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Darkness and Dawn
By Andre Norton
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-3595-8
Chapter OneDaybreak-2250 a.d.
1 A Thief By Night
A night mist which was almost fog-thick still wrapped most of the Eyrie in a cottony curtain. Beads of moisture gathered on the watcher's bare arms and hide jerkin. He licked the wetness from his lips. But he made no move toward shelter, just as he had not during any of the long black hours behind him.
Hot anger had brought him up on this broken rock point above the village of his tribe. And something which was very close to real heartbreak kept him there. He propped a pointed chin-strong, cleft and stubborn-on the palm of a grimy hand and tried to pick out the buildings which made straight angles in the mist below.
Right before him, of course, was the Star Hall. And as he studied its rough stone walls, his lips drew tight in what was almost a noiseless snarl. To be one of the Star Men, honored by all the tribe, consecrated to the gathering and treasuring of knowledge, to the breaking of new trails and the exploration of lost lands-he, Fors of the Puma Clan, had never dreamed of any other life. Up until the hour of the Council Fire last night he had kept on hoping that he would be given the right to enter the Hall. But he had been a child and a fool to so hope when all the signs had read just the opposite. For five years he had been passed over at the choosing of youths as if he did not exist. Why then should his merits suddenly become diamond-bright on the sixth occasion?
Only-his head dropped and his teeth clenched. Only-this was the last year-the very last year for him. Next year he would be over the age limit allowed a novice. When he was passed over last night-
Maybe-if his father had come back from that last exploring venture-If he himself didn't bear the stigma so plainly-His fingers clutched the thick hair on his head, tugging painfully as if he would have it all out by the roots. His hair was the worst! They might have forgotten about his night sight and too-keen hearing. He could have concealed those as soon as he learned how wrong it was to be different. But he could not hide the color of his close-cropped hair. And that had damned him from the day his father had brought him here. Other men had brown or black, or, at the worst, sun-bleached yellow, covering their heads. He had silver white, which showed to all men that he was a mutant, different from the rest of his clan. Mutant! Mutant!
For more than two hundred years-ever since the black days of chaos following the Great Blow-up, the nuclear war-that cry had been enough to condemn without trial. Fear caused it, the strong, instinctive fear of the whole race for anyone cursed with a different physique or unusual powers.
Ugly tales were told of what had happened to the mutants, those unfortunates born in the first year after the Blow-up. Some tribes had taken drastic steps in those days to see that the strain of human-or almost human-lineage be kept pure.
Here in the Eyrie, far apart from the infection of the bombed sectors, mutation had been almost unknown. But he, Fors, had Plains' blood-tainted, unclean-and, since he could remember at all, he had never been allowed to put that fact from him.
While his father had lived it had not been so bad. The other children had yelled at him and there had been fights. But somehow, his father's confidence in him had made even that seem natural. And in the evenings, when they had shut out the rest of the Eyrie, there had been long hours of learning to read and write, to map and observe, the lore of the high trails and the low. Even among the Star Men his father had been a master instructor. And never had it appeared doubtful to Langdon that his only son Fors would follow him into the Star Hall.
So even after his father had failed to return from a trip to the lowlands, Fors had been confident of the future. He had made his weapons, the long bow now lying beside him, the short stabbing sword, the hunting knife-all with his own hands according to the Law. He had learned the trails and had found Lura, his great hunting cat-thus fulfilling all the conditions for the Choosing. For five years he had come to the Fire each season, with diminishing hope to be sure, and each time to be ignored as if he did not exist. And now he was too old to try again.
Tomorrow-no, today-he would have to lay aside his weapons and obey the dictates of the Council. Their verdict would be that he live on sufferance-which was probably all a mutant could expect-as a worker in one of the cave-sheltered Hydro farms.
No more schooling, no fifteen or twenty years of roving the lowlands, with further honored years to look forward to as an instructor and guardian of knowledge-a Star Man, explorer of the wilderness existing in the land where the Great Blow-up had made a world hostile to man. He would have no part in tracing the old cities where forgotten knowledge might be discovered and brought back to the Eyrie, in mapping roads and trails, helping to bring light out of darkness. He couldn't surrender that dream to the will of the Council!
A low questioning sound came out of the dark and absently he answered with an assenting thought. A shadow detached itself from a jumble of rocks and crept on velvet feet, soft belly fur dragging on the moss, to him. Then a furred shoulder almost as wide as his own nudged against him and he dropped a hand to scratch behind pricked ears. Lura was impatient. All the wild scents of the woods were rich in her widened nostrils and she wanted to be on the trail. His hand on her head was a restraint she half resented.
Lura loved freedom. What service she gave was of her own choosing, after the manner of her kind. He had been so proud two years ago when the most beautifully marked kitten of Kanda's last litter had shown such a preference for his company. One day Jarl himself-the Star Captain-had commented on it. How that had raised Fors' hopes-but nothing had come of the incident, only Lura herself. He rubbed his hot cheek against the furry head raised to his. She made again the little questioning sound deep in her throat. She knew his unhappiness.
There was no sign of sunrise. Instead black clouds were gathering above the bald top of the Big Knob. It would be a stormy day and those below would keep within shelter. The moisture of the mist had become a drizzle and Lura was manifestly angry at his stubbornness in not going indoors. But if he went into any building of the Eyrie now it would be in surrender-a surrender to the loss of the life he had been born to lead, a surrender to all the whispers, the badge of shameful failure, to the stigma of being mutant-not as other men. And he could not do that-he couldn't!
If Langdon had stood before the Council last night-
Langdon! He could remember his father so vividly, the tall strong body, the high-held head with its bright, restless, seeking eyes above a tight mouth and sharp jaw. Only-Langdon's hair had been safely dark. It was from his unknown Plainswoman mother that Fors had that too-fair hair which branded him as one apart.
Langdon's shoulder bag with its star badge hung now in the treasure room of the Star Hall. It had been found with his battered body on the site of his last battle. A fight with the Beast Things seldom ended in victory for the mountaineers.
He had been on the track of a lost city when he had been killed. Not a "blue city," still forbidden to men if they wished to live, but a safe place without radiation which could be looted for the advantage of the Eyrie. For the hundredth time Fors wondered if his father's theory concerning the tattered bit of map was true-if a safe city did lie somewhere to the north on the edge of a great lake, ready and waiting for the man lucky and reckless enough to search it out.
"Ready and waiting-" Fors repeated the words aloud. Then his hand closed almost viciously on Lura's fur. She growled warningly at his roughness, but he did not hear her.
Why-the answer had been before him all along! Perhaps five years ago he could not have tried it-perhaps this eternal waiting and disappointment had been for the best after all. Because now he was ready-he knew it! His strength and the ability to use it, his knowledge and his wits were all ready.
No light yet showed below. The clouds were prolonging the night. But his time of grace was short, he would have to move fast! The bow, the filled quiver, the sword, were hidden between two rocks. Lura crawled in beside them to wait, his unspoken suggestion agreeing with her own desires.
Fors crept down the twisted trail to the Eyrie and made for the back of the Star Hall. The bunks of the Star Men on duty were all in the forepart of the house; the storage room was almost directly before him. And luck was favoring him as it never had before, for the heavy shutter was not bolted or even completely closed as his exploring fingers discovered. After all-no one had ever dreamed of invading the Star Hall unasked.
Moving as noiselessly as Lura he swung over the high sill and stood breathing in a light flutter. To the ordinary man of the Eyrie the room would have been almost pitch dark. But, for once, Fors' mutant night sight was an aid. He could see the long table and the benches without difficulty, make out the line of pouches hanging on the far wall. These were his goal. His hand closed unerringly on one he had helped to pack many times. But when he lifted it from its hook he detached the gleaming bit of metal pinned to its strap.
To his father's papers and belongings he might prove some shadowy claim. But to that Star he had no right. His lips twisted in a bitter grimace as he laid the badge down on the edge of the long table before clambering back into the grayness of the outer world.
Now that the pouch swung from his shoulder he went openly to the storage house and selected a light blanket, a hunter's canteen and a bag of traveler's corn kept in readiness there. Then, reclaiming his weapons and the impatient Lura, he started off-not toward the narrow mountain valleys where all of his hunting had been done, but down toward the forbidden plains. A chill born of excitement rather than the bite of the rising wind roughened his skin, but his step was sure and confident as he hunted out the path blazed by Langdon more than ten years before, a path which was not watched by any station of the outpost guards.
Many times around the evening fires had the men of the Eyrie discussed the plains below and the strange world which had felt the force of the Great Blow-up and been turned into an alien, poisonous trap for any human not knowing its ways. Why, in the past twenty years even the Star Men had mapped only four cities, and one of them was "blue" and so forbidden.
They knew the traditions of the old times. But, Langdon had always insisted even while he was repeating the stories to Fors, they could not judge how much of this information had been warped and distorted by time. How could they be sure that they were of the same race as those who had lived before the Blow-up? The radiation sickness, which had cut the number of survivors in the Eyrie to less than half two years after the war, might well have altered the future generations. Surely the misshapen Beast Things must once have had a human origin-or had they? Men were playing with the very stuff of life before the Blow-up. And the Beast Things clung to the old cities where the worst mutations had occurred.
The men of the Eyrie had records to prove that their forefathers had been a small band of technicians and scientists engaged in some secret research, cut off from a world which disappeared so quickly. But there were the Plainsmen of the wide grasslands, also free from the taint of the beast, who had survived and now roamed with their herds.
And there might be others.
Who had started the nuclear war was unknown. Fors had once seen an old book containing jotted fragments of messages which had come out of the air through machines during a single horrible day. And these broken messages only babbled of the death of a world.
But that was all the men of the mountains knew of the last war. And while they fought ceaselessly to keep alive the old skills and learning there was so much, so very much, they no longer understood. They had old maps with pink and green, blue and yellow patches all carefully marked. But the pink and green, blue and yellow areas had had no defense against fire and death from the air and so had ceased to be. Only now could men, venturing out from their pockets of safety into the unknown, bring back bits of knowledge which they might piece together into history.
Somewhere, within a mile or so of the trail he had chosen, Fors knew that there was a section of pre-Blow-up road. And that might be followed by the cautious for about a day's journey north. He had seen and handled the various trophies brought back by his father and his father's comrades, but he had never actually traveled the old roads or sniffed the air of the lowlands for himself. His pace quickened to a lope and he did not even feel the steady pour of the rain which streamed across his body plastering even his blanket to him. Lura protested with every leap she made to keep pace with him, but she did not go back. The excitement which drew him on at such an unwary speed had spread to the always sensitive mind of the great cat who made her way through the underbrush with sinuous ease.
The old road was almost a disappointment when he stumbled out upon it. Once it must have had a smooth surface, but time, disuse, and the spreading greedy force of wild vegetation had seamed and broken it. Nevertheless it was a marvel to be examined closely by one who had never seen such footing before. Men had ridden on it once encased in machines. Fors knew that, he had seen pictures of such machines, but their fashioning was now a mystery. The men of the Eyrie knew facts about them, painfully dug out of the old books brought back from city lootings, but the materials and fuels for their production were now beyond hope of obtaining.
Lura did not like the roadway. She tried it with a cautious paw, sniffed at the upturned edge of a block, and went back to firm ground. But Fors stepped out on it boldly, walking the path of the Old Ones even when it would have been easier to take to the bush. It gave him an odd feeling of power to tread so. This stuff beneath his hide boots had been fashioned by those of his race who had been wiser and stronger and more learned. It was up to those of his breed to regain that lost wisdom.
The cat paused at his exultant call and swung the dark brown mask of her face toward him. Then she meowed plaintively, conveying the thought that she was being greatly misused by this excursion into the dampness of an exceedingly unpleasant day.
She was beautiful indeed.
Excerpted from Darkness and Dawn by Andre Norton Excerpted by permission.
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