cracked the pavement where the cobbles met the wall and grew
up as tall as a man. To the one 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 led 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 a 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
Dark eyes studied each face in turn, seeming not to see 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
"He wouldn't go to ground right here in Spenarr; let's watch
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.
"You can come out," he said at last. "They have
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
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.
"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 lack 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. "Your 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
"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?"
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
"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 strangers;
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
"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
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 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 point. 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
"Clan Davin's healer packs a wound with tar to stop the
"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
"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 lashes 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 not 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.
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
"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
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
"And if I survive," suggested the boy.
The boy ate almost enough to satisfy his host, then handed the
"That was good, better than my story, I'm afraid."
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
"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."
"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
"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
"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,
"Traveler's tales -- many of a fair-haired outlaw, but none
that gave him name or 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 bent 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
"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
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. He raised his head but didn't turn. He didn't
"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
"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 they 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.