The Queen of Air and Darkness (Poul Anderson)

The Nebula Award Winner – one of the best books of Poul Anderson

The last glow of the last sunset would linger almost until midwinter. But there would be no more day, and the northlands rejoiced. Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steelflowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them in iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled. Between horizons the sky deepened from purple to sable. Both moons were aloft, nearly full, shining frosty on leaves and molten on waters. The shadows they made were blurred by an aurora, a great blowing curtain of light across half heaven. Behind it the earliest stars had come out.
A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. Their hair, which streamed halfway down their backs, showed startlingly forth, bleached as it was by summer. Their bodies, still dark from that season, merged with earth and bush and rock, for they wore only garlands. He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Out..lings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.
His notes piped cold around her voice:
“Cast a spell, weave it well of dust and dew and night and you.”
A brook by the grave mound, carrying moonlight down to a hill hidden river, answered with its rapids. A flock of hellbats passed black beneath the aurora.
A shape came bounding over Cloudmoor. It had two arms and’ two legs, but the legs were long and claw-footed and feather covered it to the end of a tail and broad wings. The face was half, human, dominated by its eyes. Had Ayoch been able to standwholly erect, he would have reached to the boy’s shoulder.
The girl rose. “He carries a burden,” she said. Her vision was not.. meant for twilight like that of a northland creature born, but she had learned how to use every sign her senses gave her. Besides the,fact that ordinarily a pook would fly, there was a heaviness to his haste.
“And he comes from the south.” Excitement jumped in the boy, sudden as a green flame that went across the constellation Lyrth. He sped down the mound. “Ohoi, Ayoch!” he called. “Me here,: Mistherd!”
“And Shadow-of-a-Dream,” the girl laughed, following.
The pook halted. He breathed louder than the soughing in the growth around him. A smell of bruised yerba lifted where he stood.
“Well met in winterbirth,” he whistled. “You can help me bring this to Carheddin.”
He held out what he bore. His eyes were yellow lanterns above. It moved arid whimpered.
“Why, a child,” Mistherd said.
“Even as you were, my son, even as you were. Ho, ho, what a snatchl”
Ayoch boasted. “They were a score in yon camp by Fallowwood, armed, and besides watcher engines they had big ugly dogs aprowl while they slept. I came from above, however, having spied on them till I knew that a handful of dazedust “
“The poor thing.” Shadow-of-a-Dream took the boy and held him to her small breasts. “So full of sleep yet, aren’t you?” Blindly, he sought a nipple.
She smiled through the veil of her-hair. “No, I am still too young, and you already too old. But come, when you wake in Carheddin under the mountain, you shall feast.”
“Yo-ah; ” said Ayoch very softly. “She is abroad and has heard and seen. She comes.” He crouched down, wings folded. After a moment Mistherd knelt, and then Shadow-of-a-Dream, though she did not let go the child.
The Queen’s tall form blocked off the moons. For a while she regarded the three and their booty. Hill and moor sounds withdrew from their awareness until it seemed they could hear the northlights hiss.
At last Ayoch whispered, “Have I done well, Starmother?”
“If you stole a babe from a camp full of engines,” said the beautiful voice,
“then they were folk out of the far south who may not endure it as meekly
as yeomen.”
“But what can they do, Snowmaker?” the pook asked. “How can they track
Mistherd lifted his head and spoke in pride. “Also, now they too have felt
the awe of us.”
“And he is a cuddly dear,” Shadow-of-a-Dream said. “And we need more like
him, do we not, Lady Sky?”
“It had to happen in some twilight,” agreed she who stood above. “Take him onward and care for him. By this sign,” which she made, “is he claimed for the Dwellers.”
Their joy was freed. Ayoch cartwheeled over the ground till he reached a shiverleaf. There he swarmed up the trunk and out on a limb, perched half hidden by unrestful pale foliage, and crowed.
Boy and girl bore the child toward Carheddin at an easy distance devouring lope which let him pipe and hey sing:
“Wahaii, wahaii!
Wayala, laii!-
Wing on the wind
high over heaven,
shrilly shrieking,
rush with the rainspears,
tumble through tumult,
drift to the moonhoar trees and the dream-heavy
shadows beneath them,
and rock in, be one with the clinking wavelets of
lakes where the starbeams drown.”
As she entered, Barbro Cullen felt, through all grief and fury, stabbed by
dismay. The room was unkempt. Journals, tapes, reels, codices, file boxes,
bescribbled papers were piled on every table. Dust filmed most shelves and
corners. Against one wall stood a laboratory setup, microscope and
analytical equipment. She recognized it as compact and efficient, but it was
not what you would expect in an office, and it gave the air a faint chemical
reek. The rug was threadbare, the furniture shabby.
This was her final chance?
Then Eric Sherrinford approached. “Good day, Mrs. Cullen,” he said. His tone was crisp, his handclasp firm. His faded gripsuit didn’t bother her.
wasn’t inclined to fuss about her own appearance except on special
occasions. (And would she ever again have one, unless she got back Jimmy?)
What she observed was a cat’s personal neatness.
A smile radiated in crow’s feet from his eyes. “Forgive my bachelor housekeeping. On Beowulf we have-we had, at any ratemachines for that, so I never acquired the habit myself, and I don’t want a hireling disarranging my tools. More convenient to work out of my apartment than keep a separate office. Won’t you be seated?”
“No, thanks. I couldn’t,” she mumbled.
“I understand. But if you’ll excuse me, I function best in a relaxed position.”
He jackknifed into a lounger. One long shank crossed the other knee.
He drew forth a pipe and stuffed it from a pouch. Barbro wondered why he took tobacco in so ancient a way. Wasn’t Beowulf supposed to have the up-to-date equipment that they still couldn’t afford to build on Roland? Well, of course old customs might survive anyhow. They generally did in colonies, she remembered reading. People had moved starward in the hope of preserving such outmoded things as their mother tongues or constitutional government or rational-technological
civilization ….
Sherrinford pulled her up from the confusion of her weariness. “You must give me the details of your case, Mrs. Cullen. You’ve simply told me your son was kidnapped and your local constabulary did nothing. Otherwise, I know just a few obvious facts, such as your being widowed rather than divorced; and you’re the daughter of outwayers in Olga lvanoff Land who, nevertheless, kept in close telecommunication with Christmas Landing; and you’re trained in one of the biological professions; and you had several years’ hiatus in field work until recently you started again.”
She gaped at the high-cheeked, beak-nosed, black-haired and gray-eyed countenance. His lighter made a scrit and a flare which seemed to fill the room. Quietness dwelt on this height above the city, and winter dusk was seeping through the windows. “How in cosmos do you know that?”  she heard herself exclaim.
He shrugged and fell into the lecturer’s manner for which he was notorious. “My work depends on noticing details and fitting them together. In more than a hundred years on Roland, tending to cluster according to their origins and thought habits, people have developed regional accents. You have a trace of the Olgan burr, but you nasalize your vowels in the style of this area, though you live in Portolondon-
That suggests steady childhood exposure to metropolitan speech. You were part of Matsuyama’s expedition, you told me, and took your boy along. They wouldn’t have allowed any ordinary technician to do that; hence, you had to be valuable
enough to get away with it. The team was conducting ecological’
research; therefore, you must be in the life sciences. For the same
reason, you must have had previous field experience. But your skin is
fair, showing none of the leatheriness one gets from prolongedexposure
to this sun. Accordingly, you must have been mostly
indoors for a good while before you went on your ill-fated trip. As: for
widowhood-you never mentioned a husband to me, but you have had a
man whom you thought so highly of that you still wear both the
wedding and the engagement ring he gave you.”
Her sight blurred and stung. The last of those words had brought Tim back, huge, ruddy, laughterful and gentle. She must turn from this other person and stare outward. “Yes,” she achieved saying, “you’re right.”
The apartment occupied a hilltop above Christmas Landing Beneath it the city dropped away in walls, roofs, archaistic chimneys and lamplit streets, goblin lights of human-piloted vehicles,’ to the harbor, the sweep of Venture Bay, ships bound to and from the Sunward Islands and remoter regions of the Boreal Ocean, which glimmered like mercury in the afterglow of Charlemagne. Oliver was swinging rapidly higher, a mottled orange disc a full degree wide; closer to the zenith which it
could never reach, it would shine the color of ice. Alde, half the seeming size, was a thin slow crescent near Sirius, which she remembered was near Sol, but you couldn’t see Sol without a telescope
“Yes,” she said around the pain in her throat, “my husband is about four years dead. I was carrying our first child when he was killed by a stampeding monocerus. We’d been married three years before. Met while we were both at the University-‘casts from School Central can only supply a basic education, you know-We founded our own team to do ecological studies under contractyou know, can a certain area be
settled while maintaining a balance of nature, what crops will grow, what hazards, that sort of question-Well, afterward I did lab work for a fisher co-op in Portolondon. But the monotony, the . . . shut-in-ness .  was eating me away. Professor Matsuyama offered me a position on the team he was organizing to examine Commissioner Hauch Land. I thought, God help me, I thought Jimmy-Tim wanted him named James, once the tests showed it’d be a boy, after his own father and because of ‘Timmy and Jimmy’ and-oh, I thought Jimmy could safely come along. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind for months, not at his age. We could
make sure he’d never wander out of camp. What could hurt him inside it?
I had never believed those stories about the Outlings stealing human children. I supposed parents were trying to hide from themselves the fact they’d been careless, they’d let a kid get lost in the woods or attacked by a pack of satans or- Well, I learned better, Mr. Sherrinford. The guard robots were evaded and the dogs were drugged and when I woke, Jimmy was gone.”
He regarded her through the smoke from his pipe. Barbro Engdahl Cullen was a big woman of thirty or so (Rolandic years, he reminded himself, ninety-five percent of Terrestrial, not the same as Beowulfan years), broad-shouldered, long-legged, full-breasted, supple of stride; her face was wide, straight nose, straightforward hazel eyes, heavy but mobile mouth; her hair was reddish-brown, cropped below the ears, her voice husky, her garment a plain street robe. To still the writhing of her fingers, he asked skeptically, “Do you now believe in the Outlings?”
“No. I’m just not so sure as I was.” She swung about with half a glare for
him. “And we have found traces.”
“Bits of fossils,” he nodded. “A few artifacts of a neolithic sort. But apparently ancient, as if the makers died ages ago. Intensive search has failed to turn up any real evidence for their survival.”
“How intensive can search be, in a summer-stormy, wintergloomy wilderness around the North Pole?” she demanded. “When we are, how many, a million people on an entire planet, half of us crowded into this one city?”
“And the rest crowding this one habitable continent,” he pointed out.
“Arctica covers five million square kilometers,” she flung back. “The Arctic Zone proper covers a fourth of it. We haven’t the industrial base to establish satellite monitor stations, build aircraft we can trust in those parts, drive roads through the damned darklands and establish permanent bases and get to know them and tame them. Good Christ, generations of lonely outwaymen told stories about Graymantle,
and the beast was never seen by a I proper scientist till last year!”
“Still, you continue to doubt the reality of the Outlings?”-
“Well, what about a secret cult among humans, born of isolation and
ignorance, lairing in the wilderness, stealing children when they can for-“
She swallowed. Her head dropped. “But you’re supposed to be the expert.”
“From what you told me over the visiphone, the Portolondon constabulary questions the accuracy of the report your group ` made, thinks the lot of you were hysterical, claims you must have omitted a due precaution, and the child toddled away and was lost beyond your finding.”
His dry words pried the horror out of her. Flushing, she snapped, “Like any settler’s kid? No. I didn’t simply yell. I consulted Data Retrieval. A few too many such cases are recorded for accident to be a very plausible explanation. And shall we totally ignore the frightened stories about reappearances? But when I t went back to the constabulary with my facts, they brushed me off. _ I suspect that was not entirely because they’re undermanned. I think they’re afraid too. They’re recruited from country boys, and .. Portolondon lies near the edge of the unknown.”
Her energy faded. “Roland hasn’t got any central police force,” she finished drably. “You’re my last hope.”
The man puffed smoke into twilight, with which it blent, before he said in a kindlier voice than hitherto: “Please don’t make it a high hope, Mrs. Cullen. I’m the solitary private investigator on this world, having no resources beyond myself, and a newcomer to boot.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Twelve years. Barely time to get a little familiarity with the relatively civilized coastlands. You settlers of a century or more- ‘ what do you, even, know about Arctica’s interior?”
Sherrinford sighed. “I’ll take the case, charging no more than I must, mainly for the sake of the experience,” he said. “But only if you’ll be my guide and assistant, however painful it will be for you.”
“Of course! I dreaded waiting idle. Why me, though?”
“hiring someone else as well qualified would be prohibitively expensive, on a pioneer planet where every hand has a thousand urgent tasks to do. Besides, you have a motive. And I’ll need that. 1, who was born on another world altogether strange to this one, itself altogether strange to Mother Earth, I am too dauntingly aware of how
handicapped we are.”
Night gathered upon Christmas Landing. The air stayed mild, but glimmer-lit tendrils of fog, sneaking through the streets, had a cold look, and colder yet was the aurora where it shuddered between the moons. The woman drew closer to the man in this darkening room, surely not aware that she did, until he switched on a Auoropanel. The same knowledge of Roland’s aloneness was in both of them.
One light-year is not much as galactic distances go. You could walk it in about 270 million years, beginning at the middle of the Permian Era, when dinosaurs belonged to the remote future, and continuing to the present day when spaceships cross even greater reaches. But stars in our neighborhood average some nine lightyears apart, and barely one percent of them have planets which are man-habitable, and speeds
are limited to less than that of radiation. Scant help is given by relativistic time contraction and suspended animation en route.’ These make the journeys seem short, but history meanwhile does not stop at home.
Thus voyages from sun to sun will always be few. Colonists will be those who have extremely special reasons for going. They will take along germ plasm for exogenetic cultivation of domestic plants and animals-and of human infants, in order that population can grow fast enough to escape death through genetic drift. After all, they cannot rely on further immigration. Two or three times a century, a ship may call from some other colony. (Not from Earth. Earth has long ago sunk into alien concerns.) Its place of origin will be an old settlement. The young ones are in no position to build and man interstellar vessels.
Their very survival, let alone their eventual modernization, is in doubt. The founding fathers have had to take what they could get in a universe not especially designed for man.
Consider, for example, Roland. It is among the rare happy finds, a world where humans can live, breathe, eat the food, drink the water, walk unclad if they choose, sow their crops, pasture their beasts, dig their mines, erect their homes, raise their children and grandchildren.
It is worth crossing three-quarters of a light-century to preserve certain dear values and strike new roots into the soil of Roland.
But the star Charlemagne is of type F9, forty percent brighter than Sol, brighter still in the treacherous ultraviolet and wilder still in the wind of charged particles that seethes from it. The planet has an eccentric orbit. In the middle of the short but furious northern summer, which includes periastron, total insolation is more than
double what Earth gets; in the depth of the long northern winter, it is barely less than Terrestrial average.