The Man from the Sky
The curfew bell had sounded long ago, but Ferris was not the sort of man to obey such things, not when he had a stash of freshly dried leaf and a new clay pipe to smoke it in.
Adela saw things differently, of course, as she so often did. The little window clicked open, and she leant out, her shadow looming large across his peaceful refuge. "Please come inside," she urged him. "Didn't you hear the curfew bell ringing?"
"Mmm," Ferris said vaguely, letting his mind drift away on the sea of smoke, not hearing the rest of her words. After a while, he heard the window click shut. He stretched out his toes, pressing his weary back against the wall. The ground was wet from the earlier rain, but his father had placed a stone slab here many years before, "for Sitting On," he had said gravely, as if the words had capital letters, "and don't let any man or woman tell you that such a thing is worthless. A man needs time to Think." He had winked, though, tapping the side of his nose. Thinking, Ferris had noticed at the time, involved flagons of brown liquid and a lot of smoke. His mother, he soon learnt, did not approve of Thinking. Adela didn't, either.
The window opened again. "Ferris! You don't want to get in trouble again. It's not worth it, not for something as silly as this."
He exhaled smoke, pleased with the ring it formed. "My back's against the wall. It hardly counts as being out."
"The Whisperers won't see it that way."
"Whisperers won't come out this far."
"But I worry, Ferris, really I do. It's not worth it, and there's lots to do inside. If only you helped…"
The air was finally cooling after a long day spent out in the fields, struggling to harvest waterlogged crops in the stifling heat. The stars had always refreshed him. A fellow in the ale-house had once told him about a long-dead wise man who had fashioned a far-seeing device of curved glass, and turned it to the stars. "And what did he see?" Ferris had asked, for he had been younger then, and such things had seemed interesting. "They looked just the same as they always look, but bigger," the fellow had laughed, slapping his thigh as if it was a wonderful joke. "Why should they look like anything else?"
"Please come in." Adela leant out of the window. "At least talk to me. I get lonely with only shirts and needles to pass the day. Though Elena came round today, with those little girls of hers trailing at her skirts. She said something – probably shouldn't have – about… No, I can't say it here, out in the dark. Come inside, and--"
"Mmm." Pressing the back of his head against the wall, he looked up at those unfathomable stars.
Harvest had been backbreaking, paid with cheese and whey and ale and just enough beads to keep old Barrack from claiming the cottage that Ferris' grandfather had built with his own hands. The overseers grew louder each year, or perhaps Ferris just grew older and less able to tolerate them. He said little, though. Shouting was a young man's game. Once you reached thirty-five, you knew to keep your head down.
"The factor's coming tomorrow. I've got fifty shirts for him, the seams as neat as you please. That's five bronze beads – enough to hire a cart and go into the city come festival day. It's four years since we did that, and--"
He pulled the pipe from his mouth, and took a large gulp of the watered ale, as foul as one would expect of something brewed in Gaffer Edric's byre. As he did so, something caught his eye. A flare of silver light…
"… and Elena's man knows someone who can…"
There was a noise, too. It started as a high-pitched whine, but it grew lower and louder, reminding him of the steam engine that Barrack had once announced would replace ten labourers, which had proceeded to run lumberingly amok, crushing a dozen silver beads' worth of quorm. They still talked about that in the ale-house, though only when Gaskin had looked right and left and right again, raised his finger to his lips, bolted the doors, and said, "Right, lads, there's no eyes and ears here that we don't want to be here," and everyone relaxed as much as their weary muscles would allow them, and sang and talked in whispers until it was time for curfew and then to sleep.
"…if you're going to resist, at least do it for something that…"
Something blocked out the stars – something harder and sharper than a cloud, and moving far faster. He stood up. The sound grew louder.
"By all the Gods of Stone, Ferris, what's that?"
His pipe cracked in his hands. "Get down," he said, though he had no idea why he said those words – no idea how he knew. He reached behind him through the window, and her hand found his. "Get down!" he said, but by then the sound filled everything, and the dark shape struck the ground away to the right, bounced and scraped across the mud, tore through his chervil patch, and smashed into the low wall that bounded it on the far side, demolishing it completely.
When all was still, Ferris raised his head slowly. Adela's hand gripped his. "What happened?" he heard her saying. "I can't see. I don't want to look. What was it? Ferris, what was it?"
He was covered with splashes of earth, and stinging from falling stones. He pulled his hand from hers and reached blindly for his mug, only to find it toppled on the ground, the ale seeping into the piled earth. "I don't know." At least the pipe still worked, the smoke hot and intense through the sheered-off stem.
The object that had fallen from the sky was almost as long as his garden was wide, with a pointed front and an unpleasant look that reminded him of those bleached and fleshy plants that sucked life from the roots of other plants more honest and virtuous than they were. There was nothing sparkling about it. The Gods of Stone, or so the songs said, had ridden through the sky in gleaming chariots, while their demonic enemies had flown in shards of rocks wrenched from the void deep below the surface of the earth. Not that anyone truly believed such things any more, no matter what songs they sang when the ale was running free. Not in Myr, anyway. Leave that for the strange lot over in Daryen, with all their priests.
"It fell from the sky, Ferris." Adela was standing at the window again, one hand pressed to her face. "Is it… Is it a… thunderbolt?"
A man was supposed to provide answers. Even a field labourer was supposed to know more than his wife, or so the lads in the ale-house said. He was supposed to walk forward with his head high, reassuring the shrinking woman who cowered behind him. "It… It's nothing to worry about." His voice cracked a little. "I'll…"
The object began to crack open like a saya nut, and there was something inside it, there was something inside it, and it moved, it was alive, like the squirming mass of awfulness inside an iridescent shell washed up in the flood.
He heard Adela gasp, her voice right next to his ear, and the stone wall pressed itself hard against his back, and the bowl of the pipe smouldered in the mud, and he blinked, but nothing changed.
The living thing at the heart of the repulsive shell reared up. A pale claw-like hand gripped the edge, and the figure rose higher, then slithered entirely free from its casing, to stand wavering on the ground beside it. It looked round, its eyes like pits in its dark-streaked face. "Huh," it said.
Adela made an answering sound, then Ferris heard the sound of her footsteps bustling away. He was alone with this… this thing, this creature. It was how it should be, of course – husband defending wife, and so on. He was the man of the house. He was the sturdy labourer. He was… And, oh, by the Gods of Stone, he wanted his ale!
The creature moved towards him. It was fashioned like a man, clad in finely-woven black that was torn in places, showing pale and mottled skin. Its steps were shambling, like the creature that dragged itself from the first flood, trailing weed and worse things, death in every one of its webbed footprints. Its hand-like appendage was pressed to its side, and Ferris felt the roughness of stone against his hands and his back, and the warmth of the window at his neck, and a small, crazy part of himself imagined telling the lads about this down at the ale-house, holding court at the centre of a circle of empty tankards, but the rest of him just wanted to plead for his life.
The door opened and closed, and Adela was there, coming to stand by his side – oh, the foolish, stupid, dear woman – and… Oh. Oh! She was pushing past him, moving with that brisk resolve that never boded well for anyone. She softened when she reached the creature, though. "Sit down," she told it. "Sit down before you fall down."
"I don't… obey people… I don't know… as a rule," it said, but perhaps she gave it a shove – Ferris knew that shove well – or perhaps its legs gave way, because it sank down to its knees, and then sideways, sinking slightly into the disturbed mud and the ruined charvil roots.
"Adela," Ferris hissed, clenching and unclenching his fist at his side. "You can't…"
"Blind as well as stupid," she said, quite casually, not looking up from the fallen creature. "He's hurt."
Ferris managed to edge forward; managed to peer around Adela's body to see the creature that lay shivering beneath her hands. It was a man. Gods! Of course it was a man. Ferris raked his spread fingers through his hair. A man! But that meant…
"He must come from Daryen!" He remembered how horrified and disbelieving his father had been when he had first seen an engine powered by steam, and how it had seemed to him as miraculous and terrible as the works of the Gods of Stone themselves. Things that appeared to be marvels were just engines; Ferris knew that now. The scientists and engineers of Daryen must have fashioned a flying machine. There had been rumours that they had been working on such a thing, hadn't there; terrible tales whispered over ale and smoke. This was the first. This was war. Death would rain from the skies ere all this was over. "You have to leave him alone," he said urgently. "If the Whisperers find out…"
"The Whisperers don't come out this far," she threw back at him, and once again, as so often before, he cursed having a wife who was more clever than he was.
"But somebody…" Ferris looked around urgently from side to side. The shadow of the devastated wall was jagged and deep, as if it held watchers. Trees whispered, and light and shade could hold so many things. "Someone will find out," he hissed, "and it'll be the Citadel dungeons for us."
"Enemy or friend, I am not leaving an injured man to suffer," she spat, though he could see her hands, moving gently across the man's body. When she broke off her angry words, he knew that it was to smile at him, at this enemy, kindness and reassurance in her eyes.
She whirled on him, jabbing her blood-stained hand, finger outstretched in denunciation. "You, Ferris Jenkynson, risk the wrath of the Whisperers to get a few selfish moments of smoke and ale after curfew, but run away in fear of them when a man's life is on the line." She didn't even have to say the rest. Coward. It was there in her eyes. Selfish.
He swallowed. "What…?" He forced his feet to move him forward. "What's wrong with him?"
But then they came. The carriage came silently over grass, pulled by two merrilyn. By the time Ferris saw them, it was far too late. It wasn't me! he wanted to protest. I didn't touch him! I told her not to! The words died in his throat. The wall was at his back again, rough stone scraping his palms.
Their gate had collapsed. Barrack strode over the wreckage, flanked by his enforcers. "That man," he said, "is clearly from Daryen. Step away from him now."
Adela did not. Oh, Gods, Adela! "He's hurt," she said.
"It is also after curfew." Barrack's nose wrinkled as if he could smell the ale and the smoke.
The fourth man stepped forward then. He was thin and he had sandy hair, and he was not someone Ferris had ever seen before. "It is understandable," he said, with a thin smile, "that these simple folk would come outside when something as unprecedented as this occurs. After all, we ourselves laid down our forks and our wine glasses and stepped outside when this… contraption passed overhead. You are not in any trouble." His smile did not reach his eyes. "Run along inside, my dear, and let us take care of this."
"He's hurt," Adela said again. Ferris had a sudden memory of the first time he had properly seen her. She had been crouched in the grass, fiercely protecting an injured bird from a crowd of laughing boys, and suddenly the little girl he had known all his life had seemed to him like something magical and wonderful out of song. That was when life had been different, though, before he had realised that the songs were not a promise of how life would be, but merely a way to escape from it.
"He will be taken care of," the man said, still smiling. "After all, it is not possible to question a dead man."
"Question?" Adela echoed. Don't, Ferris thought. Please don't. Just leave it. Please.
"Because he is, of course, an enemy of your king and your country and everything you hold dear." The sandy-haired man's voice was a blade concealed by beautiful silk. "You would not want it to be said that you were in league with Daryen." His eyes widened in innocent horror. "You would not want it said that he entrusted secrets to you before he fell unconscious."
"He… he didn't." Adela sounded scared at last. "He didn't say anything – nothing important, anyway. He was hurt. I didn't know…"
"Let us take him now." There was command in his mild voice.
Adela's hand tightened, then she stood up and backed slowly away. Ferris watched her biting her lip as the injured man was roughly raised and dragged to the carriage. But then his attention was drawn by something else – not the injured man, not his shattered garden, not the familiar cruelty of Barrack's enforcers, but the sandy-haired stranger. The man had moved away and was standing on the far side of the carriage. His back was turned, and he was staring intently at nothing, a faint glow coming from his cupped hands.
"He was a Whisperer." The words escaped him quietly after they had gone; he wanted to raise his hand to his mouth and keep them in, but could not. "A Whisperer. In my charvil patch. A Whisperer. Here."
"You don't understand anything at all!" Adela blazed, as she struck him with the back of her hand, pushed harshly past him, and slammed the bedroom door.
Ferris resigned himself to a night on the settle. He refused to beg Adela to let him in, and had learnt long ago not to command her. Sometimes it was almost restful to sleep beside the hearth. He could rise in the middle of the night and lean out of the window, breathing smoke into the cold darkness, listening to night-time birds and a world that was free. Sometimes he even tiptoed out, savouring the feeling that he was the only person outside within the bounds of the curfew, and shivering a little with the fear that he might not be.
This night, though, he closed the drapes, and huddled on the settle, feeling cold. The Whisperer returned – this he saw through a tiny chink of the curtain – and supervised the removal of the flying machine. It took six merrilyn to haul it onto a wagon, and the teams that worked them were blank-faced and silent. Then the Whisperer seemed to look right at Ferris as he crouched at the window, and Ferris recoiled with a gasp.
When the wagon wheels had faded to silence, perhaps he even dozed a little.
He was woken by a hammering at the door.
He started up, his feet scattering cushions. The Whisperer! You heard stories; of course you did. People who saw things that they shouldn't; people who did things that they shouldn't. They pounced in silence, and they knew all your secrets. Sometimes people disappeared and never came back. Perhaps if he pretended he hadn't heard it. Perhaps if he pretended he wasn't in. But, no, the Whisperer knew he'd been here after curfew. If he vanished now, then that was worse.
The hammering came again. A door opened with a click, and he started, but it was only Adela, clutching a fold of her nightgown at her chest. Ferris looked at her. "I can't…"
"You have to." But she moved to his side; took his hand gently, squeezing it once. It felt too much like a farewell.
His blood pounding in his ears, Ferris moved to the door, feeling like a prisoner going to his execution. The door knob was smooth and familiar in his hand – how many times had he opened the door like this, heading out in the morning to work, or in the evening to the ale house?
The man on the doorstep was on the point of knocking a third time. When the door opened, his fist lunged forward, and he almost stumbled. "What's wrong with shouting out 'I'm coming'?" he demanded, looking irritated. "It's only polite."
It was not the Whisperer. The man who had spoken was a little shorter than Ferris, with the pale softness of a merchant. The tall man beside him looked like a raider from the Marches, and the woman behind them was dressed like a man.
"Where is he?" demanded the merchant, shouldering past Ferris. Ferris moved to object, but his arm was knocked aside by the tall man. The woman flashed a quick smile in Adela's direction, which was perhaps meant to be reassuring, but which entirely failed to reassure.
"I don't know what you mean," Ferris said. "There's no-one here except for me and my wife." He swallowed, and drew himself up. "Leave my house right now."
"Not going to happen," the big man said, folding his arms, "not until you tell us where Sheppard is."
Ferris looked from stranger to stranger, then at the open door, open to the curfewed, forbidden night. He thought of the Whisperer and the wounded enemy. He thought of a world which had once promised much, but whose confines had been growing smaller and smaller with each passing year, retreating into the tiny disc of light that was a tankard of ale at the end of an exhausting day. "I don't know what you mean," he said again, his voice faint.
"Oh, please." The merchant flapped his hand. "We've seen the damage out there. It took us hours to track it down, but this is the place, or I haven't got a genius level IQ, and, well, quite clearly I have. Shattered walls, pulped turnips – what is it with Sheppard and wanton destruction? – and a dart-shaped gouge in the mud. Hours, as I said. Walking. Hiking through… And what sort of landscape do you people have here, anyway? Haven't you heard of irrigation? Crops rotting in the water. I fell into a ditch right up to my waist! Why couldn't he have rematerialised us nearer to the place he decided to crash?"
"Rodney," the woman said, with soft warning in her tone.
"I blame the Wraith," the merchant called Rodney said. Ferris decided that he could not be a very successful merchant, not if he talked like this. "Seriously, who decides to design a space ship you can't see out of? What about a helpful message: Warning! You are about to rematerialise your passengers on the edge of a cliff or up to their necks in water or in any manner of other uncomfortable positions, not to mention fatal ones. It's a ridiculous design flaw. Give me five minutes with a dart and I'd fix that."
"Rodney," the woman said again. She flashed another smile at Adela, but it was strained.
"Of course," Rodney continued, his voice growing higher and his hand movements more jagged, "I don't suppose the Wraith think of them as passengers. They don't really care. But Sheppard… He let us out, so he must have thought…" He looked at Ferris with suddenly-intense eyes. "You're disorientated at first, especially since the last thing you remember is running for your life with bits of cocoon all over your face, but we all saw the dart come down. We know it was here, so spit it out: where is he?"
Ferris was about to speak, but Adela stepped forward. "They said he was a spy and they took him away in a carriage."
"Oh. Oh. This is marvellous." The merchant threw up his hands. "And you didn't stop them?"
"Who's 'they'?" asked the big man.
"Barrack," Adela said. "He's our kingsman." She said nothing about the Whisperer. You hesitated to talk about them to friends, and definitely said nothing about them to strangers.
"Why did they think he was a spy?" the woman asked Adela.
Ferris decided it was time to wrest back the control he had never really had in the first place. "Are you from Daryen?" If they said yes, perhaps he would try to subdue them with a belaying pin.
"Daryen?" The merchant frowned. "Never heard of him. We're from… Well, not from anywhere near here – and that's another thing I need to speak to Sheppard about. This was supposed to be… well, I understand why he didn't dial the alpha site, what with the pursuit, and… well, too close to home… but at least a friendly planet, and last time I checked, planets on our 'friendly planet: won't kill you, at least not much' list weren't full of flooded fields and aggressive sheep and idiot natives who gape at simple questions. He must have misdialled and brought us to this godforsaken hellhole."
"He was hurt," the woman said, "and we were being chased--"
"Yes, yes." Rodney waved his hand again, but his anxious face was quite at odds with his voice. "You'd think there'd be a failsafe for that. One wrong symbol and you're transported away to another crazy adventure – or maybe it was more than one; he really was kind of out of it, and I told him he shouldn't try to fly. It's like phone numbers. A girl gave me her number once – no, don't look like that; it happened. It happened a lot, actually – but when I dialled it I got a Spanish laundry. I assumed she'd written one digit wrong, but which one? Do you know how many permutations there are?"
"McKay," the big man snarled.
"Sorry. Sorry." The merchant clasped his hands together. "I talk when I'm nervous, and almost becoming a Wraith's breakfast tends to make me nervous, as a rule. Being quiet now."
The woman moved to Adela's side. "I apologise for intruding so late at night, but Colonel Sheppard is our friend. I can also assure you that he is not a spy, and that he means no harm to you or your people. Do you know where they took him?"
"To the city," Ferris said. "To Myr. To the Citadel dungeons, more likely than not."
"Oh. Dungeons," Rodney said miserably. "Why can't it even be nice spacious apartments with dancing girls and grapes?"
"Was he --" The woman glanced quickly at her companions "--well?"
Adela bit her lip, then released it. "He was hurt. He was conscious at first, but then he fainted. I tried to treat him, but they came before I could tell how badly he was--"
"Dying, and in a dungeon," Rodney wrung his hands together. "Locked away by idiot clueless natives…" He looked up suddenly. "He didn't make something glow, did he? He just can't stop doing that, even after that regrettable incident with the witch-finder and the Monty Python crowd and the almost certain agonising death."
"Doesn't matter why," the big man growled, his hand going to a thing at his belt. "If they took him…"
"We need to establish why," the woman said, touching his arm. "It is quite probable that he is victim of a misunderstanding. Perhaps they saw the dart and drew the obvious conclusion."
"So all we need to do is explain what really happened, they'll let him out, and we'll all have a drink together and there'll be singing and dancing and…Oh! No!" The merchant snapped his fingers. "What am I thinking? It's us. Of course it's not as simple as that."
The woman's smile was more forced than ever. "Why did they think he was a spy?"
Ferris caught Adela's eye. Are you all right? he asked her, and she nodded slightly, though her face was tight with trouble. "Because he fell from the sky," Ferris told the woman. "Flying machines are impossible, but granda said that about steam engines, and I've seen four of those with my own eyes."
"Impossible?" Rodney squawked. "My God! It really is a primitive backwater. You'll be saying next that the world is flat and you don't believe in life on other planets and that you think that this is all there is."
"Planets?" Ferris repeated, frowning.
"Spare me from such primitives!" Rodney exclaimed. Then he rolled his eyes, and spoke as if to a child: "glowy lights in the sky. Stars. Other worlds. Space ships. Things that go zoom. No, I can't dumb it down that much – I mean, hello, me? Ronon, you tell him."
The big man's hand closed round the thing at his belt. "Where's the ring of the ancestors?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Or you can just cut to the chase and forget about bringing enlightenment to the benighted masses."
"The… ring?" Ferris echoed. Nothing they said made any sense. Other worlds in the sky? They were all clearly crazy, perhaps drunk.
Rodney snorted. "We've found ourselves a simpleton here. We'll ask someone with brains later on." He was speaking to his companions, but he made no attempt to lower his voice. Then he turned back to Ferris, snapping his fingers. "You. Peasant. How do we get to this city of yours?"
"How much of a head start do they have?" the big man demanded. "We can catch them."
"Highway robbery." Rodney swallowed. "That sounds… But we have to get him back." He swallowed again. "What if they arrest us as spies?"
"We avoid them."
Rodney did not look convinced. "We… Oh! Cletus can hide us under his turnips when he delivers them to the city!"
Adela was looking at Ferris sharply, some sort of message in her eyes. Ferris clenched his fist at his side. "I don't go to the city," he said, "except sometimes on festival day."
Rodney looked irritated, as if Ferris had failed him. "Then lend us a cart."
"I don't…" Ferris tightened his fist, remembering the proud freedom of his grandfather, and the stories that were whispered over ale when nobody from outside was listening. "I don't have a cart. Besides, it's forbidden to leave the land we are bound to. The punishment is whipping, and--"
"Oppressed idiot peasants," Rodney sneered. The woman, Ferris saw, was looking at him and Adela with the sort of pity you showed someone you had little respect for. The big man looked contemptuous. "You just tugged your forelock and let them drag Sheppard away, didn't you?"
"It is not fair to ask them to risk punishment." The woman turned to Adela. "If you could show us the way to the city, we would be grateful, but we will not ask for more than that."
Ferris realised that he had been blinking like an idiot for several minutes, watching the impossible unfold. It was time to take a stand. These strangers had barged into his house and were trying to get him implicated in treason. It was intolerable. He stepped forward, folding his arms. "We will do nothing of the sort."
"I could make you," the big man said.
Ferris swallowed, but he remembered his youth, when he had been fearless and the world had been his for the taking. "But I won't help you," he said.
The woman turned to her companions. "The ground is wet. We should be able to follow the tracks of the carriage. There is no need to get these people involved in something that might bring punishment down upon them." The other two opened their mouths to protest, but she looked sternly at them. "Come on. There is no time to lose."
The merchant looked at Ferris with misery and contempt in his face. "If he dies, it's your fault.
The big man looked as if he thought exactly the same, but the woman stopped in the doorway, looked back, and said, "We are anxious about our friend. I apologise for my companions. We will tell nobody that we spoke to you, if that is your wish."
Somehow her kindness was worse. Ferris let out a breath when they had gone. He felt obscurely as if he had failed, even though he had done the only possible thing. He had refused to help people who were enemies of his country. They had tried to confuse him with babbling talk of life in the stars, but he had stood firm. He couldn't leave now because of the curfew, but in the morning, he would report to Barrack and tell him everything.
He locked the door, and leant on it, surprised to find that he was trembling. Adela had walked to the window and had raised a corner of the drapes a fraction, perhaps to watch the spies walking away. She let it fall and turned to face him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes. "You always fight the wrong battles, Ferris," she said quietly.
The coldness of outside lingered, and here was fresh mud on the stone floor. He thought of ale and smoke, his only solace after endless identical days of labour and no hope. He thought his tiny rebellions: sitting in the yard after curfew, or whispering songs in the darkness of a closed ale-house. Then he thought of people with the fire of purpose in their eyes, as they risked punishment and capture to recover their friend. He thought of the crazy, impossible world they had spoken of, where men flew among the stars, and where a life like his was dull and ordinary and insignificant. It couldn't be true. It couldn't be true, but…
"But what are the right ones?" he asked, his hands hanging limp at his side, but he knew. Of course he knew.