Ghouls, demons, and gods: these are the absurd ways the Sasaru are remembered. Now that the last and best one has finally joined her long departed brethren, the obscenely distorted legends haunt me like ugly ghosts. I am free now, I suppose, but I dont feel free. On this bright morning, my thoughts are shadows. Today, Aetum forgive me, I wish the Sasaru had drowned in the ocean of time without leaving even a ripple.
"It is truly exquisite, Marq," Layna murmured. "Lavish and splendid, my lord. So clever, the way youve made it pirouette autonomously."
Her praise was more than I deserved and her courage almost more than I could bear. No hint of suspicion touched her delicate face. How long could I keep doing this to her? Once again, Id put my whole heart into a project, but scarcely half my skill. Theoretically, only one form of beauty could restore her fully, but I am not one who entrusts his life to theories.
She moved closer to the sculpture, reaching out with a graceful hand as if to touch it, then catching herself.
It wasnt designed to be touched. The sphere, three feet in diameter, was a glistening wonder rotating slowly on an unobtrusive glass stand. Metallic dusts ran liquidly over the surface in swirling rivulets of molten gold, glittering black, bronze, and raw copper. Between these lurid streams, underlying translucent colors and textures teasingly appeared: glassy seracs of ruby and rubellite, rounded moraines in blue tourmaline and amethyst. Sasaru chemistry, Sasaru metallurgy, Sasaru electrostatics. While humans were still cowering in trees, the Sasaru were mastering recombinant spacetime.
Here was my finest piece yet, but Id made certain my beloved couldnt do more than admire it.
"So lovely," she sighed. "If only . . ."
I braced myself, fear tightening the small of my back, and struggled to keep my lying voice steady as the ice outside my castle.
"Is it all you were hoping for?"
"II believe so."
"How might it be improved?"
"I see no flaw, my lord. All I see is how hard youve labored and I love you for it. Anything lacking is my fault, not yours. My heart keeps yearning for . . . something and all I know is that your creations come closest."
I tried to smile. "But this one, once again, falls short?"
"Not in artistry! Your work always calls to me, and this masterpiece has the clearest voice thus far."
"Thus far. So you wish me to assay another?"
"My precious Marquindrol! How silly I am to put you through such travail! But each sculpture you make is more beautiful than the last. Somehow closer to"
"Enough. I will attempt the grandest project yet. After a brief rest."
She turned away from me then and faced the granite wall adorned only with an ancient carving of the Ascending Spiral, sacred icon of Aetums Law. "I, too, am weary, dear one." She was almost whispering. "The body endures but my soul shrivels. Someday it shall blow away like a dry leaf." Even the back of her head held a breathless grace.
"Dont say such things!" When she talked such talk, my own soul withered. "Life remains a beautiful surprise. Come, we shall take our breakfast in the Lookover this morn. The clean glory of the world will water your spirit."
"As you desire, my lord." She turned toward the sculpture one last time but her pale blue eyes glistened with paler crystal tears.
The curved window-wall of the Lookover room provides the second finest view in my home, the Castle In A Mountain, perhaps the second finest view on Earth. To the east and west, the Himalayasenrobed in alabaster half gilded by the rising sunwere spread before us; we were above all but the noblest peaks. To the south and far, far below, azure glints of Phewa Lake stabbed through the lowlands morning mist.
At my urging, Layna nibbled on sweet strawberries of apple size and took desultory samples of the rich black bread with fresh yak butter that my Yetis had lovingly prepared. She lacked sparkle; winters door was scarcely open, and she was already pallid as my hopes. Perhaps the Giver was failing like everything else.
"Have you ever tasted such fruit, my lady?" I said with cheer so palpably false it resounded in my ears like sarcasm. "Doesnt their smell evoke childhoods summer days?"
A faint line appeared between her eyebrows. "I remember no childhood."
I tried to go on smoothly, as if I hadnt made a fool of myself. "Still, what do you think oflook! Now theres something unexpected!"
Two foreign mountaineers were laboring to scale the icy cornice that was the Lookovers window-wall from the outside. Our wall was, in truth, a Sasaru video screen whose image was tiled via optical cells growing on the cornices surface. The ice itself was invisible to us, so the climbers appeared to be floating ten feet out from the window, clinging desperately to nothing, struggling to drive climbing screws into very thin air.
"My lord," said Layna, "you must act. See how their chests labor and their limbs shake? They are too weak to continue. Ah! That poor wretch just dropped his sledge. If it hadnt been strapped to his wrist, it would have been lost forever."
Naturally, these interlopers were in trouble! Vist, the old lord, had deliberately installed the Castle behind a sheer slope, treacherous with overhangs, and so windy it was patently too dangerous to climb.
"What would you have me do?" I asked.
"These men have reached their limits. They will die if you fail to bring them inside."
"Inside? You expect me to reveal our secrets to these . . . futile invaders?"
"I expect nothing, lord. But such is my wish."
Within me, guilt wrestled good sense while I strove to hide all signs of warfare from my face. All too soon, guilt triumphed. Id denied my ladys paramount desire for so long, I couldnt refuse her this, no matter the consequences.
"Umtash," I called softly.
"Near you as ever, lord," my majordomo responded. This Yeti was petite for his kind; his height, seven and a half feet, scarcely exceeded mine and his simian brown eyes were so alert they seemed burnished. Aside from my old Sasaru master and teacher, Vist, Umtash was the most competent and intelligent being Id ever known.
"You see the specimens outside the window?"
"Even these small eyes could hardly miss them, Lord Marquindrol."
I raised my eyebrows at the formality. "Please do as my lady requests and bring them to me."
The Yetis cloudlike pelt of long fine hair, bronzed by the sunrise, bristled with its usual efficiency, yet his manner was uncharacteristically stiff.
"Your command pleases me, my lord. How do you wish us to handle the matter?"
"Gently but firmly. Respond to any questions with affable shrugs and uncomprehending silence."
"Bonjour, Messieurs," I said in the first European language that sprang to mind, guessing the two men were European. Layna and I were seated with our backs to the outside brightness; it wouldnt do to have our visitors inundated with certain details at first. I didnt offer to shake hands and reminded myself not to smile too widely. Not that I expected to smile.
The mountaineers were standing before usteetering was more aptdressed in long polyester underwear. My Yetis had stripped them of climbing gear and outer clothing. Their unstable bodies and glassy expressions suggested puppets.
At my gesture, servants put forth chairs and each man fell into his as if his strings had snapped. They smelled of snow and stank of exhaustion.
When Id seen these fools outside, their balaclavas and dark goggles had made them seem alike as two eggs in a nest. To my eyes, they still appeared similar: lean, inches short of a mere six feet, and their faces were equally raw and chapped.
Now, as petty variations revealed their individuality, my seamless detachment from them began to crack.
The balding man whose tawny, closely cropped hair was still pebbled with pellets of frozen sweat had blond eyebrows, aqua eyes, and a short, dripping, ruddy beard. He was perhaps two snowflakes taller than his companion and a decade older. He could barely keep himself awake.
The other was more interesting because he was swiftly retrieving his wits. This one had shoulder-length sodden black hair and somber eyebrows as sharply peaked as my mountain. His nose was swollen and flakes of frozen blood were melting under the nostrils; his dark stubble suggested a false beard drawn in charcoal. He swallowed repeatedly while his close-set gray eyes fluttered between Layna, Umtash, the spectacular view, and me.
"Je," he uttered with painful slowness; his voice had a hollow, oboe-like timbre. "Je . . . ne parle"
"Never mind, sir, I hear America in your accent. Kansas?"
"Nebraska. Thank God you speakmy French isnt so . . . Jesus! I cant think. Whats the matter with me?"
"Exposure and hypoxia. Considering the circumstances, you are doing remarkably well. Take your time."
"Is any of this real?" he blurted, wiping his nose with the back of a hand, his eyes resting for a moment on a classic Sasaru wall-tapestry woven entirely in various shades of tinted gold.
I shrugged. "I wouldnt know; only fools believe they grasp reality. Still, if you do not find my environment believable, I hope you at least find it hospitable?"
"Hospitable? Its warm in here. And the air breathes so . . . thick." Both true, compared to conditions outside. He shook his head and sat up straighter. His eyes suddenly seemed better focused. "But where the hell is here? What kind of place is this? Who are you people? And what are those?" Hed gruffly whispered the final two words; but his index finger aimed at my servants spoiled all confidentiality. "I thought I was hallucinating when theydid they really?"
"Sir," I forced myself to chuckle, "ask no more! When you roll too many questions down the slopes of uncertainty, you risk an avalanche. I am Lord Marquindrol. You may call me Lord Marq. My companion is the Lady Layna. You are guests in my refuge, Yngrol, which translates neatly as Castle In A Mountain." I didnt bother interpreting "Marquindrol," literally "lifted servant."
"Those individuals you indicated," I continued, "are Yetis, something of a local legend I believe."
"Yetis? Are you kidding? God. I dont understand any of this, but Id better thank you for . . . saving our freezing butts. Can thoseChrist!Yetis understand what were saying?"
"Certainly not." I was proud of the way my staff subtly shifted their heads to an angle less suggestive of listening. I was prouder of Layna; she didnt even blink at the outrageous lie.
The mountaineer took me at my word. "Could you please thank them? On our behalf?"
I was increasingly impressed with this mans vitality and poise. "Certainly."
"Damn, wish I had my camera! You know, I couldve sworn they were running up and down sheer walls ofno. That, at least, must have been a delusion!"
"Doubtless. Your name, sir?"
"Sorry, guess my manners arent awake yet. Its like yours: Mark. Markus Bowman."
"And your companion?"
"Heinz. Dr. Heinrich Weiss, I should say. With a W, not a V. Now he speaks French. Hes Austrian, but his English is pretty damn good. Hey, Heinzy! You with us today?"
Weiss appeared, if anything, drowsier. The flickering of his eyelids drew attention to his unusual, blue-green irises. As an artist, I approved how they ambered inwards as if his pupils were rusting.
As a man, I disapproved of how his groggy, bloodshot gaze kept resting so heavily on Layna.
"Good morning, Dr. Weiss," I said.
He opened his mouth, but what emerged was a croak.
"Dont attempt speech yet." I turned toward my majordomo and switched to a language our visitors couldnt know. "Umtashtwo hot Darjeeling teas with lemon, honey, and healing herbs, if you would. Please handle the matter personally. Our guests must be dehydrated."
The castles larder probably contained neither lemons nor honey at that moment, yet it only took Umtash ten minutes to return with the requested brew.
I gave my servant an admiring nod; even I couldnt operate the Giver as quickly. "This should ease your throats, gentlemen. And if youre up to it, Mr. Bowman, perhaps you can ease my curiosity while your partner recovers. Why in Aetums Name were you assailing this part of my mountain?"
The American shook his head. "We werent, we just . . . wound up here. Christ, I mustve been really out of it. I dont remember"
In a heartbeat, he turned three shades paler and stared out the window, his face stricken. "Oh my God!"
I frowned. "What is it?"
"Six of us started up yesterday morning and"
A cold premonition blew through me. "What happened to the other four?"
"I dont know, damn it! Theyre not here?"
"Shit! Then weve got to find them! Right now!"
"Sit back down, sir, and describe exactly what happened. At this moment, youre not equal to searching for your own feet."
"But someone has to"
"Sit. Recount. Any detail might help."
"Ah! So youll go looking for them? Good. Thatll work. Those hairy Sherpas of yours . . . All right. We were teamed as three pairs, working up in parallel lines"
As Bowman used the north bergschrund and other landmarks to define their initial position and their route upwards, I studied the mans face, surveying the landmarks of his character.
He was scowling now, the black eyebrows so close they almost made a Roman "M." His jaw-set and the lines around his mouth revealed both strength and weakness. Here was a mind perpetually fixed on high achievement. And blind to possible costs.
". . . So up to that point," he was saying, "everything was ideal and then"
"And then?" breathed Layna. Unfortunate. I hadnt decided to let our guests know she spoke English.
"Freezing fog rolled in from nowhere. No warning at all! We moved close together, but soon we couldnt even see our own hands, let alone each other. We set some anchors and waited, thinking the fog would dissipate, but we started getting too damn cold. Finally, we decided wed better travel blind and try for a narrow ridge wed noticed earlier."
Bowman squinted, as if trying to pierce the mists in his memory. "Heinz told everyone that when we reached the ridge, we had to be extra careful where we put our feet. Maybe they didnt listen! The whole thing was covered with little sastrugiyou know, hard dry snow . . . shaped like Spanish roof tiles? Do you"
"Calm yourself, sir. Take a full breath."
He didnt seem to hear me. "Heinzys idea was that wed feel our way along to the lee of the ridge where we remembered a pretty fair spot to make a snow cave. Somehow, the doc and I got off line. We missed the ridge and lost track of the other teams and suddenly they didnt answer our yellsor our phone calls . . ."
I glanced at Umtash, who gave me an almost imperceptible nod. The mountaineers sat-phones wouldnt be used without my permission.
I cut off Bowmans monologue by raising a hand. "I understand your concern."
"Concern? Im worried sick. And every moment counts! Come on! You know enough. Now will you start looking for my friends?"
Feeling Laynas gaze on me, I spoke to Umtash again in a tongue far older than Sanskrit.
"Send four of your brethren on this search. Bring any survivors here at once."
"Yes, lord. Should we use those- who-sniff?"
Id been chewing on that question myself. The creatures were hard to awaken, progressively harder to control, and very dangerous despite the Truce.
"Rouse only one and use it for no more than two hours. If it hasnt succeeded by then, return it to full sleep and rouse another. Continue this as long as necessary; but do not, under any circumstances, disturb Gurm."
"Very wise, my lord."
While Umtash distributed orders, I distributed assurances that the search was about to begin.
"Anything I can do to help?" Bowman asked. His relief was embarrassing. Having handed over the baton of responsibility, he slumped back in his chair, grinning as if the rescue of his companions was assured.
Layna hadnt missed this rapid and irrational mood shift. She and I traded troubled glances, but I noted a light in her eyes that had been missing for far too long.
"Kindly finish your story," I requested quietly.
"Sure. And thank you. For everything. Wonder where my phone"
"You spent the night hanging from ropes?"
"Yeah. Not the best accommodations, but we made it. When I get home, swear to God, Im making a shrine for my thermos."
Even with hot liquids available to them, these men had proved themselves sturdier than they looked. The human body suffers at eighteen thousand feet. To reach the Lookover by sunrise, they must have spent the night exposed to the elements at twenty-two thousand or higher. And then theyd begun climbing!
"Explain why," I said, "you were traveling upwards this morning. Surely you werent attempting the summit?"
"The summit? No way. We just wanted to get back down to our last camp. Butand I know this sounds crazya couple hours before dawn, when we started to descend, we found that the ice below us had gone rotten."
As he nodded, water droplets showered from his hair. "You know: when the crust goes thin and the snow beneath softens up. The crust becomes a skin holding everything together and sooner or later, everythings going to slide off. Not safe."
I just stared at him.
"Yeah, I know its impossible. You dont get rotten ice at this elevation. Maybe if this mountain was a volcanohell, I cant explain it, but thats what happened."
I was aghast. The explanation was staring him in the face. As my heart sank under a fresh load of guilt, his voice seemed to drone on endlessly.
"We tried to go down. Even had a picket pull out on me, which hasnt happened in twelve years of expedition climbingdamn thing managed to clip my nose! So we had to go up where things were still solid, hoping to cut over and down before long. But we got too damn tired. I remember thinking that I had to keep climbing no matter what . . ."
I felt ill. Id been so focused on my latest project and Layna that I hadnt followed Vists standard precautions. Yesterday, in my main workshop hundreds of feet below the Lookover, Id opened external vents to release steam from my kiln without confirming that no bloody tourists were about. The steam had obviously caused the freezing fog, and dissipating heat from the kiln had penetrated the mountain, weakening the cover from below. All my fault.
Finally his ramblings slowed enough for me to interrupt. "What was the purpose of your expedition?" My voice came out far harsher than Id intended.
He tilted his head. "Purpose? Partly for our next book. Heinz and I have done three so far. But mostly it was the good challenge. This mountain is amazing when you really get to know it." For an instant, his gray eyes gleamed. For the first time, I felt some sense of kinship.
He sighed, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and continued. "Its been climbed before, of course, but we were going to try a brand new . . . Christ! Im blathering." He rapped his forehead with his knuckles. "Maybe Im still out of it. The only important thing right now is the search!"
"Patience, sir. Patience." I turned toward my other guest. "Feeling any better, Doctor?"
Weiss cleared his throat, coughed, and muttered in a husky voice, "Vatwhat do you mean? Im a little . . . did I drink this tea? I meant to. Ive just been sitting here, thinking what a nice Gasthaus this is. Such a view! Gorgeous! But the fräulein is even lovelier. Are those strawberries on that table? Wunderbar! Perhaps I should say fruchtbar!" He giggled at his own joke, then his forehead wrinkled in childlike puzzlement. "Where did you get such strawberries? Do I know you, mein Herr? "
I glanced over at Layna. Her glow from the novelty of meeting strangers was increasingly layered with concern.
I smiled at her reassuringly. Weiss merely needed warm food, water, and a weeks rest. His eyes were wide open now, but dreams were floating across them. The man was, in effect, sleep- talking.
"Im Lord Marq, Doctor. This is Lady Layna."
"Mark? Marks right here . . ."
"Would the two of you," I said to Bowman, "care to join us at breakfast? Aside from what you see, I can easily supply hot oatmeal, muesli, or farina. If youd like something heartier, I can offer a rasam soup that would make you praise your favorite deity for the lowly lentil."
The black-haired man perused the breakfast sideboard and gently shook his partners shoulder. "Come on, Heinzy, wake up. Food. Gotta stoke the old furnace. Hunger is hunger in both German and English, right? Youll feel better."
The word "furnace" made me wince but only Umtash noticed. Yetis helped the guests rise and I took Laynas hand, and we also stood. For the first time, Weisss expression showed a glint of awareness and a dash of fear. Bowmans eyes widened as we approached and his head tilted back to keep my face in view.
"Whoa! Why is everyone here so tall? No wonder youve got that deep voice! Im starting to feel like a midget in an all-NBA conven" His eyes abruptly widened; hed finally gotten a clear look at me. "Jesus! No offense, um, Lord Marq, but are you . . . human?"
"No offense taken, sir. And the answer is yes. Im human."
He obviously and understandably didnt believe me.
Breakfast was a blessedly short ordeal. Bowman joined his partner in gaping at Laynaperhaps he was trying to avoid seeing me. He relinquished boorishness only long enough to occasionally peer impatiently toward the distant entrance. Weiss simply stared at my beloved, chewing away in a kind of bovine stupor.
I was grateful when the meal was over and could politely suggest that the visitors allow Umtash to lead them to a lavatory and then to a room they would share. I hadnt ordered any such room prepared, but trusted my majordomo to handle the obvious.
"A unlikely tale Mr. Bowman related," Layna remarked when we were again alone, "and a doleful one in implication."
I nodded. "Indeed. Almost certainly these two men are all that remains of their party."
"Otherwise I would regard their visit with unalloyed pleasure. Are all men these days so strange and marvelous?" I hadnt seen her face this animated since she gave up Tadvana dancing six decades ago.
Nevertheless, irony lifted my eyebrows. Marvelous? To me, they only represented a terrible threat and an impossible dilemma.
When he returned, Umtash conducted me to the room where the mountaineers gear had been stored and I examined everything carefully.
At first, it all seemed standard: boots fitted with spiky crampons, full-body harnesses, prusik slings, day-packs, assorted carabiners, coils of rope, medical sensors. . . .
The packs, too, contained typical accoutrements: maps, fire-starters, compasses, headlamps, and knives with matte-finished blades so they wouldnt reflect sunlight at an inopportune moment. Also ice-screws, water bottles, food, thermos bottles, a camera, pitons in a dozen sizes, flukes, rescue pulleys, etc.
But the Kernmantle ropes were unexpectedly light. And the crampons, pickets, ice-screws, and even the hammer-end ice-axes were all made of an unfamiliar translucent plastic rather than metal.
I chewed on my shortcomings, disliking the taste. Once, Id kept abreast of mountaineering technology. Of late, Id thought of nothing but Layna.
By that strange luck that so often befalls fools and the overly arrogant, my guests had brought nothing reflective into my domain. I counted my unearned blessings and let duties call me away.
The mountaineers slept through the entire day and night.
Next morning, as Id expected, neither could get out of bed. Their trauma was developing with the sluggish inevitability of a bruise. My staff nursed them well, patiently bringing liquids, food, and bedpans as the Yetis deemed necessary.
Layna and I visited twice togethershe alone once, to my dismay. Bowmans eyes were raccooned, ringed with dark bruises from his broken nose. He was impatient with weakness and too eager to receive good news about his friends. I had none to impart, but he still seemed illogically optimistic. Weiss was feverish and confused.
The searchers, aimed by Bowmans directions and guided by those-who-sniff, had been transmitting hourly identical reports: no sign of the missing climbers. Still, my mountain is large and riddled with crevasses; altogether, well over a hundred square miles of surface to search. So far, those-who-sniff had behaved impeccably but on four occasions I reminded everyone to avoid overconfidence. Perhaps I should have reminded them a fifth time.
On the following morning, Weiss was awake and reasonably alert but a trifle too feeble to arise. To my surprise, he knew where he was and even addressed me by name. Doubtless his partner had explained matters. Weiss asked how the "investigation" was progressing, but his manner showed that hed already made a realistic prognosis.
Bowman, on the other hand, was foolishly hopeful as ever. His convalescence was impressive. He insisted on joining the search party immediately and I had to explain that even if he were perfectly fit, none but a Yeti could keep up with Yetis on a mountain.
He accepted this with passable grace, declaring that he was at least prepared to join us at table, after hed washed up.
Twenty minutes later, he entered the Lookover half supported by Umtashs daughter and chief assistant, Dhorga. He shook her hands away to walk the final few feet to his chair unaided. As he sat, he took in the carved ceiling and the empty tables as if seeing the room for the first time. I wasnt expecting his greeting:
"Flush toilets and toilet paper! Hot water! Electric lights! Youve got a helluva set-up here, folks!"
"Im glad you appreciate our amenities," I said dryly.
"Any word on our friends?"
"Not thus far."
His face fell and its mirth drained; perhaps reason was finally breaking through. "Damn. I thought for sure youd have found them by now. Youre not giving up, are you?"
Laynas face was sweet with compassion. "Never fear," she said with a touch of pride and a whisper of pain. "My lord never surrenders. How are you feeling this morning?"
"Worried. And a little dizzy, to be honest. But by God, Im starving!" As he gazed at her, his demeanor softened. "Thanks for asking, Layna." He turned back toward me and scowled. "Where the hell did your hairy servants stash my gear? Ive got to call my wifeshell be frantic by now. And after that, Id love a shave if youve got a razor and mirror handy. Hey, and I need my camera! Mind if I help myself to one of those pastries?"
I encouraged him to eat by passing him a bowl filled with dhobini berries, but ignored his other requests for the moment. If he wanted a shave, someone else would have to wield the blade. I didnt suffer mirrors in my Castle. Distracted by food and Laynas presence, he didnt press the issue.
My lady helped by subtly engaging him in talking about himself. Less skill than hers would likely have sufficed.
Bowman had always been drawn to mountains. In high school, hed become a dedicated nature photographer and an enthusiastic alpine climber. His pictures had won awards and, according to him, garnered international notice.
Twelve years ago, hed been at Harvard working toward a career in contract law when Heinrich Weiss, who was apparently well known in mountaineering circles, approached him. Dr. Weiss invited him to be the official photographer on a major expedition to scale G3 in Pakistan. Bowman agreed to go although it meant taking a leave of absence from school. He became infected with what he referred to as "the expedition bug" and never returned to Harvard.
Halfway through our meal, the one-sided conversation was shattered by a squealing howl so assertive it made the silverware rattle. I knew this howl had issued from the dens, half a mile beneath us. If it was that loud here . . .
"What the hell was that?" Bowman sputtered.
Layna gripped my hand, squeezing tight, and I couldnt fault her for reacting; my free hand had instinctively clenched the heartstone hanging from its steel chain around my neck.
I tried to keep my voice tranquil and sure. "Weve been using specialized animals to help search for your companions, sir. Snow-gryphons, if you like. They can become surly if not treated with meticulous care. From the, ah, sound of things, Im afraid that one has been woken a bit abruptly."
"Yeah? If all hell was breaking loose, I bet itd make a noise just like that." His uneasy eyes scanned the entrance. "Trouble?"
"What we heard was but a mating call." A piece of dishonest honesty.
"Oh." He tried to fake a dauntless grin. "Well, it didnt attract me."
Now that Id reassured my guest, I could settle down to some proper fretting. That howl might have awakened other beasts, and if Gurm awoke . . .
"If everyone will excuse me," I said, "it might be prudent to confirm that all is well."
Layna released my hand very reluctantly. As for me, I didnt want her to let go.
The wounded Yeti was traumatized and embarrassed, but he was not one to waste time in pointless apology.
"I have ill news, lord, and ill news, and more ill news."
"Sit on the bench and explain after I tend to your shoulder."
"No need, lord. This small mischief will heal in time."
"Dont argue, Thar, and dont move. When Im finished, report."
I moved closer to him, stepping into a widening pool of the remarkably iron-rich blood that Vist had provided to Thars people as an aid to fulfilling their . . . higher duties. Too much flesh and bone had been torn away; without my aid, the Denmaster would be crippled for life. I called forth my healing cells and laid my mouth over the gaping hole in his arm; with a wound so open, I wouldnt need my built-in hypodermic needles.
Vist had given me modified teeth and specialized semi-autonomous cells, leukocyte-sized organic machines, to preserve both Laynas health and, for Laynas sake, my own. But with my Sasaru master centuries gone, I applied my gifts according to my judgments, not his.
The cells, coated with energy- providing glucose, tasted sweet as they poured back and forth, streaming medical data into my cranial nerveswhich tickled as if alien mice were whispering into my earsand accepting my subvocalized instructions. The process, as always, made me drool. My saliva ran down Thars chest, mixing with his blood while the Yeti sat utterly still, his trust in me absolute.
Umtashs grandfather, Bhardun, had once confided to me the ancient Nepalese secret of handling pain: total acceptance. Any resistance, hed claimed, leads to an ascending spiral of tormentan odd, but apt, example of Aetums Law of Evolving Cycles. When Vist had genetically altered a random Nepalese tribe into his Yetis, a millennium before my birth, his victims had surely needed that secret! My own transformation had been such torment thatnever mind. Certainly, I see merit to Bharduns system but have never mastered the technique. I was in awe of Thars composure.
Still, I expected my patient to follow orders and remain silent until the healing cells had done what they could. I was wrong.
"Lord, the missing outsiders have been found."
I ran a sleeve across my mouth; it came away soaked and stained red. To talk, I had to stop working. "Alive?" I panted. The healing process was laborious; the latest sculpture had depleted me, making the required concentration difficult.
"Dead, my lord. Their frozen bodies were lying in a deep crevasse east of the Heavy Portal. Theyd apparently been standing on a ledge and it broke free. Near the bodies, we found slabs of sastrugi-covered ice that had been further coated with a thick layer of rime. On the slopes, an extra gram can kill, lord."
And a heavier burden of shame for me; the rime must have resulted from my freezing fog.
I sighed. "Where are the bodies now?"
The Yeti was silent for a second and I could almost taste his chagrin along with the blood still clinging to my tongue. "Dharg, the old one who sniffed them out, consumed them before we could stop him."
"Bloody Thain!" I cursed. "All four?"
"Yes, lord. We eventually regained control, but by then, Dharg had become covertly alert. After returning him to the catacombs, he proved unexpectedly eager to mate, breaking away from us long enough to mount another. We subdued him, but the female he had been attempting to penetrate awoke with a frightful cry."
"I heard that cry. Loud enough to disturb Aetum." I gathered my courage to ask the question. "Was it enough to disturb Gurm?"
"That is the final evil news, lord. Our old enemy woke up angry and more bestial than ever. He was unresponsive to the Trucestone and to our blandishments and he took a piece of me for nourishment before he burned his way outside. The hole he left remains in the wall near the armory. If he hadnt been so avid for escape. . . ."
This information was so appalling, I wanted to shout at my patient for not warning me immediately; but complaints had never altered Yeti nature. They no longer even remember the archaic Nepalese word for "emergency."
But Gurm was loose! Which meant the Denmaster had been lucky. Even in passing, the monster could have easily removed Thars entire arm or his head, or rendered his entire body a charred ruin.
"Did any other creatures stir?"
"Many, lord, but we quelled their restlessness with the Trucestone and sweet music."
"Music? Someone has been astute this day! Extremely well done!"
This calamity might have been a catastrophe. Some brilliant Yeti, probably Umtash, must have decreed that musicians with instruments stand vigil in the dens against a mass awakening.
Still, the situation was desperate enough. After a too-brief recovery period, Gurm could burn his way back into the Castle at will and I couldnt prepare a warning system in less than a day. And until the monster-sized hole hed made in escaping was patched, Gurm could simply saunter back in! This urgent matter would also require my personal attention, and would also demand lengthy preparation.
Hurriedly, I returned to Thars wound. By the time his shoulder was acceptably restored, I was numb from exhaustion and tension. The new bone would be soft for weeks and the arm would swell and discolor. Still, I was satisfied; my brave servant would eventually be whole. Unless Gurm returned to finish his snack.
The lights seemed to dim, and I may have swayed a trifle. I barely heard the Yetis calm thanks as I staggered to the nearest lift.
I couldnt afford recuperation time. Upon my orders, Umtash organized a team to search for the monster outside and a second team to guard the hole. This required weapons be issued; most had been sealed in Vists armory for a thousand years.
My Yeti sentinels were given Blunt Swords and Twisters and, although it terrified me to do so, I let the first team take the Smooth Shield, by legend fabricated by Almesh ORayn himself. I issued the strictest command to never allow the Shield anywhere near Layna. Umtash handed me the weapon only I could use since it was personally attuned to me, that unmatchable sledge: Gloudins Repeating Hammer.
The next difficult decision brought me to the guest quarters.
"Gentlemen," I said, "I fear we have a problem."
Bowman was pacing the room; he stopped to stare at me. Someone had used the Giver to construct clothes in the mountaineers size and every garment was sablethe Yeti color of hope. This irony tasted bitter.
Weiss, also dressed in black although still resting in bed, opened his eyes, glanced at me, then bolted upright. Empty plates skittered off his breakfast tray and one shattered on the floor. His expression reaffirmed what Umtash had warned me about and Id forgotten: my face was still smeared with Thars blood.
"Jesus!" Bowman exclaimed. "What the hell happened to you? Are you hurt?"
"No. As I was saying: we have a problem."
My guests glanced at each other; Bowman raised his eyebrows questioningly and Weiss shrugged. The older man turned to me and asked in a voice clenched against disaster, "Youve found our friends, then?"
"Thats not the immediate issue. It occurred to me that your expedition probably set up a base camp somewhere below."
Bowman hissed like a leaky pressure valve. "Sure, but the team down there isnt set up for search and rescue, if thats what you"
"Where is this camp? I mean at what elevation?"
"Nine K. Feet, of course, not meters."
I had to stifle a groan. "How many members of your party are down there?"
"Seven men and three women, last I looked. Why do you ask? Ive been dying to call and let them know were okay. Ive been begging your damn monkeys to bring me my phone but they mustve flunked Charades. You and me have got to have a talk about our . . . status here."
"Later. We have a more pressing urgency and I need your cooperation. Right now, your satellite phone is in one of my pockets. Dont reach out yet. First, I desire an agreement: you will tell your people that you and the doctor are safe, and then strongly warn them about something; but I must insist that you dont mention us or explain where you are. Pretend poor reception if you must. Is that acceptable?"
The American smiled thinly. "Maybe, just maybe I understand. You and your servants are from somewhere else arent you? Another world? Another dimension? Am I getting warm?" He peered at me quizzically from under his dark brows. "Youre from Planet Garbo and you want to be left alone? Okay, we owe you big time, so Ill cover somehow; but what am I supposed to warn them about?"
"Tell them a dangerous animal is on the prowl. A giant snow-leopard. It isnt far from the truth. In fact, one of the gryphons I mentioned earlier has escaped. They are aggressive. This one prefers the heights, but at nine thousand feet, your companions may be in mortal peril."
Bowman mouth twisted dubiously. "They have rifles."
"Perhaps even if they had a cannon . . ."
"Jesus! Throw me that phone!"
Already, it was too late. About the time the phone was in midair, Umtash was entering my Library with a bag full of frozen human fingers and toesall that remained of seven men and three women. Gurm has always been a prodigious but finicky eater.
A week passed before the visitors had recovered their vigor. They might have become nuisances at that point, asking questions, or worse, trying to explore. The uninformed can come to grief in my Castle in a hundred ways, and with Gurm loose no one had leisure to chaperone.
By then, however, my guests had learned the fate of their comrades. Layna had insisted I tell them and one power shed retained from her previous life was persuasion. Ill never understand how gentle blue eyes could become so fiery. . . .
Both men were too bereaved to leave their room save for meals, when servants would fetch them. Even then, my guests might have balked except that they lacked means to communicate refusal.
Bowman was particularly crushed; twenty of the severed digits in Umtashs grisly bag had belonged to his wife. As Id seen repeatedly in his face, he was a man who hurled his spirit at success; he found no strength to accept such loss.
Neither could I. My simple act of carelessness in the workshop had begun this tragedy, and then Id compounded it with ruinous decisions. I should have known that those-who-sniff had become too undependable to be trusted.
Now, my folly had caused death and suffering, and everyone I cared about was imperiled. And I couldnt put aside the terrible knowledge that time would only worsen Laynas condition. No, I couldnt find any more peace than Bowman.
At least my foresight in concealing Yeti linguistic competence was proving itself; the mountaineers conversed freely around my servants. Every night Id suffer through a verbatim report, but so far, my guests had talked mostly of their misery.
Of course, theyd noticed that Layna was getting paler daily. Their discussions on the subject became increasingly disconcerting:
Bowman: I feel guilty as hell, Heinz. My wife just died and its eating me up . . . but whenever I close my eyes, all I see is that ladys beautiful face. And I keep wondering what kind of, um, arrangement she has with that walking nightmare who runs this place. Jesus! What kind of sick bastard am I?
Weiss: Dont blame yourself, my friend. In the darkest hour the spirit most craves a light. And wan as she is, Layna is leuchtend . . . luminous, nicht wahr? I often wonderwhat might she think of us? Compared to the others here, a pair of midgets or kobalds, eh?"
Bowman: Any idea yet whats wrong with her? Still considering anemia? Or what was it you said? Lupus?
Weiss: If so, never have I of such a case heard. Right now, Marcus, we can only make undereducated guesses.
Bowman: I dont think youd like my guess. And no, Im still not ready to talk about it.
Such discourse complicated my heart. It left me resentful, yet my responsibility for their situation bonded me to these men with distressing power. During meals, it was impossible to keep steeled against their palpable griefI had too much of my own. The joy Layna had shown in seeing new faces and hearing fresh voices had dimmed to embers. Half the time, she was mired in personal despair she cloaked bravely. The other half she wasted in valiant, and futile, efforts to console our visitors.
To make the intolerable worse, Gurm was still missing; I didnt dare search for him with those-who-sniff. I prayed the senile monster was hibernating after his ten-course meal, but the many legends about his capacities had arisen for good reason.
Using the Givers ability to reassemble molecules, I had long since repaired the escape holea grueling four-hour job because the Givers power is seasonally dependentbut that was petty compared to the next project: filling the Castles shell with a thin layer of my own messenger cells.
For most of each night, I sat alone, my tongue touching various walls, commanding my special microscopic troupes to migrate to the outer surfaces and report back, bucket-brigade style, any new breach. If the beast burned through, I would know it before long. But the cells had a limited lifespan outside my body and needed nightly replenishing. After a few days, I began to imagine that the Castle was my true body, and my organic structure merely an oversized microorganism standing guard within.
An uncomfortable microorganism. I slept no more than an hour a day and only fifteen minutes at a time, and carried Gloudins Hammer everywhere.
The Hammer was a refinement of the Sasaru field weapons of old that used powerful force fields as if they were cannonballs. The Repeating Hammer was designed as a handheld weapon, but it wasnt intended for a hand as feeble as mine. The accursed thing was heavy!
Mounting anxiety rendered me inept; every task took double the time allotted. Obviously, the monster pacing outside our small circle of light was the chief source of that anxiety. Still another rested in a sheath on my belt where, with tremendous reluctance, Id placed the Smooth Shields activating cylinder.
What an effort to keep it there and not use the Hammer to smash it into uselessness! I was terrified that somehow Id be forced to use it when Layna was nearbyinspiration for those nightmares that ravaged my un-refreshing naps.
After a week of this, my eyes felt as if theyd been splashed with hot solder and invisible needles kept torturing the back of my throat. And Gurm was waiting and waiting, and my concentration was slipping. . . .
On the tenth morning after the monsters escape, the weather in the lowlands shifted. And, in strange coincidence, overnight, the Castle conservatory had become resplendent with blooming crocuses, bringing me surprise and color but no joy. Umtash had apparently arranged a private spring of his own, likely for my benefit.
Emotionally, I felt the unexpected crack in winters grip, even here among the permanent glaciers and snows around us. The world was going into premature labor, and its water was breaking. Far below our windows, rain-showers scrubbed the lower air, leaving it clean enough to see the island in Phewa Lake where a renowned statue of Varaha the Boar acted as economic fertilizer for the sprouting gift shops of Pokara City.
How I longed to be down there, perusing the crudely made souvenirs or walking barefoot through some grassy meadowLayna at my sidewithout this unrelenting remorse and responsibility. But even in the lowest valleys all the grass was frostburned and sere.
False spring but my regrets were germinating nicely. My guests, finally weary of remaining room-bound, wished to wander the Castle freely. After I used Gurm as an excuse to deny their request, Bowman asked if they should then consider themselves "prisoners"; he made the quotation marks with four fingers. I explained that we were all "prisoners" until the threat abated, which was why the electromagnetic lock on their door would be activated from then on.
That statement garnered comprehensible hostility and its logic received the contempt it deserved, but I was adamant. I did agree to return most of my guests climbing gear, a concession which failed to ease our strained relationships.
Inside the Castle, the Giver took advantage of the seasonal anachronism and began pulling through relatively warm breezes from the lowlands, although not for their warmth. The perfume of fresh, oxygen-rich air was a partial anodyne for my ever-increasing fatigue, but it also carried a faint tang of man-made corruption.
Two days later, my world began crumbling.
Id been in the Lookover most of the night, gazing down on the fluffy, star-painted tops of clouds floating by. Id finished my chore of infusing the walls but was simply too tired to move. What was Gurm waiting for? Id tried endlessly to reach him through my heartstone, but the amulet remained cold and silent. After so long, was the monster still capable of intelligent communication? Had his natural radio transmitter remained functional?
The dawn, and Laynas entrance, caught me off guard.
Shed dispensed with those elegant silk scarves that had shrouded her neck since fall; that neck was so dear and familiar, it never occurred to me how an outsider might . . . interpret it.
Our visitors arrived scant minutes later.
Bowman took one long, dark look at Layna. "What are those markings on your throat, Layna?"
"What markings?" she asked, gazing at me questioningly while examining her neck with her fingers.
I cursed myself for a fools fool. She had no way of knowing about the infusion imprints, and I couldnt explain them without exposing her vulnerabilities.
"There are," I said carefully, "several pairs of red dots on your neck, my lady, but they are of no consequence." Then I tried to warn her with my eyes, but she wasnt listening with hers.
"Red dots? From you?"
"We shall discuss this later." My tone held a finality crafted to preclude further questions.
The mountaineers traded looks I disliked but couldnt fathom; certainly they werent pleased by my evasiveness. Weiss chewed his upper lip, fingers stroking the silverware. Bowman leaned far forward in his seat, searching my face with eyes narrowed by suspicion and perhaps some fear. What I didnt understand was the faint glint of pity. His clenched fists, however, were crouched on the table like predators about to spring.
What meaning had he read into those marks?
An awkward moment. I became aware that Umtash was standing directly behind my chair and other servants were drifting closer to our table as if by accident. Bowman noticed the calm Yeti faces and slowly sat back, his intense expression subsiding into sullen neutrality.
When breakfast was served we all pretended that nothing had occurred, but mistrust radiated from our visitors. Bowman ate silently, gazing mostly at his plate, snatching occasional worried peeks at Layna, who was worriedly watching him. Dr. Weiss seemed to be chewing doubts along with his bread.
"Lord Marq," Weiss suddenly blurted, "Ive noticed that many of your walls have carvings of one sort or another."
"What of it?"
"These ceiling reliefs are particularly elaborate, nicht wahr?"
The Lookovers ceiling was a rich rose quartz with inclusions of pure gold. Id spent thousands of hours grinding and polishing to create the historical scenes decorating its surface, but had finished long ago. I hadnt really looked at the thing for ages.
"I prefer a nicely adorned dining room," I replied mildly, hoping hed drop the subject.
"Such craftsmanship! The details are small, but dont some of the figures up there resemble your Yetis? And some appear built along your lines, eh? Tall and thin. Same back-tilted ears and . . . teeth."
"Ja. And those peculiar animals directly overhead, the ones your, ah, relatives are riding? What are they supposed to be? Sea serpents? Creatures from forgotten myths?"
The "relatives" he mentioned were no relatives of mine. Reluctantly, I glanced upwards and saw my depiction of the drowning of Lwindermur Island and the astonishing rescue of King Bhaid and his court as related by Lord Vist. My skills had evolved in the decades since this work was completed; many of the forms were insufficiently expressiveperhaps another task awaited me when this crisis was over. . . .
"Those sea serpents are merely whales, Doctor," I claimed. "That species exists to this day. Deep-sea fishermen spot them occasionally, but they have become rare."
"Whales that look like giant snakes with flippers? Here on Earth?"
"Certainly." His probing was becoming increasingly irksome.
"Ah! So if theyve become rare, once they were more common, nicht wahr? How long ago was that?"
How long ago had I become such a dullard? Evidently Gurm wasnt the only candidate for senility! Clearly, Weiss had been panning the ceiling for nuggets of information, and my incautious words had supplied him with an entire mine.
The ramifications made me grind my teethan ugly sensation ever since Vist had applied his skills to my mouth. Through sheer inattention, Id offered Weiss an alternative theory to add to Bowmans delusion that I wasnt human. My guests now had a choice of believing me an extraterrestrial or wondering if sometime in Earths antediluvian past, various now-forgotten species had roamed this world and I was a stale leftover. Of course, the theories could be combined. From my incautious words it was at least logical that if my "relatives" were indeed from another world, they hadnt arrived here recently.
One aspect of this misconception of my nature had been troubling me for some time. If I ever allowed these men to depart, they might feel obligated to expose my existence. For all they knew, millions of my kind remained tucked into various dark corners of the world and we might have malignant plans.
I could not afford to leave them with such doubts and now Id compounded them. Therefore, before I could free them, Id have to reveal yet more!
Carelessness: that enemy whose cloak is an absent mind. Being careless with my furnace had destroyed lives; being careless with my speech would make it necessary to destroy my policy. I could afford no more such lapses; Layna and I each had our weaknesses.
Weiss, who was scrutinizing my face, softly repeated his question. "When were such whales common? Will you answer me, Lord Marq?"
Why put off the inevitable? I met Weisss eyes with an openness that made him quickly look down. "That depends on how you answer a question of mine. Tell me true, Herr Doktor: are you and your companion men of your word?"
He raised his head and eyebrows but his reply was simple. "We are."
I nodded. "Then I will answer you, but only if both of you promise to reveal nothing about my lady, my servants, me, or this place after you depart my Castle."
Bowman grunted. "Why not? As if anybody would believe us."
I hadnt considered that aspect, but it made no difference. . . .
"You have our word," Weiss added quietly.
"Then I confess to being deceitful. The forms above us arent cetaceans."
Layna looked at me in surprise and gave me a sweet smile. "I am glad youve chosen to finally speak, my lord. Do not our guests deserve a helping of history with their meal?"
Weiss flushed with pleasure and gazed at my lady with adoring gratitude; but for me, "deserve" was a troubling word. Id never confessed to her my role in forging the first link in the recent chain of tragic events. Knowing her, she would blame only herself; my negligence had been the hammer, but Id wielded it while working on a sculpture for her. Now, "deserve" made me worry how much shed deduced.
"Very well." I smiled back at Layna as tenderly as I knew how despite my qualms. "Your desires are as commandments to me, beloved. Thus I will unfurl the sails of our secrets and let destiny blow us where it may!"
My poesy was rewarded by a twinkle in her eye.
For an instant, my heart filled with delight. Then I remembered Gurm. "Dr. Weiss, if you seek knowledge, some carvings here are far more relevant to our current dilemma than the frieze above our table."
"Kindly rise and go study those shapes above the entryway."
Weiss followed my directions. Somewhat to my surprise, Bowman remained seated, his eyes distracted as if he was in a lost world of his own.
"Extraordinary!" the doctor remarked when he returned. He seemed a bit shaken. "Surely those animals never existed on Earth. What are they supposed to be, Drachen . . . dragons?"
I wished theyd never existed on Earth! "I suspect they were the inspiration for the concept of dragons. These days," I continued grimly, "their bodies arent so sleek; theyve become rather encrusted over the centuries."
"You mean . . . mein Gott! Are you saying it was one of those horrors that massacred our friends?"
Bowman bolted from his chair and was halfway across the room by the time I sighed, "Im afraid so." At the entrance, the mountaineer glared at the terrifying examples of Sasaru zoology Id portrayed with Vists guidance. When he came back, his eyes were the color of steel, and as opaque.
Yet my heart went out to him. How would I feel if Layna had fallen into Gurms jaws? The idea was beyond comprehension.
"Those creatures," I stated quietly, "are the ancient enemy and current ward of the Sasaru."
Doctor Weiss was staring at his friend; when he turned toward me, his brow was still furrowed with concern. "Ward? Sasaru?"
"Eons ago, Doctor, two intelligent species, the Sasaru and your Drachen, evolved simultaneously on a distant world. In one Sasaru language, that world was named Ro."
"So youre some kind of alien after all?" Bowman asked tensely.
"I am not," I gritted, "and neither are my Yetis. But the carvings here depict various life forms from Ro and illustrate historical events from that world. Such events can be forgotten or misremembered, but somehow their . . . bones never quite dissolve. Do we not live in a universe of gravity, time, space, matter, and consequences?"
Weiss was scratching under his red beard and gazing thoughtfully at my servants. "This, I do not grasp. You claim these scenes happened on another planet and yet the carvings show beings akin to you and beings akin to your Yeti Diener, but then you tell me"
"In my case and in those of my servants, the resemblance is artificial."
Bowman stared at me with something colder than horror in his gaze. "You mean, once you were normal?"
"And somebody changed you," he said, ignoring my sarcasm, "into one of thosewhat did you call them?Sasaru?"
"Not exactly, sir. Not even Lord Vist, the Sasaru lord it was my honor to serve, could make me into a true member of his species." I frowned, internally debating how much to disclose. "Life on Ro didnt follow the evolutionary path of life here."
Id captured at least Weisss full interest; his eyes glistened. "What was different?"
"Are you aware that human scientists have speculated about the possibility of life being painted on a silicon canvas rather than a carbon one?"
He shrugged. "Silicon-based life, gewiss. Old news."
"Still, have you ever considered the idea of a creature evolving with both silicon- and carbon-based attributes?"
The doctor tugged his beard. "It seems, ah, weithergeholt."
"Farfetched indeed. Ro is a most unlikely planet, even aside from the development of compound metabolisms. In all their travels, the Sasaru never found another world with two sentient native species."
I sensed that Layna was watching me with increasing surprise, but I didnt dare look back. I wanted no questions about her until Id invented some good responses. In truth, I was becoming surprised at myself, and a bit alarmed. Why was I giving away this much?
"Intelligence itself may be a rarity," Weiss conceded. "But you say two species. What of the carvings above us of those hirsute, ah, Untermenschen?"
The question was a fair one, but it left me uneasy and I wasnt sure why. "The drol were apelike creatures given mental augmentations by those lords who desired servants. My Yetis are humans given physical augmentations to make them more effective servants. In a fashion, the Sasaru and the dragonsthe Givvern, which means those-who-sniffwere complementary opposites. The Sasaru were largely carbon-based with siliceous aspects. Their enemies were the reverse."
I knew why this topic was making me uncomfortable: it made Gurm seem closer. At least Bowman had finally stopped glowering at me.
"I take it," Bowman said quietly, "that your Sasaru beat the dragon?"
"More or less. The lords developed refined technology and advanced weapons while those-who-sniff learned to make their bodies almost indestructible and grow . . . internal weapons. The Givvern have an ardent survival instinct; they crave existence as a starving man craves food. That instinct nearly ended them. It made them extraordinarily territorial and as they became more sophisticated, their conceptualized territory included all of Ro. So one day they attacked their main competitors.
"At first, they had the advantage and the Sasaru were hard-pressed. Then engineer-artists such as Almesh ORayn created weapons potent enough to fight back and Sasaru engineer-warriors, led by Queen Gloudin, who was reputedly almost as tough as a Givvern herself, went hunting. In the end, a truce of sorts was declared."
"What are these internal weapons?" Weiss asked thoughtfully.
Under the table, Layna laid a hand on my thigh for comfort or perhaps warning. Still, I saw no point in not answering.
"Those-who-sniff modified their own bodies to concentrate digestive fluids into acids capable of burning through" I waved my hand around "almost anything except the silicon wax lining their digestive tracts. And they learned to voluntarily excrete an enzyme that makes this acid burst into flames upon exposure to oxygen."
Bowman frowned. "Fire-breathing dragons?"
"In a sense. Also, in their obsessive introspection, they happened upon a theoretical technique for enormously extending their lives."
Weiss jabbed a finger toward me. "What technique?"
"Taking naps. Long ones. Altering themselves so they could eat tremendous meals and then sleep for decades. Physical inactivity would allow them to focus their energies entirely on regeneration and rebuild their bodies from the inside out. But they didnt dare try it because"
Bowmans forehead wrinkled. "Are you claiming these monsters learned to hibernate? It wasnt instinctual?"
"Due to their semiconductive nervous systems," I said, "the Givvern have attributes similar to computers. In a real sense, they can reprogram themselves."
Bowman stared. "What? You mean their brains are a bunch of organic transistors or something?"
"Organic transistors at least brushes the mark. Their biology has strengths and one major flaw. Over timeconsiderable timetheir . . . operating systems become increasingly corrupt." Id stretched the analogy to the point of distortion, but it would serve. "Perhaps no Givvern on Earth has retained more than a primitive intelligence. Still, theyre as physically formidable as ever. Perhaps more so."
Weiss shifted in his chair. "And such fearful creatures are nearby? And one of them is loose?"
"Not just any one, Im afraid. Somewhere outside lurks their old king, Gurm, the strongest and worst of the breed."
Bowmans face was fully alive for the first time since hed learned about his wife. For the moment, anxiety, resentment, and perhaps curiosity were eclipsing sorrow. His eyebrows suggested mountains again rather than storm clouds.
"Tell us more about that truce you mentioned," he demanded.
I hesitated but his imperiousness was easy to forgive. "The lords had their chance to eradicate the Givvern. But Almesh ORayn was a Sasaru with broad vision and a tender spirit. He fashioned artifacts that allowed his people to communicate directly with their enemies. At a safe distance, mind you."
"Electronic translators?" Weiss hazarded.
"Radio transmitters that ORayn named patmaquarheartstones in Englishtuned to that frequency those-who-sniff use to communicate with each other. The Givvern are, in part, natural transceivers."
Bowman shook his head, more in wonder than doubt. "So your Sasaru offered a truce and the monsters okayed it?"
I risked a swift glance at Layna before replying, but her expression proclaimed no more than plain interest. "They accepted, Mr. Bowman, but with conditions. The sniffers hadnt dared implement their hibernation idea, not during a war. They were aging and craved repair desperately. But their survival imperative also made them wary of long sleep. The Sasaru or more primitive enemies might discover their unconscious bodies and find a way to injure or destroy them."
I raised my voice to forestall questions. "The idea of taking turns, setting watchers to guard the sleeping ones, isnt in the Givvern emotional repertoire. From a Sasaru or human standpoint, the sniffers are thoroughly selfish."
Weiss was nodding. "I can guess the truce terms. The Sasaru were to assume watchman duties, nicht wahr? "
I nodded back. "Indeed, Doctor. The lords were to become permanent caretakers, protecting the Givverns sleeping bodies, waking them just enough for periodic feedings and the minimum of exerciseevery fifty years or soto maintain adequate health."
"Aerobic training!" Bowman chuckled in a surprising flash of his former humor. "A workout every fifty . . ." His voice abruptly trailed off.
"And the Sasaru added one final condition of their own: the Givvern had to agree to leave Ro forever. Thats how they wound up here."
"What about offspring?" Weiss asked.
"Issue was no issue. I told you the Givvern were selfish and over the millennia they became more so. Theyd eaten their own offspring for centuries. By the time truce was declared, the youngest females had dropped their final eggs. Their survival imperative doesnt extend to their species."
Bowmans expression had turned dour. Laynas eyes caught mine with an unmistakable question: What made him so angry again? I confessed ignorance by looking away.
Weiss raised an inquiring finger. "What was in this for the Sasaru?"
"Security, for one thing. The sniffers agreed to defend their old enemies if the need arose, and they also granted permission for their caretakers to use them as . . . bloodhounds in minor emergencies. Those-who-sniff have a highly developed sense of smell.
"Once the truce conditions were agreed on, the former adversaries entered into an extraordinary collaboration on a variation of the heartstones. They created a unique artifactpart radio, part recording and playback device, part . . . hypnotic periapt, tuned to sniffer brainwaves: the Contequar. This Trucestone permitted the Sasaru to rouse their charges just enough to meet lifes needs and then return them to full sleep."
Bowman was nodding, but his eyes were bitter and afraid. "So youre the guardian on call nowadays?"
"And you say youre not one of the Sasaru?"
"On Earth, the lords have all died."
This was the information Id been working to reveal. If the mountaineers believed meand I wasnt being entirely honestthey wouldnt imagine some widespread alien conspiracy. No point in mentioning that, thanks to Vist, I had a number of Sasaru characteristics. . . .
On impulse, I addressed Bowman, "Is something bothering you, sir?"
His hands were clenched again and his eyes avoided mine. "Whats Layna doing here?"
I could tell that wasnt his primary concern at the moment, but it left me on the spot.
Sometimes inspiration comes when most needed. "You arent the only mountaineer Ive rescued." The statement wasnt literally a lie; after all, Id rescued Weiss. I hurried on before he could pin me down to specifics. "Whats really troubling you?"
He finally met my gaze. "All right. Heres what I want to know: I gather youve been watching over your monsters for a long, long time. What the hell have you been feeding them?"
I could now divine the direction of his thoughts and it stung. As it happens so often, his error derived from ignorance compounded by arrogance. He wasnt humble enough to imagine how little he knew about my Castle. Hed had only my word that his wife and friends had been killed by Gurm. His new suspicion was clearly that I had murdered them myself. To feed my pets.
I tried to ignore the insult, but it kept burning. To my dismay, I cared what this man thought of me and badly needed to demonstrate my innocence.
"Come along," I said coldly, "and youll learn where our food comes from. Umtash, remain here and ward my lady." For the moment, outrage drove all thoughts of danger from my mind.
Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in our October issue,
on sale now!