Truth and Timeserpents
When a spider spins a web, she doesn’t use a ruler or a compass to calculate her angles. She weaves a perfect pattern every time, making corrections and changes at need as she goes along — but no one ever told her how. She doesn’t even possess a brain by the standards of people. She will never stand back and appraise her web from a distance — she is too small. But she will eat the prey she catches in it, and she will lay eggs whose inhabitants will weave their own webs.
So who is being clever — the spider or the web? And is consciousness the beginning of knowledge, or its end?
I am Jaya. I have been both the spider and the fly, and I can tell you this: the fly and the spider and the dew that makes the web visible are all part of something larger and more strange. For the spider to be conscious of herself, to know what she is, would mean she would equally know all that she is not, bringing great loneliness. But we all know about that. Because we are human. We nurse both consciousness and loneliness, inventing gods to keep us company while the spiders keep spinning in perfect ignorance. We are severed from the world — that is why we worship animals and use them and keep them close to us. Even as we subjugate them, we miss being like them. They are connected.
The timeserpent has a human face. It was built by human thought. But it was never human, and when its mouth yawns open, its face is seen to be a joke that all but disappears in the folds of its time-devouring and infinite body. It is the actualization of the impossible. The timeserpent’s mathematics defy the understanding of a man or woman for whom time is like a wind, with direction and force. The timeserpent is not conscious like we are. It speaks our language with about as much effort as we need to make our hair grow. The timeserpent is no more aware of us than this — maybe less. But we conceived it. We made it.
How do we feel about that, children of Everien?
Well, how does the ocean feel about humans, her progeny? We cannot know. We have grown so far from our mineral origins that the ocean does not understand us, but we, somehow, still cry out for her in our very blood. How does a man feel about the timeserpent, which is his? He created it but does not understand it. The timeserpent is the parasite of the world, conjoining and severing the world from itself, leaving holes and bridges, gateways and windows, lattices of possibility climbing in every direction.
We are a self-propagating accident. We are meaning from meaninglessness and back again. And when we made the timeserpent, we birthed the accident of accidents, the math that breaks our minds. Discovering fire was child’s play — it was the big toy by which we built our castles of abstraction. But this time we are being left behind. The nature of timeserpents being what it is (or isn’t), there’s nothing to say that the perverse creature didn’t create us so as to bring itself into being. That the web didn’t weave the spider. Look hard and you’ll see: there is nothing at all to prove that causality only runs one way.
Timeserpents are the bane of storytellers. They cut to the ending without reference to its antecedents. They put contradictions side by side, just for laughs. They tunnel connections between things that have none, and cut sensible things in half. They spoil magic tricks. Being a person in the presence of a timeserpent is a little like being a beam of light in the presence of a prism. You really don’t have a choice but to be cut up in pretty pieces and bent at an oblique angle.
So: if you are reading for truth, stop now. You will find more in the dust on your windowsill. Truth and timeserpents are like oil and water.
The Relative Hardness of Heads
“Shit,” Istar said into the frozen night. After the wraith of her breath disappeared, she repeated, “Shit shit shit.”
She wanted to tear her hair out. But she had cut off her braids when she tried to climb the cliff to escape Eteltar’s secret world. Now there was nothing to get a grip on. Instead, she grabbed the bones of her skull and squeezed with gloved fingers. She never ceased to be astonished by the hardness of her own head.
That was why she couldn’t believe it was possible to kill a man by crushing his skull like a melon. To do so would require unimaginable strength.
Yet if Taretel was behind this deed, she should not be surprised. Taretel, who in some other world or some other time had the wings of a bird and the mind of a wise man, was known here in Everien as a murderer and madman. He must have killed Birtar. Why, she could not understand. But there was much about Taretel that no one understood.
It had happened in the night, in the snowfall, when the winds came howling from the west, bearing ash and ice and everything in between, for the Li’ah’vah had passed there, changing air to stone and night to day. Last night, while Istar was dozing, Birtar must have come to watch the giant who everyone believed to be a Sekk master — everyone but Istar. There had been a time when Birtar had regularly done this duty, being one of the few men in her borrowed army, besides Pentar, that Istar could trust. But after what had happened yesterday, she had refused to allow Birtar near to the prisoner.
Yesterday. She had thought her situation complicated then — but now yesterday’s problems seemed gloriously easy to solve. Yesterday had marked the end of the first week following the passage of the Li’ah’vah through Everien’s mountains, a week during which Istar’s small army had been making steady progress toward the old camp above Fivesisters Lake, where Jakse had found the Knowledge cave. Yesterday, when Pentar had urgently come to summon Istar to talk strategy, he had brought Birtar to watch the prisoner for a short time. Normally, Birtar adopted a dispassionate attitude toward Taretel; but yesterday his manner had been strange. He had approached the bound and blindfolded Taretel with a swaggering air, one arm extended as if prepared to shove or slap the bigger man; but as he got closer, his reluctance to touch the Sekk became apparent in his posture, and in the end he drew his sword and prodded the prisoner with its tip as if Taretel were a shark or other sea monster that he had caught by luck and now didn’t know what to do with. A snarling noise came from the black-clad giant, whose silver braids blended with the snow like the plumage of an arctic bird. At Istar’s side, Pentar stiffened.
Nonplussed by Birtar’s behavior, Istar said, “Don’t provoke it.” She was careful not to call Taretel “he.” To speak of Taretel as human would only complicate matters. “It cannot walk quickly and it is bound. There is no need to keep it at sword point.”
“Nevertheless, I will,” Birtar answered somewhat shrilly. “It is my sword, and I will use it as I need.”
Istar thought his fear and Pentar’s were ludicrously magnified, but she said nothing. She turned to Pentar.
“What’s the matter? Tell me what’s happened.”
Pentar visibly collected himself, trudging some little distance away from Birtar and the Sekk as if unwilling to speak with Istar within their hearing. She kept the Sekk in her peripheral vision. She trusted neither it nor Birtar.
“It’s Tash,” he replied. “You remember how easily he fell back before us in Tyger Pass?”
“He did not live up to his reputation,” she said.
“He is a shrewd commander. I am sure that he knew he was at a disadvantage and decided to draw us into a location where he could have us at his mercy.”
“What are you talking about? Where is he now? I don’t see how we are at anyone’s mercy. We are a small force and no one knows where we are, and with the Li’ah’vah slicing up the landscape it is hard to see how Tash will have anyone at his mercy.”
“This is not the time for overconfidence.”
“I am not overconfident. You still have not told me what you know. Keep the analysis and give me the facts.”
“Very well. I sent a bird to Jakse and it has not returned. We know that he was associated with some of Tash’s people at Fivesisters Lake, and we can only assume that Tash knows about the Sekk cave by now. He was going downland from Tyger Pass, but he could have beaten us to the road and overtaken us. He could have gotten to the cave ahead of us.”
“Could have, might have ... what other evidence is there for this story? You sent a bird and it didn’t come back. That could mean anything.”
“Come with me.”
He had stopped at the base of a large pine standing in partial isolation within the canopy. Istar could see that footholds had been sliced in the bark, and there were rope burns on the dead lower branches. Seahawks used lookout trees when they could, and this was a typical specimen. She glanced over her shoulder toward Birtar and the Sekk. The latter was backed against the trunk of a tree, still and subdued, while Birtar, sword still out, paced in restless half circles around him. Istar was uneasy about leaving the two unattended, but Pentar was looking at her in such a way that said she had better climb the tree or he would begin to believe her Enslaved by the Sekk.
She climbed. Pentar soon disappeared below, although she could hear his voice calling up to her through the branches.
“Look west-northwest. Do you see the lake?”
Istar was struggling to get a clear vantage in that direction, since the tree seemed to want to give her a solid foothold only on the south side. At length, climbing a little higher than she really ought to, she fought her way to a position where she could look through the branches and see the horizon to the north. To the far left, where the slopes of the mountains made a steep V, she could just discern the lower end of Fivesisters Lake, frozen solid and covered with snow. The trees that had displayed their brilliant colors the last time she’d been in these parts were now naked, visible as a gray, characterless furze. The evergreens still hid the slopes of the hills, though, dark and secret.
“I see the lake,” she called, and then, almost immediately after, “What the hell’s that?”
There was smoke coming up from the dark trees on the shores of the lake. A lot of smoke.
“Do you see it?” Pentar’s excited voice drifted up.
“I see smoke. What’s causing that?”
“A camp. A battle. Hard to say, specifically — but that’s where Tash was headed.”
Istar shaded her eyes against the snowglare and looked carefully. “That’s one hell of a fire. I’ve never seen a forest fire in winter.”
Pentar said something she could not make out, and she ignored him for a moment, still looking intently. From this perspective she could not see the area where Xiriel’s cave had been purported to be. She wished that Xiriel had sent a bird or left a message in some other way. No one but he had a clue what to do about the cave, and Istar had been puzzling for some time over how to handle Jakse if she reached him before Xiriel could. Xiriel had left Jakse to guard the cave on behalf of the rebels, but Jakse had later taken up with Dario, a Clanswoman who had thrown her lot in with Tash. A typical Wasp, Dario was obviously hedging her bets as to who would emerge ruler of Everien: Tash or the rebel Clansmen; and as long as Jakse was associated with Dario, Istar could not trust him. She could not very well walk up to the cave and take over under such uncertain circumstances. For that matter, she did not know what the nature of the cave and its artifacts might be. Besides, with the captive Taretel in tow, she was wary of going anywhere near a reputed Sekk lair. Who knew how her prisoner might react if confronted with a Sekk — much less, how he would react if what Xiriel believed were true, and the Lake of Candles was in fact the very wellspring from which the Sekk were born. Istar felt insecure enough hiding out in the woods with only her own loyal followers to answer to, without blundering straight into a possible conjunction of Tash, the Sekk, and Jakse.
But the smoke could not be ignored, and she couldn’t hide in the woods forever. If nothing else, their provisions were running out, and in late winter hunting was difficult, and foraging, impossible. The men were spooked at the vision of the Li’ah’vah, and eager to return to some outpost of civilization from which they might hope to get news of their country and families.
Istar stared at the smoke. She didn’t know what to do.
She slithered out of the tree and, without looking at Pentar, said, “I agree that it is worrisome.”
“What should we do?”
“Well, we must not panic,” she said. “Tomorrow we move to the rendezvous and see what the scouts have to say. Maybe they can give us more information.”
“So we do nothing?”
“It is only one night,” Istar said mildly, and turned to go. She didn’t like leaving Taretel out of her sight.
Pentar said, “Wait. Just stay a moment, and talk.”
Istar fidgeted, but complied.
“I don’t like the way you spend all your time with the Sekk,” he said. “When I’m talking to you, sometimes I don’t know if I’m talking to you or to him.”
“Him? Don’t you mean ‘it’?”
“You know what I mean. There’s something different about this Sekk.”
Yes, Istar thought. There is. You don’t know the half of it.
“I’ve heard the stories about Taretel, and I’ve now seen his cave. We recovered some of his writing and we crossed over into that other ... place ... where we found you and a lot of birds, and some kind of crazy writing on the cliff face, like an Everien symbol-code.”
“What?” Istar was shocked. She knew that Eteltar had been carving something on that cliff, but she had never been able to stand back from it enough to get a good look at it. “How did you see his sculpture?”
From the Trade Paperback edition.