For once, Alyne’s mission to close the gate brought something different.
She expected no such thing on her way there, going to do the chore she had done a thousand times. In fact, she couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that nothing had changed today. Today was her birthday—her thirteenth birthday—a day when something, somehow, ought to be different.
I’m not grumbling, she thought insistently. I know it was a happy day, and I’m glad. Everyone had made her day special. Her brothers had all rushed to her, jumping and shouting, as soon as they saw she was awake. The whole family had sung her favorite songs for her. Her Mum had made honey cakes; her sister, Klea, had gathered a jumbled bouquet as big as her tiny fists could hold; Pa had even given Alyne a pretty new jacket, which meant that he must have gone to town—something he hardly ever did. Still, something about having to do this pointless chore yet again, leaving her siblings’ evening game to close a gate no one else ever used or saw, made Alyne feel as if nothing had really changed today.
Arguing, however, had proven useless. Mum firmly maintained that the gate must be closed at dark; highwaymen had sometimes been seen on the nearby road, and might try to slip in and steal what riches the old mansion still held. Nor could Alyne persuade any of her siblings to undertake the task. Klea, of course, could not go because she was afraid of the dark; and as for their brothers, the division of chores was unyielding as death among them. Almost nothing would induce one of them to do work assigned to another.
“But what’s the point?” Alyne had protested, for perhaps the hundredth time. “This house is miles from anywhere. No one ever comes this way, except maybe a peddler or some lost traveler. Have we ever seen any highwaymen?”
Mum had returned this outburst with a mild, only slightly tired look that roused in Alyne a twinge of shame. “Why do you make a fuss?” she chided. “Just one little thing we ask you to do, to help keep our family safe. You want that, right?”
With a tiny nod, Alyne turned and walked steadily away, refusing to acknowledge the argument either by dragging her feet or by hurrying. As she was about to leave the room, her older brother Perien put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Nobody has so short a chore as this one,” he said under his breath, giving her a wink. “You’ll go down and come right back, same as always, and then you’ll be through and needn’t think about it.”
Alyne managed a half-smile as she turned and moved into the long hall. Perien had spoken kindly, but as she thought over his words, she realized that what she really minded was not so much going to close the gate as feeling that nothing was different today.
Exiting the hall, she made her way down the flight of wide marble steps, crossed the echoing entrance chamber and slipped through the thick carved doors. Out in the twilight, she paused to relish a cool autumn breeze, then descended the weather-beaten stone stairs and started across the sprawling courtyard.
Only a feeble trickle of pale greenish light lingered about the western horizon, but Alyne knew the way well enough to find it at midnight. Since she was seven years old, she had gone that way every night to close the gate, walking along the stone path between the rows of cherry trees. Since she was five years old, she had run across this yard more times than she could count. She knew every crack in the paving stones, every bush and tree and old flower patch, every fountain and chipped or crumbled statue that lingered in stubborn pride to proclaim the former residents’ wealth and nobility. Pa guessed that the place had been deserted between five and ten years when their family moved in.
Do I remember anything before that? Suddenly, as had happened before, Alyne wondered what life had really been like before they came to the mansion. She could recall dim images of their home—a brick hearth, a little room where she slept, a cellar lined with preserves—as well as a street outside and fronts of other houses. She had no very distinct memories of the other people in the village. Vaguely she recalled being excited upon learning that they were going away to a new home, solemnly agreeing not to tell anyone, clinging to the donkey’s back in front of Perien as the family struck out at first light. She remembered little of her first reactions to the mansion, except wonder at its immensity and grandeur; it had seemed to her a palace. The family mostly lived, however, in what had probably been the servants’ quarters, as these were easiest to keep clean. The other, formerly grander spaces were more slovenly, often housing mice, insects and other creeping things, but Alyne and her siblings frequently ventured there to play.
Why they had left, she still didn’t understand clearly. Her parents seemed reluctant to discuss the question. Pa would fall silent, his face darkening, at the mere mention, while Mum would only say that their family was better off living alone because they came from the land of Ithulis. “Folk here in Sturonach do not understand us,” she quietly declared. Lately Alyne had wondered more and more often what exactly this meant, but never quite managed to ask, since asking seemed to trouble Pa and Mum.
An abrupt gust of wind broke into her reverie, and she stiffened to press on against the blast. As it died away, howling off behind her, she glanced impulsively in the direction it had gone. There, away beyond empty fields, the gigantic, dim shape of Mount Estharion rose rugged and grand against the darkening sky. Not for the first time, Alyne looked up at it with curiosity and longing. She had done so ever since another evening, a few years ago, when her family had welcomed an elderly merchant seeking shelter just before dark. This visitor had remarked that the mountain was said to hold a spring at its peak, where some mysterious magical presence dwelt, a source of power and wisdom. The old man didn’t quite believe the story, but it seemed to intrigue him.
For her part, Alyne wasn’t sure what to think about Mount Estharion, but it had fascinated her for a long time. She felt that if only she and her family could go there, somehow they would not have to hide from the world outside the mansion, and her parents would not be burdened with their unspoken memories. But Pa always shook his head; he did not believe in such things, such magical mysteries. Besides, since Mum’s health was fragile in the northern climate of Sturonach, a journey into the mountains would almost always be at least a risk for her. Sometimes Pa, mimicking the old man who had mentioned the legend, would tilt his head back and wheeze, “If they was goin’ to put an all-seein’ oracle in these parts, they might ha’ put it where folk as needed answers coulda got to it more easy!” His imitation invariably had Alyne shaking with laughter. Even now, she chuckled at the thought.
Turning away, a little reluctantly, from the distant mountain, Alyne returned her attention to her task. She was now only a few paces from the gate, a tall portal of swirling iron bars, usually open by day so that Pa and Perien could go out to hunt or fish. Suddenly she stopped. Someone was sitting in the gateway.
In the dark, she could not make out any features distinctly. The person sat on the ground, wrapped in a cloak. From the size, she guessed that it was a tall man. For a moment, remembering Mum’s talk of highwaymen, she felt afraid, wondering if she should scamper back indoors and tell Pa. But this fellow was alone, without even a horse, and was not slinking about the mansion—or doing anything at all. Perhaps he was sick. Perhaps a long, hard journey had left him without any strength to move further.
Then the figure’s hooded head turned. What must be its face was now looking toward Alyne.
“Bring me water,” it rasped, in a slurred, almost croaking voice. Alyne was slightly alarmed, but now she was sure he was sick, which meant he was not likely to hurt her and probably needed help. Still instinctively hesitant, she slowly nodded and made her way through the grass to the well. She pulled up the bucket, gave the water a sip to test it, then carefully bore it back to the gate and handed it to the stranger.
He reached out with startlingly large hands, covered in what looked like a sort of gloves, to take the bucket, and proceeded to gulp down the water with incredible speed, as if he had a mouth like a giant frog and had drunk nothing for days. “Thenk yoh,” he whispered, setting down the bucket, so lightly that Alyne knew it was now empty. She noticed that the sound of his breathing was coming in faint, laboring gasps. “Food uhl-so. Please. Bring me food.”
“Are you sick?” Alyne asked, feeling less afraid and more concerned. “I can ask my mum to make you some broth. My pa can help you inside.”
The figure let out a long, profound sigh, as if her words had released some long-suppressed breath of sadness in him. “Yur perrents must no’ see me,” he answered at last. “Men c’nnot aid me. . . . But p’rhaps you can. Here. ‘N this currtyard. Fetch me food. Ev’n if nuts ‘r roots.”
Pausing a moment to make sure she had correctly understood, Alyne turned away again and picked her way across the yard to where some apple trees grew. After groping and peering around the branches, hardly able to see what was on them, she finally picked off three apples of decent size and, from what she could feel, with no obvious rottenness. She scampered back again to the stranger and held out her finds. “Will these apples do?”
Now a bit quicker, as if he had regained some energy, the two large hands reached out again to take the apples. This time Alyne saw that they were knobbly and seemed to have something spread across the fingers. From his arms, too, something hung, a sort of flap like another cloak, but the next moment hands and arms were again concealed beneath his big cloak. Soon she could hear a very loud crunching sound, as if she had handed an apple to a horse.
Listening to the stranger eat, still seeing little more than a shape in a cloak, Alyne began to worry again. She was supposed to close the gate, but this person was sitting in the gateway, so that she could not close it unless he moved. Then, too, why was he so determined that her parents not see him? Perhaps he was a criminal after all, even if a sick one?
She almost turned and ran back to the house, but then hesitated again. He might really have some good reason for not wanting Pa and Mum, or anybody, to see him. “Who are you?” she asked at last.
The loud munching stopped. A gulp followed, then another long, deep sigh. “I am displaced n’ wandering,” the stranger said at last.
Alyne frowned. That didn’t sound like a name, but she should mind her manners anyway. “Pleased to meet you . . .” she began, then trailed off. Was Displaisten his name and Wandering a description, or was all of it a nickname for something else, or perhaps it was all a name from a far country? “Why did you come here?” she finally asked, when he remained silent. “Almost no one does.”
After a few moments’ pause, he replied, “I came t’look onc’more on my home, on th’state of the Echrimars.”
“You lived here?” Alyne gasped. That the mansion’s owners were gone had seemed as natural and obvious as the dead being gone. Now she felt as if a ghost had appeared on the threshold, demanding his property back. “I . . . but, we . . . it was empty . . . we thought—“
“Peace,” the stranger grunted. “I c’never r’turn. I am cut from men. From ull th’tread the earth . . . or swum th’waters.”
Alyne blinked. This conversation was growing more confusing every moment. “I don’t really know what you mean,” she said at last.
The stranger was silent for so long that Alyne began to think he didn’t intend to respond. Finally, however, he said softly, “Y’wish t’hear a strange tale?”
“Okay. Yes. I love stories.” If nothing else, she was growing very curious by now.
His shadowy figure leaned back against the bars of the open gate, and he began to speak. The strength of his whispering voice rose and fell with his struggling breath, but his words now came out more distinctly, as if deep reflection had cleared his throat; or perhaps something in his mouth or tongue had changed shape as he retreated into memory. “I was the son of the Lord Echrimar, and heir to these estates. Here I dwelt with my father, mother and sister, knowing nothing of sorrow. Many laborers tended our lands, some men of Ithulis beside the Sturonites. The Sturonites and Ithulians would often quarrel. One day, in my twentieth year, their anger became violent. A Sturonite killed an Ithulian fellow-worker. We learned this all too late.”
“Killed him?” Alyne exclaimed in horror.
“More blood followed,” the stranger went on, apparently not noticing the interruption. “The anger of the Ithulians could not be restrained. They rose and killed many of the Sturonite laborers. With the tools that should have brought life from the earth, they fed the earth with death. Then they came to our home . . . to my family . . . still athirst for blood, for the blood of any Sturonite. I saw my father and mother dead then . . . I never saw whether my sister survived. But I fled.”
Here he paused again, as if the weight of his grief was too heavy, requiring that his voice rest for a moment. Alyne felt frozen to the heart. Was this what Mum had meant all along? All those remarks about the “not-understanding” between the Sturonites and Ithulians had given her a rather vague idea of squabbles such as often happened between Klea and her brothers. All that time, in all those shadowed expressions, sighs and murmurs . . . had Mum and Pa been remembering nightmares like these?
She was still speechless when the stranger regained the use of his voice. A few faint, gurgling groans rose into something like syllables, then became more quiet words. “My mind was broken. I had not known evil before . . . and all seemed lifeless, an earth without a sun. I could no longer bear the sight of men . . . nor their world. I ran through the wild, learning hunger, weariness, fear. I came to the sea . . . there I sought to drown myself. The sea-folk hindered my attempt.”
“The . . . sea-folk?” Alyne broke in. “They . . . they exist?”
“They showed me great pity,” the stranger whispered, still oblivious to her. “Implored me not to take my life. When they learned that I was fleeing the company of men, some among them promised that if I should stay with them, and eat the food they brought from the depths, I would take on a form like theirs, and could remain in the sea. I stayed, then, in a cave near their dwellings. They brought food to me, food from the far depths, such as they had never before shared with men. Longer and longer I could remain in the water; I began to swim more as they did.”
As he went on through his memories, Alyne’s heart began to pound with increasing astonishment. Could this crazy conversation even be real? Was this bizarre cloaked man real? Was he insane? Pa had told many stories of magic and fantastic creatures, but always explained that they were pure invention. Alyne had certainly never seen anything of that sort. And here, right in front of her, it seemed, was a living man who claimed that he had not only met the legendary sea-people, but had begun to turn into one himself! Pa, what is this?
“Fool that I was,” the stranger continued. “I could not remain long in the realm of the water. The sea-kings learned of me and spoke of the ocean’s law: man may visit the sea, but may not dwell there, and may never touch the food from the depths. Then the Saughura serpents began to assault the homes of my caretakers. Such battles are not for children of men. I was obliged to leave, at once, or die. No one knew of a magic that would restore me quickly to my natural form. So I departed, crippled, my body belonging wholly neither to the land nor to the sea.”
Now the stranger stopped, and remained silent so long that Alyne wondered if this was the end of his story. Was this his conclusion—that he was “cut from men” because he still, even now, had a terribly misshapen body? Well, surely that should be easy to determine, even at dusk. Yet—well, she couldn’t really see any of his body, only a shape within a cloak. She hadn’t noticed any hints of great deformities . . . or had she? Suddenly she remembered the glimpses she had had of his hands, enormous, lumpy, covered with something—webbed, perhaps? Whatever had been draped from his arms—could that be some outgrowth of skin? And the speed with which he had gulped down the water—if there was anything to his story, who knew what size his mouth might be? Alyne’s surroundings seemed almost to fade into unreality. She began to feel dizzy.
“My fate was sealed.” The stranger’s voice, suddenly resuming, startled her out of her distraction. “I began to long to return to the human race, to seek help and healing from my own kind. But if any saw me, they fled me as a monster. Some tried to kill me. I tried to call to them, but could no longer speak clearly in human tongues. A very few I found who would hear my tale, who sought to administer or procure for me remedies natural or supernatural. But none had any effect, except to misshape my body further. I am a twisted, broken, lost thing, belonging to no race of living creatures. Now my years of torment are soon to end. I have come, through hunger and wasting, to look once more on my father’s house. Now I have seen it . . . and can die.”
The hooded head nodded, very slowly and solemnly, toward the great mansion. Almost the next moment, the sound of crunching apples resumed, as if to say that none of his tale mattered now.
The word die still lingered in Alyne’s ears. Now it suddenly mixed with the crunching of the apples to stab at her heart like broken glass, as she began to realize what this stranger had endured. Never had she felt such burning pity for anyone. How was it even possible for someone to live after losing his family, and then to go on years and years with no one? And now that he should die so wretched . . . it just couldn’t be. It just wasn’t right. There had to be something more she could do for him. Even if he was mad, she couldn’t leave him without doing something more.
Just then Alyne noticed that a faint, pale radiance had spread over the walls and the yard. The moon, waxing near the full, was just cresting the distant mountains. Glancing up toward it, she saw a great, jagged shadow still jutting up into the luminous sphere. Suddenly she knew what to say.
“Wait! Maybe you don’t need to die like this,” she blurted. The crunching stopped again, but the stranger showed no further response. Sufficiently encouraged, Alyne hurried on, pointing. “See that mountain just below the moon? It’s called Mount Estharion. There’s said to be a spring at the top, and at the spring . . . well . . .” On the point of stating what seemed incredible, she began to feel less confident, but now she had to tell him. “There’s supposed to be some magical something or someone up there. Very wise and powerful. People go there to find answers,” she said, repeating what she had heard before. “If you go there . . . maybe you’ll find out a way you can be cured.”
A moment passed, in which the stranger didn’t respond. Then Alyne remembered his condition. “Are . . . are you too sick to go?”
“Neverrrr!” This word came in a long-drawn-out whisper, but with the force of a wounded, furious beast stubbornly getting up to roar. The stranger reached out a hand toward the wall, and, with the moonlight and her new knowledge, Alyne now clearly saw the dark folds of skin clinging to his fingers and arm. He gripped the stone, pulled himself up to stand, and looked up, his cloak now hanging about his sides like a ragged pavilion.
For a fleeting moment that silenced all chatter of thoughts, the whole world stood still, as Alyne saw beyond doubt what had happened to the heir of Echrimar. He wore no other clothes beneath his cloak. His wasted, skeletal body was darkened beyond the ordinary Sturonite coloring; she could not make out the color in the moonlight, but guessed some purplish-brown. He was hunched, but if he stood straight he would be perhaps a head taller than Pa. His legs, bowed and wrinkled, were thick despite lack of flesh, and ended in blobbish feet that seemed once to have been large but were now withered like rotten apples. The webbed flaps hanging from his long arms and oversized hands were also shriveled in places, covered with tiny cracks like dried leaves. His neck was swollen, or rather seemed to flow up from his shoulders to his head. His head and face seemed to have been stretched forward at the nose, which protruded sharply and was wrinkled like a prune. His eyes were enormous and sunken in their sockets, but now gazed up from just beneath his hood with a feeble glow, hope reviving from the brink of death.
“‘Sthar-yon . . .” he murmured, gazing up at the distant mountain. Having emerged from his reverie, he was croaking again. Alyne noticed the size of his mouth; his jaw opened up to about halfway down his thick neck. “I h’d f’rgott’n. Here nur my home . . . h’d nev’r giv’n it thought b’fore.” He turned his pointed face and great liquid eyes down to Alyne, who still stared up paralyzed at him.
“What ‘r you culld?” he said to her, softly.
“Alyne,” she gasped out.
“Alyne . . . bless’d fate th’t sent yoh t’me,” he asserted solemnly. “Y’ve giv’n me a new br’th of life. I w’ll go now to ‘Sthar-yon.”
“W-will you be well enough?” she managed to say, picking out words from beneath the tumbled mess that her world had become.
A look like the frail shade of happiness crept across the stranger’s deformed face. “I c’not rest now,” he declared. “Here ‘ve I lain s’nce sun-sit, dead ‘n d’spair. Now . . .” This word came slowly, as if it had tremendous significance. “If I m’yet be healed . . . c’m back t’men . . . know wh’t b’came ‘f my sist’r . . . Alyne . . . that is life to me.”
He took a step, but tumbled down as his misshapen, weary legs and feet gave way beneath him. Groaning, he pushed himself up partly and began to creep forward, out of the gateway. “Oh, wait!” Alyne exclaimed, with a sudden new inspiration. Remembering a game she and her brothers had been playing, she ran across the yard and picked up a large, thick branch, fallen from one of the trees. Bringing it back to the stranger, she broke some small twigs off its narrow end and explained, “Here—maybe you can use this to help you walk.”
One large, webbed hand stretched out and grasped the stick. Alyne waited a moment, hoping it would hold his weight, which it seemed to do when he leaned on it. His feebleness still troubled her, though. She added, “And I don’t think you should try to go all that way on just three apples. Here . . . um, let me get you some more.” She wished she could get him a better meal, but couldn’t think of anything else that was still growing in the yard; and Mum and Pa would want an explanation if she tried to take food out of the house.
The stranger waited, silent and motionless, while Alyne scurried around the trees, carefully examining the branches in the dim moonlight. She finally gathered five more apples, clutching them carefully in her arms, and ran back again to the gate. Again, one great hand and arm reached and took her gift, lifting it toward his wide mouth, now shadowed again under his hood. The loud crunching sound began again.
Before it had stopped, the stranger evidently grew restless again. He straightened himself as much as he could, pressing against his newfound cane, and hobbled out through the gate. Alyne followed him for a few steps, hoping no further mishap was about to befall him. Noticing her beside him, he paused. For a moment she was alarmed; was he too ill to go on after all? But then he spoke. “If I can, Alyne, I w’ll come b’ck—‘n tell yoh how I h’ve fared.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
He took a deep, long inward breath, let it out in an equal sigh, then looked up resolutely into the distance. “Alyne . . .”
After another pause, the croaking voice again dropped to a whisper but mysteriously cleared. “Pray that I find what I need on ‘stharion,” he breathed solemnly. With that, he bent his warped legs like bows and took a hurtling leap forward, like a clumsy frog. He landed tumbling, to Alyne’s momentary dismay, but picked himself up again and began slow, awkward steps forward, leaning on his stick. In a few moments he turned the corner of the wall and disappeared.
In the silence that followed, Alyne could only stand motionless in the shadowy field, engulfed by the vastness of the world.
A shout roused her suddenly. “Alyne! A-lyne!” Perien was calling to her, from the house or near it. Of course, she realized, her family must be wondering what was taking her so long.
Hastily she scurried back into the yard, pulled the gate till it shut with a clang, and scampered up the path toward the mansion. You were wrong, Perien, she thought. I’m not just coming back as always. Not the same me.