This time we fell onto the floor, for Thane Gehir had run with enough energy to lose his footing. I came fast to my feet, my heart bounding to see that familiar room around me.
“You have returned,” Prince Evandir said with plain relief, stepping in through the doorway. He bit his lip, staring at me in the borrowed clothes I wore. I wanted to look at him, take pleasure in his real warm presence and the simple reality that returned around me, then I glanced away because it was too much.
“I sat here this past hour wondering what excuses for the disappearance of our host’s only son I might make when I returned to the Fortress. Though I take it from you that the King is not so careful of the Prince as he might be, I believe the situation would at least have held a certain awkwardness.”
He shrugged, only a little amused by the thought.
“Indeed,” said Thane Gehir and helped Prince Daniel back to his feet. I found myself beginning to try to make sense now of what had been too terrific to me while it happened.
“You took us to the future,” I said in awe. “That is where all of us are going, and what we will become. So clean, so bright and colorless and then exploding in the night with beauty. You must have cures for every disease. Every ill. You must have knowledge such as we merely dream of having.”
Thane Gehir looked over at Prince Daniel and the Prince’s calm eyes met the Thane’s with an understanding I could not follow. Prince Daniel shook his head, reluctant, almost sad. Gehir ran his hands up through his long hair, the gray and the brown all mixed together in friendly chaos.
“Well, it’s not quite like that, ” he said, both sad and a bit apologetic. “As Prince Daniel has guessed, it goes the other way. You are my future, our future, not our past. We died, or so your history tells us.
“We aren’t allowed into the far past, before the gates in time were made, only the future. Indeed I didn’t know if we would be allowed, by whatever rules these forces, to take the Prince back so far as I did and treat him. Maybe it worked because I come from there and so the gate would allow me passage. Maybe I am imagining that there is some kind of judgement involved and there is none. Maybe it’s just the physics and anywhen there is a gate in existence one can pass through it. It seemed so necessary to save your Prince Daniel that I had to try, despite my doubts. I had reason to believe… I guess I should not say too much about my reasons.” He too, shook his head.
“No, Ti. What happened was that you traveled… hundreds of years back into the past. In fact, you,” he said with a twisted smile, “are my great-many-times-over granddaughter, Ti of the Wall.”
Prince Evandir looked at him with puzzlement. I struggled to turn my perceptions backwards. To believe what I had seen might be our future, came far easier than to believe it all lost. Evandir himself must have felt we spoke in an alien tongue, having seen nothing but our disappearance and our reappearance.
We entered the passageway, and I noted how Evandir’s hand at first hovered ready to steady Prince Daniel’s steps, then the lift of his brow as he saw how much the boy’s alertness and coordination had improved.
“He seems just a little weak to me,” Evandir whispered to me, “but well. You found him some cure? Tell me of this healing. I have been biting my greaves for these two days and you owe me some explanation.”
I spoke softly and told him what I could, imperfect though that seemed as we made our way back first to our horses, and thence through the woodland.
“How shall we return the Prince?” Thane Gehir sounded suddenly so startled by the difficulty of this need that I almost smiled.
“Oh, it’s simple enough,” Prince Evandir said, and he led us out of the wood and to the great Gate. He beat on it with his gloved fist until the sentry opened the slatted window.
“Late it is,” he bellowed, “but your Prince Daniel, my guest, felt unwell this evening such that I deemed it best to return him to his father the King, in the care of Thane Gehir and Gehir’s companion.”
I had closed down the visor of my helmet and pulled up the hood lent by my enemy, and of course my mare was of Prince Evandir’s string, so my appearance did not project my identity.
“I ask safe conduct to deliver him to the Fortress and into hands better suited to his care.”
Much later, the Thane and I went quietly to one of the small fires left smoldering form the barracks dinner and stirred up the coals until we had a little blaze. I kept remembering how Prince Evandir had ridden away into the Arena’s darkness moments before, his safe-conduct having legally expired once he left bowshot of the Gates. I could not foresee our ways, and we had made no provision for whatever future might develop on the morrow. I had not even had time to clasp his hand in thanks. However, I asked a very different question of Thane Gehir.
“With all the power your people yield to solve disease, why is it you yourself heal in a personal way with hands on and suffering the burden of the experience? Why have you cursed me likewise? It seems so unnecessary.”
“Oh, in my time it is,” he said. “Indeed it is nearly useless. What I have is an accidental ability, not one that was any goal of the kind of tampering that caused it. We were experimenting with changing the way human beings are made, enhancing the abilities of certain parts of the brain. What they did to me before I was born might have resulted in an advantage to my people in matters of war. So the scientists hoped. I came out a bit differently gifted than they had hoped, that’s all, but this cursed healing runs in your blood too since you are one of my descendants in whom it crops out. I didn’t know for sure that you would be capable of this work until you proved it. But you were all I had to fight the pox that could have brought your country down. Now that you have learned this manner of healing, the ability will not go away.”
“So you were supposed to be a killer too.”
“Yes, you could say that. Yes, I was. But in my case the plan went wrong. Now Ti of the Wall, I must arm you with the past knowledge that I believe you need for the times ahead.”
As Thane Gehir told me what I faced, even though I had trouble with parts of his concepts, I quickly realized that my best response was to listen and believe these things he said entire, without analysis or translation.
“We have seen how you exile the deviants of your society, but I think it might have been wiser for you to consider where they went and what they did. They went North and found sanctuary in the Kingdom of Saahr which now hangs upon your border. Saahr had a use for them, a use he kept secret from his people, for this world’s traditions are incredibly strong regarding abominations.
“We assume his tool and the means to work with it were found in some place left undisturbed for long centuries, preserved by luck or, possibly, just excellent packaging. There is a slight possibility that it came from the past as a deliberate contamination. I shall examine that possibility when I go home.
“I can’t stop it now, however, no matter what the nature of its introduction. This is a strong time line, and sometimes I think there’s some controlling force arbitrating when we can and cannot gain access to your future. I can’t keep weaving my presence through the future in such a way that I risk being here in two places at the same time. In the beginning we didn’t know what we did, and we kept inaccurate records as we now belatedly understand. So you must deal with this situation from inside of it. There will be no direct Godly nor Gehirly intervention. I can only give you information.
“We don’t know much beyond this,” he said. “As I explained, the access we have to the future has limits we cannot quantify. In the beginning of the work, when our first Gate spat forth the remote, we had despaired of mankind’s future survival. To discover that we as a species did indeed persist past our own follies relieved fears and guilt you cannot imagine. The fact that over the generations uncounted since our time a belief grew that the key to this survival of humankind lay in renouncing certain mechanical powers and not others, may actually be a result of our tampering.”
He paused, rubbing his long nose with a grimy finger.
“Personally, I think you have taken the restrictions too far, and yet you do avoid some of our terrible problems. We are discussing hundreds of years, Ti. We don’t even know precisely how long. You cannot imagine how uncleanly we lived. What you saw was a place dedicated to the purposes of medicine, a house of healing. In the rest of our world some of our kinds of dirt you would not even recognize.”
He turned to me and quoted from the Books of the Nameless God.
‘The world is charged with the glory of God
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,
It will gather to greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck His rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod.
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and bears man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now; nor can foot feel, being shod.‘
“So I suppose it is possible as my fellow workers claim, that King Saahr could actually bring the next downfall of man. If it is true that each of the ages of man have ended for the same kind of reasons, then your denial of technology must continue.”
He bent forward and lowered his voice then.
“Master Ti,” he said, I think it is possible that I have something you must learn and use at need. If it does not work, then God help you indeed, and damn me for a sloppy researcher.”
After he had left I went quietly into the barracks and entered the kitchens where I found many of the survivors of my forty assembled, checking over dented weaponry and mending their helmet straps. To my great joy Macc sat there, looking shaky from the sick stomach that comes with head wounds, but I kissed him in my delight until Zanel pulled me off into a one-armed hug. I went quietly up the stairs and woke Mell from her exhausted slumber before I finally crawled off to my own bed. I could not at first sleep.
Inside the barracks Berann played, the first notes of her flute throaty and low. Nine notes, a simple sequence of cold clean sounds, and then she paused and answered herself an octave higher, sweet as the unmerciful light of stars.
Then she did it again, doubling the notes, changing the stress before she returned her original line to our ears. She dropped it there, so that we who listened still waited for an ending that would not come. I kept hearing it afterwards in the night, long after she had gone to her sleep.