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The Lovers

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There was a woman of the Ahara. She came of a good line within the lineage1 and grew up to be tall and broad with thick, glossy fur. Her eyes were pale gray, an unusual color in that part of the world. From childhood on, her nickname was Eyes-of-crystal. If she had a fault, it lay in her personality. She was a bit too fierce and solitary.

Her home was in the town of Ahara Tsal, which stood on top of the Tsal River bluffs. To the west and south lay the farms and pastures of her lineage: a flat, rich land. To the north and east was the river valley, wide and marshy and full of animals. Eyes-of-crystal liked to go down there into the wilderness and ride and hunt. Her mother warned her this was dangerous.

“You’ll get strange ideas and possibly meet things and people you don’t want to meet.”

But Eyes-of-crystal refused to listen.

Don’t think this is a story about how she met ghosts or bandits or some horrible great animal like an ulkuwa and learned that her mother was right and she ought to have stayed at home. That’s another story entirely and maybe a good one. But the pain that Eyes-of-crystal encountered did not come from disobedience, and it not come to her when she was away from home.

As mentioned before, she grew up to be large and strong. When she was twenty-five, her relatives decided to breed her.

At this time, the Ahara were the second most powerful lineage in the world, and this young woman came from a line that produced really fine children. The Ahara wanted to breed her with someone important. They looked around, and who did they see? Eh Manhata, who was the greatest warrior of the age. His lineage, the Eh, stood in front of everyone else. They had no equals. Only the Ahara came close.

So the young woman’s relatives entered into negotiations with the senior women of Eh.

Eyes-of-crystal knew about this, but paid as little attention as possible. She had never wanted to be a mother, but she had always known that she had no choice. At times, she wished that she had come from a less excellent line. If only there had been something wrong or unhealthy about her immediate family! Maybe then she would have been left alone.

But her brothers and male first cousins were sturdy fighters. Her sisters and female first cousins were producing babies like furry butterballs. Every relative was co-operative, moral, intelligent and well-put-together.

What a curse, thought Eyes-of-crystal and went back down to the river to hunt. There, in the dark forest of the flood plain, she found a kind of peace. Often, she found animals as well and brought them home, dead and bloody, across the back of her well-trained tsin. Imagine her as a kind of Diana, a gray-furred virgin huntress, about to lose everything she valued.

After a while, her mother called her in for a conference. One of her uncles was there as well, her mother’s full brother, a soldier of middle age with a great scar across his face and one eye missing.

“You know that we have been speaking with the Eh,” her mother said. “We wanted Eh Manhata as the father of your child.”

“Yes,” said Eyes-of-crystal. “I know this.”

“He is not available,” her mother said. “According to the Eh, they can’t afford to take him out of the current war and send him here.”

“There may be more going on than we can see,” her uncle added. “I have never heard of Eh Manhata fathering any children, even in those periods when the war has slowed down.”

Her mother’s head tilted in the gesture that can mean either agreement or consideration. “There are men, even great men, who are not able to father children for one reason or another.”

Eyes-of-crystal knew the reasons, of course. The People do not enjoy thinking about the unpleasant aspects of life, any more than humans do. But if a thing is unavoidable, then it must be looked at, and they have never misled their children about what was involved in producing the next generation.

Some men were infertile, and others were impotent. These were physical problems and comparatively rare. The most common problem was one that humans would call psychological, and the People would say was moral or spiritual. There were men who simply could not overcome their natural aversion to sex with women. They were fine with other men, but put them in breeding situation and nothing happened.2

“They have offered us Manhata’s full brother,” her mother said. “He has fathered a number of children, and most of them look good. Your uncle has met him, which is why I asked him to be present in this conference.”

“They are twins,” her uncle said. “When they came out into the world, Manhata was already bigger and stronger. He has always been quicker and more forceful than his brother. There are people who say he took something from his brother in the womb. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“This doesn’t sound promising,” Eyes-of-crystal said.

“There’s nothing wrong with Eh Shawin. He looks very much like Eh Manhata, though he isn’t as tall or broad, and something is missing, as I said before. Manhata is like a man in sunlight. No one can overlook him. Shawin is a man at the edge of a forest, in shadow and not entirely visible. But he’s a good soldier, and no one has ever questioned his courage or intelligence. And he is Eh Manhata’s only full brother.”

“No mating can tie us closed to Eh than this one,” her mother said. “And no lineage is more important to us. If we’re lucky, some of Manhata’s qualities will show up in your child or children.”

“You want me to do this,” Eyes-of-crystal said.

Her mother said, “Yes.”

She agreed. A message was sent to Eh. Eyes-of-crystal took her bow and went down along the river to shoot birds.

This happened in the late spring. Eh Shawin did not arrive until mid-summer. He came alone, which was not surprising. The road from Eh to Ahara was usually safe, and his brother was leading a campaign in the north against the Alliance of Five Less One. All his male relatives would be there. In peaceful times, of course, they would have ridden with him and made rude jokes about heterosexuality. It is always the job of one’s male relatives to demoralize, while the men of the other lineage are required to be friendly and encouraging.

In any case, Shawin appeared alone at the gate of Ahara Tsal. The guards asked him to wait and sent a messenger ahead. There was time for her family to gather in the courtyard of their great house: her mother, her aunts, the older female cousins and the two old men who were not at war.

Eyes-of-crystal was on a balcony. There were rules and courtesies in a proper mating. One does not meet the man right off. But there was nothing wrong in watching, as she did.

He rode in. His animal was dusty and tired, but had a good shape with powerful haunches and shoulders and a wide head that might indicate intelligence. It was solid brown, a rare and expensive color.

The man was as dusty as the tsin and dressed like an ordinary soldier. But he swung down gracefully, and once he was on the ground she could see he was tall, standing eye to eye with her mother and looming over the two old men, as they came forward to welcome him.

All the rituals of greeting were performed. It seemed to her that Shawin moved through them with unusual precision, like the traveling actors she had seen now and then. They came to Ahara Tsal and set up their stage in the main square. There they danced and told the stories of heroes. It occurred to her as a child that she wanted to be two things: a soldier or an actor. Both were impossible.

One of her sisters was on the balcony with Eyes-of-crystal. She looked down at the man in the courtyard and said, “He isn’t much to look at, is he?”

Eyes-of-crystal held her tongue, though there was plenty she could have said. The sister had mated for the first time with a son of Merin, a beautiful man who liked fine clothing and jewelry. His eyes had been blue-green, the color of malachite. His manners had been good enough, especially at first. But it had taken her sister a long time to get pregnant, and the man became obviously restless. He was anxious to get back to the war and to his lover, the men of Ahara said.

When he learned that the sister was finally pregnant, he let out a shout of joy, and he left as soon as he decently could.

Eyes-of-crystal mentioned none of this. For one thing, the sister was still pregnant and with twins, if her size was any indication. Discomfort had ruined the woman’s usually good disposition, and it was never a good idea to criticize the father of an unborn child.

Eyes-of-crystal kept her lips firmly closed over the hwarhath proverb which means, “Handsome is as handsome does.”

The next day she was introduced to the man. He’d taken a bath and put on a new kilt covered with embroidery. The grip of his sword was white bone bound with rings of gold. His fur was brushed and glossy.

That was as much as she learned about him. Their meeting was formal and brief. The words they spoke to each other were set by tradition. When they had finished, her great-uncles led Eh Shawin off to meet with other men. She went off with her female relatives.

For the most part, the hwarhath would prefer not to think about what their ancestors had to go through before the development of artificial insemination. But the information is there if you want to look for it, and the author of this story clearly did her research.

Remember that heterosexuality was—and is—frightening to the People. In it lies the power of generation and destruction. They know—and have always known—that the survival of their society depends on keeping men and women apart. But, through most of their history, the survival of their society depended on mating.

They did what humans also do, when faced with something frightening and unavoidable: death, for example, birth or marriage. They use ritual to protect the act and limit it and direct its power. They used humor and drugs to diminish their fear.

Eh Shawin spent the day with the men of Ahara, talking and getting a little drunk. Eyes-of-crystal spent the day getting ready for the night, and the author of the story describes every detail: the ritual bath, the ceremonies of protection, the comic skits performed by female cousins, the elaborate mating robe.

Most likely, there is an element of malice in all this description. “Look, look,” the author is saying to her readers. “This is what you are trying to forget. This is where we come from. It’s as inescapable as shit.”

Finally, at nightfall, Eyes-of-crystal was led up to the mating chamber: a large circular room high in a tower. Most of the space was filled by a bed, its wooden frame elaborately carved. Two chairs stood by a window. A lamp burned on the table between them. Eyes-of-crystal sat down. Her robe was stiff with embroidery. There was no way to relax. She had been given a potion, so the bed did not frighten her. Her relatives fussed around, straightening the cover on the bed, trimming the wick on the lamp, offering good advice.

Finally, there was the sound of male voices, mostly drunk, at the bottom of the tower. The women grew silent. Eyes-of-crystal heard footsteps on the stairs: one person only, climbing steadily. The others had stayed behind, as was proper. One fellow kept shouting, “Good luck!”

A couple of the women whispered angrily. This was a serious—a sacred— business, and it ought to be carried forward with gravity. A little bit of something to drink did no harm. But  men never knew when to stop. Any excuse for a drinking party!

The door opened, and there Eh Shawin was. A torch shone in back of him, so he was edged with red and yellow light. A moment later, he was in the room and standing in the shadows along the curving wall.

The women left. Several of them touched Eyes-of-crystal as they passed her, but no one spoke. There was only the rustle of clothing, the slap of sandals on the bare stone floor and the breathing of an especially large and solid aunt as she went down the winding stairs. Last to go was Eyes-of-crystal’s mother.

Eh Shawin closed the door, came over and sat down in the chair across from Eyes-of-crystal. Now she was frightened, in spite of the potion. He leaned forward and looked at her, frowning. “They have drugged you.”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “The first night is always like this. I’m going to tell you something, Ahara Pai, though I don’t know if you’ll be able to understand it at the moment. Still, I believe in acting directly3 and in saying what’s in my mind.

“There are many families who want to interbreed with Eh, and all of them are interested in having my brother as a father. But, as you probably know, our lineage cannot let him leave the field of battle.

“Because I’m Eh Manhata’s twin, I’ve been sent on trips like this—“ He paused. “More times that I can remember. I know far more about this situation than is usual for a man, and I have formed my own opinions about how to go about producing children.”

Eyes-of-crystal would have been shocked, if she had been sober. Thanks to the potion, she remained calm.

“These drugs and rituals do nothing good! The woman is frightened, and the man would be, if he wasn’t drunk, as he usually is. It’s surprising he remembers what it is he has to do. In my opinion, everything goes best if the two people are sober and comfortable with one another. The woman seems to get pregnant more quickly, and it’s my impression that the child turns out better. And so I have developed my own way of doing this. I try to make it as ordinary as possible.”

“Do your female relatives let you have these opinions?” asked Eyes-of-crystal. “It seems odd.”

He glanced up and smiled briefly. “Remember that they’ve known me from childhood. Eh Manhata is fierce. I am stubborn.”

He changed the topic then and asked her about hunting. The man of Ahara had told him she liked to hunt. It was an unusual trait in a woman, but not wrong or shameful. His home was on the plain. What was the great river like for hunting?

She tried to answer him, but she was frightened, and the drug made it hard for her to think and speak. Her mind kept coming back to the present situation, though with decreasing fear.  For one thing, his questions were so ordinary. For another, the drug was making her sleepy. Her thoughts moved more and more slowly, like people wading through a heavy fall of snow.

“Maybe we should have this conversation another time,” Eh Shawin said finally. He paused, then continued, his voice quiet and gentle. “There is one thing I have never been able to change. Your relatives and mine have expectations about what will happen tonight. We must meet those expectations.

“I can do the thing slowly and try to find some way to make it pleasant for you, or I can do it quickly and get it over.”

“Quickly,” said Eyes-of-crystal.

Eh Shawin inclined his head in the motion of agreement, then asked if she wanted light or darkness.

“Darkness,” said Eyes-of-crystal.

He licked his fingers and put out the lamp.

The home world of the People has no moon, but the stars are brilliant, and the People have better night vision than humans. Most likely, the man and woman could see each other as they undressed. Maybe their eyes gleamed occasionally, reflecting starlight. Their dark, solid bodies must certainly have been visible, as they moved past the star-filled windows or settled on the bed, which was covered with a mating blanket of bleached fabric as white as snow or bone.

The author of the story does not tell us any of this, though she describes their mating with clinical detail. Most likely, she was working from the old mating manuals, which are still available in libraries, though not (of course) in sections that children can access. There is no reason to believe that she is writing from personal experience.

After they finished, the man went to sleep. Eyes-of-crystal lay next to him, looking out a window at the sky. She could see the Banner of the Goddess, the Milky Way.

What had the Goddess been thinking of, when she devised this method for making people? It was like a great, ugly knot in the net of kinship and cooperation and love that held all of them—women and men, adults and children—together. Impossible to understand!

She woke in the morning and found Eh Shawin gone, though she could see the place where he’d lain. Her body hurt. She got up groaning and went down to the women’s bathroom. There was hot water ready and a cousin to help her.

Hah! It was good to wash and then soak in a tub of clean water scented with herbs. The cousin was middle aged, but had never been bred. One of her feet was twisted. It had been that way from birth, and this was not a trait the Ahara wanted continued. She barely spoke to Eyes-of-crystal, either out of envy or embarrassment.

At last, Eyes-of-crystal got out of the tub and rubbed herself dry. The cousin brought a fresh new tunic. She put it on. Her female relatives would be waiting for her in the eating room and the kitchen. She had no wish to see them. Eyes-of-crystal thanked her cousin and went out to the stables.

Light slanted in the little, high windows. The air smelled of hay and tsina. Most of the stalls were empty, the animals gone to war. But a few remained: the mares and geldings that children rode and her own hunters. She went to look at her favorite, a blue-gray stallion. His legs and hindquarters had white stripes, and his horns were as black as obsidian.

Eh Shawan stood at the end of the stall. “A fine animal," he said. What do you call him?”

“Direct Action.”

“A good name. I talked to your mother this morning and explained that I don’t want to inconvenience your male relatives. There are so few home at present, and most are so old! They don’t have the energy to be entertaining a guest. And I do best in these situations if I keep regular hours and maintain my ordinary habits. So—“ He glanced up briefly and smiled. “Your mother has agreed that it makes better sense for me to go out riding with you. I get the exercise I need, and the old men of Ahara get their rest.”

It wasn’t like her mother to agree to anything unusual, but Shawin was clever and plausible. There are men who know how to charm women, just as there are men who know how to charm men. These two qualities don’t usually come together in one person. Eyes-of-crystal had the impression that Eh Shawin was no exception to this rule. Her male relatives did not dislike the man, but it wasn’t likely they’d go out of the way for him.

“My  tsin hasn’t recovered from our journey yet, but one of your cousins has offered me this animal.” He led her to another stall.

She knew the animal there: a large gelding. Its color was solid purple-brown.

“He told me its name is Consistent Behavior, which sounds promising, though I’m curious why an animal this color was gelded.”

She knew and told him. The animal had a sullen disposition. This wasn’t a problem for

riding. “Unless you want to go quickly.” But Consistent Behavior was no good for hunting, and the animal would have been dangerous in a war.

Eh Shawin laughed.

“My cousin meant no discourtesy. You see how little we have available.” She gestured around at the empty stalls.

“I don’t take offense easily. That’s my brother.”

They saddled and rode out. The author of this story is anonymous, but she almost certainly came from one of the lineages along the river, maybe from Ahara. Her description of the country is detailed, and it reads like real experience, not something she got out of a book.

They went east along a narrow trail that led past fields of hwal and antim. The sky was clear except for a handful of high clouds, and the air smelled of dust and dry vegetation. Small bugs filled the weeds along the trail. The names of the bugs are given: sunfly, hopper, pirig, heln and scarlet warrior.

Eh Shawin asked about hunting a second time.

Eyes-of-crystal hold him about the many fine animals and birds to be found in the marshes along the River Tsal and in the flood plain forest.

It was obvious that he knew about hunting. The questions he asked were intelligent. But he had never spent much time around water. She told him about the giant fish that lived in the river. They were longer than a man and had teeth like knives. Their dispositions were nasty. Her people hunted them with nets and spears.

“That must be something,” Eh Shawin said and then exhaled loudly. They had come to the top of the bluffs. In front of them was the river valley, wide and deep, full of many channels that wound through the forest and marshland, so the entire valley was like a belt made of strips of colored leather woven together: green, blue-green, brown and pale red.

The two of them dismounted and let their animals graze. They spoke more about hunting.  He reached over and stroked her shoulder the way a female lover might. Eyes-of-crystal frowned. After a moment he took his hand away and leaned back till he was lying full-length on the stony ground, his hands forming a resting place for his head.

Now she was made uneasy by his silence. “What is your brother like?” she asked.

He glanced at her. In the bright sunlight, his pupils had contracted into lines she could not see. His eyes were like windows onto an empty, blue sky.

“That’s a question I’ve heard before. ‘Tell us about Eh Manhata, Eh Shawin.’”

“Does it make your angry to be asked?”

“No. It’s always been obvious that he was something special, even when we were children. Everyone knew if he lived to be a man, he would be either a hero or a monster.

“He is fierce and without fear, commanding, strong, clever about war. No one can match him as a leader in battle. So long as he’s alive, our lineage will always win.

“He loves our mother and our female relatives, and he never acts without consulting them—except on the battlefield, of course. He is loyal to Eh. He respects the Goddess.”

He stopped talking. There was no noise except bugs singing in the vegetation.

“I know all this,” said Eyes-of-crystal.

“Then you know Eh Manhata.” The man sat up. “Let’s ride more.”

That day they stayed on the plain above the river. In the afternoon, they returned to Ahara Tsal. At night, they mated again in the tower room. It was as unpleasant as the first time, but she didn’t lie awake for as long afterward.

The weather remained hot and dry: good late summer weather. They got in the habit of going out almost every day. Eyes-of-crystal showed the man of Eh her country: the cultivated fields, the marshes and forest. They hunted the animals available in that season, before the fall migrations began. The man was a good companion: patient, observant, respectful of her skill and knowledge, unmoved by violence and death.

She liked him, though she had never expected to like a man who was not a close relative and thought he did things that made her uneasy.

One afternoon Eyes-of-crystal shot a ral4 in the marshes along the river. The animal went down, but it wasn’t dead. It struggled to rise, making a bleating noise. Eh Shawin was the one who dismounted and cut its throat. As he stuck the knife in, the ral jerked and twisted its neck. Blood spurted onto his clothing, and he made the hissing sound that indicates anger or disgust. He finished killing the ral, then pulled off his tunic and sank it in a pool of water. Naked, he eviscerated the animal. She had never seen an adult man without clothing. It made her uncomfortable.

She kept herself busy with the tsina. Her Direct Action was not troubled by the scent of blood, but the animal Shawin was riding—a young stallion that she had not finished training—was fidgety. He might try to run.

When Shawin had finished, he waded into the water and washed himself, then the tunic.

“Put that on,” she said when he came back to shore.

“Wet? No.”

“I don’t like this.”

For a moment he said nothing, but concentrated on wringing out the tunic. Then he glanced up briefly. “There’s no one here except the two of us, and we have been spending every night in the same bed, neither of us wearing anything. Do you really think we need to be formal?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you ought to go on ahead,” Eh Shawin said. “You’ll have to take the ral. My tsin isn’t going to be willing to carry it.”

She did as he suggested and rode home alone, troubled by the memory of him, his fur slicked down by water and his body evident. He was rangy with large bones and long muscles, narrow everywhere except through the shoulders. Made for speed rather than endurance, Eyes-of-crystal thought. In a way beautiful, though not with the sleek beauty of a woman.5

He ought to be more modest. He had not seemed especially bothered by the fact that he was naked. Maybe he had spent too much time fulfilling mating contracts. It had become ordinary for him to be around women who were not relatives and to do things with them that most men did only once or twice in their lives.

That evening, in the tower room, she asked about his behavior.

“If I hadn’t washed the tunic right away, the stain would have sunk in, and I like that tunic. It’s almost new, and I don’t know if you noticed, but the embroidery over the shoulders is really fine. I shouldn’t have worn it for hunting. I wasn’t expecting to make quite so big a mess.”

“Are you this way in battle?” she asked. “Fastidious?”

“No. Of course not. Though I never like it when something good is ruined: a piece of clothing, a weapon. But I don’t think about that till later. In battle, there are only two things on my mind: staying alive and following my brother’s orders.”

There was something in his voice when he spoke about his brother that troubled her. “Do you like him?”

Eh Shawin glanced up. The room was dark except for a single lantern, flickering on the table between them, and his pupils had expanded to wide, black bars. “Manhata? What a question to ask.” He licked his fingers and put out the light.

One of her cousins was home from the war while an injury to his leg healed. By this time, he was starting to hobble around, and he asked Eh Shawin to practice fighting with him. This was something women were not supposed to watch, but Eyes-of-crystal climbed onto a roof that overlooked the fighting ground. The two men used swords, the long heavy kind that had only one purpose. No man ever carried a weapon like that, unless he was going to war. Eh Shawin handled his sword with ease. He was obviously a better fighter than her cousin, and this was not due simply to her cousin’s injury. He was as quick as she had expected and strong as well. Lovely to watch, the woman thought as she crouched on the roof tiles. If she had a son, this quickness and strength would be useful. If she had a daughter, maybe the child would get Eh Shawin’s discipline. With luck, his oddness would not be transmitted.

Her time for bleeding came. So did the blood. She wasn’t pregnant. She stayed away from him for several nights, as was customary.

“That tells me I have another 40 days here,” Eh Shawin said. “I’m not sorry, though I have to say your male relatives are boring. But I like you, and my lineage does not have another breeding contract that requires me. Once you are pregnant, I will have to rejoin the army.”

“You don’t like the war.”

“It’s been going on a long time. After a while, everything seems as if it’s happened before. There are only so many ways to kill and die. Even my brother has not managed to find much that is new in those areas.”

“You are very peculiar,” said Eyes-of-crystal. “I hope it doesn’t come out in your children.”

He laughed. “No one has complained to my female relatives.”

This conversation took place atop a river bluff. They ended in this place often. He shared her love of the wide river valley. The foliage was getting its autumn colors. The river was dark brown like weathered bronze, except where it reflected the forest or the sky. Everything seemed to be shifting and changing. She looked out and thought of traveling like a tree floating in the water or a bird rising on the wind.

Maybe when this was over and she was pregnant, she would go to visit another town. There were several lineages nearby that were closely tied to Ahara. She had relatives, women who had been fathered by men of her lineage. She even had a former lover, a woman of Shulnowa. They had met at a festival and visited back and forth, and then the war grew dangerous for a time, and they exchanged tokens and messages. That ended finally. But maybe she could go to Shulnowa and visit one of her minor cousins. Maybe she would meet the lover. How could she avoid it in a town that size?

Eh Shawin ran a hand down her arm, stroking the fur. “I think I’d like to have sex right now.”

“Here? In the sunlight?”

“We aren’t getting anywhere by having sex in the dark.”

Her bleeding had stopped the day before, so it was possible, though it seemed wrong. She tried to remember some rule that forbade sex outdoors while the sun was up. Nothing came to mind, and she had done such things with her lover. But that had been at festivals and with a woman. Surely sex for procreation ought to be done in a less carefree manner.

He leaned over and kissed the rim of her ear, then touched his tongue to the bare skin inside.

They had sex on the river bluff in a meadow of dry plants. A group of hunting birds soared overhead. At one point, early on, she looked up and saw them rising in a wide circle. Later, she found she had become preoccupied. The bright open world seemed to darken and turn in upon itself, and she was not aware of much except her body and Eh Shawin’s body.

When they had finished, they lay a while together, listening to bugs sing around them. The birds had gone. Finally, Eh Shawin yawned and sat up. “That’s something I haven’t done before.” He grinned at her. “There’s more variety in sex than war, in my opinion, anyway.”

They got up and brushed each other off, then put on their clothing and went to find their tsina.

After that, they got in the habit of having sex beyond the town walls. It was the right time of year. The ground was dry, and the biting and burrowing bugs had mostly vanished. Now and then, there was some kind of distraction: a tsin would come close while grazing. Once, a fat little tli came up to see what they were doing. It stopped just outside reach and reared up on its hind legs, folding its paws against the white fur of its chest.

“Fill your eyes, little trickster,” said Eh Shawin.

The animal seemed to listen. It tilted its head and watched them until they were done. Then, as they moved apart, it moved away.

They still slept in the tower room. By now, she had gotten used to sharing a bed with him. His scent was familiar, and it was comforting to lie against his broad back. Every few days her mother would ask how everything was going.

“Fine,” she would answer. Finally she said, “I think I’m like my sister.”

Her mother frowned. “In that case, we’ll have the man with us all winter. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. It gives your cousin someone to practice fighting with.”

One morning she woke early and heard the cries of birds as they flew over Ahara Tsal. The fall migrations were beginning. There would be good hunting in the marshes along the river. She prodded Eh Shawin. Half awake, he agreed to go into the valley with her. After breakfast, they saddled their tsina.

The morning air was cool, and thin banners of mist floated over the surface of the river. The mist would be gone in less than an ikun, and the day would be hot by noon. But at the moment she could feel the sharp edge of autumn. She carried her strung bow. Her quiver hung from her saddle. Eh Shawin had brought a pair of throwing spears. He wasn’t really in the mood to kill anything, he told her. “But a ride is fine. I can watch you shoot down birds. And if we encounter anything large, I’ll be ready.”

There were plenty of animals in the valley, but she didn’t see the birds she wanted: the ones she had heard as they flew over. She and Eh Shawin kept going, following a road that wasn’t much used. Midway through the morning, two men appeared ahead of them, riding tsina. They came out of the underbrush and reined their animals, blocking the road. One had a shield on his arm.

Eh Shawin had been riding in back of her. Now he came up alongside. There was a spear in his hand. “Let me take care of this.” She reined Direct Action, and he moved past her. He was riding her young stallion, Hope-for-the-Future.

The two men turned their animals so they were facing Shawin, and one drew a sword, a long weapon of war.

Something made a noise in back of her. She glanced around: two more men came riding toward her. They looked like soldiers who had gone to hell, ragged and dirty. One man wore a metal helmet. The other wore a leather cap. Both held battle-swords.

She glanced back at Shawin. He’d thrown his spear, and one of the men in front was falling, shouting as he slid onto the ground. The spear was in his chest.

Shawin pulled the second spear from its holder.

The two ragged soldiers came up on either side of her. One glanced over. “We’re sorry that this has to happen in front of you, but—as you can see—we’re desperate. It will be over quickly.” Then they rode on. Direct Action shook his head. She tightened the reins. There was nothing she could see.  

Among the hwarhath, warfare is entirely a male activity. The hwarhath men direct their violence exclusively toward each other. They do no physical harm to women and children, strange as this may sound to humans. But there is a quid pro quo. The hwarhath teach their women that they must never fight. Eyes-of-crystal knew that she was almost certainly safe. Unless these men were crazy, they would not touch her. But Eh Shawin was going to die, and all the rules of right behavior told her that she had to look on. This was the way it had always been done.

The man of Eh glanced back. He must have seen the two new soldiers. A moment later, he was charging at the man in front of him, spear in hand. Their tsina met. Her young stallion screamed, and a man shouted, she didn’t know which one. They were tangled together, their animals turning in a circle. The other bandits reined, as if they were trying to see a good way to attack.

There was no way for Eh Shawin to win. His animal was untried. He didn’t have the right kind of weapons. A hunting spear and a sword that was little more than a dagger! As ignorant as she was, she knew this was a bad situation. Finally, he was outnumbered. Her male relatives did not speak much about war, but she had heard them say, “As a general rule, big wins over little, and many over few.”

Eyes-of-crystal pulled an arrow from her quiver. She fit it into her bow and pulled back the string. Hah! This was easy! They were much larger than a bird and hardly moving. She let the arrow go. It went into the neck of the man in the leather cap. He screamed, a noise almost like the one made by her young stallion.

The man in the helmet twisted around, a look of horror on his face. “No!” he shouted.

Her second arrow went into his chest. Her third went into his throat, and he fell. One foot stayed in its stirrup. He ended on the ground with one leg up. His tsin was thin and needed a grooming, but evidently it had been well trained. The moment its rider fell, it stopped moving, except to shake its head. Not that it made any difference. The rider was dead. His tsin could have dragged him across the valley and done no further harm.

The man she had shot first, the one in the leather cap, was still on his animal, bent over and holding onto the animal’s neck. Blood poured down his back.

Beyond these two, Shawin still struggled with the third man. They were on the ground now, though she hadn’t seen how this had happened. Their tsina danced around them. The men were entangled. Eyes-of-crystal could not risk a shot.

She waited, bow in hand. The struggle ended, and Eh Shawin stood up. His tunic was torn and dirty. He held his little sword. The blade was covered with blood.

“That seems to be it,” Eh Shawin said.

Eyes-of-crystal leaned to one side and vomited.

After she finished, Eh Shawin helped her dismount. He was unharmed, except for a few small cuts. “Though I’ve been beaten like iron on the anvil, and I’ll feel it tomorrow. If your relatives think I am going to be good for much of anything in the next few days—“

“I killed them,” she said.

“Two of the four.”

She went on, speaking disjointedly. How could she tell her relatives? What would they do? No woman of the Ahara had ever gotten involved in a battle.

“None that you have been told about,” Eh Shawin said. He turned and watched the one man still alive. His tsin had become nervous finally and begun to step sideways like a harvest dancer. Then it shook its body, and the man slid off and lay motionless on the dusty road.   

“I’ll pull out the arrow and drive in my second spear. It’s broken, but no one will know when that happened, and you will have killed only one man then.”

That was more than enough, said Eyes-of-crystal.

He tiled his head in agreement, then walked over to the man he had killed with his short sword. “I killed his fellow, then captured his sword.” He bent and picked it up. “And used it to kill the last man with two blows, one to the neck and one to the chest. If I make cuts that are big enough, no one will notice the arrow wounds. So two men died from my spears, one from my short sword and one from this.” He lifted the battle sword. “What a hero I am! They’ll make up poetry about me in Ahara.” He looked at her, meeting her gaze. “And you behaved like a decent woman and watched the fight, never moving a hand.”

She spoke again. The story was unlikely. She wasn’t a good liar. It would be better to tell the truth.

“If you admit to behavior this unusual, your relatives may decide it wasn’t a good idea to breed you,” Eh Shawin said in answer. “And if you are pregnant already, they might decide to kill the child. Then all my hard work will have been wasted. I’d prefer that my children live, unless they are damaged in some way.

“And I’d prefer that your life be happy. It isn’t likely to be, if you admit to violence. Lie to the best of your ability. That ought to be sufficient. Remember what you have just seen. If you’re upset and don’t make a lot of sense, your family will understand.

“And while it’s unlikely that I could kill four men, my brother has done as much and more. Maybe I had—for once—his determination and power.”

She agreed finally, and he did as he had planned, like a manager setting up the opening of a play. Bloodflies had begun to gather, their bodies shining like sparks of fire in the hazy sunlight. He ignored them, cutting the arrow from the one man with his hunting knife. He worked deftly, making the wound only a little larger, then drove in the broken spear, grunting with the effort. Then he moved to his second victim and used the borrowed battle sword to slash new wounds. The bloodflies hummed around him and crawled on the dead men.

A play would begin with the corpses lying on the stage, looking far more splendid than these fellows. One by one, the corpses would rise, turning into handsome warriors, who would explain to the audience how they came to their present situation, acting out the quarrels and moral dilemmas that led to death.

Let nothing like that happen here, said Eyes-of-crystal to the Goddess.

At last, Eh Shawin was done preparing the stage, He gathered the men’s weapons and loaded them on their tsina, then tied the animals to a lead and gave the lead to her. They mounted and rode back toward Ahara Tsal.

They stopped once by a stream. Eh Shawin washed her arrows, which he had kept, then handed them to her.

“I don’t want these.”

“I don’t want them found anywhere close to the place where these fellows died. Someone might wonder. And I can’t think of a better place to hide arrows than in a quiver. Get rid of them later.”

She put them in her quiver, and they went on.

Hah! It was an event when they arrived at the town, leading four animals, Eh Shawin covered with blood. He did most of the talking, while her relatives comforted her.

Male relatives saddled their tsina and rode to find the bodies, led by Shawin. He was fine, he said. A little tired and sore. But he would have no trouble riding back into the valley. The men of Ahara gave him sideways glances that indicated respect.

Her female relatives gave her a bath and put her to bed. After a while, she went to sleep, waking in the middle of the night.

Shawin was settling into bed next to her. She spoke his name.

He said, “We followed their trail back for a distance. There were only four of them. Bandits, your kinfolk say. Men without a lineage. The world is full of people like that these days. They must have wanted to rob me. The Goddess knows their animals are in bad condition, and they had nothing of value except their battle swords. Hah! To end like that!” Then he went to sleep.

She stayed awake. He had bathed, and he smelled of clean fur and aromatic soap. She found the odor comforting. All at once, she was unwilling to have him leave.

What lay in front of her, after he was gone? Being pregnant and then nursing a child. Then, maybe, if she could convince her relatives that she had no interest in children, she would be free for a while. That happened sometimes. There were women who could not manage to get interested in motherhood. Other women raised the children they bore.

But if the child turned out well, they would breed her again, maybe to someone like the son of Merin who had fathered her sister’s just-born child.

And all the while, she would have the secret of her violence in her mind. What if her child was a girl? The trait might be transmitted. She might begin a line of female monsters.

As might be expected, she did not sleep any more that night. In the morning she was queasy and threw up. Not a good sign, the woman thought.

But the next day she was fine, and the day after she and Eh Shawin went riding, though not down into the river valley. Instead, they wandered among the fields, now mostly harvested, and went up onto the bluff to their favorite place. They dismounted and sat a while, watching the hunting birds that soared over the valley, circling and chasing one another, not out of anger or from a need to mate, but only (the old women said) for pleasure, from joy in their skill.

Finally Eyes-of-crystal began to speak. She had not been able to shake off her feeling of horror at what she had done, and she did not like to think of living her life with a secret like this one.

“You are not the only person with a secret,” Eh Shawin told her gently.

“Not like this,” she answered. “And it isn’t my secret alone. You know it also.”

“I’m not going to tell, dear one.”

She glanced at him, surprised. He had used a term that belonged to a lover.

He was lying comfortably full-length on the ground, his eyes half closed, his hands folded over his belly. “You are young enough to think that people are the way they appear from the front and that they ought to be so.—What am I? A loyal son of Eh, who carries out an embarrassing obligation as I am told to by the senior women of my lineage?”

“I don’t know what to think of you,” said Eyes-of-crystal.

“I have never been much interested in sex with men. That is one thing I have in common with my brother, though we differ in our attitude toward sex with women. The idea repels him so much that he has always refused to carry out any breeding contract. I like what I do, though my attitude toward the individual women varies. Still, none of them has ever been stupid, and all of them are in good physical condition.”

He smiled at her. “Our lineage has been lucky. They have one son who wants to spend his entire life fighting and killing, which has been very useful, and another son—the twin of Eh Manhata—who is willing to put the same kind of effort into mating.

“And I have been lucky. If my brother had been ordinary, I would have spent my life having no sex or sex with men, or I would have become a pervert, sneaking after women. Such men exist, though they are not common, even in this age where everything seems to be unraveling.

“Instead, I am here with you, for which I think the Goddess and Manhata.”

She couldn’t think of what to say. They were both monsters, though in different ways. She had acted in a way that no woman ever should, though she had been unwilling and was now remorseful. His actions were proper. He had done as his female relatives told him. But his thoughts and feelings were perverse.

“What kind of child is going to come from this mating?” she asked finally.

“I don’t know,” said Eh Shawin. “But the passing of traits is not a simple process, as we know from breeding animals as well as people, and we both have many good traits. I think it’s likely that the child will be fine.”

She looked out at the river valley, then up at the birds, still soaring over the bluffs. A crazy idea came into her mind, and she told it to Eh Shawin.

Why couldn’t they go off together? The world was full of people who wandered, having lost their homes in the long war. She could disguise herself like a man. Such things were possible. The actors who came to Ahara Tsal played women convincingly. Or else they could claim to be relatives, a brother and sister. She would not have to hide the person she was from the rest of her family. If the child turned out badly, at least it would not be one of the Ahara. He would not have to go back to the war.

He listened to her patiently. When she finished, he said, “How would we earn a living? I have only two skills, fighting and making women pregnant. The second one would be useless, if I didn’t belong to a powerful lineage. As for the first skill, I don’t want to become a bandit like those men in the valley.”

They could hunt, said Eyes-of-crystal.

“And live like animals in the wilderness?”

They could sell whatever they didn’t need, meat and fur.

“Most land is held by some lineage or other. Do you think they’ll give us permission to hunt? Do you think people will refrain from asking questions, if we bring the hides of animals into a town? I’d be executed as a thief, and you would be sent off to survive as best you could. Most likely, someone would take you in. Even in this age of unraveling, there are people who will not let a woman come to harm. But you would not be the daughter of a famous lineage, and you would not be loved as you are here.

“And if there were more children, what would happen to them? I don’t want my children to be beggars.”

“Is there nothing we can do?” asked Eyes-of-crystal.

“What we are doing,” said Eh Shawin.

After that she was silent, watching the birds.

It was midwinter before her relatives were certain that she was pregnant. The snow was deep by then and the winter unusually cold. Eh Shawin stayed on till spring, though she no longer spent time with him. She saw him, now and then, at a distance.

When the thaw was over and the roads comparatively dry, he rode off with a group of her male relatives who were returning to the war. She was sick that day and did not see him go.

The children were born at harvest time: two boys, large and sturdy. The older became Tsu, which was an old name among the Ahara. The younger became Ehrit, which means ‘deriving from Eh.’

She nursed them for a year, as was customary in those days, then turned them over to one of her sisters and went back to her old habits. But hunting interested her less than it had. She missed having company, and she felt less safe than before. What if other bandits came into the river valley? Would she become violent again? Would they become violent?

Gradually, she became more like other women, though she never became entirely ordinary. She remained more solitary than was usual, and she did not lose her fondness for riding. Now she followed the trails that went through cultivated land, and she kept her eye on the fields and pastures. When she took out a weapon, it was usually to deal with some wild animal that was doing harm to her family’s herds and crops.

And though she wasn’t especially maternal, she wasn’t able to leave her twins entirely in the hands of her female relatives. Maybe if they had been ordinary, she would have been able to ignore them. But they were clever and active and clearly in front of most other children.

When they were two years old, her family bred her again. This time the man came from one of the small lineages that existed at the edges of Ahara.6 He was solid and handsome with a fine glossy coat, and he did what he was asked to do with determination and competence. But he was obviously embarrassed, and it was clear that he preferred to spend his time with male relatives. Eyes-of-crystal felt disappointed, though this didn’t make any sense. The man behaved exactly as he was expected to, and he was never discourteous. She got pregnant almost at once. The child was a girl who inherited her father’s solidity and lovely fur. What about this mating could cause dissatisfaction?

In time, another gift came from this mating: the man’s sister, who was a solid and handsome as her brother and who (unlike him) was comfortable around women. Eyes-of-crystal met her at a festival, and they fell in love. This was (the author tells us) no ordinary casual bed-friendship.

It’s important, at this point, to realize that the hwarhath tend to see women as less romantic and more promiscuous than men. Living on the perimeter, men have time and opportunity for love. But the women live at the center of the family, surrounded by relatives, and their strongest ties are usually with kin. For women sexual love tends to be a matter of brief couplings at festivals or long-term, long-distance romances where the two lovers visit back and forth, but are more often apart than together.

Occasionally, female lovers will move in together, and this has happened more often in modern times. Conservatives see it as yet another example of how society is going to hell in a hand basket. What is going to become of the People, if women and languish and hold onto one another like men? Who is going to look out for the family and children?

In the age of Eh Manhata, this kind of female affection-beyond-the-family was unusual, but it did occasionally happen, and the author of this story, who is determined apparently to break all the ordinary rules of romantic fiction, gives her heroine a lover who is willing to move away from home. The woman was maternal and had no children of her own, the author tells us, and she found Ahara Pai’s children more interesting than her nephews and nieces.

It’s possible that the lover was added to the story to give it a happy ending. The hwarhrath insist on happy endings in their romances, though their idea of a happy ending is not always the same as ours. Or maybe the author put the lover in to shock and perturb.

Eyes-of-crystal was bred three more times. Each time the man was different and came from a different lineage. The author gives the names of lineages, but they would mean nothing to a human reader. Two were important. One was another clinger. The children—two more girls and a boy—were healthy enough to keep, and all of them grew up to be promising. though none equaled the twins. They really were exceptional boys: quick, well-coordinated, intelligent, forceful, good-humored and charming.

“This is the spirit of Eh Manhata showing,” said her family relatives.

No, she thought. The intelligence and good humor came from Eh Shawin. So did the charm, though the boys were able to get what they wanted from both women and men.

Occasionally she heard news about Shawin. Her kinfolk took an interest in him now. His life continued the way he had described it. He was often away from the army, fulfilling contracts his relatives had made. It seemed as if he almost never failed. The children he fathered were strong and healthy. They made it through the dangerous years of childhood with little trouble. His kinsmen began to call him The Progenitor, and this became the nickname that everyone used.

He was less impressive in the war. Not a bad soldier, her male relatives said, but not what they would have expected from Eh Manhata’s twin. “Or from the man who killed those four bandits in our valley. Hah! That was an achievement! We still tell people about it! But he has never done anything comparable.”

When the twins were fourteen, there was a festival at Taihanin. Eyes-of-crystal went, along with other women and enough men to provide protection, though the war had moved to the east by now, and all of Ahara and Eh lay between them and the nearest enemy. Her younger children stayed at home, as did her lover, but the twins were old enough for traveling, and they joined the party.

One evening they came to a caravanserai. There were people there already: a small group of soldiers from Eh. One of her male cousins went to speak with the soldiers. When he returned, he said, “Eh Shawin is there. I asked him over. He’s never met his sons.”

Soon the man himself appeared, walking out of the shadows into the light of Ahara’s fire. No question that he had gotten older. He was still tall and rangy, but he moved stiffly now. The fur on his shoulders and upper arms had turned pale silver-gray. But when he saw her, he smiled, and his smile was unchanged: brief, but affectionate in a way that was not common among men of the people.

She was right, thought Eyes-of-crystal. The boys got their charm from him.

Her cousin stepped forward and introduced the boys. Eh Shawin looked at them. They had shot up in the last year, and it seemed likely that they would be as tall as he was. At the moment, they were thin and as leggy as tsina colts. Like colts, they were nervous and shy. They hung back and ducked their heads, unwilling to meet Eh Shawin’s gaze, though they gave him many sideways glances. But there is nothing wrong with shyness in young men and boys, and their manners were good. They answered his questions promptly and clearly, Ehrit doing most of the talking, as he always did.

Finally, Shawin ran out of questions. The boys were given leave to go, and he came over to Eyes-of-crystal. It wasn’t required that the two of them talk, but it was permissible.

“You’ve done a good job,” he said.

“My sisters more than I,” she said. “And my lover, though I taught the boys to hunt, and that was enjoyable.”

He asked if she had other children. She named them and their fathers.

“Your relatives have been keeping you busy,” he said.

“Not as busy as the Eh have been keeping you, from what I hear.”

He laughed and inclined his head.

They spoke some more about the twins. She praised their qualities, while he looked across the fire. The boys were sprawled on the far side. They had gathered stones and drawn lines in the dirt and were playing a game of strategy. Now and then one of the other would glance up and see Shawin watching, then glance back down.

“So everything has turned out well,” Shawin said finally. “You have a lover and six fine children, and I have my life, which has turned out better than I expected. Hah! I was frightened when I first realized where my sexual interests were likely to lead me.

“I thought our relatives had been wrong. They worried about Manhata becoming a monster.  He was always so relentless, and he cared for so few people and none of them male. But I was the one who was the monster. I thought, they will find out and kill me, or I will kill myself. But none of that has happened.”

“Have you never wanted a lover?” asked Eyes-of-crystal.

He glanced at her sideways and smiled. “How could I have one?—I’ll do what I can for your boys when they join the war, though they aren’t going to need much help, being Ahara and having the qualities you describe. But I find it pleasant to do what I can.”

They said goodbye, and he walked back to his campfire, pausing on the way to speak again with his sons.

Eh Shawin lived to be almost eighty, and Eyes-of-crystal reached a hundred, but they never met again, at least so far as the author tells us.

The last part of her story is devoted to the twins, who grew up to be fine soldiers and famous men. When Eh Manhata died at the age of eighty-five, betrayed and murdered by men he trusted, it seemed as if the alliance he had created would be destroyed. It was Ahara Ehrit who held everything together, not through violence, but through negotiation. He was helped (he said) by the fact that the world was full of the children of Eh Shawin. Often, when he met with other lineages, he found that he was talking to a half-brother. And there were certain traits that appeared over and over in Shawin’s children. They were reasonable, flexible, good-humored and willing to make the best of the situation. If they had to, they could fight, but it wasn’t their preferred way to solve problems.

Ehrit is known to history as The Negotiator or The Weaver. Eh Manhata began the alliance that finally became the world government, but Ahara Ehrit saved it.

His brother Tsu was better at warfare, and this also was useful to the alliance. He was among the best generals of his generation, though no one in that generation could equal Eh Manhata. Still, Ahara Tsu won most of the battles he fought. His nickname was The Sword of Ahara. In the opinion of Ehrit, his qualities came from their mother. He was more courageous than was typical of the children of Eh Shawin, more relentless, more disciplined, more bloody-minded and more bent on going his own way, though he always listened to Ehrit, and discipline and loyalty kept him from doing anything seriously off to the side.

Neither of them inherited Eh Manhata’s great force of character. But the new age did not need this quality. They both had lovers, men who stayed with them for years, and though both of them fathered children, so far as is known they did so without pleasure.


Two Notes on the Translation:

In its upper course the River Tsal is confined by high bluffs of sandstone and limestone, but farther to the south it runs between low banks across a level plain. In modern times, engineers have built dams and levees to control it, but in the old days, the river changed course often. Its name comes from these changes in course. Tsal means loose, unfastened, unconnected, wandering and homeless. Another meaning has been added in the last few years, since the People encountered humanity and the human concept of freedom, which does not (apparently) exist in any hwarhath society. Tsal is the word they use to translate the English word ‘free.’ This story, which may be (in part) about freedom, is set by the Loose or Homeless or Untethered or Free River.

In the hwarhath main language, there is no way to speak of people without mentioning their gender. The language has singular female, singular male, singular of undetermined gender, female plural, male plural, mixed plural and undetermined plural. There is no mixed plural form of the word ‘lover.’ Lovers are always both female or both male. The author of this story could have made up a mixed (heterosexual) form of the word. It would have been recognizable, and her readers would have been shocked. But for once she played it safe, or maybe she wanted her readers to come to the center of the story—its hearth or meaning—slowly. The title she gave the story, assuming that it was given by her and not by a nervous publisher, is best translated into English as ‘The Breeders.’ But this title doesn’t sound right to humans and distorts the meaning of the story, which is (after all) about love.

Footnotes:

1 Literally “of a good thread within the woven cord.”

2 Literally “nothing came forward.”  The double entendre is in the original.

3 Literally “with katiad.” This is the most important male virtue. If a man has it, he is steadfast, forthright, honest and sincere. He travels like an arrow that is well made and well shot, straight to the target.

4 This is a marsh-dwelling quadruped herbivore. Its body is like a small antelope or deer, except for the broad three-toed feet. Its head is surprisingly large and looks as if it might belong to a refined wart hog. The males have tusks. Both sexes have little piggy eyes and large mobile ears, which are striped lavender and pale yellow inside. Their backs are dull red, almost the same color as the dominant vegetation of the marshes. Their rumps are yellow, except around the anus, where there is a circular area that is entirely hairless. The bare skin is bright pink.

5 The build described here is not typical of male hwahath, who tend to be solid with torsos that go straight up and down. The author is giving us a male protagonist who is a bit odd and humanish in appearance.

6 The old term for families like this was ‘side-clingers,’ though the word can also be translated as ‘shelf fungus’ or even ‘barnacle.’ They were too small to survive on their own, so became allies of some large and powerful lineage, which chose not to absorb them for various reasons. Most powerful was the need to have a nearby source for breeding and sexual partners. In the area where this story takes place, the incest taboo forbade—and still forbids—sex of any kind within a lineage. As the lineages grew larger and larger, this began to be a problem, which was solved—at least in part—by the accumulation of clingers.

 

First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1994.

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ISSUE 83, August 2013

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galactic empires
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason published her first short story in 1974. Since then she has published six novels and 40+ short stories, all science fiction or fantasy. She won the first James Tiptree Jr. Award in 1991, a Minnesota Book Award in 1993 and a Spectrum Award in 2000. In addition, she has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards.

"Checkerboard Planet" is one of a series of stories about location scout Lydia Duluth. One story, a short novel, has been published as Tomb of the Fathers. If all goes well, the other stories will appear in a collection in the not too distant future.

WEBSITE

eleanorarnason.blogspot.com

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