Freedom Is Standing in the Light, by Syn Ferguson

Atree 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 is he?"

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 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.

"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 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 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?"


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 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 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 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 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 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 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."


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."

"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 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 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. He raised his head but didn't turn. 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 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.

The End

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