Moon Mirror

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

(1982) Edited by Susan M. Shwartz, Published by DAW, PB, 0-879-97705-1, $2.95, 256pg ~ cover by Michael Whelan

 

1st PublishedHecate’s Cauldron (1982) Edited by Susan M. Shwartz, Published by DAW, PB, 0-879-97705-1, $2.95, 256pg ~ cover by Michael Whelan

 

Available Now ~ Moon Mirror (2014) Published by Open Road Media, eISBN 978-1-497656-51-2, DM, $3.99, 173pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge ~ (An Collection of Short Stories  by Andre Norton)

 

Bibliography Page - Moon Mirror (andre-norton-books.com)




 

A Short Story by Andre Norton

 

Alathi edged farther into the brush where she had left her backpack. The provisions within it she had added to during the past five days by judicious thievery while she had dogged the caravan. Now she held a last such trophy in one hand, the claw knife of her people in the other. The cape hood of her jerkin hid her silky blue-gray hair and formed a half mask covering her face near to the chin, so that in this dawn hour she was a gray-brown shadow well able to fade into the desolate countryside.

This leather wallet, which she had filched from the tent of the master trader himself, was plump, the most promising she could find. Only, since she had crept away from the camp a new uneasiness had arisen in her, leading the furlike hair on the nape of her neck to twitch. Thus she did not hurry to plunder her prize, rather sat cross-legged, running her fingers back and forth across its worn leather.

Yes, there was something…

The wallet was old. She could trace only by touch a design cut into its surface.  The fringe across its bottom seam protruded like the stubs of broken teeth. She fingered those.

Her hand jerked. She raised her fingers to her lips as if they had been thrust into flames and she must so lick them cool. There was also a taste—acrid, almost as if she crunched ashes.

With her knife she worried the stitches, sawing through tight strands. This seam was wider than it looked to be. What it contained had been so long hidden that she had to use knife point to loosen it from embedding leather.

A narrow thread-ribbon of metal lay as limber across her palm as if it were a chain, save that it was one piece, not linked. It was silver, untarnished, and across it played flashes of color. The two ends were thicker, one forming a loop, the other a hook, so that they might be joined.

Though Alathi had never seen its like before, her inner sense told her this was a thing of power. As a hunting cat could fix upon prey, so could her race recognize such. They told tales of these things among themselves. Perhaps those were no tales in truth, rather fragments of history of a people who had once been rulers. That day was far past. “Hill Cats” had been prey for lowland hunters for years. Still they had not lost their pride nor command of special senses. Alathi knew the worth of what she held now as if it were shouted aloud at a Fire Feast. Its touch made her flesh tingle, the skin of her whole arm roughen. Her hand closed into a fist as she shivered at her roused feelings.

Then she dared to hook it about her throat where it lay as snug as if fashioned for her alone. She pulled her jerkin higher, laced the breast thongs tight to hide it. Its purpose she had yet to learn, but she was certain now she had been guided to its hiding place.

There was no food in the wallet pouch, rather a thick wad of folded parchment.  Alathi freed this. Did she hold the same map she had watched the Merchant Coultar refer to yesterday when his wains had set up camp?

The Merchant Coultar—her green-yellow eyes narrowed. Why had this man among all those who had sheltered in the inn she had spied upon drawn her interest enough that she had chosen to skulk in his wake? He was taller than most lowlanders, fair of hair and skin, where they were loweringly dark. Born of a different people she had guessed—perhaps from across the salt sea where few now voyaged since the world had been rift and burnt by the long war. He was no lordling by his dress—but his manner, that was something else. Both his own men and the guard of blankshields he had with him jumped to his word, though he never raised his voice. And see where he had boldly led them…

Anatray!

Alathi hunched her shoulders, refusing to look westward. If Coultar had come seeking what stood there he was sun-touched, or ghost-ridden! She had thought to prey on these travelers long enough to get back to the hills, out of this war-riven land which had been drowned in blood so long. But she had not thought that these were the hills that company sought.

They made a black fringe across the sky; did he propose to win beyond their barrier, set up a trade flag for the nomads? That was folly upon folly, for there were too many blood feuds between herdsmen and coast dwellers.

No, he had made camp, a well planned one, Alathi thought critically—probably protected against any except a “Hill Cat.” Still it was in short distance of that one peak ahead—that shaped by spirits for an emphatic warn-off. The spire formed an unmistakable fist, thumb curled into palm, fore and small fingers pointed skyward. Just so did prudent men gesture against ill luck and dark omens.

 There were legends of the Fist, chiefly that it marked Anatray—a treasure site which might be anything from a forgotten temple to the tomb of a world ruler.  Men had sought it out—there were always greedy fools. None had returned. Even those who camped nearby suffered from plague or wind-earth storms. Those who survived raved of unseen things which rode the wind.

How could Coultar have recruited men to follow him here? The wain men might be long oath-bound to his service, and the blankshields without hope of another lord, but they were all good at their jobs. She had had to exert herself these past days to keep up with them and evade their scouts.

Alathi’s growing curiosity was like an itch tormenting some place she could not reach to scratch. Thus she had stayed with them past the point of prudence. Not only wanting to know where they went—but because this man Coultar teased her with a strong desire to learn more of him.

Her people continued to live only because they used well their eyes, their ears, any other inborn talent. She could prowl that camp by night, sending forth sooth-thoughts to the horses, eluding any sentry. But in all her skulking she had learned nothing of the merchant’s plans.

No “Hill Cat” could trust one of another race, especially one plainsborn. Still she observed the merchant with care. He appeared to walk as softly as one of her own kind, never raising his voice (still men jumped at his bidding), his eyelids half lowered lazily, sometimes a faint half smile about his lips, as if he found in life some secret jest. He was unlike any other merchant she had observed. His power, she had decided, came not out of his purse, but was a part of him.

Now she studied the parchment, crossed by straggling lines, pricked here and there by symbols which she could not read. There was a strange odor wafting up out of its creases—as if it had lain as a covering for spices. She gnawed upon her lower lip. Perhaps her choice of the wallet had been a sorry mistake—it might be quickly missed.

As she looked from it to the land about, she found it hard to decide whether this was a representation of what she saw. Unconsciously her hand went to her throat where the band felt warm. That find had been so long hidden perhaps even Coultar had not known of it.

There was a stir in the camp. Coultar and the guard commander were mounting horses. Five of the other men also led out mounts. The girl stuffed the map back into the wallet, shoved that into her backpack, before she transformed her thin body into a misshapen outline by shrugging on the pack itself.

The horsemen trotted out, heading for the Fist. Alathi watched for a moment. If she did have Coultar’s map, he had not missed it. However, he seemed entirely confident of his way. If she were wise she would stay where she was. However, that itch of curiosity would not allow her that safety.

She eyed every possible cover before her, knowing she must let them get well ahead before she followed. Last night they had unloaded some of the boxes in the wains, moving them with such ease as to suggest those were empty. If Coultar had not carried goods—then he was prepared to find such here. The fabled treasure of Anatray?

Alathi was returning to the home hills with nothing. Her people had been harried for years by the lowlanders. Suppose she let this merchant take the risk of looting the unknown and then help herself, as she was confident she was able to do, from what he garnered? She had nothing left save her skill and perhaps—again her fingers sought that throat band—that was not so poor a heritage that she would not profit.

She could not push from her mind the fantasy that, in some manner, she was linked with Coultar; that his good fortune might be turned to her use also.  Every time she watched the man she had felt the harnessed power in him, recognized that he was one who would be master not servant in fortune’s train.

So what if he rode now into demon-haunted land? After all, death had brushed her times without number during the past years. She must have long ago used up the number of “lives” which had been sung at her birthing. If she were to die, what would it matter? She was alone, and that stark loneliness strode always at her side, set upon her a weariness beyond the power of banishing. It slept with her, matched steps, haunted the night hours when she could not sleep.

Alathi flung up her head, the pride of her people rising hot in her. Legends sometimes possessed a core of truth. If there was aught ahead for the bold to seize she would take it. If it was for ill… that she was well accustomed to.

Sure that the goal of the riders was the Fist, Alathi made flitting rushes from one bit of cover to the next, watching the men rather than the demon spire. She had patience, freezing into the land whenever one of them looked about.

Now she struck north, away from their track, intending to come down from a different direction. The party had reached the Fist, three men remaining with the mounts, the rest, with Coultar, disappearing around its base.

Alathi lay belly down behind an outcrop of rock. The horse guards were alert, crossbows to hand. They were patroling, but they made no attempt to go beyond the Fist. She still had a chance to retreat, but she also knew that she would never take it.

There was a promising line of shadow along the foot of the hills. She headed for that. Her breast heaving, she crouched low, waiting to hear a shout, even the whistle of a dart. No sound. Heartened, she scuttled on.

The ridge she followed broke; here was a cut which might hold a roadway. She sped ahead and now the Fist itself was between her and the guards. A pavement, but of a different stone than that which formed the bones of this land, had been set by purpose to form a path into the hills. It led through a dark canyon, along the shadowed throat where Coultar and his men already moved.

Their pace was slow, as suited those scouting the unknown, the men glancing from side to side, bare steel or crossbows ready. Yet Coultar marched as one who knew where he would go, looking only at something which he cupped in the palm of his hand, an object too small to be a map.

Alathi sidled along the wall of that half-hidden road. So intent was she upon following undetected, she had no preparation for what came. Her head jerked forward with such force she toppled to her knees, her hand clawing at her throat where that band had tightened, setting her gasping for air, black fear blotting out the world—everything except the need to loosen that choking thread of metal.

She tore with frantic fingers at the constriction, striving to slide the hook from the loop. Then she felt an urgency—a need. Only it was not her need—not now—for the loop loosened of itself, as if its sharp attack had come only to establish control over her, as if some presence that could reach her neither by voice nor gesture so claimed her full attention.

 Gasping, rubbing her neck, she was filled with a new fear; she could not understand from whence this power came or what use it sought to make of her.

Blackness walled her. Yet she feebly struggled against the void that would use her for its own purpose. She was blind, voiceless, still she held desperately to an inner core of self, stubborn even in the face of what might be death.

Only dimly did she sense that she had regained her feet, was lurching from side to side as she ran, that something within urged her to ever greater effort, blotting out caution. She mouthed words which she heard, though they arose from no thought or will of her own:

“Ye Lords of the Four Watchtowers, ye are called upon. Rise to bear witness, arm to guard! The Great One who comes is the beauty and the bounty of the green earth. Her crown is the white moon among the spinning stars. From Her all things proceed, and have proceeded, from the birth of the world. To Her all things, in due time, return. She is the beginning and the ending. In Her hands lie strength, power, compassion, honor, humility, mirth and awe.

“Those who seek Her shall do so in vain if they know not the mysteries, nor call upon Her with the names of power. If they do not find such knowledge within, then it shall be closed to them without.

“Blessed are the eyes which can indeed behold Her in Her glory, mark Her path to follow. Blessed is the mouth which sings Her praise. Blessed be the body which is fruitful in Her service, blessed the feet walking in Her ways.

“Her names are many among the living, thus those who do Her honor call upon Her in diverse ways. She is Isis, and Astarte, Bast, Curwen, Diana, Skula, Freya, Ya-ling, Britta… “Blessed be!”

The blindness had lifted, she could clearly see the men ahead. As one they had turned to stare. One of the crossbows raised, a dart lay ready to fire. Still she could only run helplessly on.

Coultar’s hand swung out, knocked down that bow. He strode forward, as if to meet her, his eyes now wide open, a strange look on his face. He might be seeing the very treasure that he had come seeking. But it was not the merchant she must meet—no. The force that drew her lay beyond—the Inner Place which belonged to Her, the Shining One!

Helplessly possessed, Alathi prepared to dodge, running more swiftly and surely, while that within assured greater control of her body. She was now only a tool—or a weapon— for another’s use!

As she passed Coultar, avoiding his grasp, she saw his face fully alive. He had dropped some mask which had shielded him. There was avid eagerness in his wide eyes, his lips parted hungrily. He flung up his hand in the hollow of which rested a silvery disc. From that burst a thin flash of light.

Alathi pawed at the neck of her jerkin. The band about her throat was heating again. Words once more came to her even as she passed him by:

She is the Great One whom no man dares name, though Her names are as many as there are nations, clans, and kin. She holds life in one hand, in the other the sword of death, maintaining the balance of the world. She welcomes the fall of seed into the waiting furrow, the growth that arises from the seed, the reaping of it when it ripens. She faces, unfearing, the coming of cold and of the winter sleep. For this is the pattern—“

One of the men against the wall put out his hand swiftly, then shrank back. Perhaps the force that dwelt in her now had shown itself in some way—perhaps even Coultar had signed some order. Alathi slid between them as if they were not there.

 More words spilled from her jerkily as she ran. These were different, clicking, guttural, so unlike her own speech that the very sound terrified her. She could not stop uttering them— they seemed to arise from a mind portion where not even memory still lay.

Before her now was only the narrowing ancient road, down which she must go, helplessly. Nor did she fall into silence, for she singsonged, croaked, sometimes repeated phrases which made some sense, until her mouth dried and her throat ached. Nor could she rest while that inner one remained in command.

The walls, formed by the heights, drew together; now she was in a tunnel, a dark way. At its entrance had shimmered a haze curtain across which colors crossed, even as such had swept across the neckband’s silver surface.

“Lord of the Watch Tower of the West—“ She was once more speaking sense. “I am summoned. Speed you my way, for to this summoning there must be no hindrance—“

Through the haze she burst, feeling a flash of intense cold, as if she had broken a skim of ice across a winter prisoned pond. The way was no longer dark, the haze encased her.

Now the fear which had struck at the beginning of this wild and unaccountable action ebbed, not to rise again. In its place welled excitement akin to that she had felt days earlier when she had first seen Coultar.

“By the Lady…” Those words she had willed herself. “By the favor of the Lady…”

The haze swirled faster about her, its colors like jewels whirled about on cords—blazing into fantastic brilliance. She came forth from the tunnel.

Abruptly whatever had driven her withdrew, even as a man might snap his fingers. Alathi swayed, now aware of a sharp pain in her side, her aching feet, the dryness of her mouth. But those were of the body—they meant little or nothing in this place.

Here were no rocks, no earth. Rather there lay a mirror of silver water in a round basin filling all the space between straight cliffs, those as smooth as if they had been deliberately chiseled so that none might find footing upon them. Across the mirror once more played those flashes of vivid color, rippling as might the waves of the salt sea.

The surface of the pool (or lake, for it extended for a far distance) was opaque. One could not see below. Around it ran a curbing near as tall as her waist. She staggered toward that, energy seeping out of her, not only weak and trembling, but bereft, as one whose treasure has been snatched by an enemy.

She fell to her knees behind the curbing, her hand steadying her. As Alathi clung there, near to the edge of consciousness, she saw the other wonder of this stretch of water. The sun shone down, well on its westward journey. Only the brilliance of that was not mirrored below.

Rather there rested on the surface a disc, growing outward from the heart of the lake. No shadow broke the pale, perfect round. Still there appeared upon it certain changes of color. Alathi, marking those, first dully and then with awakening recognition, knew what it resembled. Just as the moon was so clouded here and there so did the same patterns appear.

She wailed, voicing the low, keening cry uttered by the women of her own people as they leapt and danced beneath silver rays in the ancient rites of their sex.  Alathi’s body twitched as if she would dance—as if—

She pulled herself up, shrugged off her backpack, not caring where it might fall. From her thigh sheath she drew her long sword knife; from her belt her “claw”—such must not be worn here.

Straight she stood, watching that disc on the water grow ever more distinct, as if it were solid. Deep in her throat Alathi voiced a sound which was very old, reaching back into the first beginnings of her people, beginnings which even legends could not touch. She took a high step, to balance on the top of the curb, her eyes only for the moon shape.

 Then--

Pain!

So sharp that it split through her skull like the blade of an axe. She wailed, writhed, fell back into a darkness which she thought fleetingly was death. No fear—just loss, a loss which was also pain—then nothing at all.

Distant sounds broke through the envelope of the dark. She strove to hold the dark intact. It promised safety and rest from troubling. Flashes of memory followed, too fleeting to be held.

“—Hill Cat! Best cut her throat, lord. They’re as treacherous as a bal-serpent and nearly as deadly. Do they not dance evil down from the moon and spread it abroad in the dark of night?”

“Stand away! This one has in her what I have long sought. If you fear, Damstiff, then back with you. She is indeed a holder of power past your guessing!”

Alathi felt the band of fire about her throat. Only it did not burn, rather from it she drew strength, urging her out of the safety she had sought in the dark.  She was aware of her body though she did not yet open her eyes, lay limp in another’s hold.

Those voices used the hated click-click of lowland speech. Fragments wheeled through her mind in broken pictures. She could not hold onto them long enough to gain meaning—

“Ahhhhh!”

A scream rang in her ears, pierced through her head. She had been lifted, was being carried—No! The pool—they would take her from the pool!

The clash of steel, a smell… she had scented that before. The map… an old map and from its creases this same spicy odor. He who held her was moving. Did she have a chance to wriggle free? A second scream choked off in the midpoint as if a throat could no longer give it passage.

Alathi opened her eyes and, at the same moment, made her bid for freedom, twisting her body sharply. Coultar held her, but his head was half turned away as if his attention were drawn elsewhere. She was free of his hold, tumbling, to bring up, back against an earth wall—in the tunnel.

One of the guardsmen staggered by her, his hands to his face, weaving from side to side as if blind. Another, his mouth twisted by fear, leaned against the wall opposite her, seeking to aim, in spite of trembling hands, his crossbow. Then he screamed, a high cry like a woman’s, hurled the weapon from him. Out of it, as it crashed on the pavement, curled a feather of pale smoke, then white flames leaped.

He whose weapon that was screamed again, pulled himself away from the wall, still staring at the crossbow, his features a mask of terror passing the bounds of sanity.

Alathi looked to Coultar. He held no steel—perhaps he had dropped weapons when he had taken her captive. Swinging nearly completely around, his face that of a sentry alert to attack, he looked back to the pool. Both of his hands were now heart high, and in the right one was that disc.

Those with him had all fled. Knowing that she had nothing now to fear from them the girl straightened. Strength came flowing back. She willed it to her as she might at the end of a training bout. Her breath no longer came in ragged gasps, rather smoothly as a precious draught of water in the desert. With herself once more under control she became more and more aware of a force which filled this narrow way. It was so strong that she believed she might put forth a hand and gather up its substance.

It was not aimed at her. Coultar’s face grew more tense, he began to breathe faster. His lips were forced back against his teeth in a half snarl of effort as he visibly fought for speech:

“By Curwen, by Thethera, by Skula, by the oak, the ash, the red thorn, by the waxing moon—the moon that is full—that which wanes. By—“ He passed into another language, one in which the sounds began low in his throat, ascending note by note to a higher pitch than she could believe any man might naturally utter.

The disc he held was no longer that. Rather he cupped a length of white flame.  His fingers writhed, blistered before her eyes, still he held it, and stood, rock firm.

“By the Law of the Worlds, and that which lies between them, by those who walk still our paths, and those who have gone before,” he dropped into intelligible speech again. “In the name of Herne, Thoth, Abyis, Lord of Light, by Suth, and Korn, also the Watch Lords of the East, West, North, and South, do I stand here.  Two things that have contact—“ he held the flame a fraction higher—“will come together. A power strengthens a power. O, She who—“

The flame in his hand leaped free. To Alathi it sped. He wheeled to face the girl as that flame struck against the latched hoop at her throat, clung, changed. She felt no fire, from this uniting came no harm to her.

Alathi raised hands to the disc once more formed, then she stretched out the right slowly to the man who had held it earlier. A wall might have fallen—she saw. He was no merchant—rather a seeker—one who was a stranger, still closer than any kin.

She gasped, for his body seemed to flow, to change. This was not the man she had followed secretly across the waste of Ghritz. Though something of that one remained. Only more had been revealed.

“Who are you!” she asked.

“There is the Lady.” There was a weight in his words as if he were one of more authority than she had ever met. “There is also He who comes with the winter—into whose hands She passes the Sword, that He may complete that circle which balances the world—Life and birth, death and sleep, before life comes anew. I am one who is vowed to that Lord of Winter. He has been lost from the time and people of my birth world; thus I must journey into another time and place to call upon him again for the sake of my own kind.

“Evoe, Evoe, Pan! Evoe, Herne! Evoe, Thoth!” He threw back his head. His voice came as a great shout which seemed to rock the very world under and about them.

Again he changed. Here stood a dark-skinned man who wore the spotted skin of some beast about him over a white kilt; another with a head of close-curled hair, his body bare save for a small strip of hide, the badge of kinship with the world of beasts; a man in armor; one in a long robe across which ran runes in scarlet, to glow and fade. He was all these, yet also the Coultar of the here and now.

“I swear by the wide and fruitful womb of my mother, by my honor among men, by the blood shed in the Circle—“ He spoke softly, as if he sought some answer from her. Though her ears still rang from his shouts, she could hear.

Alathi answered, knowing, even as she spoke, that she had said the words before many times. When and in what places? That did not matter now—this was the time, the place, to which she had been led so that she might say them again and so enter into what waited.

“I swear by my hope of the Great Glory beyond, by my past lives, my hope of future ones yet to come—“

At last their hands might meet. Around them surged the power. Not driven by it, but a part of it, they went back—Hill Cat and merchant no longer. What they were now they must learn.

They came out to the pool. Alathi understood. In each life there waits a door to the Innerworld ready. Some never found it. That she had was as fair a fortune as the stuff of dreams.

“Blessed Lady, I am thy child—“

“—thy child,” he echoed her.

Together they climbed upon the curbing; together they leaped, hand in hand, out into the great waiting moon mirror. It closed about them, drew them in. However, their search had only begun, their feet but touched upon the first steps of the widest and straightest road of all.

 



 

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