embrace, Fox blazed with sudden and amazed joy. In the deeps of his mind he had known that Grandy was dead. There hadn’t been the faintest gleam of hope. But somehow—- impossibly-— he had been wrong. And the next moment he heard the first voice that had ever been dear to him, speaking the first word he had understood: “Fox. Fox. Fox.”

Grandy was bending over now, shaking him, checking to see if he had been harmed. He seemed to be wearing a costume made of some kind of skins, stitched together. His beard reached almost to his chest, and he looked ten years younger than when Fox had last seen him.

Fox closed his eyes. His experiences in the Dreaming Pool came back to him. He remembered Grandy’s anxiety at every sign of vulnerability, every sign of soft emotion. He longed to weep with happiness, but he stopped himself. The memory of the Dreaming Pool stopped him. Instead, he opened his eyes slowly and said: “What are you doing alive?”

Grandy stopped shaking him, and his eyebrows shot up in surprise. He stared at Fox for a moment, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. Then he laughed, and his face creased with pleasure. With pleasure and—- Fox saw, and glowed—- with pride. Pride on his own behalf, and pride for Fox.

“Your old grandfather is sturdier than anybody thought, boy”, said Grandy, and his eyes twinkled with pleasure. “But what made you come here? Running after those coldfire stones, were you?”. Even now there was a hint of approval in Grandy’s voice. He had told Fox about all the orchards he had raided in his youth, the hats he had stolen from the heads of wealthy people on city streets. Stealing coldire stones from frolic bears probably seemed no different to him.

“It’s a long story, Grandy”, said Fox. “But I didn’t come here for the coldfire stones.”

The frolic bears were standing behind Grandy, watching him. Fox stil felt nervous in their presence, but he could see they weren’t going to attack. From the moment he had seen Grandy he had felt safe. Only now did he wonder how that could be so.

“Why aren’t they attacking us?”, asked Fox, holding his ribs—- still aching—- and looking up at the bears. One of them gave a little yelp, little more than a sigh compared to the echoing sounds he had heard from them before.

“Don’t worry about them”, said Grandy. “They’re friendly creatures, really. I’ve come to quite an understanding with them. They take me as one of their own now. I get on with them better than with most people I’ve known.”

“I’m not surprised”, said Fox, and Grandy beamed again. He wondered how anyone could possibly befriend a frolic bear, or even—- as Grandy seemed to have done—- get them to obey him. But then he remembered how Grandy would say The stronger will always wins out, Fox. Strength and numbers hardly even come to it. For so much of his boyhood, Fox had believed Grandy was a superhuman who could do anything he wanted. Recently he had begun to think of him a weak, foolish man. It made him happy to think his first idea had been closer to the truth.

“Are you hurt very bad?”, asked Grandy. And now Fox understood that Grandy waited this long to ask, not because he didn’t care, but because he cared so much.

“Yes”, said Fox. “But I’m going to be alright. I don’t think that anything is broken.”

“You’re pretty sturdy, too, Fox”, said Grandy, and Fox could hear the relief in his voice, like a cooling breeze on a hot summer’s day. “Though you don’t look it.”

Then Grandy helped him walk to a place by a stream, not far away now, with a burnt patch of ground where he must have built his fires. There were bones of small animals strewn beside the bushes. The frolic bears did not follow them. “I don’t have so much as a pot to boil water in”, said Grandy, though he made it sound more like a boast than a lament. “But I don’t need a tinderbox to start a fire.” True to his word, he had one flickering within ten minutes, while Fox took a drink from the stream in his cupped hands.

“Now tell me everything”, said Grandy. “You look different, Fox. Older. And younger, too. Less of an old man than you used to be.”

Fox laughed with pleasure. He understood what Grandy meant. But now the fear was seeping back to him; the fear for the Ezwayna, the fear for Truevow and Jasma, the fear that his slip of the tongue would turn out to have caused the destruction of a people.

He told Grandy everything. This time, Grandy’s expression hardly changed. He was already ready to hear wonders, and he took them in his stride. He was fascinated, but not astonished.

As Fox expected, he grew even more fascinated when he heard Spiral had been imported to the Anarchy. Fox had wondered how Grandy would take the news. Looking at him, he still couldn’t decide how he felt. He guessed Grandy wasn’t sure, either.

“I wish I could see what they’ve made of it”, said the old man, slowly beating his thigh with his fist in frustration. “That perfumed cissy Castleman, or whatever he called himself...he probably has them playing half-hour games that won’t strain the men of fashion too much.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “And what will they do without the Records? Then again…” His grimace faded. “This is how things stay alive, after all. Spiral used to have thousands of players in the Empire, once. This might be the Second Great Age of Spiral”. And finally, he looked almost pleased.

When Fox described Luria and Kandorian, he could see that Grandy was impressed.

“A Bard’s apprentice,” he said, musingly. “That’s something. Seeing all those worlds….” He heard a wisftulness in Grandy’s voice, and for a moment—- only a moment—- it reminded him of Swan, of the longing on his face when he told Fox about the lake of purple fire.

But then Grandy coughed, and it was gone. All of a sudden his grandfather looked a little embarrassed. He was frowning, the particular frown that Fox knew—- from long experience—- signalled that his grandfather was about to admit that he had, perhaps, been wrong about something. It was in the pressing together of his lips, the tightness of his jaw.

“So it turns out the storyteller wasn’t such a fool after all”, he said, fixing his eyes on the stream, as if he was suddenly fascinated by its flow.

“No”, said Fox, more pleased than Grandy would ever have imagined at the words. “Kandorian said Armala was as wise as any Bard.”

“Hmm”, said Grandy, pinching his lips between his thumb and finger. He had done it a few times, and Fox had eventually realised he was missing his pipe. “I don’t know if I would want to be wise. It just means getting too cautious to make mistakes.” He barked with laughter.

“What am I going to do, Grandy?”, asked Fox.

Grandy suddenly looked very solemn, very grave. Fox realised that his grandfather was pleased. His grandson might have changed—- might have become less of a girl, as he probably thought of it--- but he still needed Grandy’s help.

“Well, if you can’t just close your eyes and nod three times and appear in the Eldest’s house, then our options are limited”, he said. He sat up and squared his shoulders. He was excited, Fox could see. “I think there’s only one course of action.”

“What’s that?”

Grandy smiled. “I have to stop these thieves before they ever reach the village.”

You? But what could—“

“Me, and my furry allies”, said Grandy, looking more excited than ever. “I was being rather modest when I told you I’d become friends with the frolic bears. I’m more their leader, actually.” He laughed again. “It’s quite a good deal for them. I’ve taught them how to hunt better, how to use traps. I’m sure I could lead them into battle.”

“But these people have guns”, said Fox, imagining a hail of bullets sinking into Grandy.

“Of course they have guns”, said Grandy, impatiently, as if it hardly required saying. “But they won’t be expecting an attack, will they? They’ll probably have their guns put away in their packs. They think there’s no other people for a hundred miles, remember. We can catch them by surprise.”

“They’ll hear you coming”, said Fox.

“Maybe”, said Grandy, shrugging. “But maybe not. You’d be surprised how stealthy these bears can be. Did you hear the one that got you?”

“No, but dozens of them—“

“As for you”, interrupted Grandy, his excitement dimming a little, “you should go to the village and tell them to get ready. In case any of them break through.”

“No”, said Fox, emphatically. “I’m coming with you. You know I’ll never reach the village in time.”

Grandy glared at him, but within a few moments his expression softened. Fox could tell that Grandy liked Fox’s new atttiude.

“Well, it wouldn’t be fair to leave you out, I suppose”, said Grandy. “I just hope we can get a bear to carry you. It’s a bumpy form of transport, but you get used to it. Do you need to rest?”

“I’ve had the longest rest of my life, till just a few hours ago”, said Fox. “And I’m hardly hurting at all now.” This was true. The ache had all but gone from his ribs. Talking to Grandy was a tonic.

“Well, then, we’re both ready”, said Grandy, and he grinned like a schoolboy.


The story concludes next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Pretty exciting stuff. I'm looking forward to the ending.