by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2008 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #20 -=- ANTHRO #20 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   “Anna Aradottir was missing,” said Ragnar, the lone male in the room. “She’d gone into the hills north of town for acorns, and she didn’t come back. It was getting dark by the time her mothers and father started to fear for her—it gets dark so soon and so quickly in December in the North, and my sister’s village is in a valley at the foot of the mountains, which only makes darkness come that much faster. The wind had changed, and the clouds were thickening, and flecks of snow were starting to fall. The village herd went from concern to terror for her safety in a matter of minutes.
   “Since I’m a buck, of course I had to go charging into the woods to try to find her—no, Doctor, I’m joking, I’m joking! I wasn’t alone. All eight of the bucks in town went out on that search, and upward of thirty does went with us too. So you know it had to be the smart thing to do.
   “They only had minutes to organize the search, but they have experience in that sort of thing. Anna’s radio wasn’t working, or she’d switched it off. But we had our own radios. We tested them all to make sure they worked, before we headed out.”
   Doctor Ericsdottir nodded, a gesture more common among antler-free females. “Yours too?”
   “Of course.”
   “And you didn’t see anything unusual. No vehicle tracks, no unknown hoofprints heading into the mountains.”
   “No. Anna had gone upslope, on the trail that runs beside the creek. That trail was too hard-packed to see her tracks, so I suppose there could have been some other tracks there we didn’t see. I’ve told you all this before, five or six times. Why are we going through it again?”
   “I’ve answered that question four or five times: There might be something you forgot to say, and maybe you won’t forget it this time. Anna had headed along the creek bank, going upstream. Did you see where she left the trail?”
   “No, or at least we didn’t know we had. There was some scuffed-up earth beside the trail about half a mile in. We didn’t know it was significant, not then.
   “We each had our areas to search, spaced apart enough that our hearing overlapped. I was a visitor, I didn’t know the landmarks, so they gave me the one assignment where I couldn’t get lost. They sent me up the center, right along the creek. ‘You can always follow the creek out, and if you have to leave the creek and can’t find it again, just keep going downhill.’ Somebody told me that, I forget who.
   “It wasn’t an easy climb, even along the trail. After a while there were rocks to clamber over and little cliffs to climb. Nothing too dangerous, thank goodness, and although the trail wasn’t as well-beaten, it was still there to make walking easier between the tough places. I thought I was having a rough time of it, and I guess I was. I thought being a flatlander meant I wasn’t in as good shape as the people who lived here, and probably I wasn’t. But the other searchers had to fight through underbrush that I didn’t and stumble over rocks and fallen trees every step of the way. I was pulling ahead of them.
   “It was dark by the time I’d gone two miles or so. I still had sound and scent to guide me, but it’s surprising how much you depend on sight to pick your footing. Now just walking onward took my full attention. I would feel my way forward a few steps, stop to listen, and feel my way forward a few more.
   “And eventually, I reached the fork.”
   “Where you heard her.”
   “Yes. They hadn’t told me the creek forked; maybe they thought I wouldn’t get this far up it. I wondered whether I should go farther upstream. I decided I would, but I wasn’t sure which branch I should follow. I presumed I should follow the larger, but even judging which was the larger wasn’t that easy, up there in the hills in the dark.
   “I stopped to think for a moment. It was quiet, very quiet. That’s when it struck me: I hadn’t heard anything on the radio for quite some time. I figured I’d turned it down when I stopped to listen for sounds in the woods, and left it that way. But when I checked the volume knob, I was shocked—it was already set to full, or almost that! The radio wasn’t working. It had no control lights. It was just dead.
   “I didn’t have time to worry about my gear, because that’s when I heard something running through the woods. I figured it had to be Anna, but whatever it was, it was behind me, uphill to the right, and it was having a hard time of it. I heard it hit a tree and fall, scramble up, and start running again. Then into another tree, a crash into underbrush, and what sounded like a bad fall downhill. I heard something or somebody rolling through the underbrush, thumping to the ground, and sliding downhill along with a small landslide of stones and gravel.
   “That seemed to come from a gully to my right. I hurried up that gully, and there I found her, sprawled on the ground face down, panting.”
   “And she didn’t say anything?”
   “Not a word. I hurried to her—I thought she might be hurt or even dead, considering the fall she’d taken. But when I touched her, she screamed and raised her head. And when she saw me, she screamed again—but then she grabbed my hand and arm and held on like Death herself.
   “She was huge for a doe, as big as I was. I could see her white throat, the markings on her nose, and her big white tail, trying to flag high in terror—for some reason her clothing wasn’t cut for a tail, and it was showing out the end of one of the legs of her shorts. Now, what with her size and those markings, she had to be an American. That surprised me. But keep in mind that I hadn’t known whether Anna Aradottir was European or American or from Mars, as far as that goes. The subject just hadn’t come up.
   “I was a little shocked, didn’t know quite what to do or say. For one thing, if Anna was an American, how did she end up getting adopted by anybody here at the edge of the Northern Wilderness? In a seaport, yes, there are Americans, and if the Dark Wolf came to them in a flyer crash or whatever, the City Herd would find a new home for their young. But that wasn’t at all likely to happen up here in the foothills!
   “There was no time to worry about that, though. Somehow I pried my hands free of her grip. I kept touching her as I worked, though, and I let her touch me. It seemed to calm her, as it does now.”
   Ragnar turned his head to smile to the beautiful whitetail. She sat on the edge of her bed, resting a hand on his elbow as he sat in the armchair and told the story yet again. The whitetail had the bed and Ragnar had the armchair, so Doctor Ericsdotter was stuck with the hard, straight-backed desk chair which was the only other seat available. But the doctor might have chosen it anyway, since it helped her maintain a stiff, professional posture.
   “Whether she was Anna Aradottir or not, she’d taken a lot of knocks running through the woods, and she’d taken a bad fall. I was listening for whatever had been chasing her. I didn’t hear anything. It was possible she just panicked—lost in the woods—although that didn’t seem likely for a mountain village doe. There might have been something chasing her, perhaps a bear, maybe even a wolf pack. So I had to know if she was hurt; I checked her condition to see if she was in any shape to run.”
   “But there were no serious injuries.”
   “As it happened, none. Bruises and scrapes aplenty, but no broken bones. She was terrified, though. She had her full winter coat, and Americans get a much heavier coat than we do here in the Wine Country. She had a full covering of clothing, too. It was ill-fitting, loose and baggy, but it covered her torso well and it should have warmed her even more. Yet she was shaking like she was freezing, or frightened nearly out of her life.”
   “You didn’t see what was chasing her?”
   “No. Nothing. As I said, there could have been something, but as far as I know we of the search party were the only large creatures wandering around in the woods that night. She might have heard another of the searchers; they were moving through the woods as I was. But I didn’t know why she would have run from them.”
   “And she never spoke a word.”
   “Well, none that I could understand.”
   “Wait. That’s new. Before, you said she didn’t say anything. Which is it?”
   “She didn’t say any words. She made some noises that sounded like they might be speech, but they weren’t any language I knew. They weren’t American, either. I don’t speak American, but I’ve heard enough of it to recognize it when I hear it.”
   “So your mystery doe made noises which sounded like they might have been speech, in some language you didn’t know.”
   “Well, yes. But what could it be?”
   “I don’t know. But there’s a huge difference between being unable to speak, and refusing to speak, and being a speaker of a language that nobody in the District happens to recognize. True? The first two could indicate severe injury or psychological trauma. The third only means she’s a long way from home.”
   “Of course—but she doesn’t speak American! She didn’t then, and to be safe I had a trader who speaks American come by and try to talk to her. She didn’t respond, any more than she’s responding to us now.”
   “Your American-blood doe wasn’t in America when you found her. She might not have been in America before you found her, either. It’s hard to think she might have come all the way across the steppes to get here, but… well, it could have happened. Finish your story, please?”
   “Very well. I stripped off my kilt, which seemed to startle her for some reason. I unfolded it and draped it around her, then pulled my radio from my harness. It was still dead.
   “I probably should have waited for someone to find us, but she had been running from something. Whatever it was might still be closing in. And she didn’t seem too badly hurt, so I thought it better that we get out of there.
   “So I helped her to her feet. She walked, although she stumbled a lot, for no reason I could see. She wouldn’t let go of my hand except where she needed both hands to climb down a rock face or something. She had a rough time with that.
   “After we got downhill the path was better. We made decent progress then. We were almost to the village, only about half a mile into the woods, where that scuffed soil at trailside had been, when I found the rest of the search party.
   “Ori Orissen was trying to use his radio. It seems that it had quit on him, just the same as mine did. He was shouting ‘Hello? Hello?’ at it as we walked up.
   “And here’s a strange thing: It wasn’t just me and Ori. None of our radios worked that night—not one! In fact, everything electronic failed that night, all across the village. The old emergency landline to the city worked, but that was all. The next morning radios would work at the edges of the village or beyond, but not in town. It took two more days before all the gadgets were working in the center of town.”
   “Do you think that had something to do with your American doe?”
   Ragnar threw up his hands. “I don’t see how, but nobody knows. Anyway, Ori was shouting at his radio, like I said. I walked into the clearing, holding the doe’s hand. She held back at first, but then came forward with me, eagerly I think.
   “‘I found her,’ I told them.
   “‘No, we did,’ Ori said. And that’s when I saw Anna Aradottir sitting by the trailside, with her left ankle wrapped up in straps torn from somebody’s kilt. Hers was a common enough story in the mountains, except that her radio had failed too. She’d slipped and twisted an ankle, and when she tried to call for help, her radio didn’t work. She did fine, though, because she knew her woodcraft. She found a hollow beside a fallen tree, cut a pole and spread her kilt across it to make a tent, and was starting a fire to keep herself warm through the night, when they found her.
   “‘If that’s Anna, then who is this?’ I asked, letting them see the beautiful American I’d found. But nobody had any answers. So one of the Elders called you, and here you are. Can you tell me who she is?’
   Doctor Ericsdottir switched off her scribe and sighed. “Who, indeed? That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?”

   Ragnar loved working in the vineyard, weeding, binding the vines to their supports, nibbling little bits off to prune them. He loved tending his oak grove; his great-grandfather had crossbred and then grafted those trees, and the fat, sweet acorns from the grove were one of the town’s most prized products. He loved tending his land. He loved walking around in the early mornings, just looking at it.
   But the winter mornings when there was nothing much to do but sleep late with his does… ah, what could be more wonderful than that? Resting half asleep in the big nest of cushions, silks, and soft blankets they shared, nuzzling Kristin and enjoying her clean scent, his arm embracing Nanna, just dozing in warmth and luxury, waiting for the sun to rise high in the sky.
   There were hooves tapping on the path outside. He tried to ignore them. There was a tap on the door. He tried to ignore that too. Nanna stirred, slipped out of his arm, and walked to the door. Ragnar sighed.
   He heard the door open. A flood of chill air touched his feet; he pulled them beneath his blanket and groaned to himself. He heard voices, mumbles. He burrowed deeper beneath the blankets but they couldn’t muffle the sounds away.
   “Husband? We have a guest, who should be greeted as is Proper.”
   Ragnar said nothing. He unwrapped the blankets from around himself and stood, careful not to disturb Kirsten. Nanna had pulled her harness from the wall hook and was buckling it on. She had her favorite winter kilt, too, and was putting it on draped over her left shoulder, covering that breast, and was arranging the rest around her waist so that it would cover her like a skirt. It must be a cold day, then.
   There was no point in trying to argue with Nanna when she used that tone of voice. Not for the first time, Ragnar asked himself why he had ever believed that the bucks ran their families. He had to grin, though; when she covered herself with her kilt like that, Nanna looked like a goddess from the sagas. There was something strangely erotic about it.
   He paused to exchange nose-licks with her, grabbed his own winter kilt, and walked to the door to meet their guest.
   He slung the kilt over his left shoulder and pulled the door wide and found himself facing a wall of reddish hair.
   That stopped him. He looked up, up, up…
   The face looking back down at him wasn’t threatening. The wide-set brown eyes returned his gaze with a sense of mild interest. Ragnar was enough of a buck to see the huge, heavy antlers as a threat, at first, but of course this fellow wasn’t going to try to take Nanna, Kirsten, or the American from him—as if any of his friends and brothers ever would! Mind you, it wasn’t like the American was his doe anyway… No, his little herd was safe in its appointed place in the peace and order of the Town Herd. And besides, this was a Red, a member of a different species. They only married each other, and then only in pairs, one buck and one doe. How strange!
   The stranger wore a wolfskin cape and vest, and carried a spear with an exquisite flint leaf-point… and then Ragnar’s eyes overcame the illusion of what he’d expected this Red to wear. True, the Red wore a cape and vest of the traditional form, but it was woven of some sort of natural fiber, with narrow red and green stripes at the edges contrasting with the wolf-gray color of the rest of the fabric. And the spear was actually a walking stick, and a decidedly high-tech model, at that. Aluminum, it looked like, with an area light and a spotlight built in at the top. It probably had other gadgets built in too; a lot of its engraving looked like it might conceal buttons or other controls. He took a quick glance at the stranger’s hands. No, the stranger wasn’t wearing the traditional gloves, with their flint-shard claws, at all.
   What was the proper thing to say to a Guardian? “Um… Ragnar Liefsen offers wine and a place by the fire.”
   The Red smiled, the kindness of the smile belying his species’s fierce reputation. “Senior Loremaster Borje Saba accepts the fire and the wine, in honor of He Who Guards the Guardians. May He Himself guard your lands when we cannot. Hope you don’t mind if I accept in spirit only, though. Your home is lovely, but the ceiling looks a bit low for the likes of me.”
   Ragnar started to wrap his kilt around himself. It was bitter cold this morning; frost glittered on everything. “I must say I haven’t met a Red Deer in a long time, and I’ve never met a Loremaster at all. Thank you for… for, well, for not wearing…”
   “And you’re curious to know why not, aren’t you?” the big buck asked politely. “There are different kinds of Loremasters, as there are different kinds of Lore. Now, I do value my brothers who keep the traditions of the Days of Ice. But personally, I’m more interested in spacecraft than spearpoints. Besides, those wolfskins stink! I don’t care what they say about their traditions, I can only think that nobody really knows how to make leather any more.”
   “Please take a seat on the garden bench, then, and let me bring you a heatglow and a cup of warm wine. Or juice? We still have some fresh berry juice.”
   “The juice would be wonderful.”
   “What brings you here?”
   “I’ve heard you have a walk-in. I first heard the story up at our school near the Arctic Circle. I visited your sister’s village, but the herd there told me you’d brought her here. I’d like to speak with her, if I can.”
   If he could. If he could. That was the problem, wasn’t it? Could he? “I don’t believe in walk-ins,” Ragnar said.
   “‘In the world of the Gods belief is all, but the things of this world live in the light and in the shadow, and care little that ye believe in them, or believe in them not. Know which world ye wander.’”
   “The rest of that quote is ‘Yet betimes the realm of the Gods and this world are the same world, both worlds in one; else how could we know of them?’”
   The Red laughed. “I congratulate you on your learning! So few read the epics these days. Still, I would have a word with the visitor who is under your protection, if you’ll allow it. I don’t see how it can harm her. If she is, in fact, a walk-in, we’ll know it very quickly.”
   Ragnar bowed and returned to the Great Room of his home. It was warm, dim, and the touch of woodsmoke tang in the air was comforting on a winter morning. He stepped into the kitchen to get the bottle of berry juice and an earthenware cup. “Nanna, my wife? Our visitor wishes to speak with the American, if he can.”
   “It is proper that he try. I will see if she’s awake. She’ll need time to prepare herself. Why does she always have to cover her full body? Do Americans all dress that way?”
   “I don’t think so. But it seems to comfort her.” He grabbed the handle of one of the heatglows that kept the Great Room warm, and headed outside again.
   Nanna and the American came out of the farmhouse about ten minutes later. The American wore a dress fashioned from an old kilt, with a normal harness over that and a new kilt slung over her left shoulder in the normal way. It was a lot of clothing and looked uncomfortable; she couldn’t show her tail at all, for one thing. But it would keep her nice and warm.
   “Come along, dear,” Nanna said, leading the American by the hand. The whitetail smiled at Nanna. She stopped for a moment, surprise in her eyes, when she saw the great Red Deer, Borje Saba; but her eyes showed a strange hope when she saw him. She almost seemed to lead Nanna the rest of the way to the garden benches.
   “He thinks she’s a walk-in,” Ragnar said.
   Loremaster Saba flicked an ear and smiled. He said something in a language Ragnar didn’t recognize. The American looked startled, perked her ears, and said nothing.
   The Loremaster shrugged and said something else. The American said a word or two, then stopped.
   “I have her,” the Red said, with a little smile. He turned back to the American and spoke. And she spoke back, astonishment in her eyes. And then they were talking back and forth, she excited, the words Ragnar couldn’t understand pouring out of her, Loremaster Saba trying to slow her down, speaking words slowly and with many halts and stumbles.
   “What on Earth just happened?” Ragnar asked.
   But Nanna didn’t know. And if Loremaster Saba knew, he was too busy talking to answer Ragnar’s question.

   She let the larger doe, the one whose name seemed to be ‘Nanna’, lead her by the hand. It wasn’t as bad as it had been once. Her head didn’t spin nearly as badly as it had when the sounds and smells assaulted her for the first time. But she still walked hesitantly, afraid she’d stumble and fall.
   She stopped, eyes wide, when she saw the huge red deer, or elk, or whatever he was. He wore a kind of a cape. She recognized him. He was the Sorcerer! Afraid, yet eager, she walked to him and looked into eyes that were mild and friendly. Thank God for that!
   This buck was huge. She was looking straight into his eyes, yet he was sitting on a bench while she stood before him.
   “Esk-ce que les a-mair-e-cans ate les roose sont tooey dans un gare?”
   That sounded like—that sounded like French! Desperately she tried to think of a few words in that language. “I don’t parlez-vous Francais, no, no!”
   He smiled and said something to the buck Ragnar. Then he turned to her again. “Did American and Russ fight die in war?”
   “No, it didn’t… you speak English? I’m not crazy, please tell me I’m not! I’m not what I am!” The words poured out of her with her tears. He had to understand her. He had to know how she could get home! He just had to!
   She barely heard what he said in reply. “Write better than say,” he said, and he was trying to push some kind of a board into her hands. Did he mean he could write, or did he mean she should?
   The board was the size and shape of a clipboard, and its surface had a texture like paper. She took it. He gave her a white feather, the tip of the quill colored black. She should write with this?
   The big red elk pulled a second writing-board from his pack. He didn’t have a quill to use to write. He spoke, looking at her, using the language of the deer people, the language she shouldn’t be able to understand (but, somewhere in the back of her mind, almost could). He spoke on as she tried to talk to him. He gestured at her board.
   She looked down at her writing-board and nearly dropped it. Words had appeared on its surface.
   Please write on the scribe—that’s this board-thing—using the pen I gave you. I’m sorry; the scribes can understand and translate my speech, but they won’t translate yours yet.
   She took the pen and wrote madly: Am I crazy? What is this place? I can’t see properly. Everything is far away and then all of a sudden I walk right into it. The sounds and smells overwhelm me and this isn’t me. I’m not one of you, I’m a human. I’m from another world—is it real? Is this world real, is the world I remember real? Where am I?
   Your world is as real as this one. Or at least the walk-ins who survive the journey all describe the same place, so we—those of us who are studying you—think the world you came from is real. The Americans and the Russians didn’t use their atom-breaking bombs to kill each other, then? That was what the last walk-in feared. It was a fight about a place called Berlin or maybe Cuba. I’m happy they avoided war.
   No, no nuclear war. Not yet. There are other dangers.
    So always with your world. I don’t blame you; your numbers are so great, and your species doesn’t have some of the advantages we do.

   This is a beautiful place, but it’s driving me insane, if I’m not insane already. I need to go home! Is there a way home?
    We think so. But we should talk more on that later. For now, you should come with me. You might have had memories of the European language placed into your mind. Our sleep-teaching machine can bring those up to a place where you can use them. Then we can talk about your going home, and how to do it. In the mean time, I would be grateful if you told us how you got here, among other things.

   But I don’t want to leave Ragnar and Nanna and Kris.
    Kristin. Ragnar’s second wife is Kristin. You can come back and see them again if you want. For now, I think it is best that you come with me. I’ll try to explain this to them; you’ll see if they agree.

   The big elk turned away to speak with the deer-people who had been sheltering her and, whether they knew it or not, teaching her to walk, to see, to hear, to understand the intense messages from her nose. She saw them stiffen their backs in defiance… but slowly, slowly they relaxed. They looked at her, and she thought their faces showed sorrow.
   Then Ragnar, Nanna, and Kirsten came to her and solemnly licked her nose. Nanna put her hand in the big red elk’s, and turned her toward the path to town.
   She walked away then, hand in hand with the elk. She tried not to cry. After all, she had never belonged to them anyway, and they had never really belonged to her.

   My name is James Farmer. That’s a man’s name—a male’s name, because I am a male human, or I was, or… I’m a graduate student in English Literature at Stane College of Liberal Arts in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That’s in the United States next to Mexico, not in the nation called Mexico.
   I am—I was—in my first year of a Master’s program, because when I graduated with my Bachelor’s I couldn’t find decent work. “You want fries with that?”
   Never mind. That line would take more time to explain than it’s worth.
   Maybe I should have studied anthropology or archæology, because when I could I loved to visit some of the Ancient Pueblo sites up in the Four Corners region. Ancient Pueblo is what you call those lost people if you think the modern Pueblo people are their descendants; if not, you might call them Anasazi. Whoever they were, they built great settlements there and then left the area, or died, hundreds of years ago. No, this was before the Europeans came. Nobody knows why they left. It might have been that the climate changed and they couldn’t grow their food any more, but that’s only one theory.
   I’d visited most of the known sites, and moved on to hiking the public lands trying to find new ones. It’s important to do that because some people loot the sites if they find them. I had an archaeology prof at the college I trusted, and I figured if I ever found anything I’d let him know about it. He’d know what to do to make sure any site I found was protected from looters.
   I was out of school on my Christmas break. The weather was unusually fine, so I went up to do some hiking and searching in—
   What? Yes… I do believe the day I’m telling you about was the Winter Solstice, December 21st. Is that important?
   I camped overnight in a canyon. I woke up at dawn, and saw a line of fire on the canyon wall. It was the sun shining through a crack, too narrow to call a canyon, really, that went back into the rocks on that side. When I scrambled up there there, I found that the crack was wide enough to walk into. So that’s what I did.
   The passage went in a long way. It felt like half a mile; it probably wasn’t really that far. Then it turned a corner and widened out into a canyon so narrow that the sky was just a little slice of blue high above. And I could see a cliff dwelling in a hollow in the cliff above me.
   There were hand- and foot-holds to allow me to climb up. The cliff house wasn’t big enough for more than one crowded family. When I finally got up into it, I’d never been more excited in my life, because it was clear this dwelling had never been looted! There was a pot half-buried in dust and sand in the corner, and a couple more that were broken, but it looked like all the pieces were there. Other things? I didn’t look for any. I wasn’t going to dig—I’d let the professionals do that.
   There was a doorway in the cliff face that made up the rear wall of the place. It was more-or-less rectangular, and about as tall as I was. I thought it led to a second room.
   When I got to it, I could see a petroglyph just inside the door, just one. When I saw it I was astonished, because it was the Sorcerer. It was you!
   No, not you personally. The ’glyph depicted a deer-man, an elk-man, with huge spreading antlers like yours, wearing a cape like yours. He seemed to be wearing gloves with claws on them.
   Guardians used to wear gloves like that? I hadn’t known… that makes things even spookier.
   There’s more to it than that. It’s strange, it’s impossible. The Sorcerer is from Southern France—that’s what we call a piece of Europe in my world that includes Ragnar’s—oh, you know where it is. But the point is, the Sorcerer image is not from New Mexico! The place is wrong, and the time is wrong, the cave dwellings of New Mexico date more than ten thousand years after the cave paintings in France. So the Sorcerer couldn’t be there, painted on the wall of a New Mexico cave dwelling. He just couldn’t. But… there he was!
   I got my flashlight out of my pack to be sure. The Sorcerer was still there on the wall, even when brightly lit. I touched him, even though I shouldn’t have. Now there was a tiny smudge of red-brown on my fingertip. My heart sank; a magnificent discovery, whatever it meant, and I’d damaged it!
   But my flashlight showed me something else. This doorway was actually a tunnel that ran down into the rock of the cliff face. There seemed to be a cave down there, so of course I had to go see what was in it.
   I’ve never explored caves, but it looked like an easy walk.I didn’t take my pack; there might be some climbing, and I wouldn’t need my camping gear in there. I took some food bars and my canteen, and both flashlights.
   When I got down inside, it looked like a cave. But the floor was wide and level. The cave meandered through the rocks, but it never seemed to climb or descend. If it was a natural cave, it was a strange one.
   I can’t remember when things started to slip away from me. The next thing I can remember, though, I was on my knees in a vast cavern full of slabs of rocks, like pylons. Rows and rows of them, in straight lines off into the darkness beyond the reach of my flashlight—which was dying.
   It went out. I knew that was wrong, and I knew it should frighten me, so it did, sort of. I felt like, as if, I wasn’t really there. It was like I was drunk or dreaming or maybe dying.
   For the longest time I knelt in the darkness. Then I began to see things. There were runes, symbols, on the face of the pylon nearest me. They glowed faintly, just the ghost of light. All the pylons had them. I could see the pylons, dimly glowing, but even so I couldn’t tell how far they went. They must have ended somewhere, because there was darkness beyond them, but it was a long way away.
   I felt I should touch one. Then I had to touch one. I did, and there was this voice in my head talking about the stars and the ordering of the seasons. I touched the one next to it, and it was something, something—I really can’t describe it. I got a sense of time, and the calendar, and something like string theory, if you know what that is. A theory that the Universe has more dimensions than the ones we know. I couldn’t understand the least of it. I was too stupid; I just wanted to lie down and sleep. But maybe I wouldn’t have understood it even if I were awake.
   Something about falling asleep frightened me. I thought I should go back. I got out my spare flashlight and turned it on. For a moment my mind cleared, but the flashlight dimmed and went out; it must have only taken a minute or so. And I could feel something pressing on my mind, trying to drive me down to sleep again, down to death.
   Now I knew that this place was killing me. I got to my feet and tried to run back the way I’d come, but something was wrong. My feet tangled up in my shoes. I kicked them off and tried to run, but I didn’t know where.
   I couldn’t see anything except the dim runes of the pylons, and every time I brushed one of those it spoke words into my head—now it was biology, telling me about creatures I knew, like deer and squirrels, and others I didn’t, like humans who weren’t human and like you. And every time the words came into my head I felt the sleep coming closer, death coming closer.
   I couldn’t find my way back. I don’t know what would have happened—well, yes, I do know. I would have died. But I smelled something; smelled fresh air and something like the decay of poplar leaves in the woods around my home in the early fall. That’s a spicy scent that always made me sad because it told me winter was on the way. Smelled wintergreen and something earthy.
   You don’t know about human noses, do you? We can’t smell anything. Not the way you do. Not the way I do, now. We depend on eyesight, and then on our hearing, but as far as finding our way through the world, well, our noses are so weak we might as well not have them at all.
   So it wasn’t natural for me to follow a scent to try to escape that place. Scent was all I had, though, and it seemed more real, more solid, than anything I’d ever scented before. I followed that breath of air. I ran in the darkness, as best I could.
   After a while I was in a narrow tunnel again, so I’d gotten out of the great cavern of pylons, whatever they were. I stumbled onward. My mind was clearing, but I felt so strange. Everything was wrong, and I couldn’t understand why.
   I came out into darkness, but it was the normal darkness of night in the woods. I could see more clearly than I normally did in low light, but my vision was wrong—still is wrong, to my way of thinking. I move toward something and it looks so far away, and still so far away, and then all of a sudden it’s right in front of me and I walk right into it.
   Scents were an uproar. Overwhelming. I could recognize things I knew, but there were other scents too, and they were all so powerful. And then I heard crashing in the woods behind me, and shouts. When I looked back, there was nobody there. I thought they were ghosts—I thought they were wild animals—I don’t know what I thought.
   My hands—I was missing a finger, and I had fingernails like little hooves. And my feet had hooves. And I had, I had, my chest… I mean, I was a female, but I’m not female, I’m a man! It was too much. I ran away. I ran anywhere, I didn’t care where. I kept running into trees, or I’d dodge aside to miss them before I was really on top of them and I’d run into something else instead.
   I was bound to take a bad fall sometime. It was great luck that when I did, Ragnar found me before I could get up and run myself to death. He terrified me, but he was a deer-thing like I seemed to be, so he wouldn’t hurt me, right? And his eyes were so kind, so concerned. He pulled that kilt off; startled the hell out of me, that did, to see him naked except for that harness they all—we all—wear to carry gadgets and things. But he wrapped me in the kilt, and that was a gesture of kindness. There was no way I couldn’t understand that.
   He took me back to his farm when he went home. That’s where I met you. You know the rest.

   Cedar flicked an ear and smiled at the distant tapping of hooves on the flagstones. Carefully, she closed the book of poetry and put it into the pouch attached to her harness. She didn’t want to spoil the lovely little volume by putting it in the snow that covered most of the bench on which she sat.
   It was Loremaster Saba, of course. She could tell his footsteps from anyone else’s by now. In time he emerged from the thicket and walked across the garden to her, magnificent and somehow just right in this landscape of evergreens and snow.
   “Good day, Cedar,” he said as he approached. “I can count on finding you out here around noon. I don’t know what you see in it.”
   “The winter days are so short that I want to enjoy all the sunlight that I can. I enjoy how little the cold touches me, too. My human self couldn’t take half an hour of this; what I am now hardly feels it at all. Besides, it gives me an excuse to cover up a little instead of running around with all my bits hanging out the way you—we—do, inside where it’s warmer. I’m still not used to that. Not completely.”
   “Pity. Such nice bits they are, too.”
   “If you’re not careful, I’ll tell Ilsa you said that.”
   The Red Deer snorted in laughter. “She would agree with me! We don’t see many white-tailed Americans here. You are exotic, so you might as well get used to it, my student. I’m just happy you seem to be more comfortable with yourself as you are now. After all, you’re stuck with it until we can send you home, on the equinox.”
   Cedar Farmer—the former James Farmer rather liked the new first name she’d chosen—looked frightened. “I won’t have to go back the way I came, will I? That cavern is deadly. You have no idea how deadly.”
   Loremaster Saba brushed away some of the snow and sat down beside her. “No, no… if we’re only interested in a gate between the worlds, there’s a place we know that’s safer. The last walk-in we had before you at this school, Anne Derrien her human name was, came here through that gate, went home through it, and came back here through it again. She’d wanted to stay here, but she agreed to go back to your Earth and try to come back here three months later. Fortunately, she succeeded; it’s because of her that we know the walk-ins we sent home actually got there. It was very brave of her—before Anne volunteered, we couldn‘t know for sure if the ones we sent back disappeared, exploded, died, or whatever.”
   “Where is this other gate?”
   “I don’t know your name for it. It’s on the big British island in a region called Wiltshire, if I remember the name correctly. There are other gates too, in many different places around the world, but we think that one’s the most predictable and reliable.”
   “I’m all for that.”
   “But I did want to talk to you about the way you came. Could you help us try to find it?”
   “Could I? I don’t know. I didn’t know how my senses worked. I ran blindly in the darkness, then I fell down most of a mountain, or that’s what it felt like. And that place is a deathtrap! Why in the name of the Place of Eternal Winter would you want to go there?”
   “Interesting.” Now Saba looked into the woods to the southwest, where the sun was already disappearing behind the trees. “You were, and are, a scholar. Surely you can’t believe that a hoard of secrets like that cave should be left alone? Or is it some other place you wish to avoid?” He would have looked into the whitetail’s eyes, but they were closed. “Yes… I think it is some other place you would avoid. A chaotic, overcrowded world, where civilization reels from one war to another, one crisis to another. Am I anywhere in the vicinity of the truth?”
   Cedar nodded. “Yes… and how horrible you must think my kind were. Are. How Ragnar, Nanna, and Kristin would hate me if they knew what I was! They sent me another ’gram this morning, did you know that? It sounds like the winter is mild for them this year. They’re thinking of having a child. Perhaps with Kristin this time.”
   “They do know what you are. I told them.”
   “You… you…”
   “We don’t blame the wolf for eating meat, Cedar. And they don’t blame your charming, lovely self for anything you were before your change. Although I suggest you never, ever tell them that your people wrap little pieces of dead bodies in paper or plastic and sell them to each other, so many coins per pound. Selling food, we all understand the logic of that, but some things about your civilization are just too macabre to face.”
   “They know… and they can stand me?”
   “More accurately: They know, and they like you. Because, like all of us, they have an underpinning of logic, great ability to forgive, and more than a little kindness. Which is one of the things I wanted to speak to you about.
   “You come from a world of crisis, fear, and chaos, which is just what you would expect from a species that arose entirely through impersonal natural forces. As an outsider, doesn’t it seem to you that our civilization is… hmm… a little too good to be true? We have no serious conflicts; not even bucks fighting each other for does, which is precisely what you’d expect, based on the behavior of our four-legged cousins. Somehow, our population stays within limits that Earth can support easily. Our civilization changes slowly and gently, but has been advancing for so long that even though our innovations are rarer than yours, our technology is far beyond anything your people have developed. Our civilization was old before the last Ice Age, yet we’ve never experienced one of the Dark Ages to which your people are prone. Why did we draw all the high cards? It’s so unlikely I couldn’t believe it myself, if I hadn’t lived it.”
   “I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is, your civilization is everything ours should be—all the virtues we pretend to, you embody! We… compared to you, we’re barbarian savages. You make me ashamed of my kind.…"
   “Nonsense! You humans behave as well as anyone could expect, being survivors of evolution and what your Kipling called the Law of the Jungle. And yet, despite the harsh circumstances from which you emerged, you have been growing beyond your baser origins. It is we who are strange—it’s as if certain things have been taken out of us, and certain other things put into us, so that we had no choice but to build a stable and peaceful civilization. The most parsimonious explanation is that we are artificial, somehow.
   “All the more likely this is, because we are not truly of this world. For instance, we have never found any fossils linking us to the four-legged deer we resemble, nor is our genome part of the pattern of this world’s life. It’s not like your world, where you find fossils of things that lived before apes or men, and might be the ancestors of either, nor yet where your genes fall squarely into the nested hierarchy that encompasses all the rest of life. In our case, the bones of our ancestors simply… appear. One day, some fifteen thousand years ago, we were just here. And we’ve been here ever since.
   “The simplest explanation is that we were created. But who did it, and why? We don’t know. True, we’ve given our creators a name—‘Founders’—but it’s an empty label. Why are we foreign to this world? And why the links between our Earth and yours—unless these unknown Founders used your people as material to create us? Your own experience, your change when you traveled between the worlds, shows how this could have been done.
   “Or were there no Founders? Is what happened some sort of natural phenomenon we don’t understand? Magic, if that exists? We don’t know. We know we appeared. We know there are links between the worlds, and when one of your kind stumbles through a link, you become one of us. Whether that’s powered by some kind of Founder-made device that still operates, whether it’s a natural force, whether it’s something else… we just don’t know. And speaking for myself, not knowing drives me mad.”
   “Going to that cave would drive you mad faster.”
   “Or it might tell me all I need to know. Because I think that what you stumbled through was—but you already know what I think it was.”
   Cedar nodded. She whispered “A library.”
   “Yes. Not books or read-only scribes on shelves, but something else. Symbols that you touch to learn the subject they indicate. Here, astronomy, horology, perhaps the design and placement of gateways between the worlds. There, biology. Somewhere else, perhaps, history. Maybe even literature or poetry. That might teach us more than anything else, to know the legends and poems of those who created us.”
   “It will kill you, Loremaster Saba. Borje. Borje, you will die. Don’t go.”
   “Cedar, we must! We have to see if this library is there, if it really is a library. We’ll be as careful as we can. We’ll only take a tiny look, at first. But we have to know.
   “Because there’s one thing that worries me: What if the Founders come back? What will they want of us? Is it something we can give them, or would care to give them? We are, after all, decidedly lacking in aggression. The ability to make war seems to have been edited out of us; that might have been for our own good. But it might also have been for theirs, to make it easy for them to conquer us and to use us. But we don’t know—we cannot know—what the Founders intend for us, Cedar! And that knowledge could be vitally important to my civilization. We might need… to prepare for their return. ”
   “You’ll die, Borje. No.”
   He smiled and lifted her chin. “Gallant little doe, I must search for this library. I know where you were found, so even without your help I would find it, if it is there. You know this, don’t you?”
   Cedar said nothing. A tear trickled down her cheek to drop into the snow and vanish.

   Cedar walked upslope, hesitantly. She closed her eyes. “I remember smelling something earthy… I think it was… moss? Yes, moss.”
   Loremaster Saba nodded quickly. His huge antlers had dropped, and he looked just a tiny bit less imposing without them. But if they were going to go crawling around in a cave, it was probably just as well. “There would be moss under those oaks; the shade would be heavy there in the summer, and the soil is poor.”
   He walked on beneath the oaks, his two apprentices following and carrying all the gear in heavy packs while Saba himself carried only his scribe and canteen. Cedar smiled to herself; even in a virtual paradise, the truths of graduate school remained true.
   Saba scraped the snow away with his foot-hoof. “Moss. Right. What’s next?”
   “I think moss is the last, or first, thing I remember. There might have been something else, though. It was faint, but a little spicy. Like wintergreen.”
   “I see birch trees over there. Some kinds have bark that smells like wintergreen.”
   Cedar nodded. She walked uphill again. She closed her eyes sniffed, listened, and opened her eyes again. She walked a few steps more and looked off to her left. “There. There, behind those bushes.”
   A dark opening, roughly rectangular and considerably taller than Cedar’s present height, led back into the solid rock of the mountainside. Her heart clenched fear when she saw it.
   “Right,” Saba said. “Cedar and I will go in. You two stay here, and if we’re not back in half an hour, radio for help. Floodlight? Spare? You have two for Cedar, too? Video recorder with lights, scribes… Cedar, you don’t have to do this. You can wait here, too.”
   “I could, but I’m the one who’s been inside. It would be stupid for you to go in without me; I know what that place can do. I know what it feels like. I’m the one who can warn you when your mind starts to go away. I have to come with you.”
   Saba nodded. He looked, for a moment, as if he shared Cedar’s opinion on the wisdom of what he intended to do. Then he took a deep breath, switched on his floodlight, crouched low, and walked into the mountain. Cedar followed.
   They walked onward. Cedar looked back wistfully at the rectangle of light behind; light with the silhouettes of two deer heads, their widespread ears speaking of nervousness. Then the tunnel turned… and the light of freedom vanished from her sight.
   She could feel the weight of the place on her mind before they entered it. And then they were walking into the vast, echoless chamber.
   “North Wind preserve us!” Saba breathed. “It’s magnificent! Get out the extra floodlights. Aim one there. Another there.. I still can’t see the end of it.”
   “I think I can. Loremaster, you’ve proven it’s here; let’s go home now.”
   “In a minute, a minute.” Saba walked to one of the pylons. With the floodlights, the runes didn’t seem to glow, but they still showed perfectly well. The rock looked like it had been engraved, and then the engravings filled perfectly with polished silver.
   Before she could stop him, Soba touched one of the symbols. “Meteorology. Ocean currents, solar fluctuations—so that’s how ice ages are born! And the axial tilt of…”
   “We have to get out, Loremaster.”
   “In a minute. Nothing bad has happened. Meteorology, hurricanes this time…”
   The floodlights were turning yellow, getting dim, going out. Cedar’s heart raced; the capacitors these lights used in place of batteries should hold enough power to keep them lit for weeks! She felt pressure on her mind. She had to tell Saba something, had to tell him… something..? How long had she been standing here? He was over there, far away now, touching a symbol, on his knees. His eyes were blank. A string of spittle hung from the corner of his mouth.
   There was something she had to do. What was it?
   She was going to die. The fear woke her for a moment. Power, she thought, the word oozing through her muddled brain. This, a machine, a living thing, but either way it needs power. Maybe had power source once. None now, so it draws power from what comes. Lights. Electricity. Nerves are electricity. No power.
   Give it power?
The video camera and its lights had the biggest capacitor case of anything she’d seen. Big, heavy. So hard to get the case open, bash with the dead floodlight. All dark now, glow of runes, ghost eyes, vampires sucking life. Bash, bash, pry, cable rip from light bar, shove one end wire here, other here. Nothing. Would it work?
   Cedar shook her head. Shaking, she got to her feet and walked to Loremaster Saba. She helped him up. “We have to get out of here,” he gasped.
   “Tried to tell you, you stubborn buck. I gave it power. We have to get out before it discharges.”
   “What are you talking about, Cedar?”
   “I think this library runs on electrical power. If it can’t get it from our lights, it gets it from our nerves. But I’m giving it another source of power. I wired across the capacitor of the video camera.”
   “You did what?”
   “I wired across—”
They ran, following their noses to the fresh air. They met Saba’s younger and braver apprentice about halfway down the tunnel, but she heard them coming, turned, and ran before them. She leaped out of the tunnel ahead of them. Then Loremaster Saba, then Cedar. Saba hit the ground, rolled on his back, caught her, kept rolling so he half-covered her as something went whummmph far back in the mountain. Dust and shot from the mouth of the tunnel. Somewhere or other, a few small stones rattled down. Smoke billowed out into the sky.
   “The radio doesn’t work, Master,” Saba’s elder apprentice said.
   “I can’t say I’m surprised. Cedar? Cedar, darling? Never, ever wire across a power capacitor.”
   “Loremaster, would you mind getting off my back?”
   “Oh, sorry.” He carefully got to his feet and helped Cedar up. “You were right about how dangerous that place is. Next time we’ll bring a bigger power supply.”
   “What!? You mean there will be a next time? Even after all this?”
   “Of course!”
   “I couldn’t have been so lucky as to have made the place cave in,” Cedar grumped.
   “Of course not. Not even a Class D capacitor explosion would bring down a cavern that large. We’ll bring a bigger power supply. A safety harness, a rope to pull the explorer out if something goes wrong.”
   “Assuming there’s a power supply on the planet big enough to power that… that… thing, whatever it is. Saba, don’t go down there! I won’t. That place will kill you if you keep trying.”
   Loremaster Saba’s ears drooped. “Perhaps you’re right. I’ll think on it, at least, and if we do go again, it will be a World Faculty operation, not mine personally. But… but…”
   “But what?”
   Saba grinned. “I have some fascinating things I need to write, before I forget them.”

   It was almost noon when Ragnar opened the farmhouse door and stepped outside. Spring was in the air; soon the delights of winter, cuddling late with his does, would be replaced by the delights of new greenery, as another season of tending their vines and trees began.
   There was someone sitting on the garden bench. He stopped, he blinked, he ran to her. “Cedar? Cedar?
   She rose and turned to face him, smiling. There was nothing clumsy about her at all now. She wore a harness and carried her kilt slung over her shoulder just like anyone else would; none of that ugly, uncomfortable clothing she had once used, and she didn’t seem embarrassed about her nudity either.
   He’d forgotten how tall she was—fully as tall as he. And her muscles were toned as if she’d been running up and down the mountains all winter. Well, she had been, come to think of it. But in any case, she was magnificent! She took his breath away.
   “Ragnar,” she said, hurrying to meet him, to hug, to lick noses. “I tried not to make any noise; I know how you love sleeping in on these winter mornings. But you have no idea how much I’ve wanted to see you and yours.”
   “So your adventure in Scandinavia is over? My sister complained about that in her latest ’gram, once the radios started working in the village again.”
   “That so-called ‘adventure’ is over for now. I’m not convinced that Loremaster Saba will stay away from that damned place, but at least if he returns, he’ll be prepared. In the meantime, he’s writing like a buck possessed—books on meteorology, geology, and ley lines, though. He says he has to write what he’s learned before he takes any more risks. For all I know, it will take him years.”
   “The equinox is only a week away.” He smiled sadly. “So now I guess it’s time for you to go home. I’m glad, more glad than you can know, that you came to see us first.”
   She smiled at him. There seemed to be a tear in her eye. “I think I have come home, Ragnar.”
   His jaw dropped. “What are you saying?”
   “You know what I was. If, knowing all that, you still—but how could you want—”
   “So invite her into our bed, already!” Kristin shouted, somewhere inside the house.
   Cedar jumped, gave a little shriek, and giggled. “Deer ears,” she said, laughing. “After all this time having them myself, I forgot about the power of deer ears.”
   “You going to invite her in or what?” That was Nanna.
   “Ragnar needs more does anyway. As long as he doesn’t end up like Randy Roes. This is the ballad of Randy Roes / A buck who married four dozen does. / But even the strongest and lustiest buck / Finds four dozen does is a lot—”
   “Hush, Kristen. You’ll shock Cedar.”
   “Not her—not any more, I’d bet. Ragnar, now, his ears go all red inside, and—”
   “Either way, hush. Until she says yes, and it’s too late to escape.”
   Ragnar shook his head. “With those two conspiring against my honor, I seem to have no choice. Cedar of the Herd of Farmer, will you accept a place in our bed?”
   “I thought you’d never ask!” She licked his nose. “With all my heart, I accept.”

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