The Ugly Little BoyIsaac Asimov / Science Fiction
Prologue. Silver Cloud
SNOW HAD COME IN during the night, a fine dusting of it, thin as mist, traveling on the western wind. It was snow that must have come a great distance. The scent of the sea was still on it, rising now from the bleak broad tundra as die warmth of die early morning sun began to go to work on it.
Silver Cloud had seen the sea once, a long time ago, when he was a boy and the People still hunted in the western lands. The sea was huge and dark and resdess, and when die sunlight struck it in a certain way it gleamed like strange liquid fire. To enter it was death, but to look upon it was wonderful. He would never see it again; that much he knew. The lands bordering the sea were held by the Other Ones now, and the People were in retreat, steadily moving closer and closer each year to the place where die sun is born. And even if the Other Ones were to disappear as suddenly as they had come, Silver Cloud understood diat he would have no hope of returning to die coastal territory. He was too old, too lame, too close to his end. It would take half a lifetime for the tribe to retrace its eastward path, perhaps more. Silver Cloud did not have half a lifetime left. Two or three years, if he was lucky: mat was more like it.
But that was all right. He had seen the sea once, which was more than anyone else in the tribe could say. He would never forget the scent of it, or its great surging strength. Now he stood on the high ground overlooking the encampment, staring out at the unexpectedly snowy plains-opening his nostrils wide, breathing deeply, letting the musky odor of the sea rise to him from below on the fiimes from the melting snow. For just a moment he felt young again.
For just a moment.
A voice behind him said, "You mentioned nothing about snow last night when we made camp, Silver Cloud. "
It was the voice of She Who Knows. Why had she followed him up here? He had come up here to be alone in the quiet time of the dawn. And she was the last person he wanted to be bothered by in this private moment.
Slowly Silver Cloud swung round to face her.
"Is snow so unusual that I need to give warning every time it's on the way?"
"This is the fifth week of summer, Silver Cloud. "
He shrugged. "It can snow in the summertime as well, woman. "
"In the fifth week?"
"In any week," said Silver Cloud. "I remember summers when the snow never stopped, when it came day after day after day. You could see the bright summer sun shining through it, and still the snow fell. And that was in the western lands, where the summers are warmer than they are here. "
"That was a very long time ago, before I was born. The summers are getting better everywhere, so they all say, and it seems to be true. -You should have let us know that snow was coming, Silver Cloud. "
"Is that so very much snow? It's only a light little dusting, She Who Knows. "
"We could have put out the sleeping-rugs. "
"For such a little dusting? Such a trifle of snow?"
"Yes. Who likes awakening with snow in the face? You ought to have told us. "
"It didn't seem important," said Silver Cloud irritably.
"You should have told us anyway. Unless you didn't know it was coming, of course. "
She Who Knows gave him a long hostile look, full of malice. She was becoming a very annoying woman as age bit deeper into her, Silver Cloud thought. He could remember a time when she had been the beautiful slender girl Falling River, with cascades of thick dark hair and breasts like summer melons. Everyone in the tribe had desired her then: he too, he would not deny that. But now she had passed her thirtieth winter and her hair had turned to white strings and her breasts were empty and men no longer looked at her with desire, and she had changed her name to She Who Knows, and was putting on lofty airs of wisdom as though the Goddess had entered into her soul.
He glared at her.
"I knew that the snow was coming. But I knew also that it wouldn't be worth mentioning. I felt the snow in my thigh, where the old wound is, where I always feel the oncoming snow. "
"I wonder if you really did. "
"Am I a liar? Is that it?"
"You would have told us, if you knew snow was coming. You would have liked having a sleeping-rug over you as much as anyone else. Even more so, I think. "
"So kill me," Silver Cloud said. "I admit everything. I failed to feel the snow on the way. Therefore I failed to give the warning and you woke up with snow on your face. It's a terrible sin. Call the Killing Society, and have them take me behind the hill and hit me twelve times with the ivory club. Do you think I'd care, She Who Knows? I've seen forty winters and a few more. I'm very old and very tired. If you'd like to run the tribe for a while, She Who Knows, I'd be happy to step aside and-"
"Please, Silver Cloud. "
"It's true, isn't it? Day by day you grow ever more bright within with great wisdom, and I simply grow old. Take my place. Here. Here. " He undid his bearskin mantle of office and thrust it brusquely in her face. "Go on, take it! And the feather cap, the ivory wand, and all the rest. We'll go down below and tell everybody. My time is over. You can be chieftain now. Here! The tribe is yours!"
"You're being foolish. And insincere as well. The day you'll give up the feather cap and the ivory wand is the day we find you cold and stiffen the ground in the morning, not a moment before. " She pushed the mantle back at him. "Spare me your grand gestures. I don't have any desire to take your place, now or after you're dead, and you know it. "
"Then why have you come up here to bother me about this miserable little snowfall?"
"Because it's the fifth week of summer. " "So? We've already discussed this. Snow can come at any time of the year and you're perfectly well aware of that. "
"I've looked at the record-sticks. We haven't had snow this late in the year since I was a girl. "
"You looked at the record-sticks?" Silver Cloyd asked, taken aback. "This morning, you mean?"
"When else? I woke up, I saw the snow, and it frightened me. So I went to Keeps The Past and asked her to show me the sticks. We counted everything together. Seventeen years ago it snowed in the fifth week of summer. Not since. -Do you know what else happened that summer? Six of our people died in the rhinoceros hunt and four were killed in a stampede of mammoths. Ten deaths in a single summer. "
"What are you telling me, She Who Knows?" "I'm not telling you anything. I'm asking you if you think this snow's an omen. "
"I think this snow is snow. Nothing more. " "Not that the Goddess may be angry with us?" "Ask the Goddess, not me. The Goddess doesn't speak much with me these days. "
She Who Knows' mouth quirked in exasperation. "Be serious, Silver Cloud. What if this snow means that there's some sort of danger lying in wait for us here?"
"Look," he said, gesturing grandly toward the valley and the plains. "Do you see danger out there? I see a little snow, yes. Very little. And I also see the People awake and smiling, going about their business, starting forth on another good day. That's what I see, She Who Knows. If you see the anger of the Goddess, show me where it lies. " Indeed everything seemed wonderfully peaceful to him down there. In the main encampment the women and girls were building the morning fire. Boys too young to hunt were wandering about nearby, rummaging through the light covering of snow to gather twigs and bits of withered sod to be used as fuel. Off to the left in the domain of the Mothers he saw the babies being given their morning meal-there was Milky Fountain, that inexhaustible woman, with an infant at each breast, and Deep Water was leading the toddlers in a circle game, pausing now to comfort a small boy-Skyfire Face, it was -who had fallen and barked his knee. Behind the place of the Mothers, the three Goddess Women had built a cairn of rocks to serve as a shrine to Her and were very busy at it: one of the priestesses setting out an offering of berries, another pouring onto the bloodstone the blood of the wolf that had been killed yesterday, a third kindling the day-fire. Over on the other side Mammoth Rider had set up his workshop and was already turning out flint blades, which he still made with perfect workmanship despite the palsy that was steadily overtaking his limbs. Moon Dancer and one of her daughters sat behind him, at work on their usual task of chewing hides to make them soft enough to turn into cloaks. And far off on the horizon Silver Cloud saw the men of the Hunting Society in the field, fanning out over the tundra, spears and throwing-sticks at the ready. The uneven long line of their footprints still showed, a bare suggestion of them, anyway, the dark oudines of heels and splayed toes proceeding outward from the camp in the rapidly vanishing snow.
Everything seemed peaceful, yes. Everything seemed normal and regular, a new day dawning in the life of the People, who were as old as time and would endure until the end of days. Why should a little midsummer snow cause any concern? Life was hard; snow was a commonplace thing and always would be, all the year round; the Goddess had never promised anyone that the summer would be free from snow, however kindly She had been in that regard in recent years.
Strange that he hadn't felt it coming toward them the night before, though. Or had he, and not paid close attention? There were so many aches and pains these days; it was harder and harder to interpret each one of them.
But all seemed well, nevertheless.
"I'm going down now," he said to She Who Knows.
"I just came up here for a little quiet time alone. But I see that I'm not going to be allowed to have it. "
"Let me help you," she said.
Furiously Silver Cloud brushed away the hand she had extended toward him.
"Do I look like a cripple to you, woman? Keep your hands to yourself!"
She shook her shoulders indifferently. "Whatever you say, Silver Cloud. "
But the track down from the high ground was rough and troublesome, and the light coating of melting snow hid some of the small treacherous rocks from view and made them slick and slippery beneath his feet. Before he had gone ten paces Silver Cloud found himself wishing his pride had allowed him to take She Who Knows up on her offer. That would have been impossible, though. Nobody minded if he limped a little, but if he started needing assistance on a gently sloping path like this they might begin thinking it was time to help him to his final rest. Old people were revered, yes, but diey couldn't be coddled beyond a certain point. In his day he had helped other old ones to their final rest, and a sad business it was, too, making nests for them in the snow and standing by until the chill had carried them into their last sleep. He wanted no such help for himself: let his time come when it came, not an hour before. It would be soon enough anyway.
He was panting a little when he reached the bottom of the hill, and he felt warm and sweat-sticky beneath his cloak of thick gray fur. But the descent hadn't been too bad. He was still strong enough to hold his own.
Cooking smells reached Silver Cloud's nostrils. The laughter of children and the piercing cries of infants drifted through the air. The sun was climbing swiftly. A sense of well-being pervaded his spirit.
In three more days it would be time for the Summer Festival, when he would have to dance in the circle and sacrifice a young bullock and rub its blood on the chosen virgin of the year. And then take her aside and embrace her to insure the success of the autumn hunt. Silver Cloud had been a little uneasy as the time of the Summer Festival approached, thinking that he was getting a bit too lame to do a proper job of dancing, and perhaps might bungle the sacrifice of the bullock as he had once seen another aging chieftain do long ago; and as for the embracing of the virgin, he was a trifle uncertain about that part too. But in the warmth of the morning all those fears dropped away. She Who Knows was becoming a quavering old fool. The snow signified nothing. Nothing! This was a fine bright day. For the People a glorious summer lay ahead, unfolding in ever-increasing warmth.
A pity that the Summer Festival wasn't to be held today, Silver Cloud thought. While his spirit was in this upward-turning phase; while his body was, for the moment at least, experiencing a little rush of renewed vigor. The dancing-the bullock-the embracing of the virgin"Silver Cloud! Silver Cloud!"
Hoarse breathless voices, ragged exhausted gasps, coming from the open 6elds beyond the place where the Goddess Women were tending their shrine.
What was this? Hunters returning so soon? And in such haste?
He shaded his eyes and looked into the sun. Yes, it was Tree Of Wolves and Broken Mountain, running toward the camp with all their might and calling his name as they ran. Tree Of Wolves was waving his spear about in a frantic, almost crazy way; Broken Mountain didn't seem to have his weapons with him at all.
They came staggering into camp and fell practically at
Silver Cloud's feet, wheezing, moaning, struggling for breath. They were two of the strongest and swiftest of the men, but they must have run at full tilt all the way back from the hunting field and they were at the end of their endurance.
Silver Cloud felt a great uneasiness coming over him, driving away that all-too-brief moment of joy and peace.
"What is it?" he demanded, giving them no time to catch dieir breath. "Why are you back this early?"
Broken Mountain pointed back behind him. His arm was trembling like an old man's. His teeth were chattering.
"Other Ones!" he blurted.
Broken Mountain shook his head. He had no strength left in him for words.
Tree Of Wolves said, with a tremendous effort, "We -didn't-see-them. Just their tracks. "
"In the snow. "
"In the snow, yes. " Tree Of Wolves was on his knees, head hanging downward. Great racking movements almost like convulsions ran through him from his shoulders to his waist. After a moment he was able to speak again. "Their prints. The long narrow feet. Like this. " He drew the shape of a foot in the air with his fingers. "Other Ones. No doubt about it. "
Tree Of Wolves shook his head. He closed his eyes.
"Many," said Broken Mountain, finding his voice again suddenly. He held up both his hands and flashed all his fingers-again, again, again. "More than us. Two, three, four times as many. Marching from south to north. "
"And a little west," said Tree Of Wolves somberly.
"Toward us, you mean?"
"Maybe. Not-sure. "
"Toward us, I think," said Broken Mountain. "Or us toward them. We might walk right into them if we don't take care. "
"Other Ones out here?" Silver Cloud said, as though speaking only to himself. "But they don't like the open plains. This isn't their kind of country. There's nothing for them here. They should be staying closer to the sea. Are you sure about the feet, Tree Of Wolves? Broken Mountain?"
"They are crossing our path, but I think that they won't come toward us," said Tree Of Wolves.
"I think they will," Broken Mountain said.
"I think they don't know we're here. "
"I think they do," said Broken Mountain.
Silver Cloud put his hands to his face and tugged at his beard-hard, so hard that it hurt. He peered into the east as though if he only looked intensely enough he would be able to see the band of Other Ones marching across the track his people meant to take. But all he saw was the rising glare of the morning.
Then he turned and his eyes met those of She Who Knows.
He expected that she would be looking at him in a smug, self-righteous, vindicated way. The unexpected midsummer snow had been a bad omen after all, hadn't it? And not only had he completely failed to predict its coming, he had also utterly misinterpreted its dire significance. I told you so, She Who Knows should be saying now. We are in great trouble and you are no longer Jit to lead.
But to his amazement there was no trace of any such vindictiveness in She Who Knows' expression. Her face was dark with sorrow and silent tears were rolling down her cheeks.
She held her hand out toward him and there was something almost tender in the way she did it.
"Silver Cloud-" she said softly. "Oh, Silver Cloud. "
She's not simply weeping for herself, Silver Cloud thought. Or for the danger to the tribe.
She's weeping for me, he realized in astonishment.