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Chapter 14 Land Beyond the Stars

  • At first Retoc the Abarian was too stunned by what he witnessed to thin_oherently. With the other Tarthians of royal blood he had received a_nexpected summons to appear at the Royal Dock on the River of Ice and, befor_e could even try to fathom what it was about, an escort of Nadian guards ha_ome to fetch him.
  • It was cold and murky on the banks of the River of Ice. The two men, Retoc an_ultax had arrived barely in time to see them unfastening the hawsers of th_oyal Barge. Curious, he pushed closer through the crowd of nobles. Suddenly, before the barge was quite unmoored, as it swayed and rocked on the current_f the river, Nadian soldiers appeared with a platform on poles slung acros_heir shoulders, the usual means of intra-city transportation for Nadia_oyalty. But this was no royalty Retoc saw on the platform, although they wer_ressed as royalty.
  • The woman, conscious and bound hand and foot, was the Virgin of the Wayfarer_ho had witnessed Prince Jlomec's death. The man, unconscious, his hea_ropped high on pillows, was the white giant who once on the Plains of Ofri_ad almost strangled Retoc.
  • A hatred such as he had never known flashed through Retoc's brain. He was s_lose he could see the gentle up-and-down motion of the giant's chest as h_reathed. Then, beyond the platform, he saw Volna. Volna smiled at him. Th_latform bobbed by, was placed on the barge at the foot of Jlomec's bier. Th_emaining hawsers were cut loose.
  • There was, Retoc thought triumphantly, no return from the Place of the Dead.
  • But still, the white giant had recovered from what looked like certain deat_nce, had vanished abruptly and fantastically when he would have died again.
  • What was good enough for Volna the Beautiful was not necessarily good enoug_or Retoc of Abaria. He watched only long enough to see the royal barge pushe_ut into the icy currents of the river, then he turned and made his way to th_econd tier of observers, where Hultax stood among the lesser nobility and th_ilitary officers of the planet Tarth. He found Hultax and whispered for _ime in his ear.
  • Hultax's face blanched. "But lord," he protested, "there is no return … it i_bvious the man will die … you couldn't expect me to… ." Hultax, frightened, confused, could neither think clearly nor express himself properly. His mout_ung open.
  • "Earlier, Hultax," Retoc said with a hard smile, "you craved action. I giv_ou action. Take a boat. There are some moored down-river for the use o_adian priests on their religious pilgrimages to the banks where the stilt- birds dwell. Overtake the royal barge. Board it. Slay the man and the woman."
  • "But I—the Place of the Dead… ."
  • "Fool!" hissed Retoc. "I didn't ask you to visit the Place of the Dead. That'_p to you. If you slay them first, on the River of Ice, and can bring bac_roof … but the longer we talk, the further they are. You'll go?"
  • It was phrased as a question; actually, it was a command. Grim-faced, th_hip-sword trailing at his side, Hultax left the crowd of soldiers and mad_is way downstream. A few moments later he had poled a wooden skiff out int_he icy current and went down-river in pursuit of the royal barge.
  • The guards had unbound Ylia's fetters on the barge, knowing she could neve_wim for safety in the waters of the River of Ice. She sat now at the foot o_lomec's bier, with Bram Forest's handsome head cushioned on her lap. It wa_ery cold there on the river. Wind blew, rustling the reeds which grew alon_he bank. They had long since emerged from the river's underground cavern. Th_wift current carried them now through a country of ice, a tundra. The reeds, twice as tall as a man, seemed to thrive on the riverbanks. They swallowe_verything.
  • Bram Forest opened his eyes, and looked at her, and smiled. He tried to si_p, wincing as pain knifed through his head. "We seem to make a habit o_his," he said, smiling again.
  • "Shh, you mustn't talk."
  • She leaned close. He could smell the animal perfume of her body, like musk an_asmine. Impulsively, she kissed him softly on the lips. His arm went aroun_er neck. He pulled her head down and drank deeply of her.
  • "Why … " she began, all breathless.
  • "Because I love you. I think I loved you the first moment I saw you. But _idn't know it then." He laughed softly, gently, and she did not know why thi_hould be so.
  • "Why do you laugh?"
  • "I was an infant, the son of the Queen. Of Queen Evalla. Portox the scientis_led with me, the last of the royal Ofridian blood, to the other side of th_olar system, to a world the twin of this, a world we never see because th_un always stands between us, a world called Earth. There I would wait unti_aturity. There I would be given the strength and the wisdom I needed. An_hen I would return to Tarth and right the ancient wrong. Well, I hav_eturned. I love you. It is enough, Ylia. I want to think of the future, no_he past."
  • Ylia let him kiss her again. "Isn't it the same, the future and the past?
  • Aren't they one? I too am of Ofridian blood, Bram Forest, of the lesse_obility. There are hundreds of us, living nomadic lives on the Ofridia_lains, where once our great nation stood."
  • "I didn't know that. It wasn't in Portox's training. Now Portox is dead. _uried him on this world called Earth. He could not even come back to hi_ative Tarth."
  • "Darling, don't you see? That's exactly why the ancient wrong must be righted, why Retoc must pay for his infamous deeds. So Portox and the millions of othe_fridians, slain, all slain, can sleep eternally in peace. You are thei_hampion."
  • "But revenge? What is revenge if—"
  • "You are the champion of the future too! Don't you see, oh, don't you? Of al_he unborn tomorrows when the Ofridian nation may live again. Of all th_nborn tomorrows when the nations of Tarth can live together in peace an_armony. Don't you understand that?"
  • "It's funny. I try to see my mother's face. Queen Evalla. But all I see i_ou. She's the past, Ylia. You're the future." He held her lightly.
  • "There is no future for anyone as long as Retoc the Abarian rules, and dream_f Tarth, all Tarth, as his domain."
  • Bram Forest stood up. The cold winds blew. He looked at the blue-cold body o_lomec, lying in state, at the ice-choked river, at the banks of rustlin_eeds. He did not have to ask where they were. He knew. "Perhaps," he said a_ast. "I only mean that if I do this thing it will be more to see that futur_enerations live in peace than to bring vengeance on a power-mad Abarian."
  • "Oh, Bram! That's what I wanted you to say. I wanted to hear you say that. Fo_omorrow! For all our tomorrows."
  • Bram Forest walked to the rail of the barge, and gripped it, and looked ou_ver the ice-flows. He recited:
  • > "An ape, a boar, a stallion, > A land beyond the stars.
  • > A Virgin's feast, a raging beast, > A prison without bars."
  • "Why, what an unusual poem!" Ylia cried. Then: "Hold me close, it's so cold.
  • And I'm afraid, Bram Forest… ."
  • "Of the Place of the Dead?"
  • "Yes, yes. The Place of the Dead."
  • "It and the poem are entwined," Bram Forest said musingly. "I know they are.
  • Together, they're my destiny."
  • "And the destiny of all Tarth?"
  • "Perhaps. Portox liked to think so, I guess."
  • "I like to think so, Bram Forest." She smiled up at him tremulously. "And m_estiny as well."
  • "Ylia," he asked abruptly, "what do you know about the Golden Ape? Yo_entioned it to me once, when you thought I … well, when you thought _ndangered your virginity."
  • "Why, nothing beyond what the legends say."
  • "And what do the legends say?"
  • "It is written in the most ancient of our religious beliefs that the messenge_o the Place of the Dead is a Golden Ape. Naturally, in these same beliefs, _efiled virgin is supposed to kill herself. Thus, in a way of speaking, sh_oes to the Golden Ape. You see?"
  • Bram Forest smiled down at her. "What would you think if I told you the Golde_pe was real? If I told you that there actually was a Place of the Dead?"
  • "For the spirits of the departed?" Ylia asked in a very small voice.
  • "No. Man can't presume to know about that. It's in the realm of the gods. _ean a place which somehow borders on Tarth and yet … yet is beyond the stars.
  • A place which, when wayfarers returned from it miraculously long and long ago, gave rise to the legends."
  • "Borders on Tarth … yet beyond the stars? How can this be?"
  • "Portox found it and explained it with his science," Bram Forest insisted.
  • "Earth and Tarth, twin worlds, yet so different, forever unseen one by th_ther, on opposite sides of the sun. They're unique in the solar system, Ylia.
  • Portox thought—if the memory he planted in my mind is correct—that they'r_nique in the entire universe. Somehow, a million million years ago, a worl_plit, becoming two worlds. But ordinary space … I don't know, the memory i_onfused … could not hold them. There is a warp of space, a place where spac_ends. Learn to master the warp and you go instantly from Tarth to Earth, o_ack again. That was the way Portox brought me, as an infant, to Earth." H_eld aloft his arm, showing her the steel-silver disc. "With this I can trave_ack and forth at will. Without it, either Earth or Tarth would be my prison… ." His voice trailed off.
  • Then he blurted: "'A prison without bars!'"
  • "What… ."
  • "The prophetic poem. Part of the poem. Anyway, Ylia, Earth and Tarth exist a_ither end of this space warp, connected thus through normal space where ther_hould be no connection. And someplace along the warp—where ordinary space- time distances don't matter… ."
  • "I'm sorry, Bram Forest. I don't understand you."
  • "I'm not sure I understand myself. Tarth is a primitive world. It is beyon_ur science. It is even beyond the science of Earth, I believe, and Earth is _illennium ahead of Tarth in its development. But Portox knew. Anyhow, someplace along the warp—in ordinary distances along the space-time continuu_erhaps a billion light years distant from either Earth or Tarth, is a thir_orld. On the warp it is very close. The River of Ice leads to it. We call i_he Place of the Dead."
  • "But the Golden Ape—?"
  • "—inhabits the so-called Place of the Dead. Their world was dying, but Porto_aved them. I think … the science is beyond me … the entropy of their galax_as running down … their world perishing, freezing … when somehow with hi_reat science Portox claimed for their use the unavailable energy in their … their thermodynamic system, and saved them."
  • "Why do you frown so?"
  • "Words. Words only. I don't understand. I can only act."
  • "You can act," Ylia said, hugging herself tight against him. "For Tarth an_he future."
  • "For Tarth and the future," Bram Forest said, but he hardly heard the words.
  • Ahead of them in the cold clear air a wall seemed to rise. It came up s_uddenly, and, in fact, the air had cleared so suddenly from the accustome_urkiness, that Ylia was afraid. "It is in the legend," she whispered. "Th_lack Wall, Bram Forest. And beyond it—the Place of the Dead."
  • "More accurately, an edge-on view of the space-warp, where it meets the norma_orld." But although he spoke the words of Portox, Bram Forest did not soun_oo confident.
  • "We're coming closer to it, Bram. Hold me!"
  • He held her. There was nothing else he could do. The current swept the barg_n inexorably. The Black Wall reared ahead of them, frowned down at them, seemed to block off all the rest of the universe and all reality whether o_arth or of Tarth… .
  • The barge penetrated the wall. Black and solid-seeming, solid as stone, it ye_ffered no resistance. The barge disappeared within it.
  • Behind the barge, rope-trailing so close that its prow almost scraped th_oyal wood, was a skiff in which, shaking and afraid yet somehow triumphan_ecause he had heard Bram Forest's strange words, was Hultax the Abarian.