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Above the Rim Ranges, layer upon layer of cloud strands gleamed every shade between yellow and purple in the dying sunlight. Merral tried to absorb all he could of the sights, sounds, and smells of dusk. Down below the ridge, away to his right, crows preparing to roost were wheeling noisily around a pine tree. Far to his left, there was a moving, snuffling grayness under the edges of the birch forests that he knew was a herd of deer. Hanging in the cold fresh air was the smell of winter, new trees, and a new earth.
The beauty of it moved Merral's heart, and he raised his head and cried out with joy, "To the Lord of all worlds be praise and honor and glory and power!"
The words echoed briefly and a gust of wind out of the north dragged them away, down through the trees and bare rocks.
Silent in awed worship, he sat there for long minutesuntil another chill gust made him shiver, as much in anticipation as in actual cold. He bent down to his horse. "Now, Graceful," he murmured, "good girl, onward."
Obedient as ever, the mare moved forward over the frozen ground.
Merral knew it would not be wise to wait longer. The Antalfers expected him, and the nights of deep winter could be cruel this far north. Besides, as on any young world, there was always the chance of a sudden local weather anomaly. Such an irregularity might be only a few kilometers across-too small to be picked up by a weather satellite-but enough to freeze solid an unprotected man and horse in under an hour.
Merral rode on along a rough snowy trail which wound its way round blocks of lava, toying lightly with the wish that he had been born a poet or painter rather than a forester so that he could better express his love for this place and this life. But it wasn't long before he laughed at the aspiration and pushed it to one side. The Most High had made him what he was, and that was enough.
He peered ahead along the track, straining in the gloom to see the way ahead. The Herrandown Forward Colony was so small-a tree-surrounded hamlet of fifty people in six extended families-that it would be easy to overlook it at night. After some more minutes of cautious riding, he caught a glimpse of a tiny sliver of golden light in the distance. He smiled happily at the thought of his uncle or aunt leaving the shutters open so that the light would guide him in. He patted his mount, seeing her breath in the cold air. "Nearly there, my Graceful, and Aunt Zennia will have something for you."
Five minutes later he emerged abruptly from between the fir trees into the broad clearing that acted as the rotorcraft landing pad and marked the southern margin of the hamlet. As he rode out into the open, the dogs around the farm started to bark, and their dark shapes bounded across the packed snow toward him. Merral reined in as he met the dogs and, reaching down to stroke them, tried to identify as many as he could in the gloom.
"Fastbite, good dog!" he shouted. "Oh, Spotback, it's you! And Quiver, eh? Been having more pups, I hear? Brownlegs? No-it's Stripes. Look, stop licking so much!"
A door slid open smoothly in the ground-hugging building ahead. Light streamed out briefly onto the path before being abruptly blocked by the silhouette of a tall, well-built woman with long hair.
"Merral! Praise be! Children! Barrand! It's Merral! Now, mind the ice over there," she cried, half running to him. "Here, Nephew, give me a kiss!"
For a moment all was chaos as, barely allowing time for him to dismount, his aunt Zennia embraced and kissed him, while the children streamed out to hold and hug him and ask a dozen overlapping questions. And all the while the dogs, barking joyously, bounded in between Graceful's legs.
"Nephew Merral! Welcome!" A deep, jovial voice that seemed to echo came out of the door of the house. "Why, it's been months!"
Dogs and children gave way as the large figure of Uncle Barrand, his profile almost bearlike in the gloom, ambled over and hugged Merral to the point of pain as he kissed both cheeks fiercely and repeatedly.
"Excellent! Praise be! Your pack I will take. Thomas? Where is the boy?" His uncle's bulk swiveled around slowly. "Dogs I see, girls I see, but my only son is missing. Ah, there you are, Thomas! Good, you have a coat on. Take your cousin Merral and his horse-Graceful isn't it? Thought so-I'd know her even on another world. Take them to the winter stable. I'd take you, but I'm cooking tonight. Girls! Wife! It is cold. Indoors now, and let us finish preparing supper for our guest. He has ridden far. And Thomas ..."
"What, Father?" piped the small voice from by Merral's side.
"Just take your dog into the stables. Not the whole pack."
Merral just made out a dutiful nod from the figure beside him. "Yes, Father! Here, Stripes! The rest of you dogs! You go off to your kennels! Shoo!" With what seemed to be regret, the other dogs drifted off obediently.
Thomas, short but well built for his seven years, took Merral's sleeve and tugged. "Cousin, we have a new stable for winter. An' I helped Daddy build it. We digged ..." There was a pause. "Dugged? Dug it together in summer. Over here."
Merral ruffled the boy's black, wiry hair. "It's good to see you again, Thomas."
"Cousin, the stable is real warm over winter. We got twenty cows, fifteen sheep. When the station says it's gonna be real cold, we even send the dogs in. An' we put all our horses there, of course."
The track they followed went round the side of the low earth banks that gave some protection from the weather to the Antalfers' house and down a ramp into a mound. Merral had seen the plans when he'd come by in midsummer; the bitter cold of the last two winters had made a shelter a necessity. Inside the double sliding doors, the long, narrow structure was warm with the smell of animals. Merral led Graceful into an empty pen, made sure she had clean water and hay, and then spent time checking her over, running his hands over her legs and checking the dura-polymer hoof shields. "Good. She seems fine," he told his cousin. "Always check your animals, Thomas. They are your friends, not your servants."
The child nodded and hugged the dog, which licked his face. "Dad says that. I get a horse of my own in two years. I'm gonna really look after him." Merral nodded and patted the horse's head gently.
"Good girl, Graceful. Well done."
The brown head twisted up from the hay and rubbed itself against his hand as if in mute acknowledgement of the praise.
Merral stretched himself. "Well, I'm hungry, Master Thomas, so let's go."
* * *
Once outside the doors of the stable, Merral suddenly felt the cold anew. The wind had intensified and was swirling round the building, kicking up little eddies of snow. The last gleam of twilight had gone, leaving the molten fire of the stars and the great belt of the Milky Way splendid in the blackness of the sky above him. Despite the frigid air and his appetite, Merral paused in his stride and looked up in wonder.
"You know your stars, Thomas?"
"'Course! Well, most of 'em. Dad's taught me some. He says we should see twenty with people on 'em."
"Twenty?" Merral thought hard. The naked-eye count for Farholme was supposed to be about fifty occupied systems, but that was from Isterrane; no, the boy was right-this far north you'd see less than half of that.
"On Ancient Earth," he remarked, as much to himself as to Thomas, "they say you can see over two hundred. And almost all the remaining thirteen hundred with a small optical telescope."
"Sol 'n' Terra are over there, just below the Gate." Thomas' voice was quiet.
Merral followed his outstretched hand to the heart of the Milky Way, a few degrees below where six sharp golden points of light marked out a hexagon in the blackness.
"Yes. That's it. Sol and Terra: the Ancient Sun and Earth. Well, time to get in or we'll freeze."
Merral bent down to take the boy's hand, but as he did, his eye caught a movement of the stars. He straightened, watching the approaching speck of light as it grew in size.
"Look, Thomas, a meteor!"
As he spoke, the point of yellow light, expanding a thousandfold, tore northward almost directly overhead. Its brilliance was such that, for a few seconds, the light of all the other stars was lost.
Merral twisted round, seeing the whole snow-clad landscape flashing alight in a brilliant incandescent whiteness. In the brief moments that the light lasted he glimpsed his and Thomas's shadows form and then race away as fading, elongated smears on the snow.
Abruptly the night flooded back.
As Merral blinked, a thunderous, echoing rumble vibrated around them, the sound bouncing off rocks and snow and resounding back round the clearing. The ground seemed to shake gently.
"Zow!" yelped Thomas, his fingers flung over his ears. "That was noisy!"
Stripes howled in terror, and from near the house came the barking of the other dogs. The outer door slid open.
"Thomas? Merral? What was that?" Zennia's voice was anxious.
Merral shook himself, the afterimage of the light still haunting his vision. "Just a meteor. I think."
"Come on, Thomas. Suppertime."
* * *
They crowded into the hallway, which was bare but beautifully paneled in a light, oil-polished pine, as the double doors whispered shut behind them. Barrand's big red face, framed by his ragged black curly beard, peered out of the kitchen. "A meteor, eh? We felt the house vibrate. 'Ho!' I thought. 'Merral is doing my quarrying for me!'"
"What, Uncle? Cheat you of your pleasure?"
There was the sound of something bubbling. A look of apprehension crossed Barrand's weathered face, and he dashed back into the steam of the kitchen.
Merral took off his jacket and carefully hung it on a rack, relishing the smell of the food and the warmth of the house. He sat on a bench and pulled his boots off, enjoying the feeling of being back in a place that he had always loved. He stroked the wood of the walls gently, feeling its faint grain. Even in a society that prized the right use of wood, Barrand and Zennia's home was special. Since his first visit, Merral had always felt that the house, with its sizeable underground extension, was something that had grown rather than been built. Even if the unruliest of winds struck the exposed part of the building so hard that every timber vibrated, down in the lower parts you could feel as safe and snug as if you were inside the roots of a giant tree.
"But it was a meteor?" His uncle's face had appeared again round the door. Merral sat upright suddenly, his tired back muscles signaling their presence.
"Must have been. But the biggest I've ever seen. It was heading northward. I suppose it probably landed over the Rim Ranges somewhere in the crater."
"Oh, it'll do no harm there. End up as a handful of dust."
There was amusement in his gray eyes. "Anyway, you have ten minutes, assuming this new recipe behaves itself. Your usual room. Just time for a shower."
"A quick shower it is." And with that, Merral picked up his pack and climbed up the stairs to the guest room.
* * *
Some minutes later, Merral was combing his hair and wondering why a shower and clean clothes made so much difference when there was a soft knock on his door.
"Come in!" he called out. In the mirror, he saw a face peer round the door-an oval face with pale blue eyes overhung by an untidy fringe of curly blonde hair. Merral turned round. "Elana! How are you?"
Elana, the oldest and blondest of the three Antalfer girls, was something of a favorite of Merral's. He had a private opinion that she was also the deepest and most thoughtful of them. Although she wasn't fourteen until next month, Merral had felt even on his last visit in high summer that she already had one foot beyond childhood. Now she came into the narrow room and stood under a curving wood beam. She stretched delicately upright on tiptoe and gave him a beaming smile. "I'm fine, Cousin. And you are well?"
Merral looked at her carefully, recognizing in those modifications of her physique the woman so imminent in the girl. "Praise our Lord. I have gained a few more scratches and bruises since I last saw you. And some aches from riding over hard ground. But I am well."
"You rode here just to see us?"
"Sorry! No, I need to talk to your father about his quarry, so my trip here is part of work."
She stared at him, amused puzzlement in her eyes. "I thought you were a forester!"
"I still am. But there's no point in us planting a forest if your dad is going to dig a big hole in it, is there now?"
"No, I suppose not." Elana smiled. "Actually, Merral, I came to say that food is nearly served."
"Lead the way."
He followed Elana to the dining hall, noting a new painting on a wall above a stairway. He reminded himself that he must make time to look at his aunt's latest work. He might ask her to do something for his parents' thirty-fifth wedding anniversary next year. He made a mental note that when it came to planning what to do with his stipend next year, he needed to include the cost of the painting.
The dining hall lay in the deepest part of the house, and although it was the largest room, it seemed already full as he entered. Merral tried to identify everybody. On one side were his aunt, the two younger daughters-Lenia and Debora-and, of course, Thomas. On the other were Barrand's parents, Imanos and Irena, and a young couple from the next house.
Merral made his way to the seat offered to him at one end of the table. As he did, Barrand came in bearing a great pot and the chattering ceased. Quietly, everybody stood up and stepped back behind their chairs. Thomas, too short to see over the solid back of his, peered round instead at Merral.
There was silence. Barrand raised his big, gnarled hands to the heavens. "For your love and presence with us, O Lord, our protector and mighty one, and for your kindness to us, we thank you now. In the name of the Prince, the Messiah, our Savior."
A second's solemn silence was ended abruptly with a chorus of "Amen," and then the scraping and clattering of chairs and talking.
As he sat down, Merral looked around the dining room. The way the side beams sloped inward toward the floor made it easy to imagine that he was deep down in the hull of a boat. It had taken them the ten years they had been in the house to acquire just the right panels, matching in grain and tone, to complete the dining room. Along some of the roof beams, his uncle had started carving animals to what Merral recognized as his aunt's designs.
The meal was like all the many meals Merral had had at Herrandown, with lots of food, endless noisy chatter, and half a dozen conversations bouncing and jumping around and across the table. Merral was pleased to find that his own substantial appetite by no means outmatched the others at the table. In fact, everyone seemed to be happily hungry. His uncle revealed nothing about the stew other than the fact that the beef-protein had been grown locally and the girls had picked the mushrooms for it in autumn.
Barrand looked up at him. "The family, Merral? You tell us the latest."
"Well, it is five days since I left Ynysmant and I have covered a lot of ground, but when I left all were well, may the Most High be praised, and I have had no news of any change. The only thing is that Great-Aunt Namia down at Larrenport is not well. She is now very frail; she feels she will be going Home to the Lord in the spring. The doctor thinks she is right."
Imanos, a silver-haired man with an air of gentle nobility, spoke. "Namia Mena D'Avanos? The language teacher?"
"That would be her."
"Why, she taught my mother Old-Mandarin; Mama was so proud of mastering it. 'The hardest of all the Historics,' she said." He paused, smiling quietly. "I was very glad to be spared it. But she must be very old now. A hundred and twenty at least?"
"A hundred and twenty-four. But still alert and still praising."
Excerpted from the shadow and night by Chris Walley Copyright © 2004 by Chris Walley. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 10, 2012
Posted December 18, 2010
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