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Freedom Is Standing in the Light

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A tree cracked the pavement where the cobbles met the
wall and grew up as tall as a man. To the man who
watched from the deep window or the arched doorway
across the alley, it seemed to happen apart from the
ebb and flow of Arketh traffic, outside time.

One day there was nothing but the whitewashed wall,
scarred by overburdened carts and stick-wielding boys,
then the young tree stood man high, swinging its green
and silver leaves, throwing its graceful shadow over
the plaster and the cobbles.

The watcher had no illusions. When a club was needed,
or a fire, the living tree would be slain; yet it was
the tree in the alley he watched, not the plantings in
his water garden.

He had chosen his house because of its location in the
alley. The hillmen took this narrow way from the north
gate to the free quarter of the city. Any free man was
wise to do so. Kahnsmen policed lesser forms of life
from the wide ways the nobles took. So all the
travelers from the steppes passed this door, marching
south for adventure, selling their daughters into
slavery, bringing their beasts and barter and stories.

It was the stories he bought, paying round silver coins
for tales of the wild clans who lived up on the edge of
the world. During the day a succession of small boys
had cried his need to the passing crowds, pointing to
the large, pointed ear drawn on his wall. At night he
visited the inns, ignoring the drinks he ordered to
listen to travelers' tales as if he believed them.

He was accounted rich without belonging to any clan. No
one knew who his people were. Some said Southron; some
said he flew in over the ice and was looking for a way
back. several times he had made up parties of hillmen
to guide him on the Edge, and once he had forced them
to take him clear to the ice, losing half the guides
and all the animals, but he paid the clans well, and as
the years passed he was accepted. It was a saying in
the marketplace that a man might grow ears as long as
he liked if he grew his purse longer.

This night the sun set in bloom of sulphur and brass.
The sky faded to a red-brown dusk as the first wind
blew the fine, fine dust in from the desert. When the
light was gone and the traffic with it, he left off
watching the tree and went to prepare his meal. He had
no servant to intrude on his solitude. He closed the
door to the house, but left the gate open that lead
from the alley to the garden.

Water was wealth in these lowlands. He would not hoard
it. Many hillmen, descending the stone passes and
canyons from the Edge where water was free, would have
suffered want of it but for that unlocked gate. At
first the lowlanders had stolen from him -- a little,
not enough to make him move -- but he had ignored them.
Now there was less of it.

When he had eaten it was still too early to go out. As
the silt sifted down underfoot the air cleared, and he
waited in the garden, watching the stars brighten the
dark. Arketh was a moonless world, far out at the tip
of one spiral arm of the galaxy. Its dark sky was only
sparsely spangled with stars, so the central knot of
brilliance that filled one quarter of the dome drew the
eye to its magnificence. That blaze was the heart of
the galaxy, and beyond it, obscured by the glory, was
the other arm, where his homeworld circled its sun.

The watcher's face was lean and dark, without much
expression. When he heard the uneven rush of running
feet and tattered figure skidded through the gate, he
turned to face the intruder without alarm. A long
knife leveled at his chest he ignored. The runner was a
youth, scarcely more than a boy, dressed in the long
woolen shirt of the hillmen. The belt at his waist held
an assortment of gear and weapons. His brown legs were
bare to the knee where his soft boots tied. His long
hair was light, his eyes green or amber, bright with
total concentration and with pain. The snapped-off
shaft of a throwing stick protruded from the back of
his thigh and hampered his stride. Blood ran down his
leg into his fur-lined boot. Other running feet
clattered over the cobbles -- the hard-shod feet of
city dwellers.

"In there," said the watcher, with a slight inclination
of his head toward the arched entry to the house.

The runner hesitated, the knife still poised for
action; then he jumped for shelter as his pursuers ran
past the door, checked, and doubled back. Five of them
spilled into the garden, giving tongue all at once,
like a pack of hounds that tolerate each other for the
sake of the prey.

They were sons of the city's lesser nobility by the
clothes they wore, too young to be Kahnsmen yet, but
eager to grow into it. Each of them had a weapon
pointed at the watcher.

The leader silenced them with a snarl. "A running man,
where is he?"

Dark eyes studied each face in turn, seeming not se the
threat. Finally the watcher shrugged.

"You must have lost him. No one but you is here
uninvited. Search if you wish."

His indifference daunted them. They had no authority.

The leader's voice cracked in indignation as he
replied. "Be glad this one isn't. He's killed three
Kahnsmen. He'd as soon cut your throat as give you good
evening."

The watcher made no reply, and one of the pack plucked
at the leader's arm.

"He wouldn't go to ground right here in Spenarr; let's
watch the gate."

With an insolent nod and no apology for their
intrusion, the leader consented. The watcher followed
them and, for the first time in many years, closed the
iron gate and barred it. Then he returned to the pool
and stood watching the small life there until all sound
had died away. Gossamer fins fanned the water;
languorous weeds swayed on the surface.

End part 1

"You can come out," he said at last. "They have gone."

The boy came limping out, his weapon still in his hand,
but under the watcher's dark eye, it wavered and fell.
With a sigh, he sheathed it again. His breath was still
coming fast; his bare chest, where the shirt fell open
to his waist, rose and fell in a slowing rhythm. Even
wounded, he moved with assurance. Powerful shoulders
balanced the long legs, but he was still growing. His
hands were a little too big for him yet -- square, the
hands of a doer. He rubbed his forehead with the back
of his wrist and offered a left-handed apology.

"I didn't mean to bring them down on you. I'll go now."

"You are welcome to stay."

"You'd be a fool to let me. What he said was true. I
might cut your throat, and the Kahnsmen certainly would
if they knew you'd sheltered me." The hot, light eyes
brooked no compromise with truth, but the lips were
thinned to a bitter line.

"If you do not tell them," the watcher said, "I will
not."

The boy looked a little startled. He frowned, but
before he could speak again, the watcher went on.

"How were you wounded?"

"Breaking out of the slave pits. My father told me
never to turn my back on a dead man unless I'd cut his
throat myself."

"Your father is a warrior?"

The boy's face closed again, controlling emotion. "Was.
He's dead."

"A great loss to his people." It was the ritual phrase
of condolence, but the boy refused it, lifting his chin
a little.

"No. He was a clanless man. As I am."

On Arketh that was damning. Loss of clan affiliation
was a death sentence on the Edge -- worse because the
clanless man died in two worlds at once, flesh and
spirit. He had no name to survive him in the realms of
the dead. The boy's control as he spoke showed what the
loss meant to him, but the mane of bright hair shaken
back, the level stare, warned that there would be no
pity asked or accepted.

"And I," said the watcher quietly. "You wound needs
care. Will you trust my skill?"

The feral stare faded, and abruptly the boy relaxed and
grinned. "I'd be glad of help. It burns like fire."

Without comment, the watcher led the way to the kitchen
and silently offered fruit, cheese and bread. The boy
wolfed the food and watched with interest as his host
lit the lamps and put two kettles on the fire, one with
knives, tongs and needles in it. His chewing slowed as
he watched the preparation and at last he shoved the
food away.

"I hope I don't lose it when you cut me. It's the first
time I've had enough to eat in a week. You must be rich
to have a house this big. Don't you have any servants?"

"No."

The boy's quick eye inventoried the wealth of pots and
food in the room. Ignoring his wound and a tendency of
his leg to drag, he got up and made a circuit. Most of
the utensils would be strange to him, but the frown
lines between his brows seemed to reflect some deeper
worry. Restlessly he swung around and studied the
watcher.

"A clanless man, but rich. No friend of the Kahn's,
since you put that pack off my trail, yet you're free.
Why aren't you working in a quarry with your wealth in
his coffers?"

"He does not know where my treasure is hidden. If he
kills me he will not find it. The hare may dine with
the hound if he brings the bone. On the Edge, money
would not buy equal safety."

"No," said the boy. "We don't enslave stranger; we kill
them, but you'd be free while you lived. Cities stink.
My father warned me to stay out of them."

"What does a clanless man do with freedom?"

The boy acknowledged the hit with a deprecating smile,
but his eyes focused on the middle distance as he
looked into some interior landscape.

"He stands in the light, as long as he can."

They were quiet then, until the watcher pulled the
simmering pots off the fire and put them on the wide
table. The boy helped clear the remains of the meal,
then eased himself up onto the dark wood and stretched
out, belly down, pillowing his head in his arms. The
watcher hung a lamp on a long cord from a beam over the
table and wrung out a steaming rag with his strong
hands.

"First I must clean the wound."

"You sound like my father. Clean the dishes, wash
yourself, pick up this pigpen." There was no real
resentment in his tone.

The watcher made no answer, but set about his task with
a light, firm touch. The throwing stick had entered the
thigh from above, striking down into the tendons at the
back of the knee. The skin had been torn -- probably
when the boy broke off the hampering shaft. The boy lay
still, but the racing beat of his heart had started the
bleeding again, and the rhythmic tremors of pain or
chill tensed the muscles in his leg as the blood was
wiped away.

When the wound was clean, the watcher brought a length
of cloth and slid it under the boy's thigh above the
wound. He knotted it tightly, and almost in the same
motion reached up to the angle of the boy's neck and
shoulder. At his touch, the tense form slumped into
unconsciousness.

Working swiftly now, the watcher cut deep into the
flesh, following the shaft of the stick to find the
barbed p9oint. It was lodged against the bone and
slippery in his fingers, but he freed it, rotated it to
bring the bards up through the incision, and had it
out. Dark blood trembled and welled from the wound, but
there was no bright arterial gush. He had fashioned the
curved needles himself, and now he painstakingly sewed
the wound shut with thin strips of gut -- muscle, fat,
and finally the skin. He made a neat job of it, like a
man who has learned to rely on his own handiwork. He
was wrapping the leg in clean cloth when the boy came
swearing and panting back into consciousness.

"I fainted! But it's not so bad now, just aches like
the devil. Did you put tar on it?"

"Tar?" An incredulous eyebrow climbed the watcher's
forehead.

"Clan Davin's healer packs a wound with tar to stop the
bleeding."

"Indeed. I used no tar. Nonetheless, the bleeding has
stopped. Tell me how to reach your friends."

The boy raised himself on an elbow and shook his hair
back to look up at his host with narrowed eyes. He was
sweating and pale, closer to shock than the watcher
liked, and refusing to acknowledge his weakness.

"I have no friends. Clan Davin might do me a service,
if I asked. Why?"

"You do not wish to stay in the city."

"Oh. No. But they wouldn't trust you . . ." He ran a
hand over his eyes, obviously trying to clear his mind
and come up with a solution to the problem. He had the
air of being used to solving them.

"You could leave a message at The Hanged Man. Show the
barkeep this . . ." He fumbled at his neck, pulled
something dangling on a thong over his head with an
effort. The supporting elbow trembled. In the very act
of holding out the object he dropped it and slumped
over the edge of the table. Quick hands caught him. As
if it was no burden to his strength, the watcher lifted
the limp form and carried it through a curtain in to a
room where a narrow bed and a low brazier were the only
furniture. The room was warm, a concession to the
second wind which would blow chill off the Edge as the
night turned toward morning. The watcher knelt,
stretched the boy on the bed and pulled a rough woolen
blanket snug under his chin.

The young face was strong, full of impetuous life even
in unconsciousness. The lips were even and firm. Long
straight lashed cast a ragged shadow on the pale cheek.
The closed eyes had been large and full of light, set
deep under the sandy brows. The small human ears were
round as seashells. The watcher reached out one lean
hand and touched a bruise that stained the cheekbone.
The hand hesitated, then reluctantly withdrew. No.
Generations of ancestors who had respected the privacy
of the mind forbade it. He had broken enough laws.

He rose and returned to the kitchen, removed the traces
of his surgery, then found the talisman where it had
fallen under the table. He held it in the light. It was
bone, cut from the horn of some large animal with a
loop of wire. He could see the mark of the cutting on
the back side, almost like a fingerprint.

He turned it over. There was carving on the front, but
no the usual loops and swirls of Arketh art. This was
an abstract design. Nine lines of varying lengths
sprang from a central circle. The design was poorly
balanced. Some of the lines were much longer than
others, and yet the length did not increase in even
intervals. Some of the lines terminated in dots, and
one had a line across it. He ran his thumb over the
surface. The work had the look of deliberation. The
bone was polished and scraped, the fine lines even. He
considered it again.

Nine lines springing from a circle, arranged in order
of length. The third line had one dot, the fourth two,
the fifth four, the sixth was crossed by a line.

Calculations progressed below the level of conscious
thought as the watcher stood very still in the dark
room, his thumb stroking the design . . . the diagram.
One sun, nine planets. The third has one satellite, the
sixth is known for its rings. A diagram of Earth's
solar system carved for the clanless son of a clanless
man. The watcher's face showed nothing. His thumb
circled the design. Thirty years of search, thirty
years of waiting and watching. One wild boy whose
father was dead.

The effort it took to realize the two facts disoriented
him, like the growth of the tree. Over him rushed a
river of time, and it was the same river that washed
other shores less durable. A tree can grow up in a
night. A son can grow into manhood. The meaning of it
eluded him, but his hand closed over the talisman, and
the slow surge of his own blood sounded in his ears. He
had stopped breathing. The room rocked around him . . .
but no. Not yet. Air slid back into his lungs. There
was still work to do. Feeling could come after.

Forgetting the cloak that hung by the door, the watcher
let himself out into the night, locking the gate behind
him as if it guarded the one thing of value in the
world.

end part 2

It was near morning when the boy awoke. The second wind
was dying. Across the room the dark man sat against the
wall, his eyes gleaming out of shadow. The look was so
intense that the boy thought it must have worried him
in his sleep, yet the man's words, when he spoke, were
quiet.

"The men of Clan Davin will bring a cart for you soon.
They will take you out of the city. Many were concerned
for you."

"For Sarveth. They are glad to have him out of the
slave pit today. In a year they will have forgotten."
The boy's tone was bitter.

"You do not value friendship?" The deep voice was not
pressing, and the boy responded to the detached
interest in the tone.

"I want no man's friendship. Believing in it killed my
father."

"Then I will not insult you with the offer of what you
do not want."

Quick color flushed the boy's face, and his arrogant
tone faltered. "I didn't mean -- you have been more
than kind to me, sir -- "

Amusement warmed the deep voice momentarily. "No
apology is necessary. Like you, I believe friendship a
hazardous venture. And my cooking may also be one, but
you should eat, and I have made what I think is a stew.
Will you try it?"

"I can't repay you for any of this," the boy said
ungraciously.

"I collect stories. You can tell me the tale of a
clanless man who died because he believed in friendship
-- after you have eaten."

"And if I survive," suggested the boy.

"That, too."

The boy ate almost enough to satisfy his host, then
handed the bowl back.

"That was good, better than my story, I'm afraid."

"Why?"

The boy's face sobered, and he picked at the hem of his
blanket as he answered.

"My father was a liar or a fool. What story is there in
that?"

"You are not a liar, so I think he was not. Did you
really think him a fool?"

"Not while he lived. He made it seem real. He said he
came from beyond the ice, from a clan no one had heard
of. He refused clan standing time and again. Even after
my mother went to him, he wouldn't bend. He said it was
against his law."

"Must it be a lie because it did not suit you?"

"No. But the friends he expected never came for him."

"Perhaps they did. Perhaps they could not find him, one
man alone on the Edge. Perhaps they had to look in
secret." The watcher's voice was low.

"Secret. That's what he always said. It was their law
to keep secret. What law is worth a man's whole life?
He was a great warrior. He could have been the leader
of a clan, but he would not take a name. So I have
none."

"You do not know what he had before. Perhaps . . .
perhaps it was enough to justify the price." The
watcher's dark face was lowered, his eyes hooded. The
boy stared at him with lion-colored eyes.

"Not to me. If his friends came to me now and offered
gold enough to walk on, I would spurn them. They caused
his death."

"How did they do that?"

"He was always looking for someone, expecting someone.
When he heard of a stranger, he would travel many days
to see the man's face. Word came of such a one captured
by Kahnsmen traveling north. He went after them. I
wasn't with him. He was getting old. They . . ." He
cleared his throat and forced it out. "They put a spear
in his gut. The stranger was too cowed to help him.
They left him to die. He was gone when we found him,
and my mother lay down beside him and gave up her life
from grief. I have sent that coward after him into
hell, and five Kahnsmen dogs to follow him. I need no
friends."

The watcher let the silence stretch. "Yet you risked
the slave pits to free the son of Clan Davin's chief."

"Not for friendship, but to pay a debt. He helped me
trail my father's killers. And if they ask me to join
them, I will."

The boy looked toward the window, a gray square in the
darker wall. He shook the hair back off his forehead
and breathed the air off the Edge like a wild horse
scenting water.

"Cities and crowds are not for me with their stale air,
stale laws. If I shed blood again, it will be for a
clanbrother who must aid me when I am in need."

"Isn't that friendship?"

"All men know what one clanbrother owes the other. If
he fails, all men will know it and he will lose his
name. It is *that* he protects. Friendship . . ." the
boy's face twisted with pain. "Friendship is more than
that. In all the years they didn't come, he never
blamed them."

The boy stretched, impatient, a little embarrassed at
revealing so much.

"A poor story, sir. I should have told you about the
three-year winter, or fighting the worm from the ice,
or how he rode an ice-floe into the camp of Clan Innon,
but you have heard of that, surely?"

"Traveler's tales -- many of a fair-haired outlaw, but
none that gave him a name or a place. None told how he
died . . ." the watcher's voice faltered, ". . . or if
he was happy."

The boy's keen gaze raked the tall figure, but for once
the dark eyes were bend on the floor, as if the watcher
felt he had asked an embarrassing question. The boy
felt a chill that was not the wind off the Edge. The
leather thong of his talisman hung down from between
the watcher's clasped hands. He was gripping it until
his knuckles showed white.

"He died fighting . . . and I think he was happy, most
of the time. He didn't grieve, but sometimes he would
watch the stars, just stand there and watch them, as
you did in the garden . . . ." From a throat suddenly
gone dry, the boy asked, "*How long have you been
asking travelers for these tales*?"

The watcher rose and went to the window, looked out,
far past the walled garden into which it gave. He said,
"Thirty years," as if it were nothing, a day, a week,
the time it takes a tree to grow.

"For him?" It was an incredulous whisper.

"No," said the watcher, like a man who discovers a
truth he has hidden, even from himself. "Not for him.
For myself."

Tears rose in the boy's eyes. "If he could have lived
one year more, could have known . . . You would have
taken him back to the clan beyond the ice?"

"No. We couldn't go back. I would have joined him," the
sleek head bent, and the voice was dreamily low, "if he
desired it."

The boy threw back the cover and limped across the room
on his bandaged leg. He reached out, hesitated, then
placed both hands on the watcher's lean shoulders. The
watcher started, as if the touch pained him, but he
didn't look back. He didn't move away.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I said what I did about
friendship. I didn't know. I was wrong."

Slowly the tension under his hands eased. After a
moment he moved back. A cart turned into the alley,
loud in the silence. The watcher turned and looked
again at the tall boy with the bright hair and the
stubborn jaw. The slightest hint of a smile curved his
lips.

"I think your friends have come."

Answering warmth brightened the boy's face. "Yes, sir."

They walked together through the house and out the
door. The watcher helped the nervous hillmen hoist the
boy into the bed of the cart. They were anxious to go.
The boy silenced them with an imperious gesture. The
watcher held the talisman up.

"You could keep it, sir. He carved it himself."

The watcher shook his head. "It was meant for you --
it's the sign of his clan. I will think of you wearing
it."

"But I'd like to give you something . . . ." At the
actual moment of parting he was finding it difficult to
go, but every heartbeat increased the danger to driver
and guards. Then the vitality flashed forth, pleasure
in giving pleasure. "You never asked my name; it might
mean something to you; it was one of his clanwords."

"I would be honored to know it."

"Spock. My name is Spock. Good fortune, sir. Thank
you." He laughed. The hillman started the cart with a
jolt, and the laugh was the only thing he left behind
him as the clattered around the corner and out of
sight.

"Spock," said the watcher. He listened until the last
rattle of the cart had faded away. The quarter was
quiet. One last star, quick and golden, moved across
the sky -- a new star, one that had appeared a year
after his own arrival. The sun came up, spilling
brilliance over the Edge from the high country the boy
was bound for, where he was shaping the strong pattern
of his life. Freedom, he'd said, was standing in the
light.

For the last time the watcher studied how the tree grew
so abruptly up into the air, making its place in the
world. Each branch, each leaf was edged with light. The
tree's dark shadow was an elongated, angular twin of
itself that stretched twice the tree's length down the
wall, but they sprang from the same source, and when he
walked across the cobbles and broke off a leaf, both
trees, bright and dark, trembled to the root.

The End