Exile's Gate, p.1C. J. Cherryh
The Morgaine Saga #4
C. J. Cherryh
DAW Books, Inc.
Donald A. Wollheim, Founder
375 Hudson Street,
New York, NY 10014
Elizabeth R. Wollheim
Sheila E. Gilbert
in cooperation with
SEATTLE BOOK COMPANY
The Finest in
DAW Science Fiction
from C. J. CHERRYH:
THE ALLIANCE-UNION UNIVERSE
The Company Wars
The Era of Rapprochement
FORTY THOUSAND IN GEHENNA
The Chanur Novels
THE PRIDE OF CHANUR
THE KIF STRIKE BACK
The Mri Wars
THE FADED SUN: KESRITH
THE FADED SUN: SHON'JIR
THE FADED SUN: KUTATH
Merovingen Nights (Mri Wars period)
ANGEL WITH THE SWORD
The Age of Exploration
VOYAGER IN NIGHT
The Hanan Rebellion
BROTHERS OF EARTH
HUNTER OF WORLDS
THE MORGAINE CYCLE
GATE OF IVREL (#1)
WELL OF SHIUAN (#2)
FIRES OF AZEROTH (#3)
EXILE'S GATE (#4)
THE EALDWOOD FANTASY NOVELS
THE TREE OF SWORDS AND JEWELS
OTHER CHERRYH NOVELS
WAVE WITHOUT A SHORE
THE FOREIGNER UNIVERSE
Copyright © 1979 by C. J. Cherryh.
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 341.
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All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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Elizabeth R. Wollheim
Sheila E. Gilbert
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Table of Contents
The qhal found the first Gate on a dead world of their own sun.
Who made it, or what befell those makers, the qhal of that age never learned. Their interest was in the dazzling prospect it offered them, a means to limitless power and freedom, a means to shortcut space and leap from world to world and star to star—instantaneous travel, once qhalur ships had crossed space at realtime, to carry to each new site the technology of the Gates and establish the link. Gates were built on every qhalur world, a web of eyeblink transport, binding together a vast empire in space.
That was their undoing . . . for Gates led not alone where but when, both forward and backward along the course of worlds and suns.
The qhal gained power beyond their wildest imaginings; they were freed of time. They seeded worlds with gatherings from the far reaches of Gate-spanned space . . . beasts, and plants, even qhal-like species. They created beauty, and whimsy, and leaped ahead in time to see the flowerings of civilizations they had planned—while their subjects lived real years and died in normal span, barred from the freedom of the Gates.
Real-time for qhal became too tedious. The familiar present, the mundane and ordinary, assumed the shape of a confinement no qhal had to bear . . . the future promised infinite escape. Yet once a qhal made that first forward journey, there could be no return. It was too dangerous, too fraught with dire possibilities, to open up backtime. There was the deadly risk of changing what Was. Only the future was accessible; and qhal went.
Some went further than certainty, pursuing the hope of Gates which might or might not exist where they were predicted to be built. More lost their courage completely and ceased to believe in further futures, lingering until horror overwhelmed them, in a present crowded with living ancestors in greater and greater numbers. Reality began to ripple with unstable possibilities.
Perhaps some desperate soul fled to backtime, seeking origins or a lost life or a memory; or perhaps at last the very weight of extended time and energies grew too much. Might-have-been and Was were confounded. Qhal went mad, perceiving things no longer true, remembering what had never been true in the worlds which now existed.
Time was ripping loose about them—from ripplings to vast disturbances, the overstrained fabric of space and time undone, convulsed, imploded, hurling all their reality asunder.
Then all the qhalur worlds lay ruined. There remained only fragments of their past glory . . . stones strangely immune to time in some places, and in others suddenly and unnaturally victim to it . . . lands where civilization rebuilt itself, and others where all life failed, and only ruins remained.
The Gates themselves, which were outside all time and space . . . they endured.
A few qhal survived, remembering a past which had been/might have been true.
Last came humans, exploring that dark desert of worlds the qhal had touched . . . and found the Gates.
Men had been there before . . . having been victims of the qhal and therefore involved in the ruin; Men looked into the Gates, and feared what they saw, the power and the desolation. A hundred went out those Gates, both male and female, a mission with no return. There could only be forward for them; they must seal the Gates from the far side of time, one and the next and the next, destroying them, unweaving the deadly web the qhal had woven . . . to the very Ultimate Gate or the end of time.
World after world they sealed . . . but their numbers declined, and their lives grew strange, stretched over millennia of real-time. Few of them survived of the second and third generations, and some of those went mad.
Then they began to despair, for all their struggle seemed hopeless: one Gate omitted anywhere across the web would begin it all again; one Gate, anywhen misused, could bring down on them the ruin of all they had ever done and make meaningless all their sacrifice.
In their fear they created a weapon, indestructible save by the Gates which powered it: a thing for their own protection, and containing all the knowledge they had ever gained of the Gates—a doomsday force against that paradoxical
They were five when that dreadful Weapon was made.
There was one who survived to carry it.
Vision of horses, one gray and shadow, one star-white, both shod for war . . . one dark rider, one pale, across void and night—
In gray lines, horses and riders appear along the river-ridge, concealed in mist and the uncertainties of dawn. Weapons bristle up, lower, all in one nightmare movement of the charge. It is ambush, and below them, humans ride along the sedge-rimmed river, Ichandren's men, their weapons laid across saddlebows. Ichandren looks up aghast at the first thin shout, the thunder that comes down on them in morning mist, the hedge of weapons that materializes out of the fog. The promised truce is broken, the valley has become a trap into which shadowy riders pour off either slope.
"Back!" Ichandren yells, wheeling his horse about.
The hindmost of his men shriek and die, pierced by lances, and the riderless horses splash along the reed-edged banks. The mist is full of shadows, shadows of enemies, of human riders fleeing in confusion, small bands battling in isolation. Even sound is distorted, echo mingling with present orders, screams and the clash of weapons ringing off the hills.
Some attempt retreat; but other shadows come pouring out of the mist behind, and horns sound in wild confusion. Ichandren shouts orders, but there is no relief, the enemy is too numerous, and his voice is lost in the confusion.
In despair he rallies such of his guard as he can, and turns and drives back the way he has come, in a world of shades and ghosts.
Vision of horses, the gray and the white, hooves descending, slowly, all of time and existence suspended upon that single motion—
In the opal dawn, in the mist, arrows fall like black sleet on flesh and steel, and thunder on wooden shields, finding chinks in the failing defense. Hammer and hammer again, blow after blow. Horses are down, threshing and screaming, crushing the wounded and the dead. Men flee afoot, cut down by the sweep of riders on the perimeters.
There is no more hope. Ichandren has met ambush. The fox has been out-foxed, and the enemy riders circle, cutting down those few who evade that last sweep.
But most rally around Ichandren, as horses go down, as men fall.
No arrows now. At the last it is swords and a battle afoot, humans against humans, Ichandren's men against those who have sold their souls to Morund.
"Bron!" Chei ep Kantory cries, seeing his brother fall, his place suddenly vacant in the defensive circle and Morund crests surging against it. He tries to gain those few feet, in that desperate knot about Ichandren, to die shielding his brother, for it is only a question of place now: weight of numbers bows their slight defense and breaks their shield-ring.
But thunder breaks behind him. Chei turns and lifts his sword, but there are two of them, helmed and masked, who come thundering toward him across the brook, throwing a fine spray in the first breaking of the sunlight.
Third stride, the gray horse and the white, stately slow, inexorable as fate—
The solemn procession reaches the killing-ground, the place of execution. They have walked this far, these last survivors of Gyllin-brook. Ichandren is not among them. The fox's head stands on a pike outside Morund-gate, his countenance strangely tranquil after so much he has suffered; and by now the crows will have claimed the eyes, as the crows and the kites have claimed so many, many others.
Carrion crows rise up here, at this end of all roads, black shapes against a pale, sickly sun, dull clap of startled wings that recalls the thunder of hooves on sand—
But that day is done, Ichandren is dead, his men have seen him die, and seen the things done to him, which made his death a mercy.
Now is their own turn. And disturbed birds settle back to the field, one solitary raven pacing on the roadside in the important way of his kind.
"Halt," lord Gault calls out, Gault ep Mesyrun, but this is not the Gault Ichandren knew, the brother in arms he once trusted. This is a different creature, who now holds lordship over Morund Keep. Qhal serve him, though his hair is human-dark and his body heavy and of no remarkable stature; the humans in his command fear him greatly. That is the kind of man he has become. And Gault has brought the prisoners here, to this place where crows gather, where the woods grow strange and twisted. He has cause to know this vicinity. In a place not far hence the woods grow strange indeed: no beast will go there, and no bird will fly above the heart of it. By that place Gault holds power over the south.
But they will go no further than this, for this purpose, for the disposal of enemies, here on the boundaries of law and reason. Horses shy and snort at the carrion smell of the place. White bits of bone, scattered by animals, litter the dust of the roadway, beside a bald hill—and on that hill stakes and frames stand against the sky, some vacant, some holding scraps of flesh and bone.
Blows and curses drive the prisoners staggering toward their fate, blows more cruel than the others they have suffered on this march, for even the guards fear this place and are anxious to be away. The prisoners go, bewildered; they climb most of the way up that hill before something, be it courage, be it only the breaking of a fragment of skull under a man's foot, or the regard of one black, beadlike raven eye lifting from its fixation on carrion—breaks the spell, breaks the line, and a man attempts escape. Then horses cut him off, two riders gather him up by the arms and haul him screaming to the hilltop. Other riders, humans with staffs and pikes, rain blows on the rebellion that follows, and drive the remainder to the stakes.
"I shall not leave you destitute," lord Gault follows them to say, riding his red roan horse to the crest, bones breaking under its hooves. "I leave you food. And an abundance of water. Can I do more?"
Chei ep Kantory is one who hears him, but dimly, as a voice among other voices, for the executioners have laid hands on him, as already they have taken Eranel, ep Cnary, Desynd, and red-haired Falwyn who is Ichandren's youngest cousin. He resists, does Chei, as he has been trouble on the march; but repeated blows of a pikestaff bring him down, at the last without a struggle, stunned and waiting only for whatever the enemy will do. The carrion stench is everywhere, his groping hand feels the brittle shards of bone among the silky dust on which he lies, the sky is a white, burning fire and the shadows of devils move across it, press at his body, drag at his booted ankle and clamp a grip about it which does not relax when they let him go.
A man curses. Chei recognizes it for Desynd's voice, distant and strained. Gault's laughter follows it. And because breath has come back to him and the shadows have gone he rolls over onto his hands, flinching from the bones, and tries the chain. Finally, because it is a solidity in so much that is flux, and a protection should the riders have some sport in mind, he huddles against the stake to which he is chained.
By each of them is set a water-skin. By each a parcel of food. And the lord Gault wishes them well, before he and his servants ride away.
Each of the condemned is secured alike, by the ankle to separate weathered posts; and at the fullest stretch of each chain a man is within reach of the man next at the fullest stretch of his. Their hands are not bound and they have their armor, but that is only to prolong matters.
In the evening the wolves come, dilatory, to a prey they have learned to expect when the riders are about. There is no haste. They are a bastard breed, and much of the dog is in them. It is in their eyes, in that way they creep forward, like hounds at hearth seeking some tidbit, with a kind of cunning and bravado neither breed alone would have. They retreat from such missiles as bone-chips and even handfuls of dust, they slink from shouts and threats, but in the long hours of the night they come closer, and rest, tongues lolling, one of them rising now and again to pace the line and to try the temper of this offering, whether any of them has yet weakened or determined to surrender.<
By the second evening patience is rewarded. And at full stretch of the chain, in the night, the wolves and the survivors can reach truce, of sorts, while the terrible sounds proceed, of quarrels and the tearing of flesh and the crack of bone.
For the remaining nights, the wolves have leisure.
The horses stride into the world, the dapple gray and the white, in an opal shimmering, stride for stride. Their hooves touch the leafy mold of a forested hillside and their legs stretch, take their weight—like the riders, they are bemazed by the gulf, and chilled by the bitter winds.
The riders let them run. They have no knowledge where they are . . . but they have taken such strides before.
The sun came mottled through a grove of twisted shapes, saplings, trees, blighted as by some perpetual wind . . . such places as this, they had seen before, and they had passed gates before the one which hove up on the hill above them, still powerful, still baneful and flinging power into the heavy air.
The horses ran out their terror, slowed as the trees grew thicker, and walked a gentler course in a forest where, among the trees, stood stones half again taller than horse and rider together. They snorted their acquaintance with a foreign wind and the smell of this world, while the riders went in silence.
Exile's Gate by C. J. Cherryh / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes