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The Helliconia Trilogy: Book One
By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
DEATH OF A GRANDFATHER
The sky was black, and men bearing torches came from the south gate. They were thickly wrapped in skins, and trod with a high step to get through the snow lying in the lanes. The holy man was coming! The holy man was coming!
Young Laintal Ay hid in the porch of the ruined temple, his face shining with excitement. He watched the procession trudge by between the old stone towers, each one encrusted on its east face with the snow that had arrived earlier in the day. He noticed how colour existed only at the spluttering ends of the torches, on the end of the holy father's nose, and in the tongues of the six- dog team that pulled him. In each case, the colour was red. The heavy-laden sky—in which the sentinel Batalix was buried—had leached all other colours away.
Father Bondorlonganon from distant Borlien was fat, and made fatter by the enormous furs he wore, furs of a kind not used in Oldorando. He had come alone to Oldorando—the men who accompanied him were local hunters, each one already known to Laintal Ay. It was on the father's face that the boy focussed all his attention, for strangers came seldom; he had been smaller, less tough, on the occasion of the father's last visit.
The holy man's face was oval, and massively creased by horizontal lines, into which such features as his eyes fitted as best they could. The lines seemed to compress his mouth into a long cruel shape. He sat his sledge and stared about him suspiciously. Nothing in his attitude suggested he liked being back in Oldorando. His gaze took in the ruined temple; this visit was necessary because Oldorando had killed its priesthood some generations ago, as he knew. His uncomfortable stare rested a moment on the boy standing between two square pillars.
Laintal Ay stared back. It seemed to him that the priest's look was cruel and calculating; but he could hardly expect to think well of a man who was coming to perform last rites over his dying grandfather.
He smelt the dogs as they went by, and the tarry scent of burning torches. The procession turned and was heading up the main street, away from the temple. Laintal Ay was in two minds about following. He stood on the steps and hugged himself, watching as the sledge's arrival attracted people from their towers, despite the cold.
In the murk at the far end of the lane, under the big tower where Laintal Ay and his family lived, the procession halted. Slaves appeared to deal with the dogs—they would be housed in the stable under the tower—while the holy father climbed stiffly from his perch and bundled into shelter.
At the same time a hunter approached the temple from the south gate. It was a black bearded man called Aoz Roon, whom the boy greatly admired for his swaggering air. Behind him, shackles clamped round horny ankles, trudged an ancient phagor slave, Myk.
"Well, Laintal, I see the father has arrived from Borlien. Aren't you going to welcome him?"
"Why not? You remember him, don't you?"
"If he didn't come, my grandfather wouldn't be dying."
Aoz Roon clapped him on the shoulder.
"You're a good lad, you'll survive. One day, you will rule Embruddock yourself." He used the old name for Oldorando, the name in fashion before Yuli's people came, two generations before the present Yuli, who now lay awaiting the priest's rites.
"I'd rather have Grandfather alive than be a ruler."
Aoz Roon shook his head. "Don't say that. Anyone would rule, given the opportunity. I would."
"You'd make a good ruler, Aoz Roon. When I grow up, I'm going to be like you, and know everything and kill everything."
Aoz Roon laughed. Laintal Ay thought what a fine figure he cut, as his teeth flashed between bearded lips. He saw ferocity, but not the priest's slyness. Aoz Roon was in many ways heroic. He had a natural daughter called Oyre, almost Laintal Ay's age. And he wore a suit of black skins unlike anyone else's, cut from a giant mountain bear he had slain single-handed.
Carelessly, Aoz Roon said, "Come on, your mother will want you at this time. Climb on Myk and he'll give you a ride."
The great white phagor put out his horned hands and allowed the boy to scramble up his arms onto his bowed shoulders. Myk had been in servitude in Embruddock a long while; his kind lived longer than humans. He said, in his thick, choking voice, "Come on, boy."
Laintal Ay reached up and clasped the horns of the ancipital for security. As a sign of his enslavement the sharp double edges of Myk's horns had been filed smooth.
The three figures trudged up the time-worn street, heading towards warmth as the dark closed in on another of the countless nights of winter—a winter that had ruled over this tropical continent for centuries. Wind shifted powdery snow from ledges; it drifted down on them.
As soon as holy father and dogs had entered the big tower, the onlookers disappeared, scurrying back to their billets. Myk set down Laintal Ay in the trampled snow. The boy gave Aoz Roon a cheery wave as he dashed himself against the double doors set in the base of the building.
A stench of fish greeted him in the murk. The dog team had been fed on gout hooked from the frozen Voral. They jumped up as the boy entered, barking savagely on their leashes, showing their sharp teeth. A human slave who had accompanied the father shouted ineffectually to them to keep quiet. Laintal Ay growled back, keeping his fingers wrapped under his arms, and climbed the wooden stairs.
Light filtered from above. Six floors were piled above the stable. He slept in a corner on the next floor. His mother and grandparents were on the top floor. Between lived various hunters in his grandfather's service; as the boy passed by, they turned their broad backs to him, being already busy packing. Laintal Ay saw, as he climbed to his floor, that Father Bondorlonganon's few belongings had been deposited here. The man had installed himself, and would sleep nearby. No doubt he would snore; grown-ups generally did. He stood looking down at the priest's blanket, marvelling at the strangeness of its texture, before going upstairs to where his grandfather lay.
Laintal Ay paused with his head through the hatch, staring into the room, viewing everything from the perspective of the floor. This was really his grandmother's room, the room of Loil Bry since girlhood, since the time of her father, Wall Ein Den, who had been lord of the Den tribe, Lord of Embruddock. It was filled now with Loil Bry's shadow. She stood with her back to a fire burning in an iron brazier close by the opening through which her grandson peered. The shadow loomed upon walls and low-beamed ceiling, threateningly. Of the elaborate tapestried gown that his grandmother always wore, nothing transferred to the walls but an uncertain outline, with sleeves converted to wings.
Three other people in the room appeared dominated by Loil Bry and her shadow. On a couch in one corner lay Little Yuli, his chin jutting above the furs that covered him. He was twenty-nine years old, and worn out. The old man was muttering. Loilanun, Laintal Ay's mother, sat next to him, clutching her elbows with her hands, a woebegone look on her sallow face. She had not yet noticed her son. The man from Borlien, Father Bondorlonganon, sat nearest Laintal Ay, his eyes closed, praying aloud.
It was the prayer as much as anything which halted Laintal Ay. Normally he loved to be in this room, full of his grandmother's mysteries. Loil Bry knew so many fascinating things, and to some extent took the place of Laintal Ay's father, who had been killed while on a stungebag hunt.
Stungebags contributed to the foetid honey smell in the room. One of the monsters had been caught recently, and brought home bit by bit. Broken shards of plating, chopped from its back, helped fuel the fire and keep the cold at bay. The pseudo-wood burned with a yellow flame, sizzling as it burned.
Laintal Ay looked at the west wall. There was his grandmother's porcelain window. Faint light from outside transfused it with a sullen orange glow, scarcely competition for the firelight.
"It looks funny in here," he said at last.
He came up one more step, and the bright eyes of the brazier gleamed at him.
The father unhurriedly finished his prayer to Wutra and opened his eyes. Netted among the compressed horizontal lines of his face, they were unable to open far, but he fixed them gently on the boy and said, without preliminary greeting, "You'd better come here, my lad. I've brought something from Borlien for you."
"What's that?" He held his hands behind his back.
"Come and see."
"Is it a dagger?"
"Come and see." He sat perfectly still. Loil Bry sobbed, the dying man groaned, the fire spat.
Laintal Ay approached the father warily. He could not grasp how people could live in places other than Oldorando: it was the centre of the universe—elsewhere there was only wilderness, the wilderness of ice that stretched for ever and occasionally erupted in phagor invasions.
Father Bondorlonganon produced a little hound and placed it in the boy's palm. It was scarcely longer than the palm. It was carved, as he recognised, out of kaidaw horn, with a wealth of detail which delighted him. Thick coat curled over the hound's back, and the minute paws had pads. He examined it for a while before discovering that the tail moved. When it was wagged up and down, the dog's lower jaw opened and closed.
There had never been a toy like it. Laintal Ay ran round the room in excitement, barking, and his mother jumped up to shush him, catching him in her arms.
"One day, this lad will be Lord of Oldorando," Loilanun said to the father, as if by way of explanation. "He will inherit."
"Better he should love knowledge and study to know more," said Loil Bry, almost as an aside. "Such was my Yuli's preference." She wept afresh into her hands.
Father Bondorlonganon squeezed his eyes a little more and enquired Laintal Ay's age.
"Six and a quarter years." Only foreigners had to ask such questions. "Well, you're almost at manhood. In another year, you'll become a hunter, so you'd better soon decide. Which do you want more, power or knowledge?" He stared at the floor.
"Both, sir ... or whichever comes easier."
The priest laughed, and dismissed the boy with a gesture, waddling over to see his charge. He had ingratiated himself: now, business. His ear, attuned by experience to the visitation of death, had caught the sound of a change in the rate of Little Yuli's breathing. The old man was about to leave this world for a perilous journey down along his land-octave to the obsidian world of the gossies. Getting the women to aid him, Bondorlonganon stretched the leader out with his head to the west, lying on his side.
Pleased to be released from inquisition, the boy rolled on the floor, fighting with his horn dog, barking softly back at it as it furiously exercised its jaw. His grandfather passed away while one of the most savage dogfights in the history of the world was taking place.
Next day, Laintal Ay wished to stay close to the priest from Borlien, in case he had more toys hidden in his garments. But the priest was busy visiting the sick, and in any case Loilanun kept firm hold of her son.
Laintal Ay's natural rebelliousness was curbed by the quarrels that broke out between his mother and his grandmother. He was the more surprised because the women had been loving to each other when his grandfather lived. The body of Yuli, he who was named after the man who came with Iskador from the mountains, was carted off, stiff as a frozen pelt, as if his last act of will was to hold himself rigidly away from his woman's caresses. His absence left a black corner in the room, where Loil Bry squatted, turning only to snap at her daughter.
All the tribe were built solid, buttressed with subcutaneous fat. Loil Bry's once renowned stature still lingered, though her hair was grey and her head lost between her shoulder bones as she stooped over the cold bed of that man of hers—that man loved with intense passion for half a lifetime, since she first beheld him, an invader, wounded.
Loilanun was of poorer stuff. The energy, the power to love, the broad face with seeking eyes like dark sails, had missed Loilanun, passing direct from grandmother to young Laintal Ay. Loilanun was strawy, her skin sallow; since her husband died so young, there was a falter in her walk—and a falter too, perhaps, in her attempt to emulate her mother's regal command of knowledge. She was irritable now, as Loil Bry wept almost continuously in the corner.
"Mother, give over—your din gets on my nerves."
"You were too feeble to mourn your man properly! I'll weep, I'll weep till I'm taken, I'll bleed tears."
"Much good it will do you." She offered her mother bread, but it was refused with a contemptuous gesture. "Shay Tal made it."
"I won't eat."
"I'll have it, Mumma," Laintal Ay said.
Aoz Roon arrived outside the tower and called up, holding his natural daughter Oyre by the hand. Oyre was a year younger than Laintal Ay, and waved enthusiastically to him, as he and Loilanun stuck their heads out of the window.
"Come up and see my toy dog, Oyre. It's a real fighter, like your father."
But his mother bundled him back into the room and said sharply to Loil Bry, "It's Aoz Roon, wishing to escort us to the burial. Can I tell him yes?"
Rocking herself slightly, not turning, the old woman said, "Don't trust anyone. Don't trust Aoz Roon—he has too much effrontery. He and his friends hope to gain the succession."
"We've got to trust someone. You'll have to rule now, Mother."
When Loil Bry laughed bitterly, Loilanun looked down at her son, who stood smiling and clutching the horn dog. "Then I shall, till Laintal Ay becomes a man. Then he'll be Lord of Embruddock."
"You're a fool if you think his uncle Nahkri will permit that," the old woman responded.
Loilanun said no more, drawing her mouth up in a bitter line, letting her regard sink down from her son's expectant face to the skins which covered the floor. She knew that women did not rule. Already, even before her father was put under, her mother's power over the tribe was going, flowing away as the river Voral flowed, none knew where. Turning on her heel, she shouted out of the window, without more ado, "Come up."
So abashed was Laintal Ay by this look of his mother's, as if she perceived he would never be a match for his grandfather—never mind the more ancient bearer of the name of Yuli—that he hung back, too wounded to greet Oyre when she marched into the chamber with her father.
Aoz Roon was fourteen years of age, a handsome, swaggering, young hunter who, after a sympathetic smile at Loilanun and a rumple of Laintal Ay's hair, went over to pay his respects to the widow. This was Year 19 After Union, and already Laintal Ay had a sense of history. It lurked in the dull-smelling comers of this old room, with its damps and lichens and cobwebs. The very word history reminded him of wolves howling between the towers, the snow at their rumps, while some old boney hero breathed his last.
Not only was Grandfather Yuli dead. Dresyl also had died. Dresyl, Yuli's cousin-brother, Laintal Ay's great-uncle, the father of Nahkri and Klils. The priest had been summoned and Dresyl had gone down rigid into the dirt, the dirt of history.
The boy remembered Dresyl with affection, but he feared his quarrelsome uncles, those sons of Dresyl, Nahkri and the boastful Klils. As far as he understood these things, he expected that—no matter what his mother said—old traditions would guarantee it was Nahkri and Klils who would rule. At least they were young. He would make himself a good hunter, and then they would respect him, instead of ignoring him as at present. Aoz Roon would help.
The hunters did not leave the hamlet this day. Instead, they all attended the funeral of their old lord. The holy father had calculated exactly where the grave should be, close by a curiously carved stone, where the ground was softened enough by hot springs for burial to be possible.
Aoz Roon escorted the two ladies, wife and daughter of Little Yuli, to the place. Laintal Ay and Oyre followed, whispering to each other, with their slaves and Myk, the phagor, following them. Laintal Ay worked his barking dog to make Oyre giggle.
Excerpted from Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1982 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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