Authors: Maurice Gee
Tags: #JUV000000, #JUV037000
Hari heard a hissing, like a snake, and jumped aside as something – arm, rope, tentacle – whistled past his head. He threw himself backwards, rolling in the air to land on his feet – Blood Burrow tactics – but the thing was quicker and he felt wet ropes, smoother than hemp, colder than winter streams, fasten round his legs, round his knife-arm and his throat. Something invaded him – not pain, no pain from the contact – a sickness, a nausea signalling appetite or pleasure in the creature that held him.
Pearl, he thought, we can’t fight this.
As his consciousness seeped away he heard its mewing of hunger and greed. But heard too, far off, the voice of his children, Xantee and Lo, wrapping him round, gathering strength, loosening the ropes that held him, holding the creature still, although it raged and lurched and somersaulted its energies into new shapes – Xantee and Lo forcing it back, thinning its being, pushing it into its own space; and he felt, far away, Duro’s hands on his ankles, pulling him out of the killing ground.
Duro hauled Hari like a sledge on to the beach. Xantee and Lo followed, each dragging one of the cousins. They had called Karl on the schooner and he and two of the children were waiting with canoes. They lifted Hari and Sal and Mond into the craft and set off. Duro swam with them. Xantee and Lo ran along the beach.
What was it? Where does it come from? Lo said.
Somewhere else. We’ve pushed it back but it’ll come out again.
Will Hari be all right?
She thought of the marks the creature had left on his legs and throat, and the marks on the cousins’ legs – grey, not red like abrasions, and cold when she laid her hand on them. Her palm was still numb from the touch and she stopped and scrubbed it on the sand.
Lo, help me.
They concentrated on her palm, calling blood into it, and in a moment something slid off like a film of ice. They saw where it fell by a shifting of sand grains.
She felt it die and caught a whiff of foul air.
Karl, she called, don’t let anyone touch Hari’s wounds. Or Sal’s and Mond’s. Be careful when you lift them.
They ran until they were opposite the schooner, then swam out. Already the children on board were hoisting sails. Xantee and Lo reached the side as the canoes arrived and Xantee repeated her warning – no touching the grey weals on Hari’s and the cousins’ skin.
How do we treat them? Duro said.
We fight them with our minds, round the clock, in teams. Maybe we can get them to slide off. It’s the one on Hari’s throat I don’t like.
Could it stop him breathing?
We won’t let it. I’ll be with him all the time, or Lo when it’s not me. Karl, get the crew moving. We’ll get as far away from here as we can.
They put Hari in his cabin and Sal and Mond in the sickbay. Karl soon had the schooner speeding across wind, away from the coast. Looking back, Xantee saw not a fog, not even a mist, but a dome of coldness over the jungle at the base of the headland. It had not been there when they sailed in. The creature had kept itself concealed.
She went to Hari’s cabin and sat with him. His wounds – the weals on his skin – were unchanged and it made her shiver to think that they were not marks in his flesh but live bits of the creature from the jungle. She concentrated on them and felt she could hold them still, and stop them from feeding, if that’s what they did – stop them from killing her father.
She sensed Lo at her side.
How are Sal and Mond?
Holding each other. We can’t get them apart.
Don’t try. Let them sleep. Just tell whoever’s with them to make sure those marks on their legs don’t grow. Help me with Hari.
They stood beside his bunk, holding hands. Hari lay on his back. His skin was bloodless under its natural brown and cold to touch, though covered with a sheen of sweat. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest showed he was alive.
We’ll leave the marks on his arms and legs. Try to get this one off his throat.
It’s deeper than the others, Lo said.
That thing must have known it had got him where it could kill.
How do we do it?
Go inside him. Bring as much warmth as we can. Bring his own blood into his throat. Make it melt this thing off.
They joined with the same effortless twining of minds they had discovered as they moved out of infancy. They did not make a single mind but two minds holding hands, or, as they sometimes thought of it, two containers touching at the brim, each pouring whatever it held into the other, while retaining the whole of itself. They felt it, simply, as a doubling of strength and knowledge, and an increase in quickness like the leaping of a deer.
Gently, with reverence – Hari was their father, who, with Pearl, they loved above all things – they invaded the inert shape on the bunk, avoiding his mind, finding the coldness wrapped about his throat. They probed at it, banged on it, but it gave no sign of life. It seemed to be resting, not increasing its hold, but lying embedded in Hari’s throat like an iron torc. The tapping of Xantee’s and Lo’s minds made no more impression on it than a fingernail.
We can’t shift it, Lo said.
Feel that? It’s moving again. Lo, it’s going deeper. I don’t think we can make it let go but we’ve got to hold it. It’ll kill him if it burrows in.
They fought against the creature – the fragment of a creature – for the next hour, holding it when it tried to hook itself deeper into Hari, when it tried to tighten like a noose and strangle him. They held it more easily than they had expected but could not make it give up even a small part of its hold.
I think it’s stopping.
It has to rest. Lo, we can’t keep this up forever. We’ve got to get him home fast and let the twins try. Tell Karl to put on all the sail he can. I’ll get these other things off Hari’s arms and legs.
She smelled the odour of exhaustion from the thing round Hari’s neck, and with it, even stronger, the smell of rage and fear. Whatever it was feared her and Lo – but that gave Xantee little comfort. The creature might be alive, but it was only a fragment of something larger, even though it seemed to have a splinter of consciousness; and small or not, it threatened Hari’s life. As for its mother – was that how to think of it? – the beast in the jungle, invisible on its pile of bones, where was it from, what was its nature? And was nature the right word? She could not forget the flash of understanding that had come to her when she felt its presence for the first time: this creature doesn’t belong.
She concentrated, pulled all her strength into one spot and held it firm, and soon the grey infection – grey sore – she was attacking began to curl at the edges. It slid off Hari’s ankle, melted in an instant, and was gone, leaving the stench of rotting flesh in the cabin.
Xantee held her breath, feeling dizzy, then felt an ugly tugging at the edge of her mind, and realised that the band on Hari’s throat was at work again, hooking itself deeper into him, cell by cell.
Lo, she cried, and brought him running. They worked together again and held it still but could not make it weaken its grip. When it rested they rested. When it pushed again, trying to get deeper into Hari, they were ready and held it back. Duro and Karl came to help but the added strength made no difference. Xantee sent them to Sal and Mond’s sickroom; where, working with teams of children, they were able to free the cousins from the fragments of the creature clinging to them.
But we can’t make them let each other go, Karl said.
Leave them. They’re keeping warm, Xantee said.
She was exhausted. She and Lo took turns sleeping on a cot at the foot of Hari’s bed. The creature rested often, as though set by a clock. They knew when it would wake and sleep and although one of them always sat with Hari, holding his hand, feeding strength into him, the other was able to rest without the fear of a sudden attack.
Xantee dreamed, but it was the dreaming of recollection not fantasy. In the four days it took the schooner to cross the south-western arm of the Inland Sea, she relived her childhood, piece by piece, and understood, each time she woke, that her mind was reinforcing her, adding a layer to her consciousness and – this made her frightened – preparing her. For what? But she did not let fear get in the way of her delight in the reliving of her life, with its colours brighter and images sharper and its happiness more intense than she had been aware of at the time.
Pearl and Hari and Xantee, then Pearl and Hari and Xantee and Lo: a family. Later on, like new springs in the forest flowing down to join the larger one, came Blossom and Hubert. Six of us joined, said the dream that relived her life.
They lived in a timber house above a white-sand beach, with fields and gardens running back to the forest and a village growing beside them. Dwellers brought new children, some alone (orphaned in the wars), some with their parents, and all of them able to ‘speak’, faintly or well. First came Tealeaf, bringing Duro and his mother Tilly. Xantee was still in her cot but she remembered it – the dream remembered: the weariness of the travellers, their joy in arriving, and the small boy strapped on his mother’s back, looking about him with inquisitive eyes. Xantee, she introduced herself, although she could not speak yet with her tongue. Duro, he replied. She had bonded with him almost as deeply as with her parents.
He had lost his father in a battle between the workers and the clerks, fought back and forth in the ruined streets of the city, Belong, and in Ceebeedee, and in a part of himself Duro knew of the loss and joined his mother in her grief, which seemed to deepen him, and slow him too, so that he was like a pool in a fast-flowing river, where the water pauses and the bottom falls away. He kept a larger part of himself secret than the other children, but was an adventurous and confident boy. Xantee came to love him almost as a brother yet was glad he remained strange in a way her real brothers did not. The dream seemed to say that the strangeness foretold another sort of love, but then it drew the knowledge quietly away.
Xantee slept. Swimming, running, climbing trees; learning to cook, learning to clean house; always learning – how to take a share of honey from the bees without being stung, how to plant seeds, how to winnow wheat, how to milk goats and how to shear them: the dream kept on. How to ‘speak’, although it needed little learning but came naturally. Learning to speak with her tongue, loud or soft, strident or sweet, was harder. She had not seen the need for it. But she discovered, after a time, that spoken words made a resting place, letting her mind sleep on the level that was otherwise so active; and, with those you loved, sound sometimes brought a greater intimacy. Sound, in many ways, went deeper than silence. She learned when to ‘speak’ and when to speak. And learned never to enter another person’s mind without invitation, and learned the sinfulness of stealing memory, stealing time, of taking a mind away and moving it about as though pushing a bug with her fingernail. She could do that so easily – more easily than her mother Pearl or her father Hari. Yet she understood the sin. The lesson was to never do it, except . . . When was ‘except’?
Xantee shivered in her sleep. There was danger from the spitting snake, danger from the fangcat and tree tiger, and danger, when swimming, from the beakfish, whose mind was so small it was hard to find, and turning these creatures away was a matter of survival. But people must be left alone – unless they too became fangcat or tree tiger. Pearl and Hari had told Xantee and Lo, and later Blossom and Hubert, about Ottmar and Kyle-Ott, and Keech and the clerk who now called himself Clerk, and these men were more dangerous than beasts because their hunger was of the kind that could never be satisfied. As well as that, something spoke to them from the darkness, telling them they belonged there – a voice that Hari had also heard, and Pearl too, once, calling them into ways where they would consume other people. Whether dead Ottmar had understood, and Keech, still alive in the burrows, and the Clerk in the city; and whether they obeyed the voice or their own dark natures, Pearl and Hari did not know. Neither had ever heard the voice again, but heard the whisper that overcame it, saying their names – Pearl, Hari. And the children heard – Xantee, Lo, Blossom, Hubert – and could not imagine the darkness.
In her sleep, at the foot of Hari’s bunk, while the creature from outside nature slept on her father’s throat, Xantee dreamed the darkness and cried out, wailed and screamed, fearing that the dark voice would speak to her and she would not be able to resist. Lo calmed her. He told her to remember home. He sent pictures into her mind of the schooner cleaving through the sea and of Pearl, their mother, waiting on the shore. Then Xantee was able to dream happily again. When she woke she retained the darkness only as a shadow at the back of her mind.
The creature fastened on Hari’s throat woke later in the day. They fought it and Hari lived.
We’re close enough to tell Pearl what’s happened, Xantee said.
Do you think we should?
You know how she and Hari are. They know everything about each other. I think I heard her whisper a while ago.
They combined their strength.
Pearl, they said.
She was waiting.
What’s wrong? Is it Hari?
They hid nothing – the cousins, the invisible beast, Hari’s fight with it, the living necklace strangling him.
Let me feel it, Pearl said.
They helped her and felt her mind recoil.
It’s not from here, she whispered.
The other side – I don’t know. Can you hold it? Can you keep him alive? Once you’re home the twins might be able to make it let go.
We can keep it from going deeper, that’s all.
Put on more sail. Get here fast. Now make a path for me. Let me be with Hari for a while.
Xantee and Lo moved aside. They smoothed a way for their mother and kept their minds closed so she could speak with Hari alone – speak although he could not hear.
The cousins, Sal and Mond, looked in at the door. They were well again and moved freely about the schooner but no one could make them unlock their hands. Xantee and Lo thought they would hold hands for the rest of their lives.
Thank you, Hari, they said, and went away.
Xantee, Lo, Pearl said, it’s waking up. I’ll call the twins, they might be able to help you.
They heard her call Hubert and Blossom from the beach, where they were playing. At once their voices came through, clear, harmonious, but afraid.
What is this thing?
We don’t know. It’s awake. It’s trying to burrow in. Help us.
Now, with four, and with the twins’ strength, it was easier. Each time the creature tried to win a little more of Hari they saw it recoil, as though it felt the same horror for them they felt for it. Yet they could not make it let go. It was as if it had eaten and made parts of Hari part of itself, and could not regurgitate, though the pressure Hari’s children exerted caused it pain so intense it mewed and wept. It was readier now to sleep and that gave Xantee time to wash Hari and change his bedding, and feed him, coaxing liquids down his constricted throat.