By Steven Barnes
Published by Aspect Books
February 2002; 0-446-52668-1; 461 pages
15 Shawwal 1279 Higira
all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so
to them: for this is the law and the Prophets.
all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others
what you would reject for yourselves.
SPRING'S FIRST DAY WAS A WARM SWEET SONG, a time of companionable silences and comfortably shared labor in Mahon O'Dere's coracle. The boat's round woven sides bobbed gently in the Lady's arms. Aidan O'Dere, eleven years old and the crannog's best swimmer, leaned against the coracle's side, reveling in the river's timeless flow. He studied the dark darting shadows of the fish as if they held the secrets of the universe, his mind alternately racing and utterly still.
Just now, his thoughts were of his father, Mahon, a lean, strong man weathered brown by sun and wind. He pulled the nets all day without tiring, best fisherman and fighter in the village bearing Aidan's great-grandfather's name. Father and son were sculpted from the same clay: blazing golden hair, crystal blue eyes, clean angled profiles. His father stood a head and a half taller and twice as broad across the shoulders, all of it good useful muscle and well-proportioned bone.
The sun was a molten eye, gazing down from the heavens without malice or mercy, unfettered by clouds. It baked against Aidan's skin. In a few minutes he would dip beneath the Lady's waves again, seeking the shelter of her embrace.
Mahon lifted his flute to his lips and coaxed it softly, gently, as if afraid of scaring away the fish. His eyes glowed with humor.
"What have you, boyo?" his father asked, taking his pipe from his lips. Aidan leaned farther out, pressing his thin arms against the coracle's rim. He peered more carefully now, straining to see through the chop. "Something shining in the water, Da."
The Lute River, usually referred to as the Lady, was clear as glass here. Upstream a bit, clouds of silt from an inland mudslide darkened her depths. Here, fed by a thousand eastern tributaries, the waters had healed themselves, as if loathing the idea of gifting the distant ocean with less than her best. The Lady's blue ribbon had fed and nurtured the O'Deres for three hundred years.
Mahon gazed up at the sky, shielding his eyes with one broad hand. "Well, it's a hot one. Maybe time for another dip?" Aidan needed no further encouragement. He slipped off his rough wool shirt and clambered over the side, careful not to tip the boat.
The water parted to receive him then closed over his head, sealing away the music of air and bird and flute, replacing them with the Lady's eternal rushing murmur. She was cool and bracing.
Aidan was a strong swimmer-half eel and half boy, his mother claimed-and oriented himself quickly in the water. Avoiding the nets was easy if you kept your eyes open. It would be humiliating to be caught in them; his father might be forced to draw him up and free him by knife, possibly endangering the day's catch.
This didn't happen. It was the work of moments to locate the source of the glittering he had glimpsed from above.
Aidan's heart quickened as his hands closed around his prize. For a moment he floated there, suspended like some strange river creature, the Lady's strong arms tugging at him, his bare feet clinging to a rock for ballast.
The object that had caught his attention was a knife. Not just any knife, though. Not some fisherman's blade tumbled overboard, but something wholly alien to his experience.
It was gold, wreathed with gems about its handle, its two-hand length of blade as gently curved as a shark's tooth. Young Aidan found it so beautiful that he almost forgot the need for breath.
His aching lungs would no longer be denied. Gripping his prize tightly, Aidan released the rock and kicked back toward the sun. Sound and scent and taste inundated him as he held the blade high.
His father's strong arm clasped his, lifting Aidan from the river with effortless ease. "What have you, boy?"
Aidan panted. His breathlessness owed more to excitement than lack of air. "A knife, Da." He smoothed his fingers over its surface, tracing every knob and etching. "A golden knife!"
Shadows flitted over Mahon O'Dere's face. The expression was darker than mere curiosity, but before Aidan could put a name to the shade it was gone. His father stretched out his arm. Reluctantly, Aidan placed the blade in Mahon's calloused hand.
Mahon examined it, grunting. His mouth smiled, but his eyes remained cautious. As his father wielded the blade with practiced grace, Aidan was awed by the steel's formidable size, its graceful arc. This was a knife forged for killing.
"Jewels, Da? And gold?" The dagger was a strange thing, a great thing, and if it was genuine, then it would add to his family's wealth, would increase their standing, could be traded for coin and tools and cattle.
"I know this blade," his father said. Mahon's words seemed burdened by an unusual weight and chill.
Disappointment was a sharper edge than the blade's own. "Then you know who owns it?" Never had Aidan seen such a knife, not in the crannog, nor in the villages upriver to the east. But his father had traveled far, knew many things, and certainly if any man would recognize such an oddity, it was Mahon O'Dere. But still his father did not speak.
Etched along the blade's curved edge were squiggles and curlicues, and things resembling the runes he had seen druids scratch in the dirt at Festival. "What are the markings?" Aidan said. "Can I keep it?"
Mahon thrust the knife under his leather belt and swatted playfully at his son, forcing the boy to duck. "Unhitch the nets like I told you," he said, "and we'll see."
Aidan grinned and jumped back overboard, swimming down to the bottom, finding the anchor rocks they had heaved over the side some five hours earlier. He pulled the slipknot then swam back as the net began to rise. Dozens of silvery fish were caught in its web, fish that would quiet grumbling bellies, or be traded for eggs, or straw for thatched roofs.
The Lady's currents cooled his eyes as he watched the net rise toward the light, drawn up by his father's strong arms. Aidan gazed up at the coracle, and deep within him, in a place that lived beyond ordinary thought and emotion, he had another vision of the knife.
It was held in a hand that was not his father's. It gleamed by reflected firelight. And its edge was stained with crimson.
It was early evening by the time they returned to the crannog, their island home. A stranger would find it hard to locate, hidden as it was by reeds and carefully draped moss. The O'Dere crannog was set at the edge of the lake, connected to the mainland by a gated bridge of wood and earth. There the land was cultivated in corn and carrots, with rectangular pens for cattle and sheep. The crannog itself held a dozen houses with woven wooden walls and thatched roofs. Great-grandfather Angus O'Dere and his brothers had built this hidden place. They carried rocks from the forest out to the lake, building the crannog up from the lake bed with rock and gravel and clay. Here they raised their families. Here, for generations, they had lived and loved and died.
The other boats were drifting in as well. Although the shadows were lengthening, he could see that the faces were happy: the day's fishing had been good. The sun was setting in the dense emerald forest west of the crannog, tinting the sky copper.
His father hailed the other fishermen, sharing a jest here, a barbed comment there. Most of the other boats were river craft, circular or tub-shaped. Pulled tight at the dock were also several canoe-shaped boats, oceangoing vessels, always an exciting sight. Aidan knew that the ocean lay a day's journey west. He had been enthralled by stories of it since boyhood but had never seen its endless rolling surf. Soon, his father promised, they would take a trip downriver. Aidan couldn't wait.
The fishermen were broad-chested and thick-armed, with yellow beards and faces cracked by sun and long years of grueling work. Aidan's own small face was still smooth as a girl's. He doubted he would ever grow into such splendid manhood. When he expressed those concerns to his father and mother they merely smiled and told him stories of their own distant childhoods, of streams swum with tireless strokes and green valleys run on youthful legs.
We, too, were children, they had told him in countless loving ways. Childhood was long, and sweet. But childhood ends.
And while a certain wistful sadness lingered in that last thought, there was joy as well. For it was only in the final days of childhood that Mahon and Deirdre first glimpsed each other at Spring Festival. Gentle Christian girl she had been, smitten by the wild river lad, heir to the Chieftain's seat at his crannog's council. Introductions had been made, families negotiating bride price and reciprocal obligations.
And when Mahon and Deirdre finished with their reminiscence, they would take hands one with the other, and share their secret smiles with their only son. "You will grow," his mother often said. "And faster than you would ever believe."
Still, watching his father work the oars, it was hard for Aidan to imagine that he would ever be so wide and tall. When would the first tiny hairs appear on his face? All that grew there was now a fine, almost invisible down, no more than might be felt on his sister's cheeks. He longed for the first sign of his awakening maturity, for the day that he might take out his own coracle, weave his own net, return triumphant with his own catch to an admiring village.
To the day, distant but quite real, that he himself might take the Chieftain's seat.
Aidan's mother, Dierdre, stood on the dock, waiting for them. She was strong herself, and beautiful-more beautiful, Aidan thought, than any other woman in the tuath.
"Deirdre," Mahon called up to her. "A spot of help with the line." He threw the rope up to her, and she plucked it almost casually from the air, her eyes never leaving him.
Something simmered in her gaze that made Aidan happy and a bit uneasy at the same time. He slept in the same room with his parents and had awakened more than once to hear low laughter and blankets rustling in a steady, quickening rhythm. He was almost ready to ask them just what they were doing. Almost, but not quite. He imagined it had something to do with what he had seen dogs and sheep doing, except that his parents had been face-to-face. There was something worth knowing here. Something that he knew would make an eternal difference in his life, something he sometimes suspected some of the girls in the tuath already understood.
Without a wasted motion, his mother tied up the line, then extended a hand to Mahon, who jumped up on the dock and gathered her in his arms for a lusty kiss. "Fire's waiting for you," she said when they came up for air.
"Good, woman," Mahon said happily. "My feet are cold." She tilted her head sideways. "Is that all need's warming?" She said this last part with her voice dropping, huskiness flowing into it like warm honey. Aiden hopped up on the pier and tied up his own line, carefully ignoring the exchange.
Or appearing to. He peeked around under his arm as Mahon placed one fond hand on Deirdre's stomach. "Not enough to have one in the oven?" he asked.
Her voice dropped even further, but Aidan could still make it out. "Thought that you might want to poke her a bit, see if she's done."
"Did you, now?" He rubbed his nose against hers, slowly, then turned back briskly to his son. "Get the catch in, lad."
"Yes, Da," he replied. His twin sister Nessa ran up behind him, cotton smock almost impossibly clean, as if the dust and the dirt never quite managed to touch her. Once Aidan and Nessa had been exactly alike, but time and the eternal variance of male and female were beginning to mold them. Aidan was browner, muscle just beginning to tauten his arms. Nessa's hair was almost strawberry, and she stood a thumb taller, but his father told him not to worry, the coming summer would probably see an end to that.
Their spiritual upbringing had been a compromise. They had been weaned on stories of both Jesus and the forest folk, the Tuatha de Danann and the Nativity, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and that of Ana, mother of the Irish gods. Nessa tended more toward the ways of the Druids, Aidan more toward Christianity-it made for fine, fierce family arguments.
But however much the siblings quarreled and bickered, the two shared secrets that no other living creature would ever know: Where Aidan hid the Druid stones won last Festival (since his mother wouldn't let them in the house). Who had given Nessa her first kiss (Geirig, the stonecutter's son). What bend in the Lady held the fattest frogs, the ones who fairly jumped upon the nearest spear.
Nessa helped him heave the net up onto the dock and into their wheeled cart. "Looks like a good pull," she said.
"Good weight in it," he said, strutting a bit. Together they could just manage the load their father had drawn up with seemingly little effort.
Every cook and carpenter seemed to be chattering as they pushed their way toward the squat, thatched shape of the communal smokehouse. "Thought you weren't coming back tonight," Nessa said. "You'd miss the dancing and the games." She dropped her voice a bit. "I think that Morgan would have cried."
"Go on, now." His voice mocked her, but beneath that facade lay interest. Morgan ran faster than any of the other girls in the crannog, her bare feet seeming almost to float above the ground. But she ran just a little faster whenever Aidan chased her, and many of the adults nodded and chuckled when they saw how he never caught her, which frustrated him all the more. And more than once Mahon had suggested that one day, Morgan might let him catch her after all.
He caught a glimpse of her as they trundled the net to the smoke hut. She was in the midst of some chasing game, elusive and feathery-swift as always. Heart-faced and red-haired, slender as some forest creature, she hid behind a low peat wall, but he spied her. She knew that he saw her, and raised a slender finger to her lips, begging silence. His face grew long and stern, as if considering whether or not to give her her wish. As the clutch of pursuing boys and girls ran by he said nothing to betray her position, and her thankful smile was radiant.
No words were said, but he was suddenly certain, and unexpectedly pleased at the thought, that one day soon Morgan would indeed let him catch her.
And then...?Copyright © 2002 Steven Barnes
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
From visionary writer Steven Barnes comes an astonishing, compelling alternate history of a world where North Africans conquered Rome and black men settled the Americas...
In ancient times, Socrates fled Athens for the courts of Egypt, setting in motion events that led to Carthage destroying Rome. A millennium later, by the grace of Allah, Muhammad received the Qur'an. And the Prophet's apostle Bilal was granted a vision that Islam's destiny lay far across the western ocean, in a New World...
One of the nation's premier African-American science fiction writers, multiple-award nominee Steven Barnes here presents a passionate and richly imagined epic of courage, survival, and revelation on a slave plantation in the old South...the African-ruled South.
The year is 1279...or, to those who worship the son of Mary, 1863. Bordered by fierce Azteca to the south, the red men's nations of the far west, and the Viking empire in the north, Bilalistan is a vast, rich land adorned with inspiring mosques, Zulu kraals, and glorious Moorish castles. Its grand estates are worked by savage Franks and Gauls captured from darkest Europe.
A primitive child from Eire, little Aidan O'Dere knows nothing of the world on the day his village is raided. His father is murdered while Aidan, his mother, and his sister are chained in the dark, diseased hold of a slave ship bound for the New World of Bilalistan. There the boy is sold to Dar Kush, the estate of the Wakil Abu Ali.
The Wakil is notorious for his lenient handling of his whites, even letting them keep their tribal names and pagan beliefs. And when Aidan becomes personal servant to the Wakil's mischievous yet brilliant younger son, Kai, friendship is allowed to blossom between the two youthsa bond that seems to eclipse their status as master and slave. But the tranquillity of Dar Kush hides a world where slave families are torn apart to pay bets, whipping and rape are daily fare, and runaways are slaughtered by vicious animals. And behind their happy comportment, the whites are seething with hatred.
When war suddenly sweeps over the entire continent, the Aztecs, Zulus, Arabs, and whites are engulfed in carnage. And in the terrible darkness of the battlefield, Kai and Aidan will learn that blood is neither black nor white...
Steven Barnes, the author of fifteen novels and as many teleplays, has been nominated for both the Hugo and Cable Ace awards. Mr. Barnes lives in Washington with his wife, author Tananarive Due, and his daughter.