D. A. Houdek

Deb Houdek Rule

Web designer - Science Fiction author - Civil War historian - Genealogy researcher

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1992 D. A. Houdek

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6449 words

Borealis is the beginning of a story that will eventually be novel-length. The Icelandic Viking culture makes a cameo appearance in this science fiction story.

Originally published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume IX, ed. Dave Wolverton, Bridge, 1993. Click here to see photos of the Writers of the Future award ceremony.

Borealis

by

D. A. Houdek

 

Something was here.

Something fierce.

Something carnivorous.

It was here, near the wall, behind that sofa, hidden by that captive plant.

Though his mind was suddenly filled with an anxious sense of danger, Aswin Brock sat quietly, watching the red glow of the unblinking pair of eyes in the shadows. He didn't know what else to do, not here, not on this alien, urban world. It was so different from the storm-lashed forests of his home. There were people here, more than he ever dreamed existed, and they had rules for everything. People. . . Even as young Brock contemplated the menacing presence watching him, he rejoiced that people had come from the sky and rescued him from his lonely life on that empty world. Terra Nulius, nobody's land, had been the name of that colony planet. How true that name had been, Brock thought, after the last of them died. Now he had people again. But he didn't know their rules.

And he didn't know why two of those people were screaming at each other behind that door. Brock could hear the argument clearly.

"You have no right to interfere with these people!" the female voice roared.

Even as he kept a wary watch on the glowing eyes, Aswin Brock listened to the words with studied fascination. Though he understood the individual words, the exact meaning of the sentences eluded him. He absorbed each word carefully, filing what he heard for later consideration and appraisal.

"You're trying to take their past, their culture, their very history, away from them. They're obviously developing as their ancestors intended," shouted the female voice.

A deep male voice retorted, "Ancestors! The dead don't rule the living. You're trying to deny them the future. A culture is a dynamic, changing thing, not something meant to hold people back. The people of the Borealis colony are not developing. They're stagnating. I won't let you condemn a world and a people to isolation and ignorance because of a choice made by their ancestors three hundred years ago," he paused, letting the silence punctuate his words, "That's why Chimaera is interfering."

"And that boy out there, is he the one you've chosen to lead them into the light?" The female's voice dripped with sarcasm, a shading of speech beyond Brock's experience and understanding. So, they had brought him here to guide someone to a source of illumination.

The doors slid aside and the female strode out. She stopped and glared at Brock. A weaker soul would have flinched beneath that harsh glare. Brock calmly met her eyes, quickly becoming intrigued with the pattern of lines around them.

The woman snorted. It was a sound Brock decided he wished to learn to reproduce. "Another lamb to the slaughter," she growled and stomped out of the office.

Brock was dismayed. He was wrong. Apparently they intended to use him as a food source. Perhaps it was the carnivorous creature still lurking in the shadows that was destined to dine on Brock's flesh.

The creature began taunting Brock. He could hear it licking with wet sounds. Brock became convinced it was telling him that it meant to eat him.

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Brock wondered, with the unpanicked control of one accustomed to danger and survival, how he could ease away when the swish of the doors startled him. In that moment of distraction the carnivore made its move on Brock. It rubbed the edge of its mouth, and one of the fangs against Brock's hand.

The man in the doorway chuckled. "It looks like you've made a friend. Come on in, son. You can bring her with you, if you like."

Aswin Brock gaped at his hand that was now being nuzzled by an extraordinarily soft head. There was no sign of blood. And the creature was small. It had felt so large when it had been watching him. But, no, it was small, covered with tan fur that darkened at the tips. The eyes that had been red were a rich, expressive sapphire.

"Just pick her on up. She won't mind," the older man prodded.

Brock hesitated.

The man chuckled. "Ember. Have you been teasing our guest?"

"Errr," the carnivore answered, giving a quick, noisy lick of her paw. She made sure Brock could see her fangs.

"Her name is Ember," the man said, a grin spreading across his face.

"Her?" Brock asked, still wary.

"The cat." The older man saw Brock's lack of understanding and added, "The little animal. She's a pet cat, and of quite a remarkable breed. I'm afraid she likes to play games with unsuspecting people. Ember means no harm, and now she wants you to hold her."

Brock knew that. The thought had appeared in his mind when he met those wondrous eyes. Clumsily, and a bit cautiously, Brock picked up the cat. Ember promptly flattened herself against his body and produced a loud buzzing rumble. For a reason Brock could not define the sound delighted him.

Brock stood and followed the man through the doors, sitting down on the edge of the chair indicated, while the man sat down on the other side of the desk beneath a dull, grey wall. Ember readjusted, instructing Brock to lean back and tickle her chin. Happily, he obliged, relieved to find something in this new world that was clear and understandable.

"Just relax, son. You're among friends. My name is Marcus Chardon, and I'm here to help you." The man's voice was soothing. It was much like the Captain's voice on the ship that had brought Brock here.

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"What. . . is that?" Brock did strange contortions with his head as he tried to see what he couldn't quite focus on in the grey wall behind Chardon.

Chardon smiled indulgently. "That's a Chimaera. If you look at it out of the corner of your eye you can see it."

Brock twisted. There was the barest hint of an image in the grey. It stood on its hind legs, clawing at the air. Its tail batted back and forth and, for an instant, the monster's eyes met Brock's. Brock shuddered.

"Interesting illusion, eh?" Chardon commented, closely observing Brock's reaction. "It's the dream-monster. In mythology the Chimaera comes in nightmares, vanishing at the dawn. It's the name of our Company, our organization."

"Why?" Brock did not think it was an appealing thing to be named after.

"It's what we do. We subtly effect people, change them and their lives, then disappear without them ever knowing if we were really there, or knowing what we've done. We keep the Universe moving in the direction it should." Moving the way Chimaera thought it should through quiet and unofficial interference, Chardon didn't tell Brock, sometimes cruel, as change often is. Chimaera was unheard of by most; hated by the few who did know the name.

"We want you to join us, Aswin. We want to give you your fondest dream. We'll give you the Universe, a universe full of people and new worlds." Chardon used his best hypnotic tone of voice. This young man was perfect fodder for Chimaera. Growing up in total isolation, he had no knowledge of official policies, what this society considered to be right or wrong, or the correct politics of the moment. Young Brock could be formed into what Chardon and Chimaera wanted him to be. But his innocence needed the right edge put on it. And Chardon knew just the culture to do the initial shaping.

"Will you join us, son?"

Brock stopped trying to focus on the dream-monster moving restlessly in the grey wall. Absently, he stroked Ember's silky back as he thought about Chardon's words. Ember responded by renewing that alluring buzz. Into Brock's mind she fed a sensation of bliss, interspersed with instruction on where and how to pet.

"I want. . . " Brock trailed off. He'd lived alone on an empty planet for too long. He did want all the unseen worlds of the Universe with all their people. Mostly he wanted Ember to keep purring. He didn't think he could bear to walk out of this room without her.

"Ember can go with you," Chardon promised in response to a silent prompt from the cat.

"Trust me, son." Chardon whispered.

 

"We're going to crash," Brock said.

Ember had realized this several orbits earlier. She had been howling her displeasure for twenty minutes, not wishing her short life to end in the fireball of a decaying orbit, no matter how spectacular the sight would be.

Aswin Brock was less bothered by the ear-blasting shrieks of his furry copilot than he was by the fact that none of the ship's controls seemed to respond to anything he did. Not that he knew what he was doing, but for the entire trip Brock had clung to the fantasy that he was actually in control of the ship; that pressing at least one of the myriad of buttons would do something.

It did not seem to be the case.

The planet was growing very large in the viewer.

Aswin Brock slammed both hands down on the controls. Ember quit howling and stared at him wildly. The ship ignored them both and continued its suicidal plunge.

The young man and the cat both sighed, relaxed and decided (with considerable force of will) to abandon their hysterics and enjoy the view.

It was a sensational view. Although this was the third planet he had been to, Brock had never been privileged to see a planet from space. He had rather hoped to visit many more than three (or in this case not quite three) planets. He sighed again and stared at the viewer.

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That would be Borealis, the northern continent, rising up to smash them. A vast glacier sparkled beneath the unsetting summer sun. At its base, the land showed vivid patches of green among the sharp rocks.

The ship dropped lower into the atmosphere. The surface blurred beneath them.

"Think we'll smack into the side of the glacier?" Brock asked the cat, "Or splatter all over the rocks?"

Ember answered with a non-committal, nervous purr. She had been favoring the burnup-on-reentry scenario until now, but then, she was a far more experienced space traveler than Brock. Carefully, she released her multi-claw deathgrip on the seat and sat up.

"Ra-roaw?" she queried, fixing her intense eyes on Brock.

Brock got an odd feeling, one he'd experienced many times since he had met Ember, a sensation of having pictures inserted into his mind. The image that came to him was of a monster's claws clutching the back of their ship, holding it up.

"Chimaera?" he asked Ember.

"Errr," she agreed, purring sweetly and slitting her eyes to reward him. Ember was always surprised and pleased when Brock understood her messages so easily, and recognized her as the source. Few humans were so receptive. Maybe it was his naive, trusting innocence that. . . Ember quickly stilled the thought before Brock heard it.

"You think this is all part of Chimaera's plan? We're really not going to crash and die? We're going to get to carry out our mission?" Brock babbled at roughly the same speed as the towering glacier wall rushed toward them.

"Errr." Ember was less convincing in her agreement. Her claws began curving into the seat again.

Kilometers above them rose the luminous blue wall of ice. The small ship seemed destined to become part of the glacier about one hundred meters above its base.

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" Brock commented.

Ember didn't answer.

Magnificent, azure--and very solid looking--ice filled the screen.

Brock hummed a song he couldn't name. Ember felt another howl building in her throat.

Impact was imminent.

Braking thrusters fired.

Safety nets dropped inside the cabin.

The ship bucked and screamed.

Aswin Brock and Ember clawed and screamed.

The ship slammed into the surface of the planet, plowing a long trench through the moraine. With the agonizing screech of tearing metal the ship slid to a stop in the rocky debris beneath the glacial face.

Inside the cabin, Aswin Brock managed to whisper, "I think we've landed," before he passed out

"Roaw!"

"Huh? Okay. I'm awake. It is cold, isn't it?"

"Errr." Ember was flat against Brock's chest, trying to leech the warmth from his body.

Aswin Brock tried to sit up and failed. After he untangled the safety nets and the cat, he succeeded.

Moments later he popped the hatch, yawning widely at the pressure change. He inhaled deeply the clear, icy air and stepped outside into the chilly sun.

Brock grinned. "Hi!"

In a semi-circle around the battered ship stood a dozen rough men. They wore a combination of leather and coarse, woven tunics. In their hands, attached to their belts and slung over their shoulders were an unnerving array of weapons: swords, halberds, bows, spears and knives. All the weapons looked well used. Beneath their long beards the men wore scowls.

Brock's innocent smile widened. This was going to be easy. He'd already found the colonists. "Hi. I've been sent to learn everything I can about you." He stepped forward. Several weapons raised. "I'm Aswin Brock and this is Ember." He turned around to gesture to the cat. She was crouching in the ship, showing no more of herself than two wide, suspicious eyes.

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One of the men, a brawny giant with two long red braids, shifted slightly. It was the first sign of life from these stoic hulks. He whispered to the scarred, one-eyed man next to him, "Reckon he's one of the gods?"

That one, dark eye glowered at Brock, who friendly smile was rapidly dwindling. "Nah. They's not allowed to muck about down here."

"Husky lad, eh? Never seen a body so clean." He sniffed the air. "Smells pretty too, like a girl after bath season. There's a powerful strangeness about him. Think we ought to kill him now?"

One-eye scrutinized the crushed spaceship. "There be a marvel happening here, right enough. Could be a lucky thing or no. Must be we'll have to ask the Witch."

The red-haired man nodded. "Best we take him back with us, then."

"Not my hearth. I'll not be risking ill luck in my house." One-eye shook his head firmly and crossed two of his remaining fingers over his heart.

Brock had been staring from one to the other with his mouth hanging open. The accent was strange, but understandable. Chardon had said that with the language chip inserted beneath his scalp Brock would understand and be able to speak the Borealis language as easily as his own. The twists and turns in the conversation baffled him, however, made even more incomprehensible by the stream of images Ember was trying to shove into his brain. Brock scratched his head, imagining the chip itched, and decided that none of this was among the things Chardon had told him to be prepared for.

The red-haired behemoth extracted something from his matted beard, crushed it and tossed it aside while he peered at Brock. Abruptly, he chuckled, drawing stern glares from his companions.

"Reckon yon Boy-From-A-Metal-Box can't be bringing any more ill luck to my hearth than's already there," he said, striding up to Brock. Though they were the same height, Brock felt overwhelmed. After the barest moment of hesitation, watching for a defensive reaction from Brock, the red-haired man clapped Brock on the shoulder, nearly knocking him over, certainly leaving a bruise. "Welcome boy. I'm called Ormson the Stout. You'll winter with me and my sister. We just killed her husband so there's plenty of room for you."

Brock managed a weak smile.

"Of course," Ormson added in a friendly tone, "if the Witch sees you to be ill favored, well. . . Don't you worry none, boy. I don't hold with burning. We'll take your head off nice and neat as can be."

Brock laughed. There didn't seem to be any other proper response. "That's good of you, Ormson. I'll take it to heart." He smacked Ormson on the shoulder as hard as he could. It was like striking a rock.

The other men burst into roaring laughter. They swarmed around Brock and Ormson. Several began fondling the hull of the ship.

Brock heard some stray comments from them.

"Fine iron. And lots of it."

"Truly. Is it even iron?"

"Think on the edge it will hold."

Frantic images were bombarding Brock from Ember, still hiding in the ship. One of the men struck the side of the ship with a massive axe. Sparks flew. The edge of the axe shattered. The ship wasn't even scratched. An awed murmur rose from the men.

"Hey! I'll be needing that later," Brock called. He pushed through the men and hurried to the ship. Ember launched herself from the doorway, landing in his arms. She locked her claws into his shirt and pressed her face into his neck.

"Are you upset, baby?" Brock asked, wincing as she dug her claws in deeper.

"Nice cat. Good fur," Ormson commented.

Brock took a pack from the ship. He pulled on a thick parka, zipping it up over Ember. He slung the pack over his shoulder. "I wish you wouldn't do that," he said as another axe disintegrated against the ship's hull. "I was really hoping the ship could be fixed and I could fly it out of here."

Ormson and One-eye stared at Brock blankly. The others continued their vain attempt to dismantle the ship.

"Don't know what these words you're using mean," Ormson phrased diplomatically, "nor what this metal thing would be. . . "

"Oh, by the great berserker's ghost!" One-eye exploded. "Glacier'll take it before summer's gone." He spat at Brock's feet.

Ormson studied the massive overhang of ice and shrugged. "It be so. Best we be going now." He gathered the other men with a wave of his hand. Grumbling, they gathered their broken weapons and followed. One paused to kick the ship. He limped away.

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Brock stood by the ship a moment longer. His eyes moved from the crushed bottom, half buried in rock, up the looming wall of ice. He felt a faint tremor. Brock couldn't decide if it had come from him, Ember or the glacier. He turned and plodded after the men.

One-eye followed Brock. In the next five hours of marching that single dark eye burned into Brock's back.

At various point along the way two or three men would break away from the group and head away. If the rocks they seemed to choose as landmarks were in any way distinctive from any of the other rocks they passed, Brock was blind to the difference.

Ember clearly knew when One-eye finally left the group, leaving only Ormson and Brock. She popped her head out of Brock's parka, taking in the barren scenery.

"Ra-ra-ra-roaw," she scolded, using her paw to turn Brock's face toward her.

"I'm sorry," Brock whispered in her ear.

"What you got here, Ormson?" a light voice called. On a distant rise a slender female shape in a blowing cloak stood. Her long, red hair was braided much as Ormson's was, the ends tucked under the belt of her tunic. Somehow, Brock thought, it looked much better on her.

"What strange-clad creature is this?" she asked as they came closer. "Why! 'Tis not but a beardless lad." Her voice was musical to Brock's ears. He caught his breath and felt odd sensations run through his body. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Brock completely forgot that she was only the second woman he had ever seen.

"Sister, my sweet," Ormson called. He snatched her by the waist, twirling her around once. "Your husband's dead and buried, now. And worry not. We hacked him into a good dozen pieces. He'll not be rising to haunt."

"Joyous news, brother. Next Council I'll claim his property," she laughed. Brock was fascinated by the rich fullness of her lips as she spoke.

"Lad." Ormson gestured Brock to come closer.

Ember used one selectively extended claw to break Brock's trance. He closed his mouth, gulped and hurried up to Ormson's side.

"This be my sister, Thraslaug the Deep-Minded, a name she's well earned," Ormson said with a throaty chuckle. "And this," he told his sister, "is Aswin the Brock. He's a marvel come to winter with us. 'Less, of course, the Witch says he's ill favored, then. . . " Ormson made a gesture across his throat.

While Brock wasn't even remotely afraid of dying, this casual assumption that he was theirs to kill was beginning to bother him.

Thraslaug's eyes gleamed as she examined the boy/man in front of her. Her eyes held a hint of the same carnivorous intent that Brock had first sensed in Ember. Brock very much wanted to know if Thraslaug would purr against his chest, too.

Ormson the Stout roared with laughter. He put an arm around each of them, leading them to the low, stone house. "Maybe we'll be having another little bastard underfoot afore winter's gone, eh?" He winked at Brock. Thraslaug chuckled.

The house was dug into the ground, little showing from above but the thickly thatched roof. A battle-scarred, tailless orange cat sat near the opening. It dodged the kick from Ormson's boot, running toward a sod barn. Brock felt Ember quiver.

Inside, little light came through a few small openings and from the fire burning in an open hearth in the center of the long, narrow room. Along either wall was a low stone shelf cushioned with dried grass and hides.

Aswin Brock opened his parka, releasing Ember. She leaped to a hide, stretching and flexing her claws.

Thraslaug hurried toward the cat. "You'll be wanting to do up that animal outside. I'll not be having a mess in here."

Brock shook his head, not understanding. "Ember's no mess. Ember," the cat was edging closer to Brock, the fur rising along her spine, "this is Thraslaug. We'll be staying with her."

Thraslaug dug her fingers into the cat's fur. "Good fur. Soft."

Ember growled. Brock was horrified at the image Ember bluntly inserted into his mind.

He snatched Ember away from Thraslaug's probing fingers. "If any of you hurt Ember, I'll kill you," he said with a sharp iciness in his voice that he hadn't know he was capable of.

Brock felt Ember concentrating. Her eyes narrowed, glowing red from within. Her body tensed. Her tail batted. She fixed her eyes on Thraslaug. The vision Ember shot at her hit Thraslaug like a lightning bolt. Thraslaug jumped backward with a startled yip as an image of her own body, slashed and mutilated, filled her brain. Ormson shook himself as he caught a hint of the same image.

"Great blazing snow demons! I don't know which one's the wizard, but they've a powerful magic," Ormson the Stout declared.

Thraslaug reached cautiously toward Ember, waiting for the cat to accept her touch, then stroking her gently. "Aswin the Brock," Thraslaug the Deep-Minded said with great formality, showing a hint of the wit that had earned her nickname, "both you and Ember the Spirit Cat are welcome in my house. Ember need never fear within these walls."

Ember accepted graciously, arching her back and giving a brief purr. Brock sighed with relief.

After a meal of charred meat and milk served in carved horns, the twilight of Borealis' short night came. Picking his teeth with a fingernail, Brock leaned back, satisfied. That meal had been much more to his liking than the pristine, processed food he'd been eating since he was found. And this simple house was so much more soothing than those nerve-racking chambers full of switches and screens and lights without flame that he'd had to deal with before.

"I haven't seen any trees," Brock commented idly. "What do you burn?"

"Dung," Thraslaug answered.

Ormson added, "And bone for the forges. Hard to burn, though, takes a powerful hand at the bellows. Still and all, it takes a hot fire to turn out a good, solid sword."

Brock took a deep swig from his horn, a memory from long ago on Terra Nulius nudging at something he'd seen today. "I thought I saw an outcropping of coal while we were walking today."

"Coal," Ormson repeated, shaping his mouth around the strange word. "What's that?"

"A rock that burns, and burns hot, too. I'll show you tomorrow."

"A rock that burns. Such a wonder would make a rich and powerful man of me," Ormson said to Brock with his eyes gleaming. "Hackner One-eye'll rue the day he welcomed you not to his hearth!"

A whirl whipped past Brock. Ember was engaged in an enthusiastic game of chase with Hallgerd and Kol, Thraslaug's two children. It had taken a few scratches to teach them proper catly manners, but now they were all getting along well.

Squealing, Kol dashed by, followed by his toddling sister. Hallgerd was a tiny, blond girl too young to speak. Kol was a dark, stocky boy with bright darting eyes.

"He's the reason we had to kill Thraslaug's husband," Ormson said to Brock, heedless of whether the children heard. "Blighter never would accept Kol as his. Said he was the neighbor's bastard. And so what if he was? That's Thraslaug's concern and no one else's."

"You killed him because. . . ?" Brock didn't follow Ormson's logic.

"He killed the neighbor, and crude it was, bashed his head in with a rock when he wasn't even looking. Bad enough manners that, but then he wouldn't pay the proper fine for the murder. Why civilization would come to an end if everyone refused to pay a decent price for their killings, wouldn't it?" Ormson demanded of Brock.

Having no previous knowledge of any civilization, Brock could only nod vaguely. It did seem reasonable.

A soft touch on his shoulder drew Brock's attention. Thraslaug was smiling down at him. Ormson snorted and moved away. Brock gaped at him. Could everyone make that sound but him?

"Come," Thraslaug said softly, taking his hand in hers.

Brock glanced back toward Ember, but she was enjoying her game with the children and, in pure cat fashion, ignored him.

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Outside, Thraslaug led Brock up a small hill. The distant glacier stretched from horizon to horizon. The sun, low in the sky, just crested the top of the ice, seeming to set it ablaze with its fiery glow.

"It's beautiful," Brock said.

"We call it the Snow Demon's Fire." Thraslaug turned his face toward hers with her strong, slender fingers. Lightly, she ran them down his odd clothing. "Where are you from?"

Brock pointed upward.

"The sky?"

"The stars."

Thraslaug shook her head. "Play me not for a fool. Stars be not but pinpricks of light, fires of the gods, some say, but that's just fancy."

Brock told her, "The stars are like your sun, with planets like this full of people. They have wondrous things, machines that fly."

"You've seen these people?" Thraslaug's eyes sparked with the reflected fire.

"Well, no," Brock admitted. "Just a few. But I have flown," he added proudly, "and crashed!"

Thraslaug shook her head. "I know not these words, 'fly' and 'flown.' What are they?"

"Like birds do."

"Birds?"

Brock snorted, delighting himself with the spontaneously produced sound. "I think I've learned something about this world."

Thraslaug slipped up against him, pressing her body against his. She tilted her face upward. With her lips against his, she murmured, "I would teach you something else."

Of all the lessons that Brock had learned, he considered that this was, perhaps, the finest.

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The small, black stallion shrieked as the roan's hooves ripped into the hide of its flank. The roan bugled triumphantly, then locked its teeth on the other horse's throat. An incoherent roar rose from the watching crowd of men as blood spurted from the black's neck. In a few moments it was over, the roan pawing the air over the body of the dead horse.

One-eye growled as he handed Ormson a finely crafted knife. "You be the winner, and I naught but the provider of the feast," One-eye grumbled as servants with butchering knives swarmed over the dead stallion's body.

Ormson raised the knife over his head in a frenzy of pride. "That roan of mine," he declared to any who would listen, "is the finest fighting stallion in history!"

Brock smiled indulgently, the expression hidden by his scruffy beard. He swung Kol down from his shoulder, sending the boy running after the other children. He'd seen Ormson's horse fight many times this summer, this battle the last before the widely scattered households were isolated by the snows and darkness of winter.

From the house the women emerged, sending a sudden stillness through the men. Even the herds of children quit their running and faced the women.

"Council must be done," Ormson commented.

The women's voices drifted across the dusty, trodden yard.

"Seems a powerful risk to make such a change in the way we've always done something. Our grandmothers might rise from the ground to smite us for our boldness."

"And it be a mighty queer use of oil."

"For me, I'll be risking those ghosts to have me a lamp such as the Brock made for Thraslaug."

"And that cat! Did you ever see the like? Who'd think the little ones could take such joy in an animal. Did you see Hallgerd? I tell you, I will be seeing if my children could make so fine a pet as that out of one of the kittens about our place."

Thraslaug beamed at the fine impression their bold innovations had made as she pushed forward out of the clump of women. Brock watched her hungrily as she approached. The shape of her body beneath her leather tunic was the most wondrous sight in the Universe, he believed. Her belly was just beginning to bulge with the result of their summer of passion.

Ormson smirked at Brock. "You're drooling, lad," he teased. "Thraslaug's a woman of property now, no doubt, needing of respect."

"Property to be sure," Thraslaug said happily. "Council's done given all my husband's property to me, with none of it to his kin."

Ormson the Stout hugged his sister. "You wanting to take on a new husband, then?"

Thraslaug shrugged. "You and Aswin handle the men's work well enough. I've no need for a man."

Brock gaped. "But. . . but. . ." he stuttered, "I'd thought you and I, with the baby and all. . ."

Thraslaug's eyes widened. "We've a saying, dear Aswin: Love's a weakness that scores the heart and ruins the mind." She shook her head. "Don't love. It's the most ruinous of vices."

Brock nodded slowly. Another lesson learned.

"As for the babe," Thraslaug went on, "It's a child's duty to follow on to the father when it's of an age. Whatever the distance between you and I, the baby'll be bound to seek you out, by and by." Trying to gentle her words she reached her hand out toward Brock. He took it solemnly, remembering that there was one more bit of business due this day.

"She comes!" The cry went up. "The Witch comes!"

Brock quelled an involuntary cringe as every eye turned from the approaching horse and rider to stare at him. In their eyes was the same look as when they had watched the blood spurt from the fallen horse.

The Witch rode a white horse covered with bells. Her cloak was a blue the color of the glacier's ice, trimmed with soft, white fur. Brock gulped down bile at the sight of it, and of her. From the shadowed entryway of the house, Brock sensed a shudder of horror from Ember.

Only the dark coals glowed in the hearth, just enough light to cause the Witch's eyes to spark with red. The bright lamp had been put out to still the Witch's wrath at the sacrilege of innovation.

Brock had never before felt a sense of evil such as the Witch radiated. He most sincerely wished he could sit at the far end of the room with Thraslaug, in the hiding darkness, rather than up beside the Witch.

Ember crouched in his lap, batting her tail against his leg. Her eyes never strayed from the Witch's face.

Over her head the Witch raised her skinny arms and chanted. The words meant nothing to Brock. Others in the crowd occasionally mumbled responses twined with stifled yawns.

She swayed, her hands weaving in the air. Brock found himself growing sleepy, blinking and yawning.

Ember glared at him, digging her claws sharply into his leg.

"Ow!" Brock jerked upright as he yelped.

As a whole, the gathered company twitched as if startled from a dream. The Witch froze in the midst of a motion, staring with unhidden hatred at Ember and, almost incidentally, at Brock

Before either Brock or Ember could react she snatched up Ember by the scruff of her neck and held her up in front of her wrinkled, cruel face. Ember squirmed helplessly in the Witch's grasp.

Brock leapt to his feet. His dash toward Ember and the Witch was abruptly halted by the gleaming point of Hackner One-eye's halberd at his chest. Slowly, Brock backed away.

Ember was growling, her face inches from the Witch's. Brock could feel Ember bombarding the Witch with fierce thought-images. The Witch only laughed, a raspy, harsh sound.

She flung Ember away from her. "That beast will trim my new tunic," she proclaimed. Brock felt the blood drain from his face. "And Aswin the Brock is an evil sorcerer who must die at the dawning! The spirits have spoken to me. Ill luck be it to those who cry 'nay.'"

An agreeing murmur rippled through the crowd, only a few voices protesting, among them Ormson's and Thraslaug's.

Thraslaug the Deep-Minded pushed her way forward with Ember clutched tightly in her arms. Her red hair flew wildly around her. Her eyes blazed. "I'll take your ill luck, you evil crone," she cried, causing shocked gasps from the room. This was boldness no one had ever dreamed of before, first to risk changing the ways of their ancestors and now to challenge the authority of the Witch herself! "I've made a promise to Ember the Spirit Cat of sanctuary in this house. I keep to that."

While Thraslaug held the attention of all, Ormson sidled up to Brock. "Run now, lad," he whispered urgently in Brock's ear. "Run far. I'll hold them back the best I can."

Brock turned. Stopped. "I can't. Ember. . ."

Ormson was stunned. "Your life for love of a cat? For all the spirit's sake GO!"

Brock ran for the door.

Ember struggled in Thraslaug's arms, sending frantic pleas to Brock. Thraslaug held her tightly, determined to save the cat.

"Take the boy," the Witch snapped.

Eyes darted about in the gloom. "He's gone!" voices shouted.

Men snatched up weapons and hurried outside into the night.

The Witch swept out of the house with an exaggerated swish of her cloak. At the door she gestured a curse on the house and left.

"Oh, Brock," Thraslaug moaned. "Run like one who could," she searched for the word, "like one who could fly!"

In her arms, Ember howled the long, mournful cry of the broken-hearted.

Aswin Brock ran blindly through the darkness, stumbling over rocks and clumps of sod. Behind him he could hear the shouts of the searchers. The sound spurred him on.

Over a rise he skidded to a halt, almost running broadside into the dark shape of a ship.

"Hurry!" Marcus Chardon called. "In here, son."

Brock hesitated in the doorway of the ship. "I can't. Ember. The Witch is going to kill her. I can't leave her. I can't," he practically sobbed.

"Get in," Chardon ordered sharply, pulling Brock by the collar of his tunic. "They can't be allowed to see the ship."

Brock stumbled forward. Chardon slammed his hand against the door switch and dived for the control panel.

The blast of thrust threw Brock backward. Through the view screen the night side of Borealis dropped away as the ship rose into space.

Chardon settled down in the pilot's seat, setting their course, activating computers. Brock went to the front of the ship, sat down beside Chardon. Chardon's nose wrinkled at the aroma coming from Brock.

"How'd you know where I was? That I was in danger?" Brock asked in flat tones.

Marcus Chardon grinned. "Tracking device and an audio/visual transmitter. We implanted them when we put in the language chip. We've been watching everything you did, my boy. Every detail. Aswin, son, we've got a marvelous future in store for you. Marvelous, indeed. You pulled this mission off well, set these people on a new path."

Brock shook his head. "I did nothing."

"Oh, yes, you did." Chardon looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Subtle changes, that's what we cause. You told them of flight--it'll be very interesting to see how that turns out with no knowledge of wings, maybe they'll develop rocket technology first. And you told them of the stars. Son, you're part of their mythology now.

"You even left behind a child that's obliged to try and find you. That was a bonus! To find you the child will have to reach for the sky. Yes, son. You did a fine job, broke them out of their stagnating mold of only doing what had been done before; lamps, coal, the very concept of rebellion and change! It was pure inspiration! And that telepathic cat will only add to their process of development."

"They're going to kill her," Brock whispered dryly.

Chardon shrugged. "Don't worry. We'll get you another cat."

Brock resisted the urge to rip Chardon's windpipe out right then. He stared at Chardon with an intensity of hatred that he wouldn't have believed possible. As soon as he could pay the murder price, Chardon's life would be his.

From the dwindling planet Brock felt a sensation. It was a cry, a cry of hopeless loneliness and abandonment. It was a cry of fear and despair. It was Ember's cry. Brock didn't know if it was really from her, or from him. He blinked sharply to fight the tears that threatened to overwhelm him.

Abruptly the sensation stopped, wretched from Brock's mind. He gasped and clutched his heart.

"Oh, Ember," he whispered her name for the last time, then let the new hardness take over.

THE END

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