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"Elegy for a Young Elk" by Hannu Rajaniemi
"The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman
"Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots" by Sandra McDonald
"The Spy Who Never Grew Up" by Sarah Reese Brennan
"The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue" by Holly Black
"Under the Moons of Venus" by Damien Broderick
"The Fool Jobs" by Joe Abercrombie
"Alone" by Robert Reed
"Names for Water" by Kij Johnson
"Fair Ladies" by Theodora Goss
"Plus or Minus" by James P. Kelly
"The Man with the Knives" by Ellen Kushner
"The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening" by Cory Doctorow
"The Maiden Flight of McAuley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand
"The Miracle Aquilina" by Margo Lanagan
"The Taste of Night" by Pat Cadigan
"The Exterminator's Want-Ad" by Bruce Sterling
"Map of Seventeen" by Christopher Barzak
"The Naturalist" by Maureen F. McHugh
"Sins of the Father" by Sara Genge
"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis
"Iteration" by John Kessel
"The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn" by Diana Peterfreund
"The Night Train" by Lavie Tidhar
"Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)" by Ian Tregillis
"Amor Vincit Omnia" by K.J. Parker
"The Things" by Peter Watts
"The Zeppelin Conductors Society Annual Gentleman's Ball" by Genevieve Valentine
"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queens Window" by Rachel Swirsky
26 June 2021 (21:17) 

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An anthology of stories edited by Jonathan Strahan





* * *



The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the YearAcknowledgements

INTRODUCTION

ELEGY FOR A YOUNG ELK

THE TRUTH IS A CAVE IN THE BLACK MOUNTAINS

SEVEN SEXY COWBOY ROBOTS

I.

II.

III.

IV.

V.

VI.

VII.





THE SPY WHO NEVER GREW UP

THE AARNE-THOMPSON CLASSIFICATION REVUE

UNDER THE MOONS OF VENUS

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.





THE FOOL JOBS

ALONE

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13





NAMES FOR WATER

FAIR LADIES

PLUS OR MINUS

THE MAN WITH THE KNIVES

THE JAMMIE DODGERS AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE LEICESTER SQUARE SCREENING

THE MAIDEN FLIGHT OF MCCAULEY’S BELLEROPHON

THE MIRACLE AQUILINA

THE TASTE OF NIGHT

THE EXTERMINATOR’S WANT-AD

MAP OF SEVENTEEN

THE NATURALIST

SINS OF THE FATHER

THE SULTAN OF THE CLOUDS

ITERATION

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR BABY KILLER UNICORN

THE NIGHT TRAIN

STILL LIFE

AMOR VINCIT OMNIA

THE THINGS

THE ZEPPELIN CONDUCTORS’ SOCIETY ANNUAL GENTLEMEN’S BALL

THE LADY WHO PLUCKED RED FlOWERS BENEATH THE QUEEN’S WINDOW





* * *





The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year

Volume 5

An anthology of stories edited by Jonathan Strahan




For Alex, Alisa, and Tansy—the Coode Street Feminist Advisory Committee—for their kindness, support, and advice.





Acknowledgements




This year has been a challenging one and getting this book done has been demanding. I doubt you would be holding it now without the determined assistance of my wife and co-editor Marianne Jablon, who stepped up to the plate and helped get this book ready at the last minute. As always, I’d also like to thank Gary K.Wolfe, whose advice has been invaluable; everyone from Not if You Were the Last Short Story on Earth who were my companions again on the journey through the year and provided an invaluable sounding board. I’d also like to thank Howard Morhaim, Jason Williams, Jeremy Lassen, Ross Lockhart, Marty Halpern, John Helfers, Martin H. Greenberg, and Gordon Van Gelder. Thanks als; o to the following good friends and colleagues without whom this book would have been much poorer, and much less fun to do: Lou Anders, Jack Dann, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Sean Williams, and all of the book’s contributors.

As always, my biggest thanks go to my family, Marianne, Jessica, and Sophie. Every moment spent working on this book was one stolen from them. I only hope I can repay them.





INTRODUCTION

JONATHAN STRAHAN




In the Australian winter of 1985 I was still at university, pursuing a fairly useless if interesting degree during the day while spending most of my waking hours engaged in an excited, breathless and far more useful discovery of the science fiction field. It was during that time that I encountered my first “best of the year” anthology, a sprawling selection of stories that the editor opened with a careful assessment of how things were going wrong in SF, or might be. A boon of some kind, he reported, was possibly coming to an end and there was real fear that bad times might be coming: sales were unreliable, advances were headed south and, in all likelihood, the publishing world would end quite soon.

Gardner Dozois, for it was he writing in the first of his The Year’s Best Science Fiction series (now in its twenty-eighth year), followed that assessment with two dozen stories—from established writers like Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman and Poul Anderson, alongside an incredible array of writers I’d never heard of like Connie Willis, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson—which rather seemed to make those gloomy assessments irrelevant. How could a field that was producing stories like “Cicada Queen,” “Hardfought,” “Carrion Comfort” and “Black Air” be anything other than healthy?

I could appreciate then, as I do now, that he was talking about the health of the publishing industry as it was experienced by writers , rather than the state of the art of SF and fantasy writing as it was experienced by readers , but I still did wonder at the time how the caution of the introduction reconciled with the optimism of the story selection.

I was confronted with this myself when, unexpectedly, in the summer of 1997I found myself drafting an introduction to The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy with my co-editor Jeremy G. Byrne and falling into exactly the same kind of assessment, talking about the publishing business rather than the art. I’ve now sat down on sixteen separate occasions, both by myself and with others, and I still struggle to balance the urge to talk about the state of the publishing business rather than focus on the year in short fiction, probably because of a simple but fundamental problem: the year in short fiction is barely done and in many ways is too close to meaningfully assess, even as I attempt to do just that.

It would be easy to describe the rather shaky state that SF and fantasy finds itself in as the first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close as uneasy. Advances are down, sales (especially for short fiction) are down, the midlist (where many fine writers made their livings) is almost completely a thing of the past, booksellers are in trouble and short fiction outlets of all kinds seem to be struggling financially.

As has been the case in the past, large publishers consolidated, reducing staff and focusing on new opportunities. Random House merged Ballantine and Bantam Dell, HarperCollins rebranded Eos and Voyager, HarperCollins sold its new Angry Robot imprint, as did Games Workshop its Solaris Books imprint. The major North American book chains struggled, with reports popping up throughout the year of both Borders and Barnes & Noble being in various kinds of financial trouble. And magazine Realms of Fantasy , having closed and been rescued in 2009, was sold and rescued again late in 2010.

This was also the year when eBook publishing really took off. Early in the year publishers publicly slugged it out with Amazon over eBook pricing, but that was quickly swept aside when Apple released its iPad in April. Apple sold three million devices in less than three months, and went on to sell more than eight million during the year. Those eight million new, very high profile e-readers were soon joined by new, cheaper iterations of the Kindle, the Nook and others. E-readers seemed to become a desirable thing to own, the next “it” gadget, and eBook sales increased accordingly, with some publishers saying as year’s end approached that eBooks accounted for as much as twenty percent of sales.

That was reflected in the decision by mass market publisher Dorchester to move from traditionally printed books to digital-only editions in August. Perhaps more interesting for SF and fantasy, though, was the comparatively quiet announcement that same month that Gollancz, one of the most respected and important SF imprints in the field, had quietly appointed its first digital publisher. There have been some whispers as to what this might mean for the future, and it’s something I for one will be watching with great interest.

But what of the art of short SF and fantasy? How is that doing? I can imagine you asking. Well, as I’ve been saying for close to a decade now, it has become almost impossible to keep track of all of the original short fiction published each year. I don’t have the February issue of Locus to hand, but when I last looked they’d reported close to 3,500 new stories had been published in their most recent year of accounting, and I’ve long felt that underestimated numbers by a factor of four or five. New stories were published in anthologies, collections, magazines (whether printed on paper or presented with pixels) and pamphlets; they came from publishers of all sizes, and they came every single day. One publisher even launched a service that, rather mind-bogglingly, offered a new story every working day (that’s 220 per year, or more than the combined output of Asimov’s , Analog , F&SF , Realms of Fantasy and Interzone ). Year’s best editors whimpered.

While in recent years anthologies seemed to be providing most of our best short fiction, this year the field seemed to level out with a wide variety of venues producing some excellent work, but no single source really dominating. Unlike 2009, though, I probably found more stories I liked in magazines with almost two-thirds of the contents of this book coming from one periodical or another, and just a third coming from the pages of anthologies.

We are early enough in the digital era that we still find ourselves bound, it seems, to discuss whether magazines appear in print or online. This isn’t a particularly useful distinction given that at the end of the day a magazine is a magazine and an issue is an issue. That said, the majority of the stories from magazines that I liked came from online sources. Last year Tor.com had a particularly strong year, but this year it was Subterranean that dominated. Editor Bill Schafer produced a terrific mix of fantasy, oddball SF and other stuff, including major stories by Rachel Swirsky, Peter S. Beagle, K. J. Parker, Hannu Rajaniemi and many more. He also reprinted excellent long novellas originally published in book form from the likes of Lucius Shepard and Ted Chiang. It was, on balance, the best single source of top notch fiction in 2010. Veteran Strange Horizons , which picked up its first World Fantasy Award in October, also had a very strong year with fine stories from the likes of John Kessel, Lavie Tidhar, Sandra McDonald, Meghan McCarron and Theodora Goss. Comparative newcomer Apex SF had what was probably its best year yet, publishing some good work including two marvelous fantasies by Ian Tregillis and Theodora Goss. Clarkesworld , which after Tor.com , was easily the best online magazine of 2009, justifiably picked up the Hugo in August and had another strong (if slightly less dominant) year publishing excellent work by Peter Watts, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Catherynne M. Valente and others. Newcomer Lightspeed , under the able editorship of John Joseph Adams, also began to find its feet across its first half-dozen issues, publishing a terrific story by Genevieve Valentine, and some fine work by Ted Kosmatka, Carol Emshwiller and others.

Of the print magazines, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine had the best year producing terrific work by established regulars like Robert Reed, James Patrick Kelly, Geoffrey A. Landis and Kij Johnson, alongside newer writers like Sara Genge and Felicity Shoulders. Editor Sheila Williams doesn’t really get enough credit for the efforts she’s put in over recent years to broaden and re-define Asimov’s but it definitely showed this year. Gordon Van Gelder’s Fantasy & Science Fiction had another solid year, with strong stories by Bruce Sterling, Paul Park, John Kessel, Steven Popkes, Ian R. Macleod and newcomer Alexandra Duncan. It remains a reliable source of good fiction. Interzone also had a good year, producing two excellent stories by Jim Hawkins, who returned to the magazine with his second and third sales after a thirty-year hiatus. There were many other print magazines published, but these were the ones that struck me as the best.

If anthologies weren’t quite as dominant in 2010, that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of them and that they didn’t contain a lot of fine fiction. I should probably note the caveat here that I edited several anthologies in 2010 myself, so I offer without comment SF anthology Godlike Machines , fantasy anthologies Swords and Dark Magic (edited with Lou Anders), Legends of Australian Fantasy (edited with Jack Dann) and Wings of Fire (edited with Marianne S. Jablon). All contain work I think deserves your attention. The best original fantasy anthology of the year was Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black’s immensely enjoyable Zombies vs. Unicorns , which featured excellent work by Diana Peterfreund, Sarah Rees Brennan, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot, Alaya Dawn Johnson and others. If you buy only one original fantasy anthology of the year, this should be it. I was frankly surprised at the quality of Full Moon City, a werewolf anthology that featured terrific stories from the likes of Holly Black, Peter S. Beagle and Gene Wolfe. Well worth your attention was the latest from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, The Beastly Bride , which included strong work from Christopher Barzak, Ellen Kushner and Peter S. Beagle. More tangential to this book, Datlow also edited a strong anthology of ghost stories, Haunted Legends , with Nick Mamatas, which featured good work by Jeffrey Ford, Caitlín R. Kiernan and Joe R. Lansdale. Also worth mention is John Joseph Adams’s The Way of the Wizard , which includes good work by Nnedi Okorafor, Genevieve Valentine and others.

There were, frankly, very few SF anthologies published this year. After my own Godlike Machines , the best of these was Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern’s Is Anybody Out There? , which had an excellent story from Pat Cadigan and very good work from Alexander Irvine and others. 2010 also seemed to have more high profile “bestseller” anthologies than we’ve seen for a while. Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio delivered Stories , while Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin edited Warriors and Songs of Love and Death . All three were mixed genre, and often the non-genre stories were the highlights. Although it was somewhat uneven, the best of these anthologies was Stories, which had outstanding stories by Elizabeth Hand and editor Gaiman, alongside fine work from Joe R. Lansdale, Jeffrey Ford and Tim Powers. Warriors featured strong work from Joe Haldeman, Howard Waldrop and both editors Dozois and Martin, while Songs of Love and Death had good work from Carrie Vaughn, Neil Gaiman and others. 2010 saw the World Science Fiction Convention travel to Australia and a number of strong anthologies were published by Australian small presses to coincide with the event. Easily the best of these was Alisa Krasnostein’s Sprawl , a suburban fantasy anthology from Twelfth Planet Press which featured excellent work by Peter M. Ball, Angela Slatter, Thoraiya Dyer and others. Also of interest were Tehani Wesseley’s Worlds Next Door and Liz Grzyb’s Scary Kisses .

I could go on and talk about reprint anthologies, collections and such but I’m running long as it is, so instead I’ll simply say it was another fine year and let you get to reading the wonderful stories that feature in this year’s book. As always, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed compiling them. See you next year!

Jonathan Strahan

Perth, Australia

November 2010





ELEGY FOR A YOUNG ELK

HANNU RAJANIEMI





Hannu Rajaniemi was born in Ylivieska, Finland, and read his first science fiction novel at the age of six—Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . At the age of eight he approached European Space Agency with a fusion-powered spaceship design, which was received with a polite “thank you” note. He studied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Oulu and completed a B.Sc. thesis on transcendental numbers. Rajaniemi went on to complete Part III of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in string theory at the University of Edinburgh. After completing his Ph.D., he joined three partners to co-found ThinkTank Maths (TTM). The company provides mathematics-based technologies in the defense, space, and energy sectors. Rajaniemi is a member of an Edinburgh-based writers group which includes Alan Campbell, Jack Deighton, Caroline Dunford, and Charles Stross. His first fiction sale was the short story “Shibuya no Love” to Futurismic.com , and his first novel, The Quantum Thief , was published by Gollancz in 2010.





The night after Kosonen shot the young elk, he tried to write a poem by the campfire.

It was late April and there was still snow on the ground. He had already taken to sitting outside in the evening, on a log by the fire, in the small clearing where his cabin stood. Otso was more comfortable outside, and he preferred the bear’s company to being alone. It snored loudly atop its pile of fir branches.

A wet smell that had traces of elk shit drifted from its drying fur.

He dug a soft-cover notebook and a pencil stub from his pocket. He leafed through it: most of the pages were empty. Words had become slippery, harder to catch than elk. Although not this one: careless and young. An old elk would never have let a man and a bear so close.

He scattered words on the first empty page, gripping the pencil hard.

Antlers. Sapphire antlers. No good. Frozen flames. Tree roots. Forked destinies. There had to be words that captured the moment when the crossbow kicked against his shoulder, the meaty sound of the arrow’s impact. But it was like trying to catch snowflakes in his palm. He could barely glimpse the crystal structure, and then they melted.

He closed the notebook and almost threw it into the fire, but thought better of it and put it back into his pocket. No point in wasting good paper. Besides, his last toilet roll in the outhouse would run out soon.

“Kosonen is thinking about words again,” Otso growled. “Kosonen should drink more booze. Don’t need words then. Just sleep.”

Kosonen looked at the bear. “You think you are smart, huh?” He tapped his crossbow. “Maybe it’s you who should be shooting elk.”

“Otso good at smelling. Kosonen at shooting. Both good at drinking.” Otso yawned luxuriously, revealing rows of yellow teeth. Then it rolled to its side and let out a satisfied heavy sigh. “Otso will have more booze soon.”

Maybe the bear was right. Maybe a drink was all he needed. No point in being a poet: they had already written all the poems in the world, up there, in the sky. They probably had poetry gardens. Or places where you could become words.

But that was not the point. The words needed to come from him , a dirty, bearded man in the woods whose toilet was a hole in the ground. Bright words from dark matter, that’s what poetry was about.

When it worked.

There were things to do. The squirrels had almost picked the lock the previous night, bloody things. The cellar door needed reinforcing. But that could wait until tomorrow.

He was about to open a vodka bottle from Otso’s secret stash in the snow when Marja came down from the sky as rain.

The rain was sudden and cold like a bucket of water poured over your head in the sauna. But the droplets did not touch the ground, they floated around Kosonen. As he watched, they changed shape, joined together and made a woman, spindle-thin bones, mist-flesh and muscle. She looked like a glass sculpture. The small breasts were perfect hemispheres, her sex an equilateral silver triangle. But the face was familiar—small nose and high cheekbones, a sharp-tongued mouth.

Marja.

Otso was up in an instant, by Kosonen’s side. “Bad smell, god-smell,” it growled. “Otso bites.” The rain-woman looked at it curiously.

“Otso,” Kosonen said sternly. He gripped the fur in the bear’s rough neck tightly, feeling its huge muscles tense. “Otso is Kosonen’s friend. Listen to Kosonen. Not time for biting. Time for sleeping. Kosonen will speak to god.” Then he set the vodka bottle in the snow right under its nose.

Otso sniffed the bottle and scraped the half-melted snow with its forepaw.

“Otso goes,” it finally said. “Kosonen shouts if the god bites. Then Otso comes.” It picked up the bottle in its mouth deftly and loped into the woods with a bear’s loose, shuffling gait.

“Hi,” the rain-woman said.

“Hello,” Kosonen said carefully. He wondered if she was real. The plague gods were crafty. One of them could have taken Marja’s image from his mind. He looked at the unstrung crossbow and tried to judge the odds: a diamond goddess versus an out-of-shape woodland poet. Not good.

“Your dog does not like me very much,” the Marja-thing said. She sat down on Kosonen’s log and swung her shimmering legs in the air, back and forth, just like Marja always did in the sauna. It had to be her, Kosonen decided, feeling something jagged in his throat.

He coughed. “Bear, not a dog. A dog would have barked. Otso just bites. Nothing personal, that’s just its nature. Paranoid and grumpy.”

“Sounds like someone I used to know.”

“I’m not paranoid.” Kosonen hunched down and tried to get the fire going again. “You learn to be careful, in the woods.”

Marja looked around. “I thought we gave you stayers more equipment. It looks a little… primitive here.”

“Yeah. We had plenty of gadgets,” Kosonen said. “But they weren’t plague-proof. I had a smartgun before I had this”—he tapped his crossbow—“but it got infected. I killed it with a big rock and threw it into the swamp. I’ve got my skis and some tools, and these.” Kosonen tapped his temple. “Has been enough so far. So cheers.”

He piled up some kindling under a triangle of small logs, and in a moment the flames sprung up again. Three years had been enough to learn about woodcraft at least. Marja’s skin looked almost human in the soft light of the fire, and he sat back on Otso’s fir branches, watching her. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

“So how are you, these days?” he asked. “Keeping busy?”

Marja smiled. “Your wife grew up. She’s a big girl now. You don’t want to know how big.”

“So… you are not her, then? Who am I talking to?”

“I am her, and I am not her. I’m a partial, but a faithful one. A translation. You wouldn’t understand.”

Kosonen put some snow in the coffee pot to melt. “All right, so I’m a caveman. Fair enough. But I understand you are here because you want something. So let’s get down to business, perkele ,” he swore.

Marja took a deep breath. “We lost something. Something important. Something new. The spark, we called it. It fell into the city.”

“I thought you lot kept copies of everything.”

“Quantum information. That was a part of the new bit. You can’t copy it.”

“Tough shit.”

A wrinkle appeared between Marja’s eyebrows. Kosonen remembered it from a thousand fights they had had, and swallowed.

“If that’s the tone you want to take, fine,” she said. “I thought you’d be glad to see me. I didn’t have to come: they could have sent Mickey Mouse. But I wanted to see you. The big Marja wanted to see you. So you have decided to live your life like this, as the tragic figure haunting the woods. That’s fine. But you could at least listen. You owe me that much.” Kosonen said nothing.

“I see,” Marja said. “You still blame me for Esa.”

She was right. It had been her who got the first Santa Claus machine. The boy needs the best we can offer, she said. The world is changing. Can’t have him being left behind. Let’s make him into a little god, like the neighbor’s kid.

“I guess I shouldn’t be blaming you ,” Kosonen said. “You’re just a… partial. You weren’t there.”

“I was there,” Marja said quietly. “I remember. Better than you, now. I also forget better, and forgive. You never could. You just… wrote poems. The rest of us moved on, and saved the world.”

“Great job,” Kosonen said. He poked the fire with a stick, and a cloud of sparks flew up into the air with the smoke.

Marja got up. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m leaving. See you in a hundred years.” The air grew cold. A halo appeared around her, shimmering in the firelight.

Kosonen closed his eyes and squeezed his jaw shut tight. He waited for ten seconds. Then he opened his eyes. Marja was still there, staring at him, helpless. He could not help smiling. She could never leave without having the last word.

“I’m sorry,” Kosonen said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been living in the woods with a bear. Doesn’t improve one’s temper much.”

“I didn’t really notice any difference.”

“All right,” Kosonen said. He tapped the fir branches next to him. “Sit down. Let’s start over. I’ll make some coffee.”

Marja sat down, bare shoulder touching his. She felt strangely warm, warmer than the fire almost.

“The firewall won’t let us into the city,” she said. “We don’t have anyone…human enough, not anymore. There was some talk about making one, but… the argument would last a century.” She sighed. “We like to argue, in the sky.”

Kosonen grinned. “I bet you fit right in.” He checked for the wrinkle before continuing. “So you need an errand boy.”

“We need help.”

Kosonen looked at the fire. The flames were dying now, licking at the blackened wood. There were always new colors in the embers. Or maybe he just always forgot.

He touched Marja’s hand. It felt like a soap bubble, barely solid. But she did not pull it away.

“All right,” he said. “But just so you know, it’s not just for old times’ sake.”

“Anything we can give you.”

“I’m cheap,” Kosonen said. “I just want words.”

The sun sparkled on the kantohanki : snow with a frozen surface, strong enough to carry a man on skis and a bear. Kosonen breathed hard. Even going downhill, keeping pace with Otso was not easy. But in weather like this, there was something glorious about skiing, sliding over blue shadows of trees almost without friction, the snow hissing underneath.

I’ve sat still too long, he thought. Should have gone somewhere just to go, not because someone asks.

In the afternoon, when the sun was already going down, they reached the railroad, a bare gash through the forest, two metal tracks on a bed of gravel. Kosonen removed his skis and stuck them in the snow.

“I’m sorry you can’t come along,” he told Otso. “But the city won’t let you in.”

“Otso not a city bear,” the bear said. “Otso waits for Kosonen. Kosonen gets sky-bug, comes back. Then we drink booze.”

He scratched the rough fur of its neck clumsily. The bear poked Kosonen in the stomach with its nose, so hard that he almost fell. Then it snorted, turned around and shuffled into the woods. Kosonen watched until it vanished among the snow-covered trees.

It took three painful attempts of sticking his fingers down his throat to get the nanoseed Marja gave him to come out. The gagging left a bitter taste in his mouth. Swallowing it had been the only way to protect the delicate thing from the plague. He wiped it in the snow: a transparent bauble the size of a walnut, slippery and warm. It reminded him of the toys you could get from vending machines in supermarkets when he was a child, plastic spheres with something secret inside.

He placed it on the rails carefully, wiped the remains of the vomit from his lips and rinsed his mouth with water. Then he looked at it. Marja knew he would never read instruction manuals, so she had not given him one.

“Make me a train,” he said.

Nothing happened. Maybe it can read my mind, he thought, and imagined a train, an old steam train, puffing along. Still nothing, just a reflection of the darkening sky on the seed’s clear surface. She always had to be subtle. Marja could never give a present without thinking about its meaning for days. Standing still let the spring winter chill through his wolf-pelt coat, and he hopped up and down, rubbing his hands together.

With the motion came an idea. He frowned, staring at the seed, and took the notebook from his pocket. Maybe it was time to try out Marja’s other gift—or advance payment, however you wanted to look at it. He had barely written the first lines, when the words leaped in his mind like animals woken from slumber. He closed the book, cleared his throat and spoke.

these rails

were worn thin

by wheels

that wrote down

the name of each passenger in steel and miles

he said,

it’s a good thing

the years

ate our flesh too

made us thin and light

so the rails are strong enough

to carry us still

to the city

in our train of glass and words

Doggerel, he thought, but it didn’t matter. The joy of words filled his veins like vodka. Too bad it didn’t work —

The seed blurred. It exploded into a white-hot sphere. The waste heat washed across Kosonen’s face. Glowing tentacles squirmed past him, sucking carbon and metal from the rails and trees. They danced like a welder’s electric arcs, sketching lines and surfaces in the air.

And suddenly, the train was there.

It was transparent, with paper-thin walls and delicate wheels, as if it had been blown from glass, a sketch of a cartoon steam engine with a single carriage, with spiderweb-like chairs inside, just the way he had imagined it.

He climbed in, expecting the delicate structure to sway under his weight, but it felt rock-solid. The nanoseed lay on the floor innocently, as if nothing had happened. He picked it up carefully, took it outside and buried it in the snow, leaving his skis and sticks as markers. Then he picked up his backpack, boarded the train again and sat down in one of the gossamer seats. Unbidden, the train lurched into motion smoothly. To Kosonen, it sounded like the rails beneath were whispering, but he could not hear the words.

He watched the darkening forest glide past. The day’s journey weighed heavily on his limbs. The memory of the snow beneath his skis melted together with the train’s movement, and soon Kosonen was asleep.

When he woke up, it was dark. The amber light of the firewall glowed in the horizon, like a thundercloud.

The train had speeded up. The dark forest outside was a blur, and the whispering of the rails had become a quiet staccato song. Kosonen swallowed as the train covered the remaining distance in a matter of minutes. The firewall grew into a misty dome glowing with yellowish light from within. The city was an indistinct silhouette beneath it. The buildings seemed to be in motion, like a giant’s shadow puppets.

Then it was a flaming curtain directly in front of the train, an impenetrable wall made from twilight and amber crossing the tracks. Kosonen gripped the delicate frame of his seat, knuckles white. “Slowdown!” he shouted, but the train did not hear. It crashed directly into the firewall with a bone-jarring impact. There was a burst of light, and then Kosonen was lifted from his seat.

It was like drowning, except that he was floating in an infinite sea of amber light rather than water. Apart from the light, there was just emptiness. His skin tickled. It took him a moment to realize that he was not breathing.

And then a stern voice spoke.

This is not a place for men, it said. Closed. Forbidden. Go back.

“I have a mission,” said Kosonen. His voice had no echo in the light. “From your makers. They command you to let me in.”

He closed his eyes, and Marja’s third gift floated in front of him, not words but a number. He had always been poor at memorizing things, but Marja’s touch had been a pen with acid ink, burning it in his mind. He read off the endless digits, one by one.

You may enter, said the firewall. But only that which is human will leave.

The train and the speed came back, sharp and real like a paper cut. The twilight glow of the firewall was still there, but instead of the forest, dark buildings loomed around the railway, blank windows staring at him.

Kosonen’s hands tickled. They were clean, as were his clothes: every speck of dirt was gone. His skin felt tender and red, like he had just been to the sauna.

The train slowed down at last, coming to a stop in the dark mouth of the station, and Kosonen was in the city.

The city was a forest of metal and concrete that breathed and hummed. The air smelled of ozone. The facades of the buildings around the railway station square looked almost like he remembered them, only subtly wrong. From the corner of his eye he could glimpse them moving , shifting in their sleep like stone-skinned animals. There were no signs of life, apart from a cluster of pigeons, hopping back and forth on the stairs, looking at him. They had sapphire eyes.

A bus stopped, full of faceless people who looked like crash test dummies, sitting unnaturally still. Kosonen decided not to get in and started to head across the square, towards the main shopping street: he had to start the search for the spark somewhere. It will glow, Marja had said. You can’t miss it.

There was what looked like a car wreck in the parking lot, lying on its side, hood crumpled like a discarded beer can, covered in white pigeon droppings. But when Kosonen walked past it, its engine roared, and the hood popped open. A hissing bundle of tentacles snapped out, reaching for him.

He managed to gain some speed before the car-beast rolled onto its four wheels. There were narrow streets on the other side of the square, too narrow for it to follow. He ran, cold weight in his stomach, legs pumping.

The crossbow beat painfully at his back in its strap, and he struggled to get it over his head.

The beast passed him arrogantly, and turned around. Then it came straight at him. The tentacles spread out from its glowing engine mouth into a fan of serpents.

Kosonen fumbled with a bolt, then loosed it at the thing. The crossbow kicked, but the arrow glanced off its windshield. It seemed to confuse it enough for Kosonen to jump aside. He dove, hit the pavement with a painful thump, and rolled.

“Somebody help perkele ,” he swore with impotent rage, and got up, panting, just as the beast backed off slowly, engine growling. He smelled burning rubber, mixed with ozone. Maybe I can wrestle it, he thought like a madman, spreading his arms, refusing to run again. One last poem in it —

Something landed in front of the beast, wings fluttering. A pigeon. Both Kosonen and the car-creature stared at it. It made a cooing sound. Then it exploded.

The blast tore at his eardrums, and the white fireball turned the world black for a second. Kosonen found himself on the ground again, ears ringing, lying painfully on top of his backpack. The car-beast was a burning wreck ten meters away, twisted beyond all recognition.

There was another pigeon next to him, picking at what looked like bits of metal. It lifted its head and looked at him, flames reflecting from the tiny sapphire eyes. Then it took flight, leaving a tiny white dropping behind.

The main shopping street was empty. Kosonen moved carefully in case there were more of the car-creatures around, staying close to narrow alleys and doorways. The firewall light was dimmer between the buildings, and strange lights danced in the windows.

Kosonen realized he was starving: he had not eaten since noon, and the journey and the fight had taken their toll. He found an empty cafe in a street corner that seemed safe, set up his small travel cooker on a table and boiled some water. The supplies he had been able to bring consisted mainly of canned soup and dried elk meat, but his growling stomach was not fussy. The smell of food made him careless.

“This is my place,” said a voice. Kosonen leapt up, startled, reaching for the crossbow.

There was a stooped, trollish figure at the door, dressed in rags. His face shone with sweat and dirt, framed by matted hair and beard. His porous skin was full of tiny sapphire growths, like pockmarks. Kosonen had thought living in the woods had made him immune to human odors, but the stranger carried a bitter stench of sweat and stale booze that made him want to retch.

The stranger walked in and sat down at a table opposite Kosonen. “But that’s all right,” he said amicably. “Don’t get many visitors these days. Have to be neighborly. Saatana , is that Blaband soup that you’ve got?”

“You’re welcome to some,” Kosonen said warily. He had met some of the other stayers over the years, but usually avoided them—they all had their own reasons for not going up, and not much in common.

“Thanks. That’s neighborly indeed. I’m Pera, by the way.” The troll held out his hand.

Kosonen shook it gingerly, feeling strange jagged things under Pera’s skin. It was like squeezing a glove filled with powdered glass. “Kosonen. So you live here?”

“Oh, not here, not in the center. I come here to steal from the buildings. But they’ve become really smart, and stingy. Can’t even find soup anymore. The Stockmann department store almost ate me yesterday. It’s not easy life here.” Pera shook his head. “But better than outside.” There was a sly look in his eyes. Are you staying because you want to, wondered Kosonen, or because the firewall won’t let you out anymore?

“Not afraid of the plague gods, then?” he asked aloud. He passed Pera one of the heated soup tins. The city stayer slurped it down with one gulp, smell of minestrone mingling with the other odors.

“Oh, you don’t have to be afraid of them anymore. They’re all dead.”

Kosonen looked at Pera, startled. “How do you know?”

“The pigeons told me.”

“The pigeons?”

Pera took something carefully from the pocket of his ragged coat. It was a pigeon. It had a sapphire beak and eyes, and a trace of blue in its feathers. It struggled in Pera’s grip, wings fluttering.

“My little buddies,” Pera said. “I think you’ve already met them.”

“Yes,” Kosonen said. “Did you send the one that blew up that car thing?”

“You have to help a neighbor out, don’t you? Don’t mention it. The soup was good.”

“What did they say about the plague gods?”

Pera grinned a gap-toothed grin. “When the gods got locked up here, they started fighting. Not enough power to go around, you see. So one of them had to be the top dog, like in Highlander . The pigeons show me pictures, sometimes. Bloody stuff. Explosions. Nanites eating men. But finally they were all gone, every last one. My playground now.”

So Esa is gone, too. Kosonen was surprised how sharp the feeling of loss was, even now. Better like this. He swallowed. Let’s get the job done first. No time to mourn. Let’s think about it when we get home. Write a poem about it. And tell Marja.

“All right,” Kosonen said. “I’m hunting too. Do you think your… buddies could find it? Something that glows. If you help me, I’ll give you all the soup I’ve got. And elk meat. And I’ll bring more later. How does that sound?”

“Pigeons can find anything,” said Pera, licking his lips.

The pigeon-man walked through the city labyrinth like his living room, accompanied by a cloud of the chimera birds. Every now and then, one of them would land on his shoulder and touch his ear with his beak, as if to whisper.

“Better hurry,” Pera said. “At night, it’s not too bad, but during the day the houses get younger and start thinking.”

Kosonen had lost all sense of direction. The map of the city was different from the last time he had been here, in the old human days. His best guess was that they were getting somewhere close to the cathedral in the old town, but he couldn’t be sure. Navigating the changed streets felt like walking through the veins of some giant animal, convoluted and labyrinthine. Some buildings were enclosed in what looked like black film, rippling like oil. Some had grown together, organic-looking structures of brick and concrete, blocking streets and making the ground uneven.

“We’re not far,” Pera said. “They’ve seen it. Glowing like a pumpkin lantern, they say.” He giggled. The amber light of the firewall grew brighter as they walked. It was hotter, too, and Kosonen was forced to discard his old Pohjanmaa sweater.

They passed an office building that had become a sleeping face, a genderless Easter Island countenance. There was more life in this part of the town too, sapphire-eyed animals, sleek cats looking at them from windowsills. Kosonen saw a fox crossing the street: it gave them one bright look and vanished down a sewer hole.

Then they turned a corner, where faceless men wearing fashion from ten years ago danced together in a shop window, and saw the cathedral.

It had grown to gargantuan size, dwarfing every other building around it. It was an anthill of dark-red brick and hexagonal doorways. It buzzed with life. Cats with sapphire claws clung to its walls like sleek gargoyles. Thick pigeon flocks fluttered around its towers. Packs of azure-tailed rats ran in and out of open, massive doors like armies on a mission. And there were insects everywhere, filling the air with a drill-like buzzing sound, moving in dense black clouds like a giant’s black breath.

“Oh, jumalauta ,” Kosonen said. “ That’s where it fell?”

“Actually, no. I was just supposed to bring you here,” Pera said.

“What?”

“Sorry. I lied. It was like in Highlander: there is one of them left. And he wants to meet you.”

Kosonen stared at Pera, dumbfounded. The pigeons landed on the other man’s shoulders and arms like a gray fluttering cloak. They seized his rags and hair and skin with sharp claws, wings started beating furiously. As Kosonen stared, Pera rose in the air.

“No hard feelings, I just had a better deal from him. Thanks for the soup,” he shouted. In a moment, Pera was a black scrap of cloth in the sky.

The earth shook. Kosonen fell to his knees. The window eyes that lined the street lit up, full of bright, malevolent light.

He tried to run. He did not make it far before they came, the fingers of the city: the pigeons, the insects, a buzzing swarm that covered him. A dozen chimera rats clung to his skull, and he could feel the humming of their flywheel hearts. Something sharp bit through the bone. The pain grew like a forest fire, and Kosonen screamed.

The city spoke. Its voice was a thunderstorm, words made from the shaking of the earth and the sighs of buildings. Slow words, squeezed from stone.

Dad, the city said.

The pain was gone. Kosonen heard the gentle sound of waves, and felt a warm wind on his face. He opened his eyes.

“Hi, Dad,” Esa said.

They sat on the summerhouse pier, wrapped in towels, skin flushed from the sauna. It was evening, with a hint of chill in the air, Finnish summer’s gentle reminder that things were not forever. The sun hovered above the blue-tinted treetops. The lake surface was calm, full of liquid reflections.

“I thought,” Esa said, “that you’d like it here.”

Esa was just like Kosonen remembered him, a pale, skinny kid, ribs showing, long arms folded across his knees, stringy wet hair hanging on his forehead. But his eyes were the eyes of a city, dark orbs of metal and stone.

“I do,” Kosonen said. “But I can’t stay.”

“Why not?”

“There is something I need to do.”

“We haven’t seen each other in ages. The sauna is warm. I’ve got some beer cooling in the lake. Why the rush?”

“I should be afraid of you,” Kosonen said. “You killed people. Before they put you here.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Esa said. “The plague does everything you want. It gives you things you don’t even know you want. It turns the world soft. And sometimes it tears it apart for you. You think a thought, and things break. You can’t help it.”

The boy closed his eyes. “You want things too. I know you do. That’s why you are here, isn’t it? You want your precious words back.”

Kosonen said nothing.

“Mom’s errand boy, vittu . So they fixed your brain, flushed the booze out. So you can write again. Does it feel good? For a moment there I thought you came here for me. But that’s not the way it ever worked, was it?”

“I didn’t know—”

“I can see the inside of your head, you know,” Esa said. “I’ve got my fingers inside your skull. One thought, and my bugs will eat you, bring you here for good. Quality time forever. What do you say to that?”

And there it was, the old guilt. “We worried about you, every second, after you were born,” Kosonen said. “We only wanted the best for you.”

It had seemed so natural. How the boy played with his machine that made other machines. How things started changing shape when you thought at them. How Esa smiled when he showed Kosonen the talking starfish that the machine had made.

“And then I had one bad day.”

“I remember,” Kosonen said. He had been home late, as usual. Esa had been a diamond tree, growing in his room. There were starfish everywhere, eating the walls and the floor, making more of themselves. And that was only the beginning.

“So go ahead. Bring me here. It’s your turn to make me into what you want. Or end it all. I deserve it.”

Esa laughed softly. “And why would I do that, to an old man?” He sighed. “You know, I’m old too now. Let me show you.” He touched Kosonen’s shoulder gently and

Kosonen was the city. His skin was of stone and concrete, pores full of the god-plague. The streets and buildings were his face, changing and shifting with every thought and emotion. His nervous system was diamond and optic fiber. His hands were chimera animals.

The firewall was all around him, in the sky and in the cold bedrock, insubstantial but adamantine, squeezing from every side, cutting off energy, making sure he could not think fast. But he could still dream, weave words and images into threads, make worlds out of the memories he had and the memories of the smaller gods he had eaten to become the city. He sang his dreams in radio waves, not caring if the firewall let them through or not, louder and louder —

“Here,” Esa said from far away. “Have a beer.”

Kosonen felt a chilly bottle in his hand, and drank. The dream-beer was strong and real. The malt taste brought him back. He took a deep breath, letting the fake summer evening wash away the city.

“Is that why you brought me here? To show me that?” he asked.

“Well, no,” Esa said, laughing. His stone eyes looked young, suddenly. “I just wanted you to meet my girlfriend.”

The quantum girl had golden hair and eyes of light. She wore many faces at once, like a Hindu goddess. She walked to the pier with dainty steps. Esa’s summerland showed its cracks around her: there were fracture lines in her skin, with otherworldly colors peeking out.

“This is Säde,” Esa said.

She looked at Kosonen, and spoke, a bubble of words, a superposition, all possible greetings at once.

“Nice to meet you,” Kosonen said.

“They did something right when they made her, up there,” said Esa. “She lives in many worlds at once, thinks in qubits. And this is the world where she wants to be. With me.” He touched her shoulder gently. “She heard my songs and ran away.”

“Marja said she fell,” Kosonen said. “That something was broken.”

“She said what they wanted her to say. They don’t like it when things don’t go according to plan.”

Säde made a sound, like the chime of a glass bell.

“The firewall keeps squeezing us,” Esa said. “That’s how it was made. Make things go slower and slower here, until we die. Säde doesn’t fit in here, this place is too small. So you will take her back home, before it’s too late.” He smiled. “I’d rather you do it than anyone else.”

“That’s not fair,”Kosonen said. He squinted at Säde. She was too bright to look at. But what can I do? I’m just a slab of meat. Meat and words.

The thought was like a pine cone, rough in his grip, but with a seed of something in it.

“I think there is a poem in you two,” he said.

Kosonen sat on the train again, watching the city stream past. It was early morning. The sunrise gave the city new hues: purple shadows and gold, ember colors. Fatigue pulsed in his temples. His body ached. The words of a poem weighed on his mind.

Above the dome of the firewall he could see a giant diamond starfish, a drone of the sky people, watching, like an outstretched hand.

They came to see what happened, he thought. They’ll find out.

This time, he embraced the firewall like a friend, and its tingling brightness washed over him. And deep within, the stern-voiced watchman came again. It said nothing this time, but he could feel its presence, scrutinizing, seeking things that did not belong in the outside world.

Kosonen gave it everything.

The first moment when he knew he had put something real on paper. The disappointment when he realized that a poet was not much in a small country, piles of cheaply printed copies of his first collection, gathering dust in little bookshops. The jealousy he had felt when Marja gave birth to Esa, what a pale shadow of that giving birth to words was. The tracks of the elk in the snow and the look in its eyes when it died.

He felt the watchman step aside, satisfied.

Then he was through. The train emerged into the real, undiluted dawn. He looked back at the city, and saw fire raining from the starfish. Pillars of light cut through the city in geometric patterns, too bright to look at, leaving only white-hot plasma in their wake.

Kosonen closed his eyes and held on to the poem as the city burned.

Kosonen planted the nanoseed in the woods. He dug a deep hole in the half-frozen peat with his bare hands, under an old tree stump. He sat down, took off his cap, dug out his notebook and started reading. The pencil-scrawled words became bright in his mind, and after a while he didn’t need to look at them anymore.

The poem rose from the words like a titanic creature from an ocean, first showing just a small extremity but then soaring upwards in a spray of glossolalia, mountain-like. It was a stream of hissing words and phonemes, an endless spell that tore at his throat. And with it came the quantum information from the microtubules of his neurons, where the bright-eyed girl now lived, and jagged impulses from synapses where his son was hiding.

The poem swelled into a roar. He continued until his voice was a hiss. Only the nanoseed could hear, but that was enough. Something stirred under the peat.

When the poem finally ended, it was evening. Kosonen opened his eyes. The first thing he saw were the sapphire antlers, sparkling in the last rays of the sun.

Two young elk looked at him. One was smaller, more delicate, and its large brown eyes held a hint of sunlight. The other was young and skinny, but wore its budding antlers with pride. It held Kosonen’s gaze, and in its eyes he saw shadows of the city. Or reflections in a summer lake, perhaps.

They turned around and ran into the woods, silent, fleet-footed and free.

Kosonen was opening the cellar door when the rain came back. It was barely a shower this time: the droplets formed Marja’s face in the air. For a moment he thought he saw her wink. Then the rain became a mist, and was gone. He propped the door open.

The squirrels stared at him curiously from the trees.

“All yours, gentlemen,” Kosonen said. “Should be enough for next winter. I don’t need it anymore.”

Otso and Kosonen left at noon, heading north. Kosonen’s skis slid along easily in the thinning snow. The bear pulled a sledge loaded with equipment. When they were well away from the cabin, it stopped to sniff at a fresh trail.

“Elk,” it growled. “Otso is hungry. Kosonen shoot an elk. Need meat for the journey. Kosonen did not bring enough booze.”

Kosonen shook his head.

“I think I’m going to learn to fish,” he said.





THE TRUTH IS A CAVE IN THE BLACK MOUNTAINS

NEIL GAIMAN




Neil Gaiman was born in England and worked as a freelance journalist before co-editing Ghastly Beyond Belief (with Kim Newman) and writing Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion . He started writing graphic novels and comics with Violent Cases in 1987, and with the seventy-five installments of award-winning series The Sandman established himself as one of the most important comics writers of his generation. His first novel, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett),appeared in 1991, followed by Neverwhere , Stardust , American Gods , Coraline, and Anansi Boys . His most recent novel is The Graveyard Book . Gaiman’s work has won the Caldecott, Newbery, Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, Geffen, International Horror Guild, Mythopoeic, and Will Eisner Comic Industry awards. Gaiman currently lives near Minneapolis.





You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonor that she had brought to our family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

I had searched for nearly ten years, although the trail was cold. I would say that I found him by accident, but I do not believe in accidents. If you walk the path, eventually you must arrive at the cave.

But that was later. First, there was the valley on the mainland, the whitewashed house in the gentle meadow with the burn splashing through it, a house that sat like a square of white sky against the green of the grass and the heather just beginning to purple.

And there was a boy outside the house, picking wool from off a thorn-bush. He did not see me approaching, and he did not look up until I said, “I used to do that. Gather the wool from the thorn-bushes and twigs. My mother would wash it, then she would make me things with it. A ball, and a doll.”

He turned. He looked shocked, as if I had appeared out of nowhere. And I had not. I had walked many a mile, and had many more miles to go. I said, “I walk quietly. Is this the house of Calum MacInnes?”

The boy nodded, drew himself up to his full height, which was perhaps two fingers bigger than mine, and he said, “I am Calum MacInnes.”

“Is there another of that name? For the Calum MacInnes that I seek is a grown man.”

The boy said nothing, just unknotted a thick clump of sheep’s wool from the clutching fingers of the thorn-bush. I said, “Your father, perhaps? Would he be Calum MacInnes as well?”

The boy was peering at me. “What are you?” he asked.

“I am a small man,” I told him. “But I am a man, nonetheless, and I am here to see Calum MacInnes.”

“Why?” The boy hesitated. Then, “And why are you so small?”

I said, “Because I have something to ask your father. Man’s business.” And I saw a smile start at the tips of his lips. “It’s not a bad thing to be small, young Calum. There was a night when the Campbells came knocking on my door, a whole troop of them, twelve men with knives and sticks, and they demanded of my wife, Morag, that she produce me, as they were there to kill me, in revenge for some imagined slight. And she said, ‘Young Johnnie, run down to the far meadow, and tell your father to come back to the house, that I sent for him.’ And the Campbells watched as the boy ran out the door. They knew that I was a most dangerous person. But nobody had told them that I was a wee man, or if that had been told them, it had not been believed.”

“Did the boy call you?” said the lad.

“It was no boy,” I told him, “but me myself, it was. And they’d had me, and still I walked out the door and through their fingers.”

The boy laughed. Then he said, “Why were the Campbells after you?”

“It was a disagreement about the ownership of cattle. They thought the cows were theirs. I maintained the Campbell’s ownership of them had ended the first night the cows had come with me over the hills.”

“Wait here,” said young Calum MacInnes

I sat by the burn and looked up at the house. It was a good-sized house: I would have taken it for the house of a doctor or a man of law, not of a border reaver. There were pebbles on the ground and I made a pile of them, and I tossed the pebbles, one by one into the burn. I have a good eye, and I enjoyed rattling the pebbles over the meadow and into the water. I had thrown a hundred stones when the boy returned, accompanied by a tall, loping man. His hair was streaked with gray, his face was long and wolfish. There are no wolves in those hills, not any longer, and the bears have gone too.

“Good day to you,” I said.

He said nothing in return, only stared; I am used to stares. I said,“I am seeking Calum MacInnes. If you are he, say so, I will greet you. If you are not he, tell me now, and I will be on my way.”

“What business would you have with Calum MacInnes?”

“I wish to hire him, as a guide.”

“And where is it you would wish to be taken?”

I stared at him. “That is hard to say,” I told him. “For there are some who say it does not exist. There is a certain cave on the Misty Isle.”

He said nothing. Then he said, “Calum, go back to the house.”

“But da—”

“Tell your mother I said she was to give you some tablet. You like that. Go on.”

Expressions crossed the boy’s face—puzzlement, hunger, happiness—and then he turned and ran back to the white house.

Calum MacInnes said, “Who sent you here?”

I pointed to the burn as it splashed its way between us on its journey down the hill. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Water,” he replied.

“And they say there is a king across it,” I told him.

I did not know him then at all, and never knew him well, but his eyes became guarded, and his head cocked to one side. “How do I know you are who you say you are?”

“I have claimed nothing,”I said.“Just that there are those who have heard there is a cave on the Misty Isle, and that you might know the way.”

He said, “I will not tell you where the cave is.”

“I am not here asking for directions. I seek a guide. And two travel more safely than one.”

He looked me up and down, and I waited for the joke about my size, but he did not make it, and for that I was grateful. He just said, “When we reach the cave, I will not go inside. You must bring out the gold yourself.”

I said, “It is all one to me.”

He said, “You can only take what you carry. I will not touch it. But yes, I will take you.”

I said,“You will be paid well for your trouble.”I reached into my jerkin, handed him the pouch I had in there.“This for taking me.Another,twice the size,when we return.”

He poured the coins from the pouch into his huge hand, and he nodded. “Silver,” he said. “Good.” Then, “I will say good bye to my wife and son.”

“Is there nothing you need to bring?”

He said, “I was a reaver in my youth, and reavers travel light. I’ll bring a rope, for the mountains.”He patted his dirk, which hung from his belt, and went back into the whitewashed house. I never saw his wife, not then, nor at any other time.

I do not know what color her hair was.

I threw another fifty stones into the burn as I waited, until he returned, with a coil of rope thrown over one shoulder, and then we walked together away from a house too grand for any reaver, and we headed west.

The mountains between the rest of the world and the coast are gradual hills, visible from a distance as gentle, purple, hazy things, like clouds. They seem inviting. They are slow mountains, the kind you can walk up easily, like walking up a hill, but they are hills that take a full day and more to climb. We walked up the hill, and by the end of the first day we were cold.

I saw snow on the peaks above us, although it was high summer.

We said nothing to each other that first day. There was nothing to be said. We knew where we were going.

We made a fire, from dried sheep dung and a dead thorn-bush: we boiled water and made our porridge, each of us throwing a handful of oats and a fingerpinch of salt into the little pan I carried. His handful was huge, and my handful was small, like my hands, which made him smile and say, “I hope you will not be eating half of the porridge.”

I said I would not and, indeed, I did not, for my appetite is smaller than that of a full-grown man. But this is a good thing, I believe, for I can keep going in the wild on nuts and berries that would not keep a bigger person from starving.

A path of sorts ran across the high hills, and we followed it and encountered almost nobody: a tinker and his donkey, piled high with old pots, and a girl leading the donkey, who smiled at me when she thought me to be a child, and then scowled when she perceived me to be what I am, and would have thrown a stone at me had the tinker not slapped her hand with the switch he had been using to encourage the donkey; and, later, we overtook an old woman and a man she said was her grandson, on their way back across the hills. We ate with her, and she told us that she had attended the birth of her first great-grandchild, that it was a good birth. She said she would tell our fortunes from the lines in our palms, if we had coins to cross her palm. I gave the old biddy a clipped lowland groat, and she looked at my palm.

She said, “I see death in your past and death in your future.”

“Death waits in all our futures,” I said.

She paused, there in the highest of the high lands, where the summer winds have winter on their breath, where they howl and whip and slash the air like knives. She said, “There was a woman in a tree. There will be a man in a tree.”

I said, “Will this mean anything to me?”

“One day. Perhaps.” She said, “Beware of gold. Silver is your friend.” And then she was done with me.

To Calum MacInnes she said, “Your palm has been burned.” He said that was true. She said, “Give me your other hand, your left hand.” He did so. She gazed at it, intently. Then, “You return to where you began. You will be higher than most other men. And there is no grave waiting for you, where you are going.”

He said, “You tell me that I will not die?”

“It is a left-handed fortune. I know what I have told you, and no more.”

She knew more. I saw it in her face.

That was the only thing of any importance that occurred to us on the second day.

We slept in the open that night. The night was clear and cold, and the sky was hung with stars that seemed so bright and close I felt as if I could have reached out my arm and gathered them, like berries.

We lay side by side beneath the stars, and Calum MacInnes said, “Death awaits you, she said. But death does not wait for me. I think mine was the better fortune.”

“Perhaps.”

“Ah,” he said. “It is all nonsense. Old woman-talk. It is not truth.”

I woke in the dawn mist to see a stag, watching us, curiously.

The third day we crested those mountains, and we began to walk downhill.

My companion said, “When I was a boy, my father’s dirk fell into the cooking fire. I pulled it out, but the metal hilt was as hot as the flames. I did not expect this, but I would not let the dirk go. I carried it away from the fire, and plunged the sword into the water. It made steam. I remember that. My palm was burned, and my hand curled, as if it was meant to carry a sword until the end of time.”

I said, “You, with your hand. Me,only a little man. It’s fine heroes we are, who seek our fortunes on the Misty Isle.”

He barked a laugh, short and without humor. “Fine heroes,” was all he said.

The rain began to fall then, and did not stop falling. That night we passed a small croft house. There was a trickle of smoke from its chimney, and we called out for the owner, but there was no response.

I pushed open the door and called again. The place was dark, but I could smell tallow, as if a candle had been burning and had recently been snuffed.

“No one at home,” said Calum, but I shook my head and walked forward, then leaned down into the darkness beneath the bed.

“Would you care to come out?” I asked. “For we are travellers, seeking warmth and shelter and hospitality. We would share with you our oats and our salt and our whisky. And we will not harm you.”

At first the woman, hidden beneath the bed, said nothing, and then she said, “My husband is away in the hills. He told me to hide myself away if the strangers come, for fear of what they might do to me.”

I said, “I am but a little man, good lady, no bigger than a child, you could send me flying with a blow. My companion is a full-sized man, but I do swear that we shall do nothing to you, save partake of your hospitality, and dry ourselves. Please do come out.”

All covered with dust and spiderwebs she was when she emerged, but even with her face all begrimed, she was beautiful, and even with her hair all webbed and grayed with dust it was still long and thick, and golden red. For a heartbeat she put me in the mind of my daughter, but that my daughter would look a man in the eye, while this one glanced only at the ground fearfully, like something expecting to be beaten.

I gave her some of our oats, and Calum produced strips of dried meat from his pocket, and she went out to the field and returned with a pair of scrawny turnips, and she prepared food for the three of us.

I ate my fill. She had no appetite. I believe that Calum was still hungry when his meal was done. He poured whisky for the three of us: she took but a little, and that with water. The rain rattled on the roof of the house, and dripped in the corner, and, unwelcoming though it was, I was glad that I was inside.

It was then that a man came through the door. He said nothing, only stared at us, untrusting, angry. He pulled off his cape of oiled sacking, and his hat, and he dropped them on the earth floor. They dripped and puddled. The silence was oppressive.

Calum MacInnes said, “Your wife gave us hospitality, when we found her. Hard enough she was in the finding.”

“We asked for hospitality,” I said. “As we ask it of you.”

The man said nothing, only grunted.

In the high lands, people spend words as if they were golden coins. But the custom is strong there: strangers who ask for hospitality must be granted it, though you have blood-feud against them and their clan or kin.

The woman—little more than a girl she was, while her husband’s beard was gray and white, so I wondered if she was his daughter for a moment, but no: there was but one bed, scarcely big enough for two—the woman went outside, into the sheep pen that adjoined the house, and returned with oatcakes and a dried ham she must have hidden there, which she sliced thin, and placed on a wooden trencher before the man.

Calum poured the man whisky, and said, “We seek the Misty Isle. Do you know if it is there?”

The man looked at us. The winds are bitter in the high lands, and they would whip the words from a man’s lips. He pursed his mouth, then he said, “Aye. I saw it from the peak this morning. It’s there. I cannot say if it will be there tomorrow.”

We slept on the hard-earth floor of that cottage. The fire went out, and there was no warmth from the hearth. The man and his woman slept in their bed, behind the curtain. He had his way with her, beneath the sheepskin that covered that bed, and before he did that, he beat her for feeding us and for letting us in. I heard them, and could not stop hearing them, and sleep was hard in the finding that night.

I have slept in the homes of the poor, and I have slept in palaces, and I have slept beneath the stars, and would have told you before that night that all places were one to me. But I woke before first light, convinced we had to be gone from that place, but not knowing why, and I woke Calum by putting a finger to his lips, and silently we left that croft on the mountainside without saying our farewells, and I have never been more pleased to be gone from anywhere.

We were a mile from that place when I said, “The island. You asked if it would be there. Surely, an island is there, or it is not there.”

Calum hesitated. He seemed to be weighing his words, and then he said, “The Misty Isle is not as other places. And the mist that surrounds it is not like other mists.”

We walked down a path worn by hundreds of years of sheep and deer and few enough men.

He said, “They also call it the Winged Isle. Some say it is because the island, if seen from above, would look like butterfly wings. And I do not know the truth of it.” Then, “And what is truth? said jesting Pilate.”

It is harder coming down than it is going up.

I thought about it. “Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take.”

Calum MacInnes looked down at me and said nothing. Then, “You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one only, and that way is treacherous and hard, and if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”

We crested the ridge, and we looked down to the coast. I could see villages below, beside the water. And I could see high black mountains before me, on the other side of the sea, coming out of the mist.

Calum said, “There’s your cave. In those mountains.”

The bones of the earth, I thought, seeing them. And then I became uncomfortable, thinking of bones, and to distract myself, I said, “And how many times is it you have been there?”

“Only once.” He hesitated. “I searched for it all my sixteenth year, for I had heard the legends, and I believed if I sought I should find. I was seventeen when I reached it, and came back with all the gold coins I could carry.”

“And were you not frightened of the curse?”

“When I was young, I was afraid of nothing.”

“What did you do with your gold?”

“A portion I buried and I alone know where. The rest I used as bride-price for the woman I loved, and I built a fine house with it.”

He stopped as if he had already said too much.

There was no ferryman at the jetty. Only a small boat, hardly big enough for three full-sized men, tied to a tree trunk on the shore, all twisted and half-dead, and a bell beside it.

I sounded the bell, and soon enough a fat man came down the shore. He said to Calum, “It will cost you a shilling for the ferry, and your boy, three pennies.”

I stood tall. I am not as big as other men are, but I have as much pride as any of them. “I am also a man,” I said, “I’ll pay your shilling.”

The ferryman looked me up and down, then he scratched his beard. “I beg your pardon. My eyes are not what they once were. I shall take you to the island.”

I handed him a shilling. He weighed it in his hand. “That’s ninepence you did not cheat me out of. Nine pennies are a lot of money in this dark age.” The water was the color of slate, although the sky was blue, and whitecaps chased one another across the water’s surface. He untied the boat and hauled it, rattling, down the shingle to the water. We waded out into the cold channel, and clambered inside.

The splash of oars on seawater, and the boat was propelled forward in easy movements. I sat closest to the ferryman. I said, “Ninepence. It is good wages. But I have heard of a cave in the mountains on the Misty Isle, filled with gold coins, the treasure of the ancients.”

He shook his head dismissively.

Calum was staring at me, lips pressed together so hard they were white. I ignored him and asked the man again, “A cave filled with golden coins, a gift from the Norsemen or the Southerners or from those who they say were here long before any of us: those who fled into the West as the people came.”

“Heard of it,” said the ferryman. “Heard also of the curse of it. I reckon that the one can take care of the other.” He spat into the sea. Then he said, “You’re an honest man, dwarf. I see it in your face. Do not seek this cave. No good can come of it.”

“I am sure you are right,” I told him, without guile.

“I am certain I am,” he said. “For not every day is it that I take a reaver and a little dwarfy man to the Misty Isle.” Then he said, “In this part of the world, it is not considered lucky to talk about those who went to the West.” We rode the rest of the boat journey in silence, though the sea became choppier, and the waves splashed into the side of the boat, such that I held on with both hands for fear of being swept away.

And after what seemed like half a lifetime the boat was tied to a long jetty of black stones. We walked the jetty as the waves crashed around us, the salt spray kissing our faces. There was a humpbacked man at the landing selling oatcakes and plums dried until they were almost stones. I gave him a penny and filled my jerkin pockets with them.

We walked on into the Misty Isle.

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

It is a day from that jetty until you reach the black mountains.

Calum MacInnes looked at me, half his size or less, and he set off at a loping stride, as if challenging me to keep up. His legs propelled him across the ground, which was wet, and all ferns and heather.

Above us, low clouds were scudding, gray and white and black, hiding each other and revealing and hiding again.

I let him get ahead of me, let him press on into the rain, until he was swallowed by the wet, gray haze. Then, and only then, I ran.

This is one of the secret things of me, the things I have not revealed to any person, save to Morag, my wife, and Johnnie and James, my sons, and Flora, my daughter (may the Shadows rest her poor soul): I can run, and I can run well, and, if I need to I can run faster and longer and more sure-footedly than any full-sized man; and it was like this that I ran then, through the mist and the rain, taking to the high ground and the black-rock ridges, yet keeping below the skyline.

He was ahead of me, but I spied him soon, and I ran on and I ran past him, on the high ground, with the brow of the hill between us. Below us was a stream. I can run for days without stopping. That is the first of my three secrets, and one secret I have revealed to no man.

We had discussed already where we would camp that first night on the Misty Isle, and Calum had told me that we would spend the night beneath the rock that is called Man and Dog, for it is said that it looks like an old man with his dog by his side, and I reached it late in the afternoon. There was a shelter beneath the rock, which was protected and dry, and some of those who had been before us had left firewood behind, sticks and twigs and branches. I made a fire and dried myself in front of it and took the chill from my bones. The woodsmoke blew out across the heather.

It was dark when Calum loped into the shelter and looked at me as if he had not expected to see me that side of midnight. I said, “What took you so long, Calum MacInnes?”

He said nothing, only stared at me. I said, “There is trout, boiled in mountain water, and a fire to warm your bones.”

He nodded. We ate the trout, drank whisky to warm ourselves. There was a mound of heather and of ferns, dried and brown, piled high in the rear of the shelter, and we slept upon that, wrapped tight in our damp cloaks.

I woke in the night. There was cold steel against my throat—the flat of the blade, not the edge. I said, “And why would you ever kill me in the night, Calum MacInnes? For our way is long, and our journey is not yet over.”

He said, “I do not trust you, dwarf.”

“It is not me you must trust,” I told him, “but those that I serve. And if you left with me but return without me, there are those who will know the name of Calum MacInnes, and cause it to be spoken in the shadows.”

The cold blade remained at my throat. He said, “How did you get ahead of me?”

“And here was I, repaying ill with good, for I made you food and a fire. I am a hard man to lose, Calum MacInnes, and it ill becomes a guide to do as you did today. Now, take your dirk from my throat and let me sleep.”

He said nothing, but after a few moments, the blade was removed. I forced myself neither to sigh nor to breathe, hoping he could not hear my heart pounding in my chest; and I slept no more that night.

For breakfast, I made porridge, and threw in some dried plums to soften them.

The mountains were black and gray against the white of the sky. We saw eagles, huge and ragged of wing, circling above us. Calum set a sober pace and I walked beside him, taking two steps for every one of his.

“How long?” I asked him.

“A day. Perhaps two. It depends upon the weather. If the clouds come down then two days, or even three…”

The clouds came down at noon and the world was blanketed by a mist that was worse than rain: droplets of water hung in the air, soaked our clothes and our skin: the rocks we walked upon became treacherous and Calum and I slowed in our ascent, stepped carefully. We were walking up the mountain, not climbing, up goat paths and craggy sharp ways. The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed and clambered and clung, we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and, even in the mist, Calum knew where he was going, and I followed him.

He paused at a waterfall that splashed across our path, thick as the trunk of an oak. He took the thin rope from his shoulders, wrapped it about a rock.

“This was not here before,” he told me. “I’ll go first.” He tied one end of the rope about his waist and edged out along the path, into the falling water, pressing his body against the wet rock face, edging slowly, intently through the sheet of water.

I was scared for him, scared for both of us: holding my breath as he passed, only breathing when he was on the other side of the waterfall. He tested the rope, pulled on it, motioned me to follow him, when a rock gave way beneath his foot, and he slipped on the wet rock, and fell into the abyss.

The rope held, and the rock beside me held. Calum MacInnes dangled from the end of the rope. He looked up at me, and I sighed, anchored myself by a slab of crag, and I wound and pulled him up and up. I hauled him back onto the path, dripping and cursing.

He said, “You’re stronger than you look,” and I cursed myself for a fool. He must have seen it on my face for, after he shook himself (like a dog, sending droplets flying) he said, “My boy Calum told me the tale you told him about the Campbells coming for you, and you being sent into the fields by your wife, with them thinking she was your ma, and you a boy.”

“It was just a tale,” I said. “Something to pass the time.”

“Indeed?” he said. “For I heard tell of a raiding party of Campbells sent out a few years ago, seeking revenge on someone who had taken their cattle. They went, and they never came back. If a small fellow like you can kill a dozen Campbells… well, you must be strong, and you must be fast.”

I must be stupid , I thought ruefully, telling that child that tale.

I had picked them off one by one, like rabbits, as they came out to piss or to see what had happened to their friends: I had killed seven of them before my wife killed her first. We buried them in the glen, built a small cairn of stacking stones above them, to weigh them down so their ghosts would not walk, and we were sad: that Campbells had come so far to kill me, that we had been forced to kill them in return.

I take no joy in killing: no man should, and no woman. Sometimes death is necessary, but it is always an evil thing. That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here.

I took the rope from Calum MacInnes, and I clambered up and up, over the rocks, to where the waterfall came out of the side of the hill, and it was narrow enough for me to cross. It was slippery there, but I made it over without incident, tied the rope in place, came down it, threw the end of it to my companion, walked him across.

He did not thank me, neither for rescuing him, nor for getting us across; and I did not expect thanks. I also did not expect what he actually said, though, which was: “You are not a whole man, and you are ugly. Your wife: is she also small and ugly, like yourself?”

I decided to take no offense, whether offense had been intended or no. I simply said, “She is not. She is a tall woman, almost as tall as you, and when she was young—when we were both younger—she was reckoned by some to be the most beautiful girl in the lowlands. The bards wrote songs praising her green eyes and her long red-golden hair.”

I thought I saw him flinch at this, but it is possible that I imagined it, or more likely, wished to imagine I had seen it.

“How did you win her, then?”

I spoke the truth: “I wanted her, and I get what I want. I did not give up. She said I was wise and I was kind, and I would always provide for her. And I have.”

The clouds began to lower, once more, and the world blurred at the edges, became softer.

“She said I would be a good father. And I have done my best to raise my children. Who are also, if you are wondering, normal-sized.”

“I beat sense into young Calum,” said older Calum. “He is not a bad child.”

“You can only do that as long as they are there with you,” I said. And then I stopped talking, and I remembered that long year, and also I remembered Flora when she was small, sitting on the floor with jam on her face, looking up at me as if I were the wisest man in the world.

“Ran away, eh? I ran away when I was a lad. I was twelve. I went as far as the court of the King over the Water. The father of the current king.”

“That’s not something you hear spoken aloud.”

“I am not afraid,” he said. “Not here. Who’s to hear us? Eagles? I saw him. He was a fat man, who spoke the language of the foreigners well, and our own tongue only with difficulty. But he was still our king.” He paused. “And if he is to come to us again, he will need gold, for vessels and weapons and to feed the troops that he raises.”

I said, “So I believe. That is why we go in search of the cave.”

He said, “This is bad gold. It does not come free. It has its cost.”

“Everything has its cost.”

I was remembering every landmark—climb at the sheep skull, cross the first three streams, then walk along the fourth until the five heaped stones and find where the rock looks like a seagull and walk on between two sharply jutting walls of black rock, and let the slope bring you with it….

I could remember it, I knew. Well enough to find my way down again. But the mists confused me, and I could not be certain.

We reached a small loch, high in the mountains, and drank fresh water, caught huge white creatures that were not shrimps or lobsters or crayfish, and ate them raw like sausages, for we could not find any dry wood to make our fire, that high.

We slept on a wide ledge beside the icy water and woke into clouds before sunrise, when the world was gray and blue.

“You were sobbing in your sleep,” said Calum.

“I had a dream,” I told him.

“I do not have bad dreams,” Calum said.

“It was a good dream,” I said. It was true. I had dreamed that Flora still lived. She was grumbling about the village boys, and telling me of her time in the hills with the cattle, and of things of no consequence, smiling her great smile and tossing her hair the while, red-golden like her mother’s, although her mother’s hair is now streaked with white.

“Good dreams should not make a man cry out like that,” said Calum. A pause, then, “I have no dreams, not good, not bad.”

“No?”

“Not since I was a young man.”

We rose. A thought struck me: “Did you stop dreaming after you came to the cave?”

He said nothing. We walked along the mountainside, into the mist, as the sun came up.

The mist seemed to thicken and fill with light, in the sunshine, but did not fade away and I realized that it must be a cloud. The world glowed. And then it seemed to me that I was staring at a man of my size, a small, humpty man, his shadow, standing in the air in front of me, like a ghost or an angel, and it moved as I moved. It was haloed by the light, and shimmered, and I could not have told you how near it was or how far away. I have seen miracles and I have seen evil

things, but never have I seen anything like that.

“Is it magic?” I asked, although I smelled no magic on the air.

Calum said, “It is nothing. A property of the light. A shadow. A reflection. No more. I see a man beside me, as well. He moves as I move.” I glanced back, but I saw nobody beside him.

And then the little glowing man in the air faded, and the cloud, and it was day, and we were alone.

We climbed all that morning, ascending. Calum’s ankle had twisted the day before, when he had slipped at the waterfall. Now it swelled in front of me, swelled and went red, but his pace did not ever slow, and if he was in discomfort or in pain it did not show upon his face.

I said, “How long?” as the dusk began to blur the edges of world.

“An hour, less, perhaps. We will reach the cave, and then we will sleep for the night. In the morning you will go inside. You can bring out as much gold as you can carry, and we will make our way back off the island.”

I looked at him, then: gray-streaked hair, gray eyes, so huge and wolfish a man, and I said, “You would sleep outside the cave?”

“I would. There are no monsters in the cave. Nothing that will come out and take you in the night. Nothing that will eat us. But you should not go in until daylight.”

And then we rounded a rockfall, all black rocks and gray half-blocking our path, and we saw the cave mouth. I said, “Is that all?”

“You expected marble pillars? Or a giant’s cave from a gossip’s fireside tales?”

“Perhaps. It looks like nothing. A hole in the rock face. A shadow. And there are no guards?”

“No guards. Only the place, and what it is.”

“A cave filled with treasure. And you are the only one who can find it?”

Calum laughed then, like a fox’s bark. “The islanders know how to find it. But they are too wise to come here, to take its gold. They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter.”

“And is that true? Does it make you evil?”

“…No. The cave feeds on something else. Not good and evil. Not really. You can take your gold, but afterwards, things are,” he paused, “things are flat . There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss…” He looked at the cave mouth and I thought I saw fear in his eyes. “Less.”

I said, “There are many for whom the lure of gold outweighs the beauty of a rainbow.”

“Me, when young, for one. You, now, for another.”

“So we go in at dawn.”

“You will go in. I will wait for you out here. Do not be afraid. No monster guards the cave. No spells to make the gold vanish, if you do not know some can trip or rhyme.”

We made our camp, then: or rather we sat in the darkness, against the cold rock wall. There would be no sleep there.

I said, “You took the gold from here, as I will do tomorrow. You bought a house with it, a bride, a good name.”

His voice came from the darkness. “Aye. And they meant nothing to me, once I had them, or less than nothing. And if your gold pays for the King over the Water to come back to us and rule us and bring about a land of joy and prosperity and warmth, it will still mean nothing to you. It will be as something you heard of that happened to a man in a tale.”

“I have lived my life to bring the King back,” I told him.

He said, “You take the gold back to him. Your King will want more gold, because kings want more. It is what they do. Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing.”

Silence then, in the darkness. I heard no birds: only the wind that called and gusted about the peaks like a mother seeking her babe.

I said, “We have both killed men. Have you ever killed a woman, Calum MacInnes?”

“I have not. I have killed no women, no girls.”

I ran my hands over my dirk in the darkness, seeking the wood and center of the hilt, the steel of the blade. It was there in my hands. I had not intended ever to tell him, only to strike when we were out of the mountains, strike once, strike deep, but now I felt the words being pulled from me, would I or never-so. “They say there was a girl,” I told him. “And a thorn-bush.”

Silence. The whistling of the wind. “Who told you?” he asked. Then, “Never mind. I would not kill a woman. No man of honor would kill a woman…”

If I said a word, I knew, he would be silent on the subject, and never talk about it again. So I said nothing. Only waited.

Calum MacInnes began to speak, choosing his words with care, talking as if he was remembering a tale he had heard as a child and had almost forgotten. “They told me the kine of the lowlands were fat and bonny, and that a man could gain honor and glory by adventuring off to the southlands and returning with the fine red cattle. So I went south, and never a cow was good enough, until on a hillside in the lowlands I saw the finest, reddest, fattest cows that ever a man has seen. So I began to lead them away, back the way I had come.

“She came after me with a stick. The cattle were her father’s, she said, and I was a rogue and a knave and all manner of rough things. But she was beautiful, even when angry, and had I not already a young wife I might have dealt more kindly to her. Instead I pulled a knife, and touched it to her throat, and bade her to stop speaking. And she did stop.

“I would not kill her—I would not kill a woman, and that is the truth—so I tied her, by her hair, to a thorn-tree, and I took her knife from her waistband, to slow her as she tried to free herself, and pushed the blade of it deep into the sod. I tied her to the thorn-tree by her long hair, and I thought no more of her as I made off with her cattle.”

“It was another year before I was back that way. I was not after cows that day, but I walked up the side of that bank—it was a lonely spot, and if you had not been looking, you might not have seen it. Perhaps nobody searched for her.”

“I heard they searched,” I told him. “Although some believed her taken by reavers, and others believed her run away with a tinker, or gone to the city. But still, they searched.”

“Aye. I saw what I did see—perhaps you’d have to have stood where I was standing, to see what I did see. It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.”

“Perhaps?”

He said, “I have taken gold from the cave of the mists. I cannot tell any longer if there is good or there is evil. I sent a message, by a child, at an inn, telling them where she was, and where they could find her.”

I closed my eyes but the world became no darker.

“There is evil, “ I told him.

I saw it in my mind’s eye: her skeleton picked clean of clothes, picked clean of flesh, as naked and white as anyone would ever be, hanging like a child’s puppet against the thorn-bush, tied to a branch above it by its red-golden hair.

“At dawn,” said Calum MacInnes, as if we had been talking of provisions or the weather, “you will leave your dirk behind, for such is the custom, and you will enter the cave, and bring out as much gold as you can carry. And you will bring it back with you, to the mainland. There’s not a soul in these parts, knowing what you carry or where it’s from, would take it from you. Then send it to the King over the Water, and he will pay his men with it, and feed them, and buy their weapons. One day, he will return. Tell me on that day that there is evil, little man.”

When the sun was up, I entered the cave. It was damp in there. I could hear water running down one wall, and I felt a wind on my face, which was strange, because there was no wind inside the mountain.

In my mind, the cave would be filled with gold. Bars of gold would be stacked like firewood, and bags of golden coins would sit between them. There would be golden chains and golden rings, and golden plates, heaped high like the china plates in a rich man’s house.

I had imagined riches, but there was nothing like that here. Only shadows. Only rock.

Something was here, though. Something that waited.

I have secrets, but there is a secret that lies beneath all my other secrets, and not even my children know it, although I believe my wife suspects, and it is this: my mother was a mortal woman, the daughter of a miller, but my father came to her from out of the West, and to the West he returned when he had had his sport with her. I cannot be sentimental about my parentage: I am sure he does not think of her, and doubt that he ever knew of me. But he left me a body that is small, and fast, and strong; and perhaps I take after him in other ways—I do not know. I am ugly, and my father was beautiful, or so my mother told me once, but I think that she might have been deceived.

I wondered what I would have seen in that cave if my father had been an innkeeper from the lowlands.

You would be seeing gold , said a whisper that was not a whisper, from deep in the heart of the mountain. It was a lonely voice, and distracted, and bored.

“I would see gold,” I said aloud. “Would it be real, or would it be an illusion?”

The whisper was amused. You are thinking like a mortal man, making things always to be one thing or another. It is gold they would see, and touch. Gold they would carry back with them, feeling the weight of it the while, gold they would trade with other mortals for what they needed. What does it matter if it is there or no, if they can see it, touch it, steal it, murder for it? Gold they need and gold I give them.

“And what do you take, for the gold you give them?”

Little enough, for my needs are few, and I am old; too old to follow my sisters into the West. I taste their pleasure and their joy. I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value. A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul. And in return a fragment of me leaves this cave with them and gazes out at the world through their eyes, sees what they see until their lives are done and I take back what is mine.

“Will you show yourself to me?”

I could see, in the darkness, better than any man born of man and woman could see. I saw something move in the shadows, and then the shadows congealed and shifted, revealing formless things at the edge of my perception, where it meets imagination. Troubled, I said the thing it is proper to say at times such as this: “Appear before me in a form that neither harms nor is offensive to me.”

Is that what you wish?

The drip of distant water. “Yes,” I said.

From out of the shadows it came, and it stared down at me with empty sockets, smiled at me with wind-weathered ivory teeth. It was all bone, save its hair, and its hair was red and gold, and wrapped about the branch of a thorn-bush.

“That offends my eyes.”

I took it from your mind, said a whisper that surrounded the skeleton. Its jawbone did not move. I chose something you loved. This was your daughter, Flora, as she was the last time you saw her.

I closed my eyes, but the figure remained.

It said, The reaver waits for you at the mouth of the cave. He waits for you to come out, weaponless and weighed down with gold. He will kill you, and take the gold from your dead hands.

“But I’ll not be coming out with gold, will I?” I thought of Calum MacInnes, the wolf-gray in his hair, the gray of his eyes,

the line of his dirk. He was bigger than I am, but all men are bigger than I am. Perhaps I was stronger, and faster, but he was also fast, and he was strong.

He killed my daughter, I thought, then wondered if the thought was mine or if it had crept out the shadows and into my head. Aloud, I said, “Is there another way out of this cave?”

You leave the way you entered, through the mouth of my home.

I stood there and did not move, but in my mind I was like an animal in a trap, questing and darting from idea to idea, finding no purchase and no solace and no solution.

I said, “I am weaponless. He told me that I could not enter this place with a weapon. That it was not the custom.”

It is the custom now, to bring no weapon into my place. It was not always the custom. Follow me, said the skeleton of my daughter.

I followed her, for I could see her, even when it was so dark that I could see nothing else.

In the shadows it said, It is beneath your hand.

I crouched and felt it. The haft felt like bone—perhaps an antler. I touched the blade cautiously in the darkness, discovered that I was holding something that felt more like an awl than a knife. It was thin, sharp at the tip. It would be better than nothing.

“Is there a price?”

There is always a price.

“Then I will pay it. And I ask one other thing. You say that you can see the world through his eyes.”

There were no eyes in that hollow skull, but it nodded.

“Then tell me when he sleeps.”

It said nothing. It melded into the darkness, and I felt alone in that place.

Time passed. I followed the sound of the dripping water, found a rock pool, and drank. I soaked the last of the oats and I ate them, chewing them until they dissolved in my mouth. I slept and woke and slept again, and dreamed of my wife, Morag, waiting for me as the seasons changed, waiting for me just as we had waited for our daughter, waiting for me forever.

Something, a finger I thought, touched my hand: it was not bony and hard. It was soft, and humanlike, but too cold. He sleeps.

I left the cave in the blue light, before dawn. He slept across the cave-mouth, catlike, I knew, such that the slightest touch would have woken him. I held my weapon in front of me, a bone handle and a needlelike blade of blackened silver, and I reached out and took what I was after, without waking him.

Then I stepped closer, and his hand grasped for my ankle and his eyes opened.

“Where is the gold?” asked Calum MacInnes.

“I have none.” The wind blew cold on the mountainside. I had danced back, out of his reach, when he had grabbed at me. He stayed on the ground, pushed himself up onto one elbow.

Then he said, “Where is my dirk?”

“I took it,” I told him. “While you slept.”

He looked at me, sleepily. “And why ever would you do that? If I was going to kill you I would have done it on the way here. I could have killed you a dozen times.”

“But I did not have gold, then, did I?”

He said nothing.

I said, “If you think you could have got me to bring the gold from the cave, and that not bringing it out would have saved your miserable soul, then you are a fool.”

He no longer looked sleepy. “A fool, am I?”

He was ready to fight. It is good to make people who are ready to fight angry.

I said, “Not a fool. No. For I have met fools and idiots, and they are happy in their idiocy, even with straw in their hair. You are too wise for foolishness. You seek only misery and you bring misery with you and you call down misery on all you touch.”

He rose then, holding a rock in his hand like an axe, and he came at me. I am small, and he could not strike me as he would have struck a man of his own size. He leaned over to strike. It was a mistake.

I held the bone haft tightly, and stabbed upward, striking fast with the point of the awl, like a snake. I knew the place I was aiming for, and I knew what it would do.

He dropped his rock, clutched at his right shoulder. “My arm,” he said. “I cannot feel my arm.”

He swore then, fouling the air with curses and threats. The dawn light on the mountaintop made everything so beautiful and blue. In that light, even the blood that had begun to soak his garments was purple. He took a step back, so he was between me and the cave. I felt exposed, the rising sun at my back.

“Why do you not have gold?” he asked me. His arm hung limply at his side.

“There was no gold there for such as I,” I said.

He threw himself forward, then, ran at me and kicked at me. My awl blade went flying from my hand. I threw my arms around his leg, and I held on to him as together we tumbled off the mountainside.

His head was above me, and I saw triumph in it, and then I saw sky, and then the valley floor was above me and I was rising to meet it and then it was below me and I was falling to my death.

A jar and a bump, and now we were turning over and over on the side of the mountain, the world a dizzying whirligig of rock and pain and sky, and I knew I was a dead man, but still I clung to the leg of Calum MacInnes.

I saw a golden eagle in flight, but below me or above me I could no longer say. It was there, in the dawn sky, in the shattered fragments of time and perception, there in the pain. I was not afraid: there was no time and no space to be afraid in, no space in my mind and no space in my heart. I was falling through the sky, holding tightly to the leg of a man who was trying to kill me; we were crashing into rocks, scraping and bruising and then…

…we stopped. Stopped with force enough that I felt myself jarred, and was almost thrown off Calum MacInnes and to my death beneath. The side of the mountain had crumbled, there, long ago, sheared off, leaving a sheet of blank rock, as smooth and as featureless as glass. But that was below us. Where we were, there was a ledge, and on the ledge there was a miracle: stunted and twisted, high above the treeline, where no trees have any right to grow, was a twisted hawthorn tree, not much larger than a bush, although it was old. Its roots grew into the side of the mountain, and it was this hawthorn that had caught us in its gray arms.

I let go of the leg, clambered off Calum MacInnes’s body, and onto the side of the mountain. I stood on the narrow ledge and looked down at the sheer drop. There was no way down from here. No way down at all.

I looked up. It might be possible, I thought, climbing slowly, with fortune on my side, to make it up that mountain. If it did not rain. If the wind was not too hungry. And what choice did I have? The only alternative was death.

A voice: “So. Will you leave me here to die, dwarf?”

I said nothing. I had nothing to say.

His eyes were open. He said, “I cannot move my right arm, since you stabbed it. I think I broke a leg in the fall. I cannot climb with you.”

I said, “I may succeed, or I may fail.”

“You’ll make it. I’ve seen you climb. After you rescued me, crossing that waterfall. You went up those rocks like a squirrel going up a tree.”

I did not have his confidence in my climbing abilities.

He said, “Swear to me by all you hold holy. Swear by your King, who waits over the sea as he has since we drove his subjects from this land. Swear by the things you creatures hold dear—swear by shadows and eagle feathers and by silence. Swear that you will come back for me.”

“You know what I am?” I said.

“I know nothing,” he said. “Only that I want to live.”

I thought. “I swear by these things,” I told him. “By shadows and by eagle feathers and by silence. I swear by green hills and standing stones. I will come back.”

“I would have killed you,” said the man in the hawthorn bush, and he said it with humor, as if it was the