On Posthe Tuwa of the Year One in the reign of Argaven XII, Harny Sord of Gernahan gave birth to a pervert.
Harny smiled in happy exhaustion and brought the baby up to breast-feed, not noticing anything strange. But the healer knew the signs and said that the child would be a female pervert. Harny heard it with resignation, as if hearing the news of disfigurement or disease, but did not love the child the less for it.
The infant lived and was healthy, and was named Beshem Sord of Gernahan.
I grew up in the great kitchens, the warmest and innermost part of the Hearth, where both my mother Harny and my mother's kemmering Sommele worked. Even to this day I feel at home when I smell roasting breadapple spiced with kesh, the way we always cooked it in my Hearth.
My childhood was an ordinary one. Our Hearth was not large, but there were twenty or so hearthsibs my own age, and they did not know or care that I would be a pervert. My mother had told me that I was different, but I didn't understand how, and since I would not truly be different until puberty, it didn't matter to me then.
Even though I grew up in the warmest part of the Hearth, I loved to be outside. I would play for hours even in the deepest cold of winter, making tunnels and caves in the snow with my hearthsibs. We would dig open a door to the frigid winds outside, laughing as the cold froze our eyelashes together, and then shut the door closed with a block of snow, and breathe on each other's faces to melt the frost.
Perhaps I could love the cold because I knew I could always return to the warmth.
I learned to read and write with the other children. We all had to read the chronicles of the lords of Gernahan, of course, to know the history of our Domain. But they bored me, with their long-winded tales of the feuds with the Reka lords to the north, and the tales of who had sworn kemmering with whom, and been betrayed. I was a child and did not know my own shadow yet, let alone that of the lords of my Domain.
My mother Harny and Sommele had sworn kemmering when they were young, and still kept it. Sommele had borne one child who was now ten years older than I, but there were too many years between us for us to be close. But I had a cousin named Loshte, whose mother was Harny's mothersib Meban, and whom I loved and looked up to very much. Loshte was five years older than I and would always look out for me, keeping me out of harm's way in the kitchen before I was old enough to know that the fire was hot and knives were sharp.
When I was eleven years old my mother Harny and Meban took Loshte and me traveling to visit our grandmother, who lived clear across the Domain, five days' travel on foot. I looked forward to this journey as soon as my mother told me we would go. I pestered Harny with questions: what would the journey be like? where would we stay? would I meet more Sord cousins? Harny, laughing, told me that I would have to wait and see.
We made offerings to the hearth-gods before leaving, for our safe return. Our Hearth kept some of the Handdara festivals, mostly because any opportunity to celebrate is a good one, especially in winter. But we trusted the old hearth-gods for the things that were important: the crops, the safe birth of children, the keeping of our ancestors in death. We gave, and they would give in return.
We set out in early Irrem. Winter was turning into spring, and it was a good time to travel--late enough that the snow was vellenam, but before the spring melts made the roads impassable. I was old enough to pull my own sledge, even if it was a small one, and was immensely proud of it. My mother and Meban taught Loshte and me the ways of traveling in winter, and although we stayed as guests each night in a new hearth, we still brought with us a tent and sleeping bags and a Chabe stove, in case we should be caught out in a blizzard. Loshte and I practiced putting up the tent each day, and I pretended we were brave explorers on the Kerm Ice.
Our Hearth was in the hilly country north of the Plains of Rer, and we were traveling southwards. When we came to the Hearth where my mother and Meban had been born, I could make out the plain stretching white as far as the eye could see, and even imagined I could see the towers of Rer, although of course I couldn't.
My mother's mother was imposing, tall and running a little to fat, and with an air of worldliness and authority, meeting Harny and Meban with warmth and outstretched hands and extending the same gesture to Loshte and me. This was before my grandmother knew that I was a pervert.
I clasped my grandmother's hands and wondered at how different this Hearth was from mine. It was much bigger and, being closer to the Plains, saw more traffic and trade. My grandmother worked at a plastics manufacturing plant and was one of the senior engineers there.
We were to stay for a halfmonth, intending to go back before the weather broke and before the long wet dreary beginning of spring, when everything melts and runs to slush and mud.
It was halfway through our visit when I overheard a conversation between my mother and my grandmother. I was going to the kitchen to get a drink of water before going to bed.
"Something can be done about perversion, you know," my grandmother said. I stopped in my tracks and stayed outside the door.
"Don't tell me you're talking about those drugs," my mother said, voice a little tight. I was old enough to recognize it as anger that Grandmother was giving advice, as if my mother were still a child.
"It works well in most cases," Grandmother went on, slow but overbearing. "They're still sterile, of course, that can't be helped. But they can have a normal kemmer cycle like everyone else."
There was a banging noise, like someone setting down a mug in anger. "I will not let anyone stick needles into my child. And who knows what else it would do? Keep your shadow to yourself."
I heard the scraping of a chair being quickly pushed back, and ran back towards the room where Loshte and I slept, not wanting my mother to know I had heard. Needles? Stuck inside of me? I didn't know what it meant, but it took on a horrible nightmare quality in my mind. I shivered and crept into Loshte's bed to sleep there, not saying why.
My mother cut our visit short, and we returned to our Hearth early.
When I was thirteen, my body began to change. Some of my hearthsibs had already had their first kemmer, but the changes in my body were different. My breasts ached and grew larger, like a pregnant person's. My hips grew wider, and my clitopenis, which had been very small to begin with, was now hidden among the folds between my legs. I had wild swings in mood and felt like nobody in the world understood me. I often went out into the gardens to be alone, tending the breadapples in some out-of-the-way place on the terraced hills.
To be sure, I was not alone in being moody--those of my hearthsibs who were coming into kemmer for the first time didn't seem like their old selves, either. Our old childhood camaraderie was changing into something else.
Worst of all, I felt a vague sense of shame in the changes, and began wearing bulky clothes, to try to hide my jutting unnatural breasts.
There was one other pervert in our Hearth: old Pobel, who kept the kemmerhouse. He was a male pervert, and we sibs had always been a little leery of him. It hung out all the time, one of us would whisper in a horrified voice, and then go on with stories of what supposedly went on at the kemmerhouse, even if they hadn't been there yet. I would always stay silent during these discussions.
It was a long time before I went into the kemmerhouse for the first time--my mother said it was because they couldn't be sure I was ready the same way they could with a normal child. When I finally was sent off, with the same ceremony of celebration that everyone had, I was rather nervous about it. But it was all right, after all.
I strongly suspect Ollen, one of the junior cooks who was in kemmer when I went in, had been asked to look after me, because she stayed by my side through much of it. She was in kemmer as a woman, and gave me the first orgasm I had ever had at someone else's hands.
I say the first at someone else's hands, because it wasn't the first orgasm I had had. I had discovered about half a year before my first time at the kemmerhouse that I could give myself pleasure with my own fingers. I knew it wasn't something other people did. I knew it was because I was a pervert. But it felt so good that I couldn't help doing it.
Still, I was very curious about the kemmerhouse, and especially curious about the people I saw who were in kemmer as men--the thing I would never have, never be. Their bodies seemed strange to me, and yet so fascinating. Their penises were right out there, just hanging out, like my hearthsibs had used to say. Old Pobel, by the way, I never even saw naked--he tended the fires and saw to it that there was plenty to eat and drink. Perhaps he was too old to be in kemmer any more, even if he was a pervert.
The first time I had someone's penis inside me was with Vether, whom I knew a little from working in the gardens. He was very gentle with me, because he knew it was my first time in the kemmerhouse, and Ollen was still beside me, murmuring advice and kissing my nipples, my neck. It hurt a little, and I didn't come from it, but then I had come quite recently before that. And it did feel good, though strange.
I only stayed in the kemmerhouse for two days, and came out tired, pleasantly sore, and with my curiosity satisfied. I didn't seem to feel the same urgency as everyone else, though I did enjoy it. Perhaps being in kemmer all the time meant it was spread out over the whole month, and so not as strong?
I was sixteen when I fell in love for the first time. Amner was a friend of Loshte, a few years older than I was, and a little shorter, with a graceful way of moving that entranced me, hair sleek and black, fingers strong and slim, and a broad and playful smile. I dreamed about Amner, about us touching, kissing, doing everything together that I had ever done with anyone in the kemmerhouse.
I burned with it, and I thought, so this is what it's like to always be in kemmer.
I suffered in silence, of course. People did not feel such things outside the kemmerhouse. But when Amner went into kemmer I knew I could follow. I didn't do it the first day. The second day came, and I didn't do it then either. And then the days passed and Amner came out again, looking tired and sated and so very beautiful. I cursed my hesitation.
The next month I did go in. It had been some time since I had been in the kemmerhouse, and the warm steamy air felt like a caress against my bare skin, tightening my nipples. I saw Ollen, and he waved at me, in kemmer as a man this time. But I only wanted to find Amner, and my heart pounded with longing and trepidation. I found her half-asleep and naked on one of the many beds, and her nut-brown skin looked soft and smooth in the dim light. She was in kemmer as a woman, and it suited her.
She opened her eyes, and I started a little away from her--she had caught me staring. But she only smiled, her eyes still half-closed, and lifted one of her legs in lazy invitation. I stood there, until she murmured, "What are you waiting for?" and I went to her.
I knelt in front of her, followed her thighs inward until I came to the warm wet place between her legs, and I did everything that I had dreamed of with her. I was filled with an urgency I had never known with anyone else, and as her fingers made me come, I clung to her and kissed her, wanting this moment to never end.
But it did end, of course. I remember the time it truly ended, and it was not that night in the kemmerhouse after Amner left the bed and went to one of the baths. I lived it in my mind in the days after that, the sweet foolish dreams of a youngster, believing my true love and I would swear kemmer forever.
It ended in an overheard conversation: Amner was talking to Rathel, one of the older hearthsibs.
"You did it with the pervert?" Rathel was saying, laughing, with a tone that was half curiosity, half disdain.
"I did," Amner said. I wished I could have seen Amner's face at that moment, but I felt frozen in place, and I couldn't bear the thought of Amner seeing me.
"What was she like?" Rathel asked.
"Oh, you know--perverts are always in kemmer. They do it with anyone, any time. They don't care who."
"So, was it good?"
Amner laughed a little. "Not bad. But I just wanted to try it, you know? To see what they're like."
I fled, shame burning in my belly. At first I felt only the pain when my love for Amner shattered and died, but then my pride reared up, too. Amner had talked as if I wasn't even a person, not worth considering. I might not cast a long shadow, but at least I had one.
Loshte saw that I was upset, but I couldn't bear to explain why. Amner was one of Loshte's friends, and in my heart I could not forgive that. Loshte had always protected me, and now I was on my own. This was the first time that I hadn't shared my joys and sorrows with my cousin, and this was painful, too.
I don't know what I would have done, other than try to avoid Amner indefinitely and nurse my pain and anger in privacy, but a traveler came to our Hearth a week later, and that changed the course of my life.
It was a Handdara Indweller traveling to a Fastness near Rer, old and wizened as a dried breadfruit but with keen dark eyes. The Indweller was received with the hospitality we extended to every traveler, of course, with hot orsh to drink and food to eat, and a bed to sleep in. There seemed to be a pool of stillness and peace around this person even among the crowd of talking, eating people, and I was curious, but did not know how to approach.
But then the Indweller smiled at me, the skin around the eyes rearranging into a maze of wrinkles, and went to sit down on the opposite stool at the table. "I am Beshem Sord of Gernahan," I said.
"Sertho," the Indweller said, giving only a first name. "This is very good soup," Sertho said, giving me that smile again.
"Thank you. I'll tell the cooks you said so," I said. I sat a little hunched over, as I usually did when I met strangers--I didn't want to draw attention to my breasts. But I had heard things about the Handdara, that there were perverts among them. I wanted very much to know if this was true.
"Is it true that the Handdara have a place for perverts?" I blurted out, then bit my lip nervously.
"Everyone is welcome at the Fastnesses," Sertho said mildly. "Do you mean in the Foretelling circles?"
"Maybe," I said, knowing almost nothing about it, but not wanting to admit to that. "I've heard it, anyway."
"It is true that there is a pervert in every Foretelling circle. We have a circle at our Fastness, but I have never been part of it myself," Sertho said.
"Oh," I said, wanting all of a sudden to leave this place where people despised me (where Amner despised me), and go someplace where I would mean something, where I could fit in.
Sertho left the next day, but I could not stop thinking about the new vistas unfolding in my mind, the new unknown places I could find. And what did I have in my native Hearth? I had a great deal, of course, but at the time I didn't see it that way. I was still burning with shame and anger over the things Amner had said, and I felt as if everyone I knew might think of me that same way.
A halfmonth later, I went to my mother and said I wanted to leave.
"Leave?" Harny said, looking alarmed. I did not think my mother, who only wanted to live a quiet, happy life in an out-of-the-way place, was likely to understand me. "I suppose I could find you a place with my mother, if you--"
"No, I don't want," I said hastily. I remembered having bad dreams about needles for months after I had visited my grandmother. "I want to go to a Handdara Fastness."
"A Fastness?" my mother said, surprised again.
"Yes," I said firmly.
I was not a child any more, and my mother and Sommele let me go. I am sure they worried for me, but going to a Fastness was not the typical path a rash youngster seeking to cast a long shadow might take, and so they worried less than they might have if I had gone to Erhenrang or Rer. As it happened, I did go to Otherhord Fastness which lay close to Rer, but I hardly entered the city.
Saying farewell to Loshte was harder. I was painfully aware of the matter of Amner, which still lay between us, and tears ran down my face when I clasped Loshte's arms for the last time. Loshte cried, too, and asked me to write.
So it was that in the summer of my seventeenth year I set off towards the plains of Rer.
It was a good time for traveling. I was young and strong and hardly felt the pack on my back, which was anyway light, for I had brought only the barest necessities. Each turn of the path brought me some new sight, and each evening I slept at a new hearth. It's true that I could not hide that I was a pervert, but the customs of hospitality are strong, and no one was ill-bred enough to remark on it. Some people may have assumed that I was a normal person in kemmer, although I never visited a kemmerhouse.
I arrived at Otherhord Fastness a few weeks later. My first impression of the place was a disappointment. I had pictured a vast and impressive building, such as I had heard described of some fastnesses that were high in the mountains. But I saw only small houses scattered among gardens and hemmen woodlands, and perfectly ordinary people walking among them.
Someone who looked to be five or ten years older than I noticed me, and came towards me. "Welcome to Otherhord. Is there anyone you seek? Or do you wish to stay for a while?"
"Yes," I said. "I mean, I met a--that is, I want to know more about the Handdara." I felt foolish, and it made me stammer.
"Most of us wish the opposite," the stranger said cryptically and smiled. I bristled, thinking I was being laughed at. "I am Tov."
"I am Beshem Sord of Gernahan," I said in return.
"If you want to stay for a while, I will find you a dwelling-place." Tov led me to a house with four alcoves, set apart by drapes from each other to afford a little privacy. In two of the alcoves there were clothes and other possessions, the other two were empty. "We all share in the chores. Do you have some particular preference or talent?"
"I'm a good cook," I said, not meaning to brag. It was true--I had been learning to cook in the kitchens of my Hearth before I left. "I know something of gardening, too."
"Those are valuable talents indeed," Tov said solemnly, and I wondered again whether I was being mocked.
I spent the rest of that day learning the paths and ways of Otherhord. I helped in the kitchens and did some weeding in the garden near my house. The other occupants of the house were a child and parent, who were there to ask a question of the Foretellers. I was curious about what the question might be, but did not dream of asking.
"Have you found a place for yourself?" Tov asked me the next day.
"What do people do here?" I asked, for most people seemed to be doing everyday tasks, or talking in little groups. The only thing I had seen out of the ordinary was someone standing absolutely still under a tree, not moving in the five minutes I watched. "I thought the Handdarata did great feats of strength, and told the future."
You have to understand that I knew very little of Handdara philosophy then. There is ignorance and there is ignorance, and mine was the kind that demands answers and will not be patient.
Tov was silent a little while, then said, "What do we do? We try not to do."
I frowned. "That makes no sense."
"Perhaps not," Tov said peaceably.
This placidity frustrated me. Also, I found Tov attractive, and that frustrated me, too, because no normal person would think that way in somer. Tov had dark eyes, a full mouth, a flat chest. Tov was in somer, and entirely normal. I hunched my shoulders to try to hide my breasts. I felt clumsy, young, and shaped the wrong way.
Amner's voice in my head said: They do it with anyone, any time.
Well, I wouldn't, I swore to myself. I'd stay away from the kemmerhouse if it killed me. I was not going to be formed by my perversion.
"I've only been here for three years," Tov said. "There are better teachers than I am. Come to the upper meadow tonight--there will be a gathering."
I went to the gathering. There was singing, a strange kind that I had never heard before, except in much simpler form in one of the festivals that my Hearth celebrated. Some people were dancing to it, too. Each part of the harmony seemed easy, but the way they fitted together was not. It was both repetitive and varied. I tried to hum a part of it to myself, but I have never had any talent for music, and I didn't dare to raise my voice.
Tov waved to me, standing with a group of older people. I saw that one of them was Sertho, who had stayed at my Hearth. I did not expect to be recognized--it had only been a short conversation, several half-months ago--but Sertho's face broke into that wrinkled smile.
"Beshem! So you have come." I blushed with pleasure to hear Sertho remember my name.
"Yes," I said, and then my mouth was stopped with shyness.
"Tov tells me you wish to stay here a while."
"Come by this place tomorrow afternoon if you want. We will be practicing Presence."
After a morning spent chopping vegetables for soup in the kitchen, I went to the meadow. Sertho and some others were there, among them Tov. They were standing motionless like the person I had seen the first day.
Sertho came out of it, like a tree slowly coming to life, when I approached. "What are you doing?" I asked.
"We call it the un-trance. It is an awareness of everything around us: sound, sight, smell, the feel of the grass underneath our feet. Presence."
I tried it. The wind sushed through the hemmen-trees. A cloud passed in front of the sun, darkening the meadow. The sun came out again. A bite-fly landed on my hand, and I swatted it away. Then I looked guiltily around, but no one reproached me.
My thoughts wandered, first to my Hearth back home, then to wondering what time dinner would be ready. I brought them back again and again to the meadow around me, but they strayed again. I was frustrated, but thought I should stay still like the others.
Finally Sertho came out of it again. "How do you find it?"
"I, well--" I said, not wanting to say that I had failed at whatever it was I was supposed to do.
Sertho smiled. "Nusuth. It takes time."
I tried to practice it each day after that, but didn't find it easy, and never understood the elusive sense of Presence that I was to find. I did find something else at Otherhord, though: the library.
It may seem strange that a philosophy so focused on unlearning should encourage a library, but the Handdarata thrive on such seeming contradictions. It was not a large one compared to the great Library in Rer, though it seemed so to me when I compared it to the few books and sound-tapes we had kept at my Hearth. Mostly it was composed of things people had given or loaned or left behind at the Fastness, so it was an odd mixture. There were the books of Handdarata writers, of course, but also history, science, and old hearth-tales.
I had never had any particular love of reading before--perhaps because it had been forced upon me during my schooling--but I caught sight of a sound-tape in the library that held an account of Kame Thormal rem ir Gan's famous crossing of the Kerm Ice. I snatched it up, and listened to it while I harvested and hoed the garden. The reader's voice swept me up in the account, although it might have been dry to some--a simple journal, with daily notes on weather, snow-conditions, distances traveled. But there were glimpses of something else as well, something that captured my imagination and made me almost forget where I was. When the beans were all harvested, I wished there were more.
Forgetting my surroundings was not exactly Presence, and I almost expected to be rebuked when one of the Handdara saw me listening while I walked around the Fastness. But Sertho only smiled and said that sometimes one had to learn first in order to un-learn.
I listened to other tapes, as well, and tried to read the Handdarata writers. But I found it hard going. The words were beautiful, but trying to puzzle out the sense of them was like trying to walk across ithen ice without metal-spiked boots--you found your feet slipping out from under you.
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
To me, death was something to be avoided--it was the opposite of life. How could they be the same thing?
Summer was drawing to a close, and the first snow fell, turning the ground white and the leaves brittle. It soon thawed again, but it was a reminder: winter would soon be here.
One day Tov told me there would be a Foretelling done within a few days. The parent and child I shared a dwelling with had waited patiently at Otherhord until the time was right to answer their question.
"Can I see it?" I was intensely curious about the Foretelling.
"I will ask," Tov told me.
A day before the Foretelling, the pervert who would take part in the circle arrived. He was a tall man, perhaps thirty years old, and I watched him out of the corner of my eye in the dining hall. To my surprise, he came right up and sat down opposite me.
"So you're the young pervert I heard about who's staying at the Fastness. Curious about the Foretelling, are you?"
"I--yes," I said.
"I am Retha Melleras of Aleb," he said. "I live in Rer."
"Beshem Sord of Gernahan," I said.
"Gernahan--that's up in the hills, isn't it? Out in the countryside?"
"Yes," I said, bristling a little at the condescension I thought I heard in his voice.
He touched my arm and smiled. "Don't be upset. I was merely asking."
I drew back a little. Were people so familiar in the city?
"I'm born and bred in the city," he said. "It's easier, you know, to be a pervert there. There are more of us, and we can stay together. There's an island in the west part of the city, far from the shadow of the Un-Palace, where I live. You're welcome to visit, if you like."
I had only heard of islands, but I knew what they were--like Hearths, but in the city, and not with the same ties of custom and kinship. An island with only perverts? I had never imagined such a thing. If they were all like this Retha, who would touch a stranger he had only just met, I wasn't sure I wanted to visit.
"But you wanted to know about the Foretelling." He leaned toward me, his forearms on the table. "It's disorienting, but it's the most intense experience have ever had." He added, "Barring none," and winked at me.
I was given permission to attend the Foretelling from a distance. It was held in the big stone house I later learned was the winter-dwelling of Otherhord. It was, as Retha had said, intense. Part of it may have been the darkness, the lit fire, the long sleepless vigil through the night, the tense faces of the circle. But I also felt...something in that room, which I can't put into words. It disturbed me.
It began with the asking of the question. The parent and child, holding hands, went into the center of the circle. The parent, whose name was Kard, said in a clear voice: "Is my kemmering Hette Forval of Spreve alive at this moment?"
Oh. I heard the great sadness and pain in that voice, and wondered what their story was. I would likely never know.
"It is answerable," the Weaver said after what felt like a long while.
I don't remember much detail about that night. That I felt anything from the circle at all surprised me--I had been told that the wait would likely be dull for me, but that was not the case. Perhaps it was because I am a pervert.
It was a dark, terrifying, churning mass of emotions, like a nightmare in which one is aware that one dreams, but cannot wake up. It was insanity. Worst of all, it stirred me sexually, though I fought against it with all my might.
Sertho sat beside me, and at one point I found myself lying down with my head in Sertho's lap, being stroked softly across my shoulders. It soothed me, as if I were a child.
"Yes!" the Weaver finally cried in a hoarse voice. "Yes!"
Kard drew in a breath and said, low and fervent, "Thank you."
It was over.
Retha came over to me, but I curled up and turned my face into Sertho's lap, and he went away. I did not mind Sertho's touch as I had Retha's.
"Are you all right?" Sertho said gently.
I drew in a ragged breath and sat up, pulling back and trying to find myself again. "Yes. Thank you for letting me witness. Thank you. But I don't think I want to do it again."
"It is not an easy thing, the Foretelling," Sertho replied.
Winter came, and everyone at Otherhord left the summer dwellings, which were now cold and drafty and would soon be entirely snowed over, and moved into the large winter dwelling. Otherhord was not a large Fastness, and some people left with the summer, but even so, we were all living closer to each other than I was accustomed to at my home hearth. I spent much of my time in the kitchen helping to cook.
Grende and Thern passed, and then we were into Thanern, and in the grip of the deep cold. I felt restless and prickly among all the people, and often volunteered when there was a need for someone to travel up to Spreve, the nearest town, for supplies of some kind. Though we sometimes had deliveries of goods by powersledge, the Fastness had no such means of transport of its own, and we had to pull the sledge ourselves.
The way to Spreve was mostly uphill, a circumstance which I blessed every time I went, since it meant that the return with a loaded sledge would be downhill. Of course, I did not go on my own--it was safer not be alone in wintertime--but I still enjoyed the quiet, the exertion, and pulling silently side by side with a partner.
When I was indoors, I tried to read more of the Handdara writings and discussed them with Tov. I found myself being contrary.
"Why is it better not to do things?" I said. I liked doing things, getting things done.
"You don't have to read it so literally," Tov said.
"No? Why don't people just say what they mean, then?"
"Nusuth. Perhaps they did say what they meant. 'To do without doing.' That doesn't mean nothing gets done."
I admit that I wanted to get Tov riled up, and sometimes I managed it. Sertho, who unlike Tov was an Adept, was never ruffled by my questions, but only murmured, "Ignorance is the ground of thought." It sounded like praise, and I never understood that.
When the snow began to grow benest and spring grew near, my restlessness grew. I wanted away from here. The Handdara wasn't for me; I didn't understand the things everyone else here understood, least of all the dreadful Foretelling which had originally drawn me to this place.
I suppose I could have gone back to my family and the Hearth where I had been born, but I didn't. Perhaps I didn't want to admit to failure, or perhaps my wanderlust had awakened. I asked Tov if I could find work on a caravan or something like it, so I could travel. Tov didn't know, but had a hearthsib in Rer who was in that trade, and before the spring made travel impossible, I went to Rer.
I found the city rather overwhelming. Among the relative heat of the hundreds of hearths and islands, the spring melt had begun early, and people made their way in little boats on the water between the buildings. I found my way to Tov's hearthsib Feneth, who said that finding work would be no problem, even though I could not drive--there was always a need for loaders and people to keep track of cargo and provisions. I spoke with the foreman of Feneth's caravan and received an advance on my wages, so that I could stay at an island while we waited for the roads to become passable.
I kept to myself during that time, enjoying the privacy of my own room. Sometimes I explored the city, or tried foreign food. Once I thought of Retha's invitation to his island, where only perverts lived, but I never sought it out--Retha's overly familiar ways had set me on edge. Also, he had seemed to enjoy the Foretelling that still gave me nightmares sometimes.
On Berny Tuwa, the foreman of my caravan sent to tell me that I was needed, and I made my way by the wet and barely passable roads to the caravan camp outside Rer. No motorized transport of any kind was permitted inside the city itself--it was not built for that, being many thousands of years old.
The foreman, whose name was Lekan, told me, "Welcome to the caravan. Go to the third land-car, and help Feneth and the others to load it--Feneth knows how to stow things."
I did so. The camp was a bustle of cargo being stowed, and purposeful people striding across it, giving orders or lending a hand. It was very different from Otherhord. I liked it.
Feneth was tall, with an unruly thatch of dark hair. We two and several others got the third land-car partly loaded that day. I got a few sideways glances from the others, but no one said anything about working with a pervert. The next day, though, Feneth had gone into kemmer, and naturally had a few days off.
Lekan called me in and asked me, "Can you write and do sums well?"
I said that I could. I had never had a great enjoyment of either, but never any difficulty with it, either.
"Then keep a record of how the cargo in your car is packed, and how much of it there is. Feneth will help you cross-check it later."
"I'm glad you took that off my hands," Feneth said with a smile a few days later, still in a good mood from the kemmer-house. "I hate doing sums."
A halfmonth later, everything was packed and we waited only for the mud on the road down to the river to settle. We would put the cars on barges for the first part of the way. The caravan was headed northeast, up towards the Pering Storm-border and then sweeping westward to return to Rer another way, and we were loaded with goods such as radios, power tools, polyskin fabrics, and crockery.
When we finally set off, I felt it was an adventure, but it soon settled down into routine and daily work. The plains passed leisurely by on the barges, and then when we were on the road, the hills and countryside did likewise. Feneth was main driver on our car, switching off with Meste, another worker, to allow for rest. There wasn't a lot for me to do except when we stopped to trade, when there was a flurry of activity to find the desired goods in the packed cars. I was glad I had done careful work on the inventory.
I don't know if it was because I was new, or because I was a pervert, but I was never quite a part of the camaraderie of the workers. I was not the only new one, so I think it was my perversion. Not that anyone said anything about it outright, but there was a different tone, a different body language, when the others spoke to me. But Feneth seemed truly friendly to me, and I blessed Tov for directing me to this caravan.
On the other hand, I did not feel that sense of expectation that I had at Otherhord: the sense that there was something everyone around me understood, and I didn't understand it. It was a relief to be free of that, and it was a relief to have honest work that I understood.
We were now well north of my native Hearth, winding our way along valley roads with snow still on the highest of the hills around us. It was in the evening and we had all eaten. I often cooked, and I was just turning over the pots and pans to someone else to wash up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I spun around in surprise. It was Meste, the second driver.
"You want to, then?" he whispered, voice husky. For he was in kemmer, and by the signs of it already into thokemmer.
His hand groped at my breast. In pure surprise I thrust him from me, but he followed after, the need strong in him. The other worker, who had the dirty pans, glanced at us and then left.
"No," I said. It would have been a lie if I said I never had sexual thoughts and needs out on this journey, but I satisfied them quietly in my blankets at night, with my own hands. I certainly had never had such thoughts about Meste, and didn't have them now.
But he wouldn't take no for an answer, and came after me. "No!" I cried again, louder, and people came to see what the noise was about. Then someone was holding Meste back by the arms, saying, "What's this, then?"
"She won't--why won't she?" Meste was saying. "She's a pervert, they're supposed to always want it--"
Feneth was there, saying, "I think Janun over in the first car is coming into kemmer, let's get him over there."
They did. Feneth came back, later. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," I said, a little shaken.
"I'm sorry. Meste should have told people earlier, before he got that far along. Or we should have noticed." The crew was large enough that there were usually at least two people in kemmer at the same time. It wasn't ideal, but people made the best of it.
"I'm all right," I said. "Thanks for the help."
Meste apologized to me later. I accepted, although I wondered if Feneth had told Meste to do it. I wondered what the other workers thought about it--did everyone expect me to be available the way Meste had? No, that was unfair, since no one else had approached me. Of course, that might just be because they didn't want to have sex with a pervert.
Aside from that incident, things continued in their routine way. We reached the northernmost point of our route, where thore-trees grew small and stunted and I almost imagined I could see the Ice to the north of us, although we never got that far, of course. Then we turned west and south, following the Kellyn valley. I began thinking about what I would do when we got back to Rer and the summer was over.
One day after the evening meal Feneth approached me. "I have a question for you."
"Yes?" I said, curious.
"Most people on the caravan go back to their homes when the tour is over--it's mostly a seasonal job. But I usually work as a courier through the winter."
"What do you transport?"
"Letters and other mail, mostly. But also medicines, and urgently needed spare parts for machinery. There's a guild that keeps track of the transports that need doing."
I listened, wondering where this was going. Feneth went on: "My courier partner for the last few winters is pregnant now and staying home, and I'm looking for someone new. Would you be interested?"
"I might," I said cautiously, although I already felt that I was. "What transport do you use?"
"Powersledge," Feneth said. "We try to keep to the schedules of the road-packers mostly, to have good driving conditions. But it's winter--there's always a risk. I won't hide that from you. We could start with short tours, so you could learn."
I thought of my sledge-trips from the Fastness to Spreve. This would be on powersledge, true, but it still appealed to me. And I liked Feneth.
"Yes," I said, making the decision. "I would be glad to join you."
By the time the caravan reached Rer again, the first snow had fallen. Winter was early this year, and we had passed fields and gardens where people hurried to get the last of the crops in before the deep frost set in. Feneth and I stayed at the island kept by the courier guild in Rer.
I spent some time writing a letter home. I had written before, brief notes to let them know I was well, but I had enough distance to them and my Hearth by now to write more fully, and I told them of the caravan and the job I was taking on now. It felt as if years had passed since I had left home. A letter had lain waiting for me, sent on by Tov from Otherhord: Loshte was pregnant, and was to have a child in two month's time. It felt strange to think of it. The reason perverts are sometimes called half-dead (although only in whispered insults, of course) is not that we ourselves are somehow dead, but that we are dead-end branches on the family tree. I would never have a child myself, not by getting one and not by bearing it. I had accepted that, so much so that the thought of Loshte having one felt strange, too.
On Odsordny Thern, Feneth and I set off on our first journey. It was short, a day's travel east and then back again the next day, and Feneth spent an hour before we set out to show me the workings of the powersledge.
Powersledges are squat, heavy little machines with a low center of gravity that are easy to drive. They run on a broad track and have a small cabin with space for two people, enclosed against the weather. At the back one can attach a cargo sled.
"Be careful to keep on the packed road," Feneth said as I drove. "If we get into deep bessa snow and get overturned, it can be hard work to right it again."
That first journey passed with no incident, and we took on a longer one next time, at my urging, going across the plain and partway up the Kellyn valley with mail. It was the end of Thern by now, and I found that driving a power-sledge is cold work. The motor generates some warmth, but one other hand one is sitting still, not pulling the sledge oneself. We took turns driving, and stopped every hour to stretch our legs and to move around.
"When it gets colder, we sit in the sleeping bags," Feneth told me.
I knew by now that Feneth and I pulled well in harness. Feneth was easy-going and dependable, but not talkative, which suited me well. I liked to have space for my own thoughts, and to watch the slowly changing lines of the landscape as the powersledge crept along.
At one time I was navigating a slope, humming tunelessly to myself while I concentrated.
"You're Handdara, then?" Feneth asked me. "I know you stayed in the Fastness with Tov."
I had been humming one of the Handdara songs, I realized. I had heard it so many times at the Fastness that it had stuck in my head. Life and death define each other; heat and cold shape each other.
"Not really," I said. "No."
Feneth didn't ask more. And truly, I didn't know what I believed any longer. As long as I lived in my native Hearth, I had put my trust in the hearth-gods of Gernahan, but I had left Gernahan behind. I didn't think the hearth-gods would watch over those who had left them.
After that run, we stayed in Rer a while on account of Feneth's kemmer, and then set out again down to the coast, a long drive, but easy. It was the first time I was there, and I disliked the wet, heavy, salt-mixed weather of the sea. The moisture in the air made it feel colder than the thermometer showed, and I was glad to leave it again.
About halfway into the drive back, the wind rose during Third Hour of the day. "We'll have to stop soon," Feneth said, squinting into the windshield. "It's hard to see the road in this driving snow."
"Let me check the weather report," I said, turning the radio up so that we could hear it over the wind. "Are we near any Hearths?"
"No. This part of the plains is fenlands--it's a river delta in summer. No farming here."
So we would sleep in the tent, then, and by the weather report there seemed to be a storm coming. We had a tent in the sledge, of course, along with heavy duty sleeping bags, rations to last us a month, a Chabe stove, and everything else one might need to survive. One does not take chances in winter.
We stopped and got the tent set up, anchoring it deep in the snow, while the wind tried to snatch it away from us. Then we settled in for the night, hoping the wind would have died down in the morning.
It had not. The storm had all the wide plains of Rer to gather force and sweep down towards the sea, and it took full advantage of all that open space. This was the first real storm of the winter, and there was nothing for us to do but to wait it out. We drowsed, cooked our meals, sometimes played games. I listened to some soundtapes I had brought, turning the volume up to drown out the wind.
Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between sleeping and waking, especially in the night, when one was always kept half-awake by the wind anyway. My thoughts wandered and took strange paths. "...to do without doing..." I heard Tov's voice say, and I smiled. The Handdarata certainly could not complain that I was doing too much now.
When I had relieved myself that morning outside the tent (still full storm, and I had to crouch low so as not to fall), I came back inside to find Feneth turned away from me against the tent wall.
"Breakfast?" I asked.
"Mmm." It was almost a moan, and I looked at him in surprise.
"Are you ill?"
"No." Feneth's voice sounded different. Deeper, and more hoarse. I wondered for a moment if it wasn't illness after all, but then I realized what it must be. Had it really been that long? I counted the days, and it had.
"I'm sorry," Feneth said.
"Not your fault. It's all right."
"I'll keep to myself." Feneth turned to the wall again.
But Feneth was no Handdara Celibate, trained to abstain, and I could tell it was hard on him. I say him, for he was in male kemmer, no doubt influenced by my presence. I got him to eat a little about midday, and when I saw the way he looked, hungering for something other than food, I felt compassion for him. In some ways perhaps it was easier to be a pervert, after all, to feel a little of it all the time and not all of it at once.
I hesitated, then I reached out for him. It was something he needed and something I could give. He did not ask it of me, and that made it easier. It was the first time I had had sex with anyone since I left my home, and it felt strange to let Feneth this close to me, past the limits of social distance between us.
To be honest, it was not very good sex, partly because of the cold--it was hard to to arrange the sleeping bags to cover us both. Feneth was urgent with the need of kemmer, but was still trying to hold himself back, and I felt awkward.
But he slept afterward, and looking at his relaxed face in the light of the stove, I didn't regret it.
It was strange--I didn't want Feneth in that way, but being touched by someone like this still wakened desires in me. My body was still hungry for it, even if I had decided I didn't want it, but I could deal with that by myself. I wondered if other perverts used their own hands to get satisfaction, like I did. Certainly I'd never heard of ordinary people doing it.
The storm abated before Feneth's kemmer was over, but he insisted we leave anyway. I drove, and he sat beside me in the small cabin of the powersledge, looking away from me and out the window.
I did like silence, but this was too much of it. Besides, there was a small gnawing doubt in my belly: what if he felt disgusted that he had had sex with a pervert? I didn't think so--Feneth was my friend and partner, and he'd never seemed to mind my perversion. But there was that small worm of doubt.
He cleared his throat. "Yes."
"Are you all right?"
He nodded, and I didn't say anything more.
We spent that evening in the tent again, not having reached a hearth that day either. Feneth seemed to be out of kemmer from what I could tell, and we set up the camp silently.
After dinner, Feneth finally spoke. "I'm sorry."
I looked up. "For what?"
"That you--that you had to--"
"I didn't have to," I said. Then I remembered Meste trying to force himself on me, and thought I saw what Feneth meant. "It's all right. You didn't make me do it. I offered."
"Thank you." Feneth hesitated, then said, "You were never with anyone on the caravan, that I knew of. I don't know what it's like for--for perverts."
"I don't know either," I said.
The next day passed easier between us, and we did not speak of it again.
We stayed in Rer a halfmonth after that, and then took on another journey, a long one up toward the Pering Storm-border, the same way we had gone with the caravan. We drove in easy stages at first, keeping just behind the road-packer, and made sure to plan a stop at one of the larger Hearths for Feneth's kemmer.
We were welcomed, and even anticipated, at every place we stopped, since we brought mail and other urgent cargo. To Seggel we brought febrifuge drugs, since they had an outbreak of the winter-fever, but we made sure to keep to the guest rooms.
But by the time we reached Gelm, Feneth was coughing and felt hot to the touch, and stayed in the cabin while I went to the Hearth.
"I am Sabe Lom of Gelm," said the person at the door where I knocked. "Are you the courier? Do you have mail for us? Come in out of the cold."
"I'm Beshem Sord of Gernahan. We do have your mail, but my partner caught the winter-fever in Seggel, so keep your distance."
"We had it a month ago, and Seggel caught it from us," Sabe said. "Go and bring your partner in--there's no need to worry about us catching it."
I brought Feneth in, already so weak that I had to lend support. "No--you'll catch it--" Feneth said when I came near.
"I had it three years ago," I said. "Don't worry."
We got Feneth bedded down in a guest bed, and I delivered the mail. The next morning Feneth was worse, and Gelm's healer administered drugs to bring the fever down, but said that Feneth would not be fit to travel for at least a halfmonth, probably more. I expected that, remembering how weak and delirious I had been when I had it.
We had only one more stop left, going up to Nostem before we turned around and went back the same way, there being no short alternative route back to Rer. I could save us a lot of time if I went on to Nostem on my own, and when I came back, Feneth would be ready to go on.
It was a foolhardy idea, and I think I knew it even then--there was a reason why we traveled as partners, and besides, I was less experienced than Feneth. But I was young, and like all young people I thought myself invulnerable.
I am not sure Feneth understood me through the delirium, but I left a note to explain, and the healer promised to care for Feneth. Then I set off the next morning. It was a four-day drive to Nostem, and no settlements in between that I knew of. Those four days passed without difficulty. The weather was clear and sunny, though quite cold, and I carefully observed every rule of safety that Feneth had taught me. The road wound through a valley which was steep along one side, and the road kept to the gentler slope on the other side, no doubt to avoid the avalanches I could see tracks of on the steep slope.
Without Feneth there, I might have felt lonely, but I never did. I had the radio on sometimes, but more often I just watched the road and the valley and the shifting shadows on the slopes. I only realized later how much I was insulated by the cabin of my powersledge and by the steady hum of its engine.
I delivered the mail and other cargo in Nostem and stayed the night, then left again the next morning.
That evening, I overturned the sledge.
To be fair, it could have happened to anyone. The road was marked by red poles along one side, but drifting snow had obscured the edges of it, and I had simply wandered too far out to the edge without noticing. Suddenly the world tipped to one side and there I lay. I hit my elbow on the wheel as I fell, swearing.
It was as if life had set out to teach me a lesson: if Feneth had been with me, we could have righted it again, and I could not do it alone. I set up camp and then spent most of the next day trying, and didn't suceed. I tried brute strength, I tried digging out the snow underneath it so that it would tip more easily, but it just settled down further.
At the evening of that day I stared at the squat grey heavy lump that refused to move and cried in frustration. Why had I been so foolish? Feneth would--I didn't know what Feneth would say.
The sweat on my body cooled and the sun went down. I suddenly felt the cold, and shivered. I was alone. I was alone in winter, days from any human being.
I had optimistically taken down the tent this morning in the belief that I would succeed with the powersledge, but now I set it up again and got the stove going. I should have fallen asleep easily after all the exertion, but instead I lay awake, considering what I should do. I could wait here, hoping someone would pass by. But the road-packer had just passed through, and there was no guarantee of any other traffic that I knew of. No, I would have to set out on my own--there were skis and other supplies in the cargo sledge. I could go back to Nostem, since it was after all closer than Gelm. But then I would have to find help and bring them back here before I could leave. It would be better to head directly to Gelm, even if it was three times as far--Feneth would worry, and I had no radio transmitter, only a receiver.
Having decided this, I finally fell asleep.
The next morning, I took skis and poles, the emergency sledge, tent, sleeping bag, food and Chabe stove and set off. I was stiff from the unusual exertion of the previous day, but soon warmed up. There was a high translucent haze in the sky, the kind that often gives sun-halos, and a mild breeze.
My mood rose, and I began to feel that it was a bit of an adventure after all. The load was not heavy, and I made good time on the packed surface of the road. I estimated that I could make in two days the distance that the powersledge made in one day, which would make six days to Gelm.
In the afternoon, the road made a long curve westward, and I stood indecisive, looking at the smooth snow enclosed in the curve. There was a little dip in the middle, but otherwise it just looked like a field of snow. I shrugged and set out across it--there was no reason not to take a short-cut when I could.
I sank down a little more in the unpacked snow, but I was aiming slightly downhill to meet the road again on the other side, so it didn't slow me much.
I still remember the moment when the snow gave way beneath me. It was like solid ground itself cracking open, like firm conviction revealed as falsehood.
The snow cracked, fell down into ice and into swiftly flowing water. I lost my balance, caught myself with the poles against more snow. It gave way. I struggled, breath harsh in my throat, my heart pounding in panic. Icy water filled my boots, coated my legs. I don't remember the details of how I got out of there, but I remember grasping at the sled, which mercifully did not fall through. I crawled back on my belly the way I had come.
I could hardly feel my feet, and I knew that I must have warmth or I would lose my toes soon. Quickly as I could, I got the tent out and set it up. My mittens were wet, too, and my fingers were stiff and without feeling when I finally lit the Chabe stove with shaking hands. I stripped out of my wet things--mercifully my upper body had not gotten wet--and turned the stove to its highest setting. My teeth chattered, and my body shook uncontrollably.
I could get myself warm again now, and did so over the next few hours. I was lucky not to lose any toes, although I have never had proper feeling in my big toes since. But the real problem was my wet clothes.
The tent was filled with steam now, and I knew that as soon as I opened the tent, the steam would freeze. I took stock: my windproof outer pants would dry quickly, the thick soft inner ones not so quickly. But I had a spare pair of those, so I bundled up the wet ones and got them out of the tent. Even that brief puff of cold air felt chilling. I took the inner boots out of the outer pair, wrung out what water I could outside the tent, then set them by the stove to dry.
Even while I was busy with the practical business of surviving, I felt myself different from the person who had confidently set out this morning. If the water had been deeper, the current swifter, I could have been dead by now. The surface of my world had cracked.
Life and death define each other.
It was dark by now, and I sat there alone in the tent, in the heart of winter, only kept alive by the warmth of the stove.
I spent a damp and uncomfortable night, half asleep, half dreaming. By morning, my windproof pants were reasonably dry, but my inner boots were not. I shook my head--they would freeze on my feet.
So I waited another day and another night, drowsing most of the time, with the stove set on high to drive out the damp as best I could. I thought of Feneth, waiting for me at Gelm. Was Feneth angry? Disappointed? Worried?
I shivered, pulling the damp sleeping bag closer. I thought of playing in the snow outside my Hearth as a child, and coming in to the warm kitchen that smelled of baked breadapple. I thought of Loshte, and of Loshte's child, which must be born by now, and I wondered what its name was. If I had died here, I would never have seen it. I thought of Sertho's wrinkled smile, and the way Sertho had stroked my hair and soothed me at the Foretelling. But I had to leave, didn't I? I didn't fit in at the Fastness.
Ignorance is the ground of thought.
Ignorance had led me to that treacherous stream, ignorance and folly. I would never trust a smooth field of snow the same way again.
The next morning I set out, although my inner boots were still not completely dry, and it made for cold feet. Despite this, it was good to be moving again. I followed my own tracks back, through the wide expanse of snow unmarked by any feet but mine.
I reached the packed road again and set off on the longer but safer route. I was fairly sure there must be a bridge somewhere under the snow at the furthest end of the curve, but in my agitation, I had forgotten to bring the maps from the cabin of the powersledge. This was a grave mistake. But the road was marked, after all, and I would not lose my way if I kept to it.
My legs found a rhythm and kept to it, and my arms and my breathing found it, too. The harness of my sledge pulled steadily at me, and I leaned into the work. I did not think of much--I only moved, the only moving figure in a world of vast brilliant white.
In the evening, the sun set in a blaze of gold and pink behind the mountains. I set up camp and peeled off the scarf in front of my mouth and nose, stiff with frozen breath. My sleeping bag was still damp and cold, so I turned the stove up high again. I tugged off my boots and got the inner boots out with difficulty, for they had frozen to the outer boots. I found that I had blisters on both heels, no doubt from the damp boots, although I hadn't felt it during the day. Luckily I had brought the medical kit, so I could disinfect and tape the blisters. I hoped it would be enough.
I drank hot orsh and ate hungrily of the emergency rations, then went to bed. It was still damp and uncomfortable in the tent, but I was tired and slept deeply nevertheless.
I was stiff in the morning when I started out, and the blisters pained me, but after a while I found my rhythm again. It wasn't that I lacked awareness of the pain, or of the cold, but neither did I close myself off from it. Rather, I just kept moving, and I felt myself as being a part of the movement, as being in the moment.
It struck me suddenly when I stopped to eat in the middle of the day: was this what Sertho had meant by Presence?
I sat still, feeling the sharp cold breath in my lungs, still coming a little quickly. I saw the glitter of sun on snow, spreading out before me all the length of the valley, folds upon folds of hills fading into the blue distance. I felt the dull ache of my feet, pulsing with the beat of my heart. I felt the taste of orsh in my mouth. I felt all of it at once, and at the root of it there was a deep joy.
"I didn't know," I whispered, then, "I don't know." It was the first words I had uttered in days. It was an admission of ignorance.
The cold began to gnaw at my toes, and I set off again.
The next day a wind blew steadily from the south, not a storm by any means, but enough to make sledging an effort. I pulled the hood with its lining of peshtry-fur close around my face and put my back into it. I grew sweaty with the work, but could only stop for brief moments to eat before the wind chilled me again.
I was grateful to lie down that night, although I wished that I could get rid of the chilling damp that still lingered in my every garment. But it seemed an impossible fantasy that anything could ever be completely dry again.
Before I fell asleep, I whispered to myself, as if trying out the words,
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
It seemed to me that these words had lain like a seed inside my mind, planted last summer, and only now blossomed into something that touched me. I could not have put my understanding into words, because I felt it as an emotional truth rather than an intellectual one. Perhaps it was because I was balanced so keenly between life and death, warmth and cold.
On the eighth evening after I left the powersledge, I saw the lights of Gelm shine in the distance. I looked at the lights as if they were interlopers from another world, as if I had already accepted that my sledging would go on forever, and was surprised that it wouldn't. Should I go on tonight? But no--it was late, and I didn't know how long a distance it would be. Lights could be deceptive.
So I set up camp. For the first time in several days, I let myself think about what Feneth would say. What if I had lost Feneth's trust by rushing off on my own? The thought chilled me like ice water. I hadn't known how much our partnership was worth to me until I knew I might lose it. But I could do nothing about it tonight, and I made myself go to bed, although I didn't sleep well.
It took me half of the next day to reach Gelm, so I was glad I hadn't attempted it last night. I climbed the last bit of the way--Gelm was up on the hillside, no doubt to avoid the spring floods--and rapped on a door.
It opened, and I was invited in. "I'm Beshem Sord of Gernahan," I said. "I left here some time ago to go to Nostem with the mail, but I had some trouble on the way back. Is Feneth still here?"
Feneth was, and came quickly. "Beshem! Are you well?"
"Yes," I said, pulling off my mittens. "I--I've been very foolish."
"I was afraid you might be dead," Feneth said in a low voice.
"I got to Nostem all right, but then I overturned the powersledge on the way back," I said. "I couldn't right it again, so I took the emergency gear and skied instead." It seemed strange that my journey could be described in so few words.
I bit my chapped lip, then said again. "It was foolish to go on my own. I know it."
"It was," Feneth said, with a keen glance at me as if wondering if I was telling the whole story. "I did something like it myself once. It's strange--no matter how many times people tell you something is dangerous, it doesn't sink in until you have to face the consequences yourself."
I wondered what it was that Feneth had done, but didn't ask.
It felt strange to have a roof over my head again, but I was grateful. I washed and dressed in borrowed clothes, warm and dry, and slept that night in a bed.
Feneth and I waited in Gelm until we could get a ride north with the next road-packer to come through, and by rigging cables to the road-packer, we got the powersledge righted with little trouble.
"You'd better drive," I said.
Feneth laughed. "So it can be my fault if the sledge overturns again?"
But the road was newly packed, and our journey south passed with no trouble, picking up south-bound mail on our way to Rer.
The next day, I sent a letter to Sertho at Otherhord, saying,
I have learned from winter what I never learned at the Fastness. I will see you in the summer.
I never did become an Indweller at the Fastness, though I spent much time there. I was still too fond of doing for that, although it seemed to me that pulling a sledge was not a bad example of doing without doing.
Feneth and I pulled in harness several more winters, working as couriers together, until the winter when I made my first journey on the Kerm Ice. But that is a story for another day.