"Zaan," said the sun.
The ice-white light ran through his blood in splinters.
It was fading.
"Clouds," he said.
A frog answered him. He spoke. It answered again. His teeth hurt. Then came the rain, drenching away the last of the sunlight. The skirling wind fladdered and scooped, outpacing his eyesight; it came in rents and buffets, sending the shimmy-shimmy leaves stappering and plattering from down to around. Some dead at his feet. He kicked them from ventral to dorsal.
"Tog," he said.
Asking for someone.
He couldn't remember who.
His legs went balder-shalder -tok through rain perhaps autumn or winter. His third leg was a gnarled unyielding strake padded with moss and wort where it jammed home to his armpit. The music of a flute cut closer than a knife; hard, high, unyielding, it lacerated his heart. He felt his pulse-beats bleeding through his body. The wind blew furance hot; he shivered, his teeth tok-tok chin-cha-chattering.
"Hello," he said.
A frog answered.
"Go away, frog."
And then again, hoping against hallucination:
They didn't seem to notice him. Instead, they kept to their dance, tracing formalities between the green of green boughs and the red of red blood. He waved in their direction with what had once been a hand but which was now a club, a poisoned mass of striving darkness. The ground was rhythmic underfoot. A swathe of wind took him from behind and flattened him to an undug grave.
"Once I had a sword," he said, or thought he said. "But I lost it. Perhaps."
She answered him in the cadence of birdsong, feeding him something which was honey and yet not honey.
"That is good," he said.
"Sleep," she said, or thought she said.
Then she was feeding him again, then hurting his hand; he tried to protest, but she fed him with even, placid spoonfulls which slurred and slubbered on his tongue. Her hands were diligent, the blankets very warm. Yet so uncomfortable.
His troubling fingers plucked bits of moss and lichen from the blankets. Dry. Tasteless. He spat them out. It occurred to him that perhaps he was not in a bed at all, but swallowed by some hole in the forest, chewing on moss and dreaming strange dreams while he eased his way toward death.
The rocks above looked solid, sullen, certain.
A cave, then.
The shiftless wind came shifting in through a cold square hole in the cave. Beyond lay a high harsh light which might have been daylight. Things clawed at the hole, scratching, scraping, grasping, gasping. They wanted him.
Frightened, he called for help.
She came to him. Her voice was half birds and half water. Or was it rainbow? Her eyes, dark. Her hands, slender. She fed him soup; he tried to hold the spoon, but found himself clumsy as a baby. She did not laugh.
The next time she came, she was shorter, heavier, and just a little bit sour. Her eyes had changed from dark to grey, her hair from black to fair. The blankets were still scratching him. He complained about them. This time, she said nothing.
Attempting diligence, he tried to remember her face, but it shifted with uncanny agility. As in a nightmare, he tried to stabilise his memories, only to have them prove incompetent each time she entered. Finally he thought:
- Different women tend me.
And knew his thought for truth.
He was healing.
He began to take stock of his situation.
The room was small. Square. Dark. One door. The door led through shadows to a coffin-lid dungeon of darkness. One window. From the bed, he could see the bare branches of a tree, grasping and clutching at the thriftless wind.
What was the room made of? Stone. Vast slovenly blocks of stone. No mortar. Above him, a single grey tombstone stretched from wall to wall. He thought of himself as a tiny huddle of flesh and sensation hunched up inside a dull, grey, senseless prison of dour mass, monotonous weight, inertia and habitual oppression.
"I'm hungry," he said.
She entered, matching none of his memories. By the windowlight, he saw she was dressed in bulky, padded clothes of woven bark. Tufts of moss and lichen peeked out between the warp and weft; perhaps, beneath that padding, she was as slender as a tree in sunlight. Or perhaps not. It occurred to him that, in any case, not all trees were slender. Not even in sunlight.
She did not frown or smile; though courteous, she was grave, restrained in her dealings with him.
She brought food.
He ate gruel, pap and watered bread.
It was all he could manage.
The bread was very strange. It was heavy and loamy, tasting sometimes of honey and sometimes of fish. Was it made from grain? Or from some kind of pasted root? Eating, he scented swamp. The bread was not to blame. The wind coming in through the window was bringing him the smells of marsh, bog and slough.
When she came again, he ate the soup without help; he could sit up by himself. His blankets were the same woven bark as her clothes, padded with the same mosses and lichens. He resented their million million insect-creeping legs, claws and feelers.
"Wool makes better blankets," he said.
She answered him with words which were half music, half ripening fruit. Which was strange, for it was the wrong season for ripening fruit. Unless he was mistaken, it was winter. So thinking, he spun down in a dizzy spiral, fainting.
When he woke, it was night.
The shutters had not been fastened properly; they creaked, groaned and laboured in the knock-kneed wind.
"Shutters," he said, complaining.
And nothing answered no-one.
His head was light yet his limbs were death-heavy. His knee-joints were made of curdling milk. Hands alien. His throat was dry; he was thirsty. Perspiring, he reached the shutters; he could not remember getting out of bed. He found a cord which secured the shutters, tying one to the other. He pulled it free. The shutters swung apart.
He saw bright moonlight, broken buildings, and the titubant shadows of trees reeling in the violent, gusting wind. Banners of turbulent cloud streamed across the moon; when the clouds cleared, the moonlight showed him the dull, low-slung outline of a heavyweight wall which caught the moonlight in its open crescent. Set in the middle of that crescent, like a stump about to be reaped by a sickle, was a vast stone beehive, many times the height of a man. It had no windows, and only one door. Sullen fire glowed within.
- Where am I?
Leaves, thin, scampering prey, fled before the wind. Others followed close behind, cruel scuttling predators which kept close to the ground as they moved on the kill. Then all the leaves were suddenly flung upward in turbulent spirals as the buffeting wind switched and turned.
The change in the wind brought Togura a whiff of something foul. It was not swamp or mud or wet water. It was the rot and decay of the flesh. It was a putrid, evil smell of degenerating nightmares, of soft fat becoming fungus, of bones riddled with worms, of eyeballs subsiding into dark pools of purulent liquid.
Togura was almost certain that the smell was coming from the beehive.
The wind changed. And the fire which he could see within the beehive was suddenly obscured, as if someone was walking down a passageway, blocking the view to the center. Suddenly, terrified, Togura knew that he must not be caught here at the window, watching, witnessing.
He closed the shutters and secured the cords which held them against the wind. Returning to bed, he found himself unable to sleep. Yet when he opened his eyes again, it was morning. Feeding on soup and the meat of a small fresh-water turtle, he comforted himself with the thought that the wall, the beehive and the sudden stench must all have been part of a nightmare.
But when his recovering health allowed him to totter around at liberty, he found that the window's daylight view was the same as its night-time aspect. He had not been dreaming. Sometimes, indeed, the shift of the wind brougth him hints of something foul, and always he identified those hints with the beehive.
He did not know whether he was a guest, a slave or a prisoner, but when he was well enough to walk along a stone shaft as blind as darkness and make the turns which took him to the outer world, they put him to work.
It was most certainly winter by now. His old clothes had disappeared, together with his leather boots; he wore clogs, and clothes of woven bark stuffed with mosses and lichens, and a great big ear-comforting flap-hat consisting, as far as he could tell, of several birds' nests held in a net of woven bark. His skin broke out into strange red rashes, which itched. But he endured.
They put him to work at first on the simplest of tasks. A woman took him to a fire which was burning outside a building inhabited by females. He had already once tried to enter that building, and had been prevented.
She pointed at the fire.
"Koo'-l'na-ve'e'esha," she said, giving different musical values to each of her fleeting syllables, so that this, the simplest of her communications, became an intricate telestic pronouncement.
"What?" said Togura.
"Ko?" he queried, trying to get her to repeat the phrase.
Impatiently, she slapped her elbow. He had seen these people use this gesture before. Sometimes it seemed to be employed as a form of negation, but in some people it seemed to be simply a kind of nervous tic. She showed him a cut-down hollowed-out gourd which was lined with clay. She took a stick and scraped red-hot coals into it. Showed it into his hands.
"Cha," he said, experimentally.
She slapped his face.
"Why did you do that?" he said, sharp tears pricking his eyes.
She made no answer, but went into the females' building which was forbidden to him, returning shortly with a long stick which had a hook at one end. She spoke sharply, then set off. He followed, holding the claw-lined gourd, breathing in the heat which ascended from the coals.
Their clogs clicked down a broad, deserted street flanked by dull, squat pyramidal buildings. The street ended abruptly in swamp. They crossed a series of rickety bridges between swamp trees and swamp islands. Here and there, occasional bits of masonry obtruded from the chilly waters - a single column, or a bit of wall, or a stairway to nowhere. He blew on the coals to keep them alive. They glowed hot and red, relishing the life fed to them by his breath. He was glad that at least something in this cold, desolate universe appreciated his existence.
In the grey waters, he caught sight of their reflections. Dressed in their gross, bulking clothes of bark and moss and lichen, crowned with their swollen, shrouded headgear, they looked like strange, deformed insects.
The bridges ended. They had reached a place half swamp, half city. Huge, decayed buildings bulked up out of the grey waters. Paths and roads walked variously above and below water. The buildings were drenched in winter-withered vines; he saw that the dead vegetation was posion ivy.
"Lora-ko-lara-sss-daz'n'n'boro," she said, kicking together a few fragments of stick.
He guessed her purpose, and helped build a fire. They lit it with one of the hot coals from the gourd. Then, using the hooked stick, she raked down some dead poison ivy. When it was heaped on the ground, she set it alight. She passed him the stick. He did the same, keeping well clear of the ivy, for he knew better than to handle it, for all that it was dead.
"Shor-nash-n'esha-esha-ala'n-cha," she said.
Then clicked her tongue and walked away, heading back the way they had come. When he followed, she turned on him, screaming. She gave him a push. He retreated. She kicked the stick. He picked it up and began to pull down poison ivy. She clicked her tongue once more, slapped her elbow, then left him.
He worked all day. In the evening, another woman came and led him back to the settlement. There was a meal waiting, of sorts; it was prepared by women, it was served by women, and hhe ate amongst the women.
This, for a time, was the pattern of his days. He was woken at first light and served a solitary breakfast. Then he was led along the bridges to his place of work. He was never trusted to go alone. The person who took him would wait until he had a fire going and had started on the poison ivy, and would then depart. He once returned of his own accord, and was severely beaten; after that, he knew that he was not supposed to go home until he was fetched.
He worked, all day, alone, eating a communal meal with the women in the evening.
And sleeping alone.
He was bored and lonely.
He saw old men, who held themselves apart from the rest of the community; there seemed to be about thirty of them, living in the massive stone beehive. But where were the old women? And where were all the people of middle years? Some of the young women were pregnant, but where were their husbands?
For the most part, work appeared to be done by children of both sexes, who began to toil away from the earliest age, and by young women. Togura saw a few young men; he guessed their number at half a dozen in a community of perhaps three hundred people. The young men were always silent and withdrawn; they seemed to be sleep-walking. As far as he could tell, they never spoke.
In the evening, the women talked at Togura readily, but he could never make sense of anything they said. He found it impossible to learn their names; they, for their part, seemed to think that he was concealing his own identity. He named himself first as Togura and then as Togura Poulaan; they memorised that with no trouble at all, but never seemed satisfied with it. His own attempts to come to grips with their half-sung names were disastrous; his efforts provoked frowns, shock, pain, dismay or open contempt. Nobody laughed. These people did not seem to know what laughter was.
Togura came to suspect that these people changed their names according to the time of day, or swapped and traded their names between each other, or identified themselves with one form of a name yet expected to be addressed in an entirely different fashion. He was baffled, frustrated by his failure to unravel the tantalising mystery of their liquid, ever-singing language.
Not that he had all that much time for philological research. For many days, that evening meal was his one link with the rest of humanity; for the rest of the time, he was as solitary as a hermit, enduring the long cold nights spent in his small stone cell, or working alone in his own quadrant of the city.
As the days grew shorter and colder, and the weather grew worse and worse, he did less and less work. Sometimes he spent all day huddled by a tapering fire lit in a mute stone room in the mute stone ruins, listening to a storm howling outside and watching for cracks in the sky.
The numb days of isolation, one much the same as the next, seemed to run together to become one single, endless day. Exiled from all effective community, he began to hallucinate. The stones mumbled to him. His ears sang with high, distant voices. He watched the sky twist into yellow flame then bleed with purple. Trees stirred and shifted at the periphery of his field of vision, though he was never able to actually catch them in the act of walking.
The days hardened into ice. The storms died away, giving him brittle, frosty mornings of absolute silence. He worked hard on those days, for it became a pleasure to see the swift, passionate flames leaping to the sky, to hear the wing-beating roar of the burning as incendiary passions consumed his tangled ivy, and to warm himself by that energy treasured up from the long-gone sun.
Yet, though he worked to the best of his ability, he did not get all that terribly much done. The food was meagre now. He realised that he was very weak. He had boils and chilblains; his gums bled. He feared scurvy.
Once, in a thaw, he inspected his reflection in the waters of the swamp, and did not recognise what he saw. Was this Togura Poulaan, this thing with long hair, dull sunken eyes, a notched nose and vast birds' nest escrescences? How could these thin legs, these cold aching hands, these clog-clad feet, belong to the son of the strong, powerful and well-fleshed Baron Poulaan, that brave, stout-hearted fighting man who commanded all the Warguild?
"I am Togura Poulaan," he said.
But his words carried no conviction. He was no longer certain of his own identity. Who was he then? And what? He was something cold and hungry which lived in a cold, unsmiling place where the people spoke like birds and wind and water. He examined the livid purple scar where the wound on his leg had healed. He tried to remember Cromarty's steel cutting home, but could not focus on his memories. His recollections of people and places seemed blurred, dim, unreal.
Perhaps he had always lived here amidst these ruins in the swamp. Perhaps the whole world without and beyond was nothing more than an idle half-formed fantasy he had conjured into being to give himself some solace in his misery. He tried to dismiss the thought, believing himself, apart from anything else, to be incapable of inventing the language he used to think in, which was certainly not the tongue of the community he now endured.
Nevertheless, his hold on his own identity grew steadily weaker and weaker until, on a day which was suddenly warm, and which startled him with the sight of fresh green growth, he saw one of the old men wearing his jacket.
"Hey, grandad!" cried Togura, without thinking. "What are you doing with my jacket?"
And he approached the ancient. Who looked at him with a gaze of such implacable contempt and disdain that Togura, frightened, retreated.
That evening, Togura became aware of a number of old men regarding him from a distance. He had the impression that they were discussing him. And now, frightened, he could no longer suppress his knowledge of the full gravity of his situation. He was trapped in an alien city ruled - he was sure of it now - by a coven of evil old men who exercised sufficient terror and power to keep every man, woman and child from ever smiling or laughing.
He could only guess at the cause of the noticeable dearth of young men of his own age. He knew nothing of what happened inside the beehive where the old men held court; any conclusions he came to regarding the nameless abominations practiced within must be pure speculation. He could not say who impregnated the young women of the community. He could not say for sure why no women survived their youth.
Yet, while all his knowledge was based on guesswork and speculation, lacking any hard evidence, and lacking all possibility of conclusive proof, he was, nevertheless, certain of one thing - if he wanted to live to be much older, then he had to escape.
That spring, he dedicated himself to the pursuit of life and liberty. His life and his liberty.
It proved very difficult.
He did not know where he was and he did not know how he had come to be there. Possibly he had walked in over the hills; alternatively, he might have been salvaged from the wilderness and carried here while his mind was still blurred with fever. His memories of his wanderings were vague and fragmentary; some, indeed, were frankly hallucinatory.
His memories could not help him escape, so what he needed to do was explore. This, unfortunately, was easier said than done.
Now that spring was here, and the poison ivy was spreading its brisk fresh green over the buildings he had cleared during the winter, he was taken off his incendiary detail and made to turn his hand to many different kinds of work. He worked all through the day with the women, who instructed him by example.
In the swamps of the half-sunken city, which was ringed round by steep, forest-covered hills, he drew water, cleared fish-traps and used a dull, stone-bladed axe to fell lean, stringy swamp-trees for firewood. He helped make tools, grinding away at bits of the city stone with powdered grit. He worked on the fragile punts used for getting round the swamps. He helped repair bridges, and was taught how to weave ropes and cordage from human hair.
When he found a little free time in the evenings, he never managed to go far. Whichever direction he took led him to despairing bogs and quicksands, swamps deeper than drowning, or dry ground hopelessly infected with poison ivy and barbarian thorn.
In the end, he decided that the only way to escape would be to steal a punt and set out by water.