(See also the introduction to this story by this week’s reprint curator, Debbie Notkin.)
Originally published in The Berkley Showcase: New Writings in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 1, April 1980.
This is the story of a goddess Who had once been a woman named Jael, and what She did.
She lived in a cave on an island. Around Her island of Mykneresta lay others: Kovos and Nysineria, Hechlos, Dechlas, and larger, longer, fish-shaped Rys, where the Fire God lived within his fuming, cone-shaped house. She was the Goddess. From Her cave sprang the vines and grains that women and men reaped from the fertile ground; from the springs of Her mountain welled the clear water that made the ground fertile, and gave life. Her mountain towered over the land. When She grew angry the lightning tore from the skies over Her cave, and the goats went mad on the mountainsides. “Hard as frost, indolent as summer rain, spare us, spare us. O Lady of the Lightning,” Her poets sang. Sometimes the music appeased Her, and then She smiled, and the skies smiled clear and purple-blue, as some said Her eyes must be. But they were not: they were dark and smoky-green, like the color in the heart of a sunlit pool, touched to movement by a summer shower.
They smoked now. Above Her cave lightning reached webbed fingers to the stars. “The Lady is angry,” whispered the villagers. Inside the vast cavern that was Her home She stood staring at a pulsing screen. It burned and leaped with pinpoints of light. She read the message from the screen as easily as a scribe reads writing, and Her fingers sent a rapid reply out to the waiting stars.
WHY DO THE MEN OF RYS ARM FOR WAR?
MYKNERESTA IS A PEACEFUL AND FRUITFUL PLACE.
A moment passed, and the patterns answered, scrolling lines of amber fire on the dark, metallic screen.
PROBABILITIES PROJECT RYS AN EMPIRE.
THIS IS DESIRABLE. DO NOT IMPEDE.
Jael stared at the fading pattern, and swept a fierce hand across the board. The message vanished; above the cave’s roof, fireballs rolled and then disappeared down the sides of the mountain.
This is desirable. In her mind, the silent screens retained a voice, a cool, sardonic, male voice. War! She scowled across the room. An ugly, evil thing she knew it was—though she had never seen a war. She did not desire war on Mykneresta. Yet it was “desirable” that Rys become an empire. Were the worshippers of the Fire God to rule, eventually, all of the planet Methys? She snorted. The Fire God had once been only a man, named Yron. Long ago, when they had been much younger, they had used the lumenings, the lightscreens, to talk with one another across the planet. But that had been an age ago, it seemed. She did not want to talk to Yron now.
Are you jealous, she asked herself, because his children will rule a world, and yours will not? She caught herself thinking it, and laughed. What nonsense to be feeling, that she, who had seen five worlds, and governed four, should care who or what ruled on a little planet round a little sun, whirling on an arm of a vast galaxy, a galaxy ruled by Reorth. Yet—Methys was important. Long-term assignments to undeveloped planets were not made unless they were important. Somewhere on a probability-line Methys was a key, a focus of power. Somewhere on Reorth, in the great block-like towers that held their machines, a technician had seen this world matched to a time within a nexus of possibilities, and had decided that, changed thus and so, moved in this or that direction, Methys could matter. Do not impede. Reorth wants a war.
Jael stepped away from the cavern which held the lumenings, the spyeyes, and all the other machines that made her Goddess. She walked along passageways, grown with fungus that glowed as she passed it, and ducked through a door cut into the rock. Now she was outside. Above her the night sky gleamed, thick with stars. Wind whipped round the granite crags with words hidden in its howls. She rubbed her arms with her hands, suddenly cold. It was autumn, drawing close to winter. I wonder how Yron likes living in his volcano, she thought, all smoke. That made her smile. With the bracelets on her slim wrists she drew a cloak of warmth around herself, and sent ahead of her, along the hard ground, a beam of yellow light. Slowly she walked down the mountainside, listening, smelling, tasting the life that roamed in the darkness. Once a cougar leaped to pace beside her, great head proud. She reached to stroke it. It sprang away, regarding her with widened eyes. She could compel it back—but even as she thought it, she rejected the thought. It was part of the night, with the wind and the starlight. Let it run free.
She came at last to the path which led to the villages—a worn and hidden path it was, and even she could not remember when it first was made. One bright star shone through the tree trunks. She stared at its flickering yellow light. It was not a star, but flame. Curious, she dimmed the light from her bracelets and walked toward it. Who would dare to come so far up the mountainside? It was almost a sacrilege. Perhaps it was a poet; they did strange things sometimes. Perhaps some traveler, lost and tired and unable to go on, had dared to build a small fire almost at Her door, praying Her to spare him in his hour of need.
But it was more substantial than that; it was a house, a rough-hewn cabin, and at the side of the house was a rain barrel, and there was a yellow curtain at the window. Marveling a little, Jael went up to the curtain and put her eye to the gap where it flapped.
She saw a small room, with a neat pallet on the floor, a table, a chair near the hearth, a candle on the table. From the low rafters, like bats, hung bunches and strings of herbs, roots, leaves, a witchwoman’s stock. A woman sat on the chair, bending forward, poking at the fire with a long forked stick.
Jael understood. This was a woman who had chosen, as was her right, to live alone; to take no man and bear no children; to be, instead, wise-woman, healer, barren yet powerful in her choice, for did not the Goddess honor those who chose to be lonely in Her service? She watched. The woman rose. She went to a chest beside the bed, took out a sheepskin cape, and began to pick the burrs from it.
Suddenly she turned toward the window. Jael drew back instinctively, and then caught herself and used the bracelets to blur the air around her, so that she could stand still and not be seen. Gray eyes seemed to look right into hers; gray eyes like smoke, framed by the smoke of long dark hair.
Then the dark head bowed and was covered by the cloak’s hood. She walked to the door. Jael blurred herself wholly to human eyes and waited as the witchwoman opened the door and closed it behind her. She wondered (even She) where, on the Lady’s mountain, even a witch would dare to go.
She walked along the path that followed the stream bed. Jael followed behind her, hidden and silent. At the pool by the waterfall, she knelt. Jael smiled. This was one of Her places; it was not so long ago that She had showed Herself, under the glare of a harvest moon, to an awed crowd. Now the stream bed was clogged with fallen leaves, but it was still a holy place. The waterfall was a small but steady drip over the lip of rock to the clear dark pool below.
The witchwoman knelt on the flat stones that ringed the pool’s edge, staring into the fecund depth of water. Her face was grave and still. At last she rose, and made her way to the path. Her silent homage made Jael hesitate. But she decided not to follow the witchwoman to her cabin. Instead, she returned to her cave. Stalking to the lumenings, she lit them with a wave of her hand, and then, irresolute, stood thinking what to say.
EXPLAIN NEED FOR EMPIRE AT THIS TIME.
The lights pulsed and went dim. She waited. No answer appeared. Oh well—they might answer another time. The question would surprise them. Jael remembered years of famine, of drought, of blight. Once She had sent a plague. It had hurt, watching the inexorable processes of disease and death sweep over Her people. She had not asked reasons for that.
War is different, she thought.
But how can I know that? I have never seen a war. Perhaps it is just like a plague. But plague is natural, she thought. War is made by men.
What’s this? she asked herself. That plague was not “natural,” you made it, with your training and your machines. What makes this different? Woman of Reorth, she said sternly, naming herself in her own mind, as she rarely did, how are you different from a war?
The next day brought no answer from the lumenings, nor did the one after that, nor the one after that.
Autumn began the steep slide into winter. Round the Lady’s mountain it rained and rained, gullying the fields, now stripped of grain, and washing the last leaves from the thin trees. The waterfall sang strongly for a time.
Then one morning the ground was white and cold and hard, and ice spears tipped the trees and fences, and hung from the eaves. Village children drove their herds into barns, whooping and shouting, snapping willow switches from the dead branches of the willow trees. Men gathered wood; women counted over the apples and dried ears of corn that filled the storerooms, and prayed to the Goddess for a gentle winter. Mountain goats watched the stooping wood gatherers with disdainful eyes, their coats grown shaggy and long, for in winter the hunting stopped. In Rys and allied Hechlos the mining ceased. Only in the smithies the men worked, forging swords and knives and shields and spear and arrowheads. In the smithies it stayed warm.
Sometime during the winter procession of ice, snow, and thaw, Reorth answered. The lumenings lit, held a pattern for a few moments, and then went dark.
It was the outline of a machine, sketched in light. For weeks Jael could not think what it might mean. She had decided to dismiss it as a misdirected transmission, meant for someone, when one night she dreamed. It was a dream of Reorth, of home. She woke, weeping for a world she had not seen in three hundred years, and, in the darkness of her cave, heard herself say aloud the name of the machine.
It was a chronoscope, one of the great machines that scanned the timelines. She had not seen one in—in—she could not remember how long. Rage filled her. Was she a child, to be answered with pictures? The contemptuousness of the response brought her in haste to the screen, fingers crooked, ready to scorch the sky with lightning.
But she caught her hands back in mid-reach. The folk who had sent her here would not be impressed with her anger. The answer was plain, as they had meant it. The need is there, seen in the timelines. You know your job. Do as you are told.
Do not impede.
The year moved on. The waterfall over the pool froze into fantastic sculpted shapes, thawed, fell, froze again. The pool did not freeze. Only its color changed, deepening under stormy skies to black. The villagers did not visit it, but the witchwoman, Akys, did, coming to kneel on the icy, slippery stones once or twice each week.
The witchwoman’s cabin by the streambed was as far up the Lady’s mountain as the villagers would venture. They came reluctantly, drawn by need: a sick child, a sick cow, an ax wound. The women came first, and then the men. This was as it should be, for men had no place on Her mountain.
More rarely, the witchwoman went to the villagers, down the steep pathway from her home to the rutted village streets. How the knowledge came she was never sure, save that it did come, like a tugging within her head, a warning that something was amiss in wood or village. Once it was a girl who had slipped gathering kindling and wedged her legs between two rocks. Akys had gone down to the village to fetch the villagers and bring them to the child. Once a fire started in a storeroom; they never discovered how. Had Akys smelled the smoke? She could not tell, but with knowledge beating like the blood in her temples against her brain, she came scrambling down the path to call the villagers out from sleep, and helped them beat the flames out in the icy, knife-edged wind.
In the thick of the winter, trying to gather twigs on the stony slope, the witchwoman would find firewood outside her door, or apples, cider, even small jugs of wine, to warm her when the ashes gave no warmth, and the wind thrust its many-fingered hands through her cabin’s myriad chinks. After the fire they left her a haunch of venison. She was grateful for it, for the hares and sparrows grew trapwise, and her snares often sat empty.
To pass the shut-in days in the lonely hut, the witchwoman cut a flute from a tree near the Lady’s pool, and made music. It floated down the hillside, and the village children stopped their foraging to listen to the running melodies.
Jael heard them, too. They drew her. The quavering pure tones seemed to her to be the voice of winter, singing in the ice storms. Sometimes, on dark nights, she would throw on her cloak of green cloth—a cloak made on Reorth—and go past the pool, up to the shuttered window of the witch’s house, to listen.
The music made her lonely.
On impulse one night, she shifted the lumenings to local and called across the islands to Yron. She called and called. Then she called Reorth.
YRON DOES NOT ACKNOWLEDGE TRANSMISSION
The reply came at once.
YRON RECALLED 20 YEARS AGO, LOCAL TIME. NEW ASSIGNMENT ACCEPTED. COORDINATES FOLLOW.
There was a pause; Then a set of planetary coordinates flashed across the screen.
Jael shrugged. The transmission continued.
YOUR RECALL UNDER CONSIDERATION. WOULD YOU ACCEPT REASSIGNMENT? TAKE YOUR TIME.
Akys did not know when she first began to sense the presence of a stranger near her home. It came out of nowhere, like the gift of warning in her head. Especially it came at night, when clouds hid the moon and stars. At first she thought it was the wild things of the mountain, drawn by her music. But beasts leave signs that eyes can read. This presence left no sign—save, once, what might have been the print of a booted foot in snow.
On a day when the sun at noon was a copper coin seen through cloud, she heard a knock at her door. She thought, Someone in trouble? Her gift had given her no warning. She stood, laying the flute aside, moving slowly with weariness and hunger, for her snares had shown empty for three days. She went to the door and opened it.
A woman stood under the icicled eaves. She wore a long green cloak, trimmed with rich dark fur. From her fingers dangled two partridges.
“Favor and grace to you,” she said. Her voice was low and gentle. “My name is Jael. We are neighbors on the mountain. I have heard your music in the evenings; it gives me much delight. I wished to bring you a gift.” She held out the birds. Her hair, escaping from its hood, was the bright auburn of a harvest moon.
Akys stepped back. “Will you come inside? It’s cold on the doorstep.”
“Gladly,” said the stranger. She dropped her hood back, and stepped into the small, smoky house.
Taking the birds from the slim hands, Akys said, “I didn’t know I had any neighbors.”
Her quick eyes caught the tint of gold as the cape shifted. Who was this woman, dressed so richly and strangely, who called her “neighbor” and brought her food?
“My name is Jael,” said Jael again. “I am new come to this place. I lived before in”—she seemed to hesitate—”Cythera, west of here. Now I live near the Lady’s well.”
“I do not know that place, Cythera,” said the witchwoman. She began to strip the feathers from the birds. “Are you alone?” she murmured.
Jael nodded. “I have no man,” she said.
“Then will you eat with me tonight?” said Akys. “It is hard to come to a new home alone, especially in winter. And they are your birds, after all.”
Jael came to the hearth, where Akys sat cleaning the birds. Kneeling, she stretched out her hands to the warmth. Her fingers were slender, unscarred by work. On her wrists wire bracelets shone gold in the firelight. The flame seemed to leap toward them.
She glanced up, into Akys’ gray eyes. “Forgive my silence,” she said. “I may not speak of my past. But I mean you no harm.”
“I can see that,” said Akys. “I accept your gift and your silence.” She has a vow, she thought. Perhaps she has left wealth and family behind, to serve the Lady. That is noble in one so beautiful and young.
She picked up the bellows and blew the fire up, and dropped the cleaned partridge in the pot. “I am alone, too,” she said matter-of-factly.
“So I see,” said Jael, looking around at the one room with its narrow pallet, and single chair. “You’ve not much space.”
Akys shrugged. “It’s all I need. Though I never thought to have visitors. I might get another chair.”
Jael tucked her feet beneath her and settled beside the fire. “Another chair,” she agreed quietly, “for visitors—or a friend.”
Through the rest of the short, severe winter the two women shared food: birds, coneys, dried fruits, nuts, and clear water. In the thaws, when the snow melted and the streams swelled, they made hooks and lines to catch fish. They hunted the squirrels’ stores from the ground, and gathered wood for the hearth. Jael’s hands and cheeks grew brown, chapped by wind and water.
“Akys!” she would call from the house, flinging wide the door.
And Akys, kneeling by the stream, water bucket in hand, felt her heart lift at that clear, lovely call. “Yes!”
“Can I stuff quail with nuts?”
“Have we enough?”
“I think so.”
“Slice them thin.” She brought the bucket to the house. Jael was chopping chestnuts into bits. She watched warily over Jael’s shoulder, wondering as she watched how the younger woman had managed, alone. She did not know the simplest things. “Be careful with that knife.”
“If I dull it,” Jael said, “you’ll have to get the smith to sharpen it for you again.”
“I don’t want you to cut yourself,” said Akys.
Jael smiled. “I never do,” she said, “do I?”
Jael set the knife down and pushed the sliced nuts into the cavity. She trussed the bird with cord, held it, hefted it. “It’s a big one. I’m glad you got that new pot from the village.”
“I hate asking for things,” said Akys.
Jael said, “I know. But you can’t build an iron pot the way you can a chair.” Crossing the room, she dumped the bird into the cauldron. “And tomorrow I want to fish. I’ll bring some metal hooks with me when I return in the morning.”
Akys said, quietly, “Why don’t you stay the night?”
Jael shook her head.
During the days she became a human woman. She learned, or relearned, for surely she had known these skills before, to chop wood, to skin, clean, and cook animals, to fish, with coarse strings of hemp she had twisted herself, and a willow pole. She got cold and wet, went hungry when Akys did, and climbed to her cave tired and footsore. But she always went back at night. Fidelity had made her set the lumenings to Record, and she turned them on each evening, awaiting—what? Sometimes she told herself she was waiting for her recall. Touching her machines, she was once more the Goddess. But in the morning, when she went back down the slope to Akys, the reality of Reorth receded in her mind, and all its designs became bits of a dream, known only at night, and she did not think of recall.
Akys never asked questions. The brief tale told at their first meeting remained unembroidered, and Jael had half-forgotten it. She felt no need to have a past. Sometimes Akys looked at her with a stir of inquiry in her gray eyes. But if questions roiled her mind, they never reached her tongue.
Spring broke through winter like water breaking through a dam. They measured time by the rise and fall of the river. In spring the fish came leaping upstream, and if you held out a net—ah, if you just held out your hands—they would leap to the trap, bellies iridescent in the sunshine. In the white rapids they looked like pieces cut from rainbow.
“I want to bathe in the river!” cried Jael.
“It’s too cold now,” said practical Akys. “You’ll freeze.”
“Then I want summer to come.” Jael pouted. “Why does the year move so slowly?” she demanded, flinging her arms wide.
Yet in the cavern at night, she saw the year moving swiftly, and wished that her power extended to the movement of the planet in its course around its sun.
The spyeyes set to Rys told her that armies and ships were gathering. They will be coming in the fall, she thought. They will be ready then. Spykos, king of Rys, was drawing men from all his cities and from the cities of nearby Dechlas. He cemented his alliance with Hechlos by marrying his daughter to Hechlos’ king’s son, and the goddess within Jael-the-woman raged, that these men could see women as so many cattle, bought and bred to found a dynasty. Spykos raided the harbor towns of Nysineria and Kovos—in winter!—distracting them, frightening them, keeping them busy and off guard. Jael watched the raids with a drawn face. It hurt, to see the villages burn.
What will you do?
This was the question she did not allow herself to hear. If she heard it, she would have to answer it. It kept her wakeful at night, walking through her caverns, staring at the dark, unspeaking lumenings.
Akys scolded her. “What’s wrong with you? Your eyes have pits under them. Are you sleeping?”
“Not very well.”
“I can give you a drink to help you sleep.”
“Won’t you stay here? It tires you, going home at night.”
Jael shook her head.
Summer came to the mountain with a rush of heat. The children herded the beasts up to the high pastures again. The crags echoed to their whistles and calls and to the barking of the dogs. The heavy scents of summer filled meadows and forests: honeysuckle, clover, roses, wet grass steamy after a rainstorm.
Akys said, “You could bathe in the river now.”
They went to the river, now strong and swift in its bed. Jael flung off her clothes. Her body was slim, hard and flat, golden-white except where weather had turned it brown. She dipped a toe in the rushing stream. “Ah, it’s cold!” She grinned at Akys. “I’m going to dive right off this rock!”
Akys sat on the bank, watching her, as she ducked beneath the flowing, foamy water, playing, pretending to be a duck, a salmon, an otter, a beaver, an eel. Finally the cold turned her blue. She jumped out. Akys flung a quilt around her. She wrapped up in it, and rolled to dry. The long grass, sweet with the fragrance of summer, tickled her neck. She sat up.
“Hold still,” said Akys. “You’ve got grass all over your hair.” She picked it out with light, steady fingers.
Jael butted her gently. “Why don’t you go in?”
“Too cold for me,” said Akys. “Besides, I’d scare the fish.” She looked at Jael. “I’m clumsy.”
Jael said, “That’s not true. You move like a mountain goat; I’ve watched you climbing on the rocks. And you’re never clumsy with your hands. You didn’t pull my hair, once.”
Akys said, “Yes, but—you look like a merwoman in the water. I’d look like an old brown log.”
Jael said, “I’m younger than you. I haven’t had to work as hard.”
“How old are you?” Akys asked.
Jael struggled to see her face through timebound eyes. “Twenty,” she lied.
“I’m thirty-two,” said Akys. “If I had had children, my body would be old by now, and I would be worrying about their future, and not my own.”
Jael let the ominous remark pass. “Are you sorry that you have no children?” she said.
“No. A promise is a promise. For the beauty I lack—a little.”
“Don’t be silly.” Jael bent forward and caught Akys’ hands between her own. The quilt slid from her shoulders. “You are beautiful. You cannot see yourself, but I can see you, and I know. Do you think you need a man’s eyes to find your beauty? Never say such nonsense to me again! You are strong, graceful, and wise.”
She felt Akys’ fingers tighten on her own. “I—I thank you.”
“I don’t want your thanks,” said Jael.
That night, Jael lay in Akys’ arms on the narrow, hard, straw-stuffed pallet, listening to rain against the roof slats, pat, pit-pat. The hiss of fire on wet wood made a little song in the cabin.
“Why are you awake still,” murmured Akys into her hair. “Go to sleep.”
Jael let her body relax. After a while Akys’ breathing slowed and deepened. But Jael lay wakeful, staring at the dark roof, watching the patterns thrust against the ceiling by the guttering flames.
Autumn followed summer like a devouring fire. The leaves and grasses turned gold, red, brown, and withered; the leaves fell. Days shortened. The harvest moon burned over a blue-black sky. The villagers held Harvest Festival. Like great copper-colored snakes the lines with torches danced through the stripped fields, women and children first, and then the men.
Smoke from the flaring torches floated up the mountainside to the cabin. Akys played her flute. It made Jael lonely again to hear it. It seemed to mock the laughter and singing of the dancers, and, as if the chill of winter had come too soon, she shivered.
Akys pulled the winter furs from her chest, and hung them up to air out the musty smell. She set a second quilt at the foot of the pallet.
“We don’t need that yet,” said Jael.
“You were shivering,” said the witchwoman. “Besides, we will.”
One night they took the quilt out and lay in the warm dry grass to watch the stars blossom, silver, amber, red, and blue. A trail of light shot across the sky. “A falling star!” cried Akys. “Wish.”
Jael smiled grimly, watching the meteor plunge through the atmosphere. She imagined that it hit the sea, hissing and boiling, humping up a huge wave, a wall of water thundering through the harbors, tossing the Rysian ships like wood chips on the surface of a puddle, smashing them to splinters against the rocks. I wish I could wish for that, she thought.
“What are you thinking . . . ?” said Akys.
“The rumors . . .”
“Suppose,” said Jael carefully, “suppose they’re true.”
Akys lifted on an elbow. “Do you think they are?”
“I don’t know. They frighten me.”
“We’re inland, a little ways anyways, and this village is so close to Her mountain. They wouldn’t dare come here.”
“You dream about it, don’t you?” said Akys. “Sometimes you cry out, in your sleep.”
Later she said, “Jael, could you go back home?”
“To that place you came from, in the west, I forget its name.”
“Yes. Could you go back there? You’d be safer there, if the men of Rys do come.”
“No,” said Jael, “I can’t go back. Besides, I know you won’t leave this place, and I won’t leave you.”
“That makes me happy and sad at the same time,” said Akys.
“I don’t want to make you sad.”
“Come close, then, and make me happy.”
They made love, and then slept, and woke when the stars were paling. The quilt was wet beneath them. They ran through the dewy grass to the cabin, and pulled the dry quilt around them.
Jael went back to the cave the next night.
This is madness, she told herself on the way. You cannot be two people like this; you cannot be both the Goddess and Akys’ lover. But around her the dark forest gave no answer back, except the swoop of owls and the cry of mice, and the hunting howl of a mountain cat.
She went first to the lumenings, but they were dark. In all the months she had stayed away, no messages had come. Next she checked the spyeyes. Ships spread their sails across the water like wings, catching the wind, hurrying, hurrying, their sails dark against the moonlit sea. She calculated their speed. They would reach the coast of Mykneresta in, perhaps, four days. She contemplated sending a great fog over the ocean. Let them go blundering about on reefs and rocks. If not a fog, then a gale, a western wind to blow them back to Rys, an eastern wind to rip their sails and snap their masts, a northern wind to ice their decks . . . She clenched her teeth against her deadly dreaming.
She waited out a day and a night in the cave, and then went back to Akys.
The witchwoman was sitting at her table with a whetstone, sharpening her knives.
“You have some news,” said Jael. “What have you heard?”
Akys tried to smile. Her lips trembled. “The runner came yesterday, while you were gone. They have sighted ships, a fleet. The villages are arming.” Her face had aged overnight, but her hands were steady. “I walked down to the forge and asked the smith for a sharpening-stone. I have never killed a man, but I know it helps to have your knife sharp.”
“Maybe they will not come here,” said Jael.
“Maybe.” Akys laid down one knife, and picked up another. “I went to the Lady’s pool yesterday, after I heard the news.”
“There was nothing, no sign. The Lady does not often speak, but this time I thought She might . . . I was wrong.”
“Maybe She is busy with the fleet.”
Akys said, “We cannot live on maybes.”
“Have you had anything to eat today?” said Jael.
Akys stayed her work. “I can’t remember.”
“Idiot. I’ll check the snares. You make a fire under the pot.”
“I don’t think I set the snares.”
Jael kissed her. “You were thinking of other things. Don’t worry, there’ll be something. Get up now.” She waited until Akys rose before leaving the little hut.
She checked the snares; they had not been set. I should never have stayed away, she thought. She stood beside a thicket, listening for bird sounds, keening her senses. When she heard the flutter of a grouse through grass she called it to her. Trusting, it came into her outstretched hands, and with a quick twist she wrung its neck.
She brought the bird to the table and rolled up her sleeves. Akys was poking up the fire. “I chased a fox from a grouse,” Jael said. “Throw some herbs into the water.”
In bed, under two quilts, they talked. “Why do men go to war?” said Akys.
“For wealth, or power, or lands,” said Jael.
“Why should anyone want those things?”
“Why are you thinking about it? Try to sleep.”
“Do you think She is angry with us, Jael, for something we have done, or not done?”
“I do not know,” Jael answered. She was glad of the darkness, glad that Akys could not see her face.
“They have a god who lives in fire, these men of Rys.”
“How do you know?”
“The smith told me. He must like blood, their god.”
“Hush,” said Jael.
Finally Akys wept herself into an exhausted sleep. Jael held her tightly, fiercely, keeping the nightmares away. So Akys had held her, through earlier nights.
In the morning they heard the children shrilling and calling to the herds. “What are they doing?” wondered Akys.
“Taking the cattle to the summer pasture.”
“But why, when it is so late—ah. They’ll be safer higher up. Will the children stay with them?”
Jael didn’t know.
That night, when she wrapped her cloak around her, Akys stood up as if to bar the door. “No, Jael, you can’t go back tonight. What if they come, and find you alone?”
Jael said, “They won’t find me.”
“You are young, and beautiful. I am old, and a witch, and under Her protection. Stay with me.”
Under her cloak Jael’s hands clenched together. “I must go,” she said. “I’ll come back in the morning. They won’t come at night, Akys, when they can’t see, not in strange country. They’ll come in daylight, if they come at all. I’ll come back in the morning.”
“Take one of the knives.”
“I don’t dare. I’d probably cut myself in the dark.”
“Don’t go,” pleaded Akys.
At last she got away.
At the cave, she would not look at the spyeyes. She had told Akys the truth, they would not come at night, she was sure of that. But in the morning . . . She twisted her hands together until her fingers hurt. What have you chosen, woman of Reorth?
She couldn’t sleep. She sat in the cavern with her machines, banks of them. With them she could touch anyplace on Methys, she could change the climate, trouble the seas, kill. . . . The bracelets on her wrists shimmered with power. She dulled them. If only she could sleep. She rose. Slowly, she began to walk, pacing back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the cave to the other, chaining herself to it with her will.
You may not go out, she commanded herself. Walk. You may not go out. It became a kind of delirium. Walk to that wall. Now turn. Walk to that wall. Turn. Do not impede. Walk. This is desirable. Walk. Turn. You may not go out.
In the morning, when the machines told her the sun was up and high, she left the cave.
She went down the path toward the hut. The smell of smoke tormented her nostrils. She passed the pool, went through the trees that ringed it, and came out near the river. The cabin seemed intact. She walked toward it, and saw what she had not seen at first: the door, torn from its hinges, lying flat on the tramped-down, muddied grass.
She went into the cabin. Akys lay on the bed, on her side. There was blood all around her, all over the bed and floor. She was naked, but someone had tossed her sheepskin cloak across her waist and legs. Jael walked to her. Her eyes were open, her expression twisted with determination and pain. Her stiff right arm had blood on it to the elbow. Jael’s foot struck something. She bent to see what it was. It was a bloody knife on the stained floor.
Jael looked once around the cabin. The raiders had broken down the door, to find a dead or dying woman, and had left. It was kind of them not to burn or loot the tiny place, she thought.
She walked from the hut. Smoke eddied still from the village below. She went down the path. She smelled charred meat. The storehouses were gone. They had come burning and hacking in the dawnlight. She wondered if they had killed everyone. There was a body in the street. She went to look at it; it was a ewe-goat with its throat slit. A man came out of a house, cursing and crying. Jael blurred Herself to human eyes. She went in through the broken door. There were dead women in here, too: one an old lady, her body a huddled, smashed thing against the wall, like a dead moth, the other a young woman, who might have once been beautiful. One could not tell from the things they had done.
Had they killed only women, then? She left the house. No, there was a man. He lay against a wall, both hands holding his belly, from which his entrails spilled. Flies buzzed around his hands.
Around Her the sounds of weeping rose and fell.
She walked the length of the street, and then turned, and walked back again, past the dead man, the dead ewe, the granaries smoking in the sunlight. They had left enough people alive in the village to starve through the winter. She followed the river past the cabin, past the pool. Just below the cabin She hesitated, drawn by a change in the mutter of the stream. The raiders had tossed a dead body into the clear water, and wedged it between two big rocks, defiling it.
She returned to the cave.
She lit it with a wave of Her hand. The light flamed and stayed, as if the stone walls had incandesced. Surrounded by bright, bare, burning stone, Jael walked to Her machines. She flung a gesture at the lumenings: the points of light whirled crazily, crackled, and died. The screen went blank. She passed Her hand over it; it stayed blank, broken, dead.
She turned to a machine, setting the controlling pattern with deft fingertips. She had not used this instrument since the plague time, when She had had to mutate a strain of bacteria. Meticulously She checked the pattern, and then tuned it finer still. When She was wholly satisfied, She turned the machinery on.
It hummed softly. A beam went out, radiation, cued to a genetic pattern. It touched Spykos of Rys, where he lay in his war tent outside the walls of Mykneresta’s capitol, the city of Ain, with a twelve-year-old captive daughter of that city whose home and street his soldiers were busy burning to ash. It touched the guard outside his door. It touched the soldiers pillaging the city. It touched the little bands of raiders raping and killing in the countryside.
It touched the nobles of Rys. It touched Araf, Hechlos’ king, where he lay with his third wife, and Asch, his son, where he lay with a slave girl whose looks he’d admired, that morning. His new wife slept alone. It touched the nobles of Hechlos, the high families of Dechlas.
It touched every male human being over fourteen on the six islands. It did not kill, but when it encountered the particular genetic pattern to which it had been cued, it sterilized. The men of Kovos, Nysineria, and Mykneresta it ignored. But on Rys, Hechlos, and Dechlas, and wherever it found men of that breed, it lingered. No seed, no children; no children, no dynasty; no dynasty, no empire; no empire, no war.
At last She shut it off. Around Her the stones still burned with light. She looked once around the cave that had been Her home for three hundred years. Then, using the bracelets, She set a protective shield around Herself, and summoned the patient lightning from the walls.
To the remaining villagers who saw it, it seemed as if the whole of the Lady’s mountain exploded into flame. Balls of fire hurtled down the mountainside; fire-wisps danced on the crags like demented demons. Stones flaked and crumbled. “It is the Fire God of Rys,” the villagers whispered. “He has come to vanquish the Lady.” All through the night they watched the fires burn. By morning the flames seemed gone. That day some brave women crept up the path. Where the Lady’s pool had been was a rushing stream, scored by the tips of jagged rocks like teeth. Above it the mountaintop was scoured into bare, blue ash. The Lady had fled. The grieving women stumbled home, weeping.
No seed, no children.
With the coming of the first snow, word came to Mykneresta, carried by travelers. “The women of Rys are barren,” they said. “They bear no children.” And in the villages they wondered at this news.
But in the spring, the singers one by one came from their winter homes, to take their accustomed ways along the roads. They told the news a different way. “The Fire God’s seed is ash,” they cried, “He burns but cannot beget,” and they made up songs to mock Him, and sang them throughout the marveling countryside. No children, no dynasty. They sang them under the walls of the brand new palace that Spykos of Rys had built in Ain. But no soldiers emerged to punish them for this temerity, for the brand new palace was empty, save for the rats. No dynasty, no empire. There was war in Rys over the succession, and Spykos had gone home.
It was the women who brought the truth. They came from Rys, from Hechlos, from Dechlas. Leaving lands, wealth, and kin, they came to the islands their men had tried to conquer.
They came in boats, wives of fishermen, and in ships, wives of nobles. Wives of soldiers and merchants, kings and carpenters, they came. “Our men give us no children,” they said. “We bear no sons for our fields, no daughters for our hearths. We come for children. Have pity on us, folk of Mykneresta; give us children, and our daughters will be your daughters, and our sons, your sons.” No empire, no war.
Then the whole world knew. The poets sang it aloud: “The Lady is with us still, and She has taken vengeance for us.” In Ain they rebuilt Her altar, and set Her statue on it, and they made Her hair as red as fire, and set hissing, coiling snakes about Her wrists, so real that one could almost see them move. Even on Rys the poets sang, and under the Harvest Moon the people danced for Her, keeping one eye on the Fire God’s mountain. But it stayed silent and smokeless.
On Mykneresta the trees and bushes grew back on the Lady’s mountain. One day in late summer, when the streams were dry, some rocks slid and fell. After the rain a pool formed, and it stayed. The old women went up the path to look. “She has returned,” they said.
In spring the next year a woman came to the village. Her face was worn and weathered, but her back was straight, and though her red hair was streaked with gray, she walked as lightly as a young girl. “I am vowed to the Lady,” she told the villagers, and she showed them the bracelets, like coiled snakes, on her slim brown wrists. “I am a healer. I have been in many lands, I have even been to Rys, but now I must come home. Help me build a house.”
So the villagers built her a cabin by the curve of the stream, below the Lady’s pool. They brought her meat and fruit and wine, when they had it, and she tended their sickness and healed their wounds. They asked her name, and she said, “My name is Jael.”
“Have you really been to Rys?” they asked her.
“I have,” she said. And she told them stories, about cities of stone, and tall men with golden hair, and ships with prows like the beaks of eagles, and streets with no children.
The children of the village asked, “Is it true they killed their king, because they thought he brought the Lady’s Curse?”
“It’s true,” she said. “Camilla of Ain rules in Rys, and she is a better ruler than Spykos ever was or ever could be.”
“Will they ever come again?”
“No, they never will.”
A girl with brown braids and a small, serious face, asked, “Why did they come before?”
“Who knows? Now, be off with you, before night comes.”
The children ran, save for the brown-haired girl. She lingered by the door. “Jael, aren’t you ever afraid, so close to Her holy place?”
“How could I be?” said the healer. “This is my home, and She is good. Go on now, run, before the light goes.”
“May I come back tomorrow?” said the girl.
“Why?” said Jael.
“I—I want to learn. About herbs, and healing, and the Lady.”
“Come, then,” said Jael.
The girl smiled, like a coal quickening in the darkness, and waved, and ran like a deer down the path beside the stream. Jael watched her go. Above her the clouds spun a net to catch the moon. She stood in the cabin doorway for a long time. At last the cold wind blew. Turning from the night, she pulled her green cloak close about her throat, and closed the cabin door against the stars.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Originally published in The Berkley Showcase: New Writings in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 1, April 1980.