Authors: Andre Norton
The beacon still called from deep within the rough-walled fastness of the cave. Its message was fainter now. Each planet year had put more strain upon this mechanism, though its creators had attempted to make it everlasting. They believed they had foreseen every eventuality. They had—except the weakness within their own rule and the nature of the world from which the beacon called. Time had been swallowed, was gone, and still the beacon kept to its task, while outside the cave nations had risen and decayed, men themselves had changed and changed again. Everything the makers of the beacon had known was erased during those years, destroyed by the very action of nature. Seas swept in upon the land, then retired, the force of their waves taking whole cities and countries. Mountains reared up, so that the shattered remains of once-proud ports were lifted into the thin air of great heights. Deserts crept in over green fields. A moon fell from the sky and another took its place.
Still the beacon called and called, summoning those who had vanished and left behind only legends, strange, time-distorted tales. And now there was another period of chaotic darkness in the affairs of men. An empire had crashed under its own unwieldy weight and the strain of years. Barbarians ravaged, picking its carcass like vultures. Fire and sword, death and the living death of slavery marched across the land. And yet the beacon called.
Its heart-fires were dim now. From time to time the call faltered, as a man in mortal danger might gasp for breath between shouts for aid.
Then that call, so faint now, was finally heard far out in space. A strange arrow of metal caught the impulse, and deep in this ship’s heart installations which had been silent and unresponding for centuries were activated. The arrow
altered course, using the beam of the call as a line to draw itself down.
There was no living thing aboard that ship. It had been devised with desperate hope by entities close to the extinction of all they held important, more important than their own lives. They had sent six such arrows of life into the void, their only desire being that at least one of the searchers might find a goal their records said existed. Then they were overrun by their enemies.
Relay after relay clicked into life without a quiver of fault as the arrow sped toward earth. It represented the fruits of a thousand years of experimentation, the highest triumph of a race which had once traveled the starlanes with the ease of men walking familiar paths on brown earth. Made for one duty alone, it was now about to go into the action for which it was programmed.
It smoothly shifted into orbit about the planet and prepared to descend in answer to the beacon call. As it flashed across the sky men below watched its passage with primitive awe. The knowledge which had once been theirs was long since buried in myth.
Some cringed in skin tents as their shamans beat drums and howled strange guttural chants. Others stared wide-eyed and spoke of shooting stars which could be omens of good or evil. It neared the mountain where the cave of the beacon was hidden, then it broke apart.
The husk which had carried the so-precious cargo through space opened and from it issued other objects. They did not plunge instantly into the sea which was now fast coming under the arrow; they spun away rather, as if with volition of their own, winging for a mountainside.
They hovered for an instant or two in the air before drifting easily to the ground. And if anyone in those heights witnessed this, he did not speak of it again. These particles were protected by a distortion of the fields of visibility. The makers had taken all precautions they could foresee to protect their project.
Once on earth the jumble of objects produced appendages of their own and crawled steadily, with a mindless need to unite with the failing power of the beacon. They made their way into the cave.
In some places it was necessary to enlarge the passageway and that, too, had been foreplanned. But at length they were all sheltered in the depths about the beacon,
where they proceeded to go to work. Some of them cut bases in the rock, settling themselves in with cable roots from which they could never be torn. Others rose from the surface of the cave, hovering back and forth like great mindless insects, except that they trailed coils of communicating wire from one based installation to the next.
Within a space of time which they had no reason to measure the net was complete; they were ready to begin the work for which they had been programmed. If this world had not been receptive there would have been no beacon. Therefore, in the memory banks of the largest of the based machines lay information that a systematic sampling would bring into use.
One of the hovering fliers swung to the entrance of the cave, sped outside. There was no moon that night; clouds hung heavy in the sky. The flying thing was not much larger than an eagle, and its distort had gone into action when it had emerged in the open. Now it began to scout in ever-widening circles, the photoeye it carried sending a stream of reports back to the cave.
There was a dusting of snow on the heights and the winds were sharp and cold, though the flying thing noted temperature only as another fact to be transmitted.
The fire in the center of the clan house was high. From the balcony which circled the sleeping family rooms, Brigitta could look down at the men gathered below on benches. The mingled smell of stable, cow byre, woodsmoke, food and drink was as thick as the smoke. Yet there was a solid, secure feeling when the clan house was closed at night against the outer dark, when the hum of voices flowed from chamber to chamber on the upper floor.
Brigitta shivered and drew her cloak closer about her shoulders. This was Samain, the time between one year and the next. Now the doors between this world and the Dark could open, and demons could caper through or crawl malevolently to attack man. There was safety here by the cheer of fire, in the voices she could hear, the snort of one of the horses stabled in the outermost circle of stalls below. She picked up the tankard she had set on the bench beside her and sipped at the barley ale it contained, making a little face at its bitter taste but relishing the warmth within her when she swallowed.
There were other women on the balcony benches, but
none shared hers. Brigitta was the chief’s daughter and so took honor here. When the flames flickered they caught the gold bracelet on her arm, the wide plaque necklace of amber and bronze lying on her breast. Her red-brown hair flowed free, nearly touching the floor behind her as she sat, its color contrasting pleasantly with the strong blue of her cloak, the embroidered length of the saffron yellow robe beneath.
She was arrayed for a feast, yet this was no true feast. She bitterly resented the news which had drawn the men to council and left the women to watch and yawn, gossip a little. It was even stale gossip, for they had been together for so long now that there was nothing new to say about each other or events.
Brigitta moved restlessly. War—war with the Winged Hats—that was all a man could think about There was little betrothing or marrying nowadays. And she was growing older with every moon. Yet her father had not singled out any lord for her. There was gossip behind hands about that also, as well she knew. If they had not already, in time they would give her some flaw of tongue or mind which would turn possible suitors from the door.
War. Brigitta gritted her teeth and the look with which she regarded the company below had little kindness in it. Man thought of fighting first and always. What did it matter if the invaders crept along valleys miles away? What difference should it make to the people of Nyren, safe in their upland fortress? And now this babbling about the evils wrought by the High King. She drank again.
So he had put aside his wife to wed the daughter of the Saxon overlord. . . . Brigitta wondered what the new queen looked like. Vortigen was old; he had grown sons who would be quick to raise sword for their shamed mother. A messenger had brought the news that they were summoning near and far kin to that very effort now. But the Saxons would form a shield wall for the new queen, too. It was all war! She could not remember back to a time when there was not the clang of weapons about the clan house. She need only raise her head a little to see the line of weather-cleaned skulls set along the roof eaves above, the spoils of wars and past raids.
She did not think that Nyren would have much sympathy for the High King. Ten days ago another messenger had ridden in to be received with a far warmer welcome: a
lean, dark man with cleanly shaved face, wearing the breastplate and helmet of the Emperor’s men. The Emperor was long gone, though it was said that emperors still ruled overseas. But the Imperial Eagles had been lost from this land since her father was young.
It seemed that at least one leader still believed in the Emperor. The dark man had come from him to ask Nyren’s men for his war banner, just as the messenger who had spoiled the feast tonight. That one had had a strange, tongue-twisting name, after the style of the Romans. Brigitta said it aloud now, proud that she knew enough of the old speech to say it properly.
“Ambrosius Aurelianus.” She added the equally strange title he held, for he did not claim any kingdom,
Lugaid had said it meant Leader of Britain in the other tongue. It was a lot for a man to claim when half the land was filled with Vortigen’s new kin, the Winged Hats from overseas.
Her father had been schooled at Aquae Sulis in the old days when the Emperor Maximus had ruled not only Britain, but half the lands overseas. He remembered how it was when there was peace and one only had to fear the Scotti raids or trouble along the border. So he was one who had inclined to the Roman, one of those Vortigen had hunted out of the cities because the High King feared their influence.
Thus Nyren had returned to the clanship of his fathers, had drawn around him those of kin blood. Perhaps he had only been waiting . . . Brigitta sipped her ale again. Her father was one who kept his own counsel, even among the kin.
She studied him now where he sat in the high seat of the clan house. Though he wore the dress of the hills it was in more somber colors than that of the men around him. His tunic of fine linen had been worked by her own hands with a pattern copied from an old vase, a wreathing of leaves in threads of gilt and green. His trousers were of dark red, his cloak of the same shade. Only the wide torque of gold about his throat, the two brand-bracelets on his wrists and the seal ring on his forefinger, equaled in splendor the ornaments of his fellows.
Yet he held authority among them, and no man entering the clan house and setting eyes on Nyren need ask who was chief in this place. Brigitta felt the swell of pride
as she watched him now, displaying not a flicker of emotion as he listened with surface courtesy to the words of the High King’s messenger, who was leaning forward, plainly ill at ease as he tried to impress this small chief, as the High King might rate Nyren.
But the influence of the lord of this clan reached beyond the walls of his kin house and many among the hills listened closely to any words of his. For his wisdom was great and he was a wily and successful raider and war leader. He might have called himself king, after the fashion of others hereabouts, but he did not choose to do so.
Brigitta stirred again impatiently. She wished that her father might speedily send the High King’s man about his business, that they might feast at their ease with no troubling from the world outside on this night.
She could catch the roar of the wind above the sounds of the court hall below. There was a storm, and a storm on this night was unlucky. It might well carry the hosts of the Dark to wreak their evil will on men.
Now she looked for Lugaid where he sat near her father. He had the old knowledge and he had set up the spirit protections about them this night. Though his unshaved beard was white, his lean body was not stooped, nor did he have the signs of age about him. His white robe was bright in the firelight and one thin hand stroked his beard absentmindedly as he, too, listened to Vortigen’s man.
The Romans had striven to stamp out the old knowledge and while they were in power men such as Lugaid had moved secretly, keeping to their own silences. Now they were honored once more among the kin and their words were listened to. Brigitta doubted that Lugaid would favor the High King, for he and his kind held the ancient mysteries of this land and they liked the Winged Hats no better than they had the Romans.
The ale was strong and made her a little dizzy. She shoved the tankard aside, her eyes now drowsily watching the play of the flames on the great hearth below. In and out they danced, swifter, more gracefully, wilder than any maid could weave her way across the grass on Beltaine Eve. In and out. . . . Now the wind was roaring so loud she could hardly catch more than an echo of the murmur from below.
It was dull anyway. This feast which had promised so much in the way of excitement had been spoiled by the stupid affairs of war. Brigitta yawned widely. She was both bored and disappointed. Distant kin had come riding in yesterday, and she had had a wan hope that among them her father would find a suitor he approved.
She tried now to search out those strangers below, find one face which was to her own liking. But they were only a blur of flesh, reddened by the flame play; the gaudy colors of their plaid and checkered clothing bewildered her. Though there were both young men and seasoned warriors, none had caught her attention when they arrived. Of course she would have gone dutifully to the one her father named.
That he did not name any was her present grievance. They would march to war, all those possible suitors, and many would die, so there would be far fewer to choose among. It was a sad waste. She shook her head, muddled by the ale she had drunk, the half-hypnotizing play of the flames. Suddenly she could stand it no longer.
She rose from her bench and went back into her chamber. The opposite door of her room opened out on the parapet of the wall, their outer defense. It was tightly closed, yet through it the whistle of the wind came even closer. A lamp burned very dimly in the far corner. She shrugged out of her robe and, in her chemise, her cloak still about her, she burrowed into the covers of the bed against the wall. She shivered, not so much from the chill of the stone against which that bed was set as from the menace of the wind and the tales she had heard of what might ride its gusts this night of all nights. But she was also sleepy and her eyes soon closed as the lamp sputtered out.