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!'"
"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.