Ram's Hair was a glittering white arc in the night when we stepped onto a bridge whose sun-warmed, wind-worn sides were carved in a pattern called The Way of the Orchard, and so we entered the Ordered Lands.
“What’s that?” Ramedd asked, running lightly, fearlessly, ahead of us towards the campfires that glowed around the City that night.
“Looks like a gathering,” Elurd remarked. He was leaning against the parapet as if to look casually into the water.
“Looks like we're late,” Uram added, frankly resting against the side of the bridge.
Ramedd looked back at us, impatient. We stayed where we were. Resting was safer on the bridge. It was too easy to see anything coming over the wide, smooth stone, the trees too far off for something to drop from their branches, the bridge walls too high for snatchers to leap out and take us down, and anything small and poisonous that might have been sunning itself on the stone had already been taken away for someone else’s meal.
“Maybe,” Elurd said hopefully, “if the Poet asks nicely, they'll share it with us.”
I looked towards the campfires and the torches spread around the City, and the glow of the palace that was the heart of Recart. Somewhere inside that white dome the plainsking was making plans. He was always making plans.
“He knows we’re coming,” I said.
“Then it’s too dangerous for Bassei to go further,” Ramedd announced, firmly.
“She could hide out here.” Uram turned his gaze from the water. “We'll bring her something.”
“Bassei?” She was standing in the shadows at the foot of the bridge, quiet, unnoticed. At my word, she let the gold mark on her forehead glint briefly, amused.
"Poet man will ask nicely."
“Ram's tits.” Ramedd donned her helmet, the darkness of it descending over her snowy mane. "All right, Bassei. It's your life."
So we crossed and entered into the Ordered Lands, where small, neat trees stood in long, neat rows, taking only the space alloted them, drinking only the water apportioned to them, and brining forth their fruit at the appointed time. Blossom fell about our shoulders, and coals glowed among the campfires. Children, young pups, laughed, playing with sparks they made with long grasses, watching them rise on the warm, spring breeze and float away like little stars in the night.
“Aroo,” I called over the cheerful hum of chatter and song. “Aroo!” The long, low call of greeting and announcement. They began to listen. Then I began another call, the one the mountain tribes use to greet each other over valleys and chasms, exchanging news in the mist.
I sang of thunder in the mountains, of crashing ice and rocks, I sang to them of Gurd, queen of the Old Mountains, and of her giant sons, and I gave them Elurd and Uram.
Like legends the brothers came out of the shadows, catching all the light in the golden gear they wore, shields shining, spears glinting, little rays of light glancing off their helmets, and a gleaming running with the shadows in the folds of their swinging cloaks.
"Elurd! Uram!" The people shouted.
"Aroo," I called over their noise. It was clear that the crowd was happy to have these two returned to them, and so I would give them more.
Now I used the call of the plainstribes as they followed the herds over the great, curving horizons of the world and signaled to each other over the bellowing and the dust. I sang of fires racing through the grass, of sudden lightning and stampeding herds, the flash of bolas and the call of the long horizons. I sang to them of the Pride of the Plains, and gave to them Ramedd.
They all knew her. They were mainly plainsfolk there, drinking their yurj, proud people who called the City their own, and Ramedd was their pride. They knew her helmet, the heavy, horned thing on her slight body, and they roared to see her again. People came running among the fires to look, and they lifted up their babies, and pointed her out for each other.
Ramedd was lifted up, and the people passed her over their shoulders. This would have been dangerous for many people in such a crowd, but not for such as Ramedd. Dexterous and agile, she was more likely to leap upward, to a branch or a wall, if they should drop her, than to fall beneath their feet.
“Food! Food!” The giants called. Food was brought for them, and no one complained of the voracity of giants that night. The giants laughed. They had never been so welcome in any place before, except in our hidden camp where there was only us. They barely knew what it was like to have all Recart on their side. Recart had not been kind to the giant folk.
Then I began the real test.
“Aroo,” I called again. This time I did not sing of fire or water, of earth and darkness, or of any of those things. This time I sang of something as close to them as their own heartbeat, and gave them Bassei. They looked for her and could not see her, yet when they turned back, she was already among them, grinning.
"Bassei! Bassei!" They could not believe she had come back to them. "Bassei! Bassei!"
The City rang with the echoes, and the echoes joined their voices. For once the City sang as loudly as I had ever wanted it to. "Ramedd! Ramedd! Elurd! Uram!"
Small children were lifted up, fingers pointed out the pale figure of Ramedd, and the darker one of Bassei, but it was the sight of the giants in their flashing gold that made sleepy eyes widen and small mouths gape. In the morning, far away, the little puppies must have thought it all a dream.
The Cruentauri, those four heroes, those with blood of gold, were lifted up and carried.
Jostled aside, I took myself upward. From branches to rooftops I went beside the streaming tide of moving bodies and fires, and I had never seen such a crowd before. The tide of them with torches streaming through the streets, the fires like a reflection of the myriad stars above. I do not think the City had ever seen such glory before, and I know it never has since.
Reaching a palace wall, I went up the sides and made my way along ledges and windows. The higher up windows were dark and empty of gawkers, and so my going was easier than it might have been.
“Halt!” A guard's voice was calling out. How long he had been calling there was no way to tell, but at last I heard him. “Halt,” he was saying. “You may not come here. You must go.”
Behind him, the palace doors were shut. That was a surprise. The Way of Knowledge was never shut, unless against a mighty flooding from the rivers.
“We have come to see the starmen,” I called, hoping that this was indeed what the tribes had come for, and hoping that there were starmen, that I had not misunderstood, that I was not making myself look foolish.
“But he has not come to see you,” the guard answered.
“Then it's true,” Ramedd cried. Leaping from the shoulders of those who carried her, she arced like a dancer over their heads, landing in a space before the guard. She whirled her bolas loosely, casually. The crowd drew back nervously, but the true danger was not of injury but the blurring, hypnotic whirling of it. Ramedd knew the art of such things. “There are such things as starmen.”
“Yes,” the guard admitted, looking at me. His voice I now recognized. He was Sierims, the plainsking's, champion and captain of his guard. He had enough training to keep his eyes off the bolas, but not enough to be able to watch her at the same time. “There is a starman. But he has not come to see you, Poet. He only speaks to the plainsking. In all Recart, it is only the plainsking that the starman will speak to.”
“Only one starman?” Elurd asked.
“However,” I said, dropping down to face Sierims, “we do have the right to enter the palace. I, at least, would visit my mother.”
“You, Poet! You chose your lot when you went with Bassei. You have no family here.”
Before I could decide whether to speak or to attack, there was gasp from the crowd. Iwas for Bassei. She was there, and she touched my shoulder, and one of my arms went numb.
“Gently, Poet Man. He is not alone.”
“He looks alone.”
Sierims looked very alone with the huge crowd before him, and the cold stone behind him, trapping him in this small space with Bassei.
"He has his guard behind him."
Sierims glared at the shadowy figure who had come to my side.
"Bassei," he said. "They said you had gone to the Strangerlands. You should have stayed there." His weight shifted slightly and he changed his grip on his spear. Bassei did not move. "I wish you had stayed there." He could see doom in those calm, yellow eyes. "But how did you come to return today, of all days? Ah." He looked at her more closely. "What's that you're wearing? Trencha hide? Only trenchas have that blackness, and only in the mountains. They said you were in the Strangerlands, but you were in the mountains killing monsters. You are very good at killing monsters, Bassei, but this time you should leave."
She looked thoughtfully at him.
"You have squadrons behind those doors."
"Bassei, not even Ramedd can stand against you. We heard the voice of the Poet, and then we heard the crowds calling out your name, what could we do? I have done what I could, and I have warned you but you will not listen. Yes, the guard waits behind me."
"But the tribes are behind me." Her voice was soft as shadows.
"They are not armed," he pointed out.
"That is all right. They are not fighting."
They were, simply, there. Watching. Listening.
There was a creaking above, another door opening on a balcony high over us.
"Go," Sierims hissed. "Run." He was running himself, slipping quickly though the doors as they opened for him. They closed. Bolts slid in place.
Bassei had gripped my shoulder and was steering me away from the doors. Ramedd had leaped to the side of the steps and was whirling her bolas seriously now. The giants looked up with their spears.
Yellow light spilled onto the balcony above. Looking up, we saw the plainsking, like a pale sliver of bone, peering down at us. He was pointing at Bassei. The gold mark on her forehead began to gleam.
"Bassei," he said. "So it is you. We heard all the racket. But you are too late. The starman has given the gift of lightning to me. Soon all my guard will have it, and no weapon or shield you have will protect you. I'll start - "
Bassei threw me aside. The stone steps hit my chest, hit my ribs, nearly hit my head.
"...with..." There was a swirling around me. "...you!"
His words were like a crash of lightning. I tumbled around, and squeezed my eyes shut against a blinding flash of light. Stone shuddered. People screamed. Feet were running, voices screaming. Groping around, I felt the steps. Slowly, too slowly, I reached out.
"Bassei!" She did not answer. She was always so quiet.
No more lightning came. There was a jostling of the crowd trying to escape, but here on the steps everything had become very still.
The steps had broken. There was dust. Torches had fallen and were sizzling on ground. Where the steps were black and cracked I found her cloak.
"Poet." Ramedd tried to pull me aside. Thinking she must blame for this, I knelt. She would want to kill me now. I put my hands in the soft hide of the cloak, a last thing to hang on to. Part of it was burnt. There was the smell of burning hide, and my fingers touched hot ash and grease.
"Poet," Ramedd repeated, urgently.
My fingers became very still. Bassei in a fight was a beautiful thing. She danced it out ahead of her opponent's thought. Knowing the plainsking was going to strike, although no one could have known how, she had moved. She had pushed me out of the way. In that moment, it was me she had chosen to save.
The crowd became quiet. The plainsking had struck, like something small and poisonous, and gone away
Kneeling up, gathering all the dusty, grease laden, night soaked air into my lungs, I raised my head and cried out so that the City was filled with my cry and the echoes rang from the walls.