Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

The Stars Below

The wooden house and outbuildings caught fire fast, blazed up, burned down, but the dome, built of lathe and plaster above a drum of brick, would not burn. What they did at last was heap up the wreckage of the telescopes, the instruments, the books and charts and drawings, in the middle of the floor under the dome, pour oil on the heap, and set fire to that. The flames spread to the wooden beams of the big telescope frame and to the clockwork mechanisms. Villagers watching from the foot of the hill saw the dome, whitish against the green evening sky, shudder and turn, first in one direction then in the other, while a black and yellow smoke full of sparks gushed from the oblong slit: an ugly and uncanny thing to see.

It was getting dark, stars were showing in the east. Orders were shouted. The soldiers came down the road in single file, dark men in dark harness, silent.

The villagers at the foot of the hill stayed on after the soldiers had gone. In a life without change or breadth, a fire is as good as a festival. They did not climb the hill, and as the night grew full dark they drew closer together. After a while they began to go back to their villages. Some looked back over their shoulders at the hill, where nothing moved. The stars turned slowly behind the black beehive of the dome, but it did not turn to follow them.

About an hour before daybreak a man rode up the steep zigzag, dismounted by the ruins of the workshops, and approached the dome on foot. The door had been smashed in. Through it, a reddish haze of light was visible, very dim, coming from a massive support-beam that had fallen and had smoldered all night inward to its core. A hanging, sour smoke thickened the air inside the dome. A tall figure moved there and its shadow moved with it, cast upward on the murk. Sometimes it stooped, or stopped, then blundered slowly on.

The man at the door said: “Guennar! Master Guennar!”

The man in the dome stopped still, looking towards the door. He had just picked up something from the mess of wreckage and half-burnt stuff on the floor. He put this object mechanically into his coat pocket, still peering at the door. He came towards it. His eyes were red and swollen almost shut, he breathed harshly in gasps, his hair and clothes were scorched and smeared with black ash.

“Where were you?”

The man in the dome pointed vaguely at the ground.

“There’s a cellar? That’s where you were during the fire? By God! Gone to ground! I knew it, I knew you’d be here.” Bord laughed, a little crazily, taking Guennar’s arm. “Come on. Come out of there, for the love of God. There’s light in the east already.”
The astronomer came reluctantly, looking not at the grey east but back up at the slit in the dome, where a few stars burned clear. Bord pulled him outside, made him mount the horse, and then, bridle in hand, set off down the hill leading the horse at a fast walk.

The astronomer held the pommel with one hand. The other hand, which had been burned across the palm and fingers when he picked up a metal fragment still red-hot under its coat of cinders, he kept pressed against his thigh. He was not conscious of doing so, or of the pain. Sometimes his senses told him, “I am on horseback,” or, “It’s getting lighter,” but these fragmentary messages made no sense to him. He shivered with cold as the dawn wind rose, rattling the dark woods by which the two men and the horse now passed in a deep lane overhung by teasel and briar; but the woods, the wind, the whitening sky, the cold were all remote from his mind, in which there was nothing but a darkness shot with the reek and heat of burning.

Bord made him dismount. There was sunlight around them now, lying long on rocks above a river valley. There was a dark place, and Bord urged him and pulled him into the dark place. It was not hot and close there but cold and silent. As soon as Bord let him stop he sank down, for his knees would not bear; and he felt the cold rock against his seared and throbbing hands.

“Gone to earth, by God!” said Bord, looking about at the veined walls, marked with the scars of miners’ picks, in the light of his lanterned candle. “I’ll be back; after dark, maybe. Don’t come out. Don’t go farther in. This is an old adit, they haven’t worked this end of the mine for years. May be slips and pitfalls in these old tunnels. Don’t come out! Lie low. When the hounds are gone, we’ll run you across the border.”

Bord turned and went back up the adit in darkness. When the sound of his steps had long since died away, the astronomer lifted his head and looked around him at the dark walls and the little burning candle. Presently he blew it out. There came upon him the earth-smelling darkness, silent and complete. He saw green shapes, ocherous blots drifting on the black; these faded slowly. The dull, chill black was balm to his inflamed and aching eyes, and to his mind.

If he thought, sitting there in the dark, his thoughts found no words. He was feverish from exhaustion and smoke inhalation and a few slight burns, and in an abnormal condition of mind; but perhaps his mind’s workings, though lucid and serene, had never been normal. It is not normal for a man to spend twenty years grinding lenses, building telescopes, peering at stars, making calculations, lists, maps and charts of things which no one knows or cares about, things which cannot be reached, or touched, or held. And now all he had spent his life on was gone, burned. What was left of him might as well be, as it was, buried.

But it did not occur to him, this idea of being buried. All he was keenly aware of was a great burden of anger and grief, a burden he was unfit to carry. It was crushing his mind, crushing out reason. And the darkness here seemed to relieve that pressure. He was accustomed to the dark, he had lived at night. The weight here was only rock, only earth. No granite is so hard as hatred and no clay so cold as cruelty. The earth’s black innocence enfolded him. He lay down within it, trembling a little with pain and with relief from pain, and slept.

Light waked him. Count Bord was there, lighting the candle with flint and steel. Bord’s face was vivid in the light: the high color and blue eyes of a keen huntsman, a red mouth, sensual and obstinate. “They’re on the scent,” he was saying. “They know you got away.”

“Why . . .” said the astronomer. His voice was weak; his throat, like his eyes, was still smoke-inflamed. “Why are they after me?”

“Why? Do you still need telling? To burn you alive, man! For heresy!” Bord’s blue eyes glared through the steadying glow of the candle.

“But it’s gone, burned, all I did.”

“Aye, the earth’s stopped, all right, but where’s their fox? They want their fox! But damned if I’ll let them get you.”

The astronomer’s eyes, light and wide-set, met his and held. “Why?”

“You think I’m a fool,” Bord said with a grin that was not a smile, a wolf’s grin, the grin of the hunted and the hunter. “And I am one. I was a fool to warn you. You never listened. I was a fool to listen to you. But I liked to listen to you. I liked to hear you talk about the stars and the courses of the planets and the ends of time. Who else ever talked to me of anything but seed corn and cow dung? Do you see? And I don’t like soldiers and strangers, and trials and burnings. Your truth, their truth, what do I know about the truth? Am I a master? Do I know the courses of the stars? Maybe you do. Maybe they do. All I know is you have sat at my table and talked to me. Am I to watch you burn? God’s fire, they say; but you said the stars are the fires of God. Why do you ask me that, ‘Why?’ Why do you ask a fool’s question of a fool?”

“I am sorry,” the astronomer said.

“What do you know about men?” the count said. “You thought they’d let you be. And you thought I’d let you burn.” He looked at Guennar through the candlelight, grinning like a driven wolf, but in his blue eyes there was a glint of real amusement. “We who live down on the earth, you see, not up among the stars . . .”

He had brought a tinderbox and three tallow candles, a bottle of water, a ball of peas-pudding, a sack of bread. He left soon, warning the astronomer again not to venture out of the mine.

***

When Guennar woke again a strangeness in his situation troubled him, not one which would have worried most people hiding in a hole to save their skins, but most distressing to him: he did not know the time.

It was not clocks he missed, the sweet banging of the church bells in the villages calling to morning and evening prayer, the delicate and willing accuracy of the timepieces he used in his observatory and on whose refinement so many of his discoveries had depended; it was not the clocks he missed, but the great clock.

Not seeing the sky, one cannot know the turning of the earth. All the processes of time, the sun’s bright arch and the moon’s phases, the planet’s dance, the wheeling of the constellations around the pole star, the vaster wheeling of the seasons of the stars, all these were lost, the warp on which his life was woven.

Here there was no time.

“O my God,” Guennar the astronomer prayed in the darkness underground, “how can it offend you to be praised? All I ever saw in my telescopes was one spark of your glory, one least fragment of the order of your creation. You could not be jealous of that, my Lord! And there were few enough who believed me, even so. Was it my arrogance in daring to describe your works? But how could I help it, Lord, when you let me see the endless fields of stars? Could I see and be silent? O my God, do not punish me any more, let me rebuild the smaller telescope. I will not speak, I will not publish, if it troubles your holy Church. I will not say anything more about the orbits of the planets or the nature of the stars. I will not speak, Lord, only let me see!”

“What the devil, be quiet, Master Guennar. I could hear you halfway up the tunnel,” said Bord, and the astronomer opened his eyes to the dazzle of Bord’s lantern. “They’ve called the full hunt up for you. Now you’re a necromancer. They swear they saw you sleeping in your house when they came, and they barred the doors; but there’s no bones in the ashes.”

“I was asleep,” Guennar said, covering his eyes. “They came, the soldiers . . . I should have listened to you. I went into the passage under the dome. I left a passage there so I could go back to the hearth on cold nights, when it’s cold my fingers get too stiff, I have to go warm my hands sometimes.” He spread out his blistered, blackened hands and looked at them vaguely. “Then I heard them overhead . . .”

“Here’s some more food. What the devil, haven’t you eaten?”

“Has it been long?”

“A night and a day. It’s night now. Raining. Listen, Master: There’s two of the black hounds living at my house now. Emissaries of the Council, what the devil, I had to offer hospitality. This is my county, they’re here, I’m the count. It makes it hard for me to come. And I don’t want to send any of my people here. What if the priests asked them, ‘Do you know where he is? Will you answer to God you don’t know where he is?’ It’s best they don’t know. I’ll come when I can. You’re all right here? You’ll stay here? I’ll get you out of here and over the border when they’ve cleared away. They’re like flies now. Don’t talk aloud like that. They might look into these old tunnels. You should go farther in. I will come back. Stay with God, Master.”

“Go with God, count.”

He saw the color of Bord’s blue eyes, the leap of shadows up the rough-hewn roof as he took up the lantern and turned away. Light and color died as Bord, at the turning, put out the lantern. Guennar heard him stumble and swear as he groped his way.

Presently Guennar lighted one of his candles and ate and drank a little, eating the staler bread first, and breaking off a piece of the crusted lump of peas-pudding. This time Bord had brought him three loaves and some salt meat, two more candles and a second skin bottle of water, and a heavy duffle cloak. Guennar had not felt cold. He was wearing the coat he always wore on cold nights in the observatory and very often slept in, when he came stumbling to bed at dawn. It was a good sheepskin, filthy from his rummagings in the wreckage in the dome and scorched at the sleeve-ends, but it was as warm as ever, and was like his own skin to him. He sat inside it eating, gazing out through the sphere of frail yellow candlelight to the darkness of the tunnel beyond. Bord’s words, “You should go farther in,” were in his mind. When he was done eating he bundled up the provisions in the cloak, took up the bundle in one hand and the lighted candle in the other, and set off down the side-tunnel and then the adit, down and inward.

After a few hundred paces he came to a major cross-tunnel, off which ran many short leads and some large rooms or stopes. He turned left, and presently passed a big stope in three levels. He entered it. The farthest level was only about five feet under the roof, which was still well timbered with posts and beams. In a corner of the backmost level, behind an angle of quartz intrusion which the miners had left jutting out as a supporting buttress, he made his new camp, setting out the food, water, tinderbox, and candles where they would come under his hand easily in the dark, and laying the cloak as a mattress on the floor, which was of a rubbly, hard clay. Then he put out the candle, already burned down by a quarter of its length, and lay down in the dark.

***

After his third return to that first side-tunnel, finding no sign that Bord had come there, he went back to his camp and studied his provisions. There were still two loaves of bread, half a bottle of water, and the salt meat, which he had not yet touched; and four candles. He guessed that it might have been six days since Bord had come, but it might have been three, or eight. He was thirsty, but dared not drink, so long as he had no other supply.

He set off to find water.

At first he counted his paces. After a hundred and twenty he saw that the timbering of the tunnel was askew, and there were places where the rubble fill had broken through, half filling the passage. He came to a winze, a vertical shaft, easy to scramble down by what remained of the wooden ladder, but after it, in the lower level, he forgot to count his steps. Once he passed a broken pick handle; farther on he saw a miner’s discarded headband, a stump of candle still stuck in the forehead socket. He dropped this into the pocket of his coat and went on.

The monotony of the walls of hewn stone and planking dulled his mind. He walked on like one who will walk forever. Darkness followed him and went ahead of him.

His candle burning short spilled a stream of hot tallow on his fingers, hurting him. He dropped the candle, and it went out.

He groped for it in the sudden dark, sickened by the reek of its smoke, lifting his head to avoid that stink of burning. Before him, straight before him, far away, he saw the stars.

Tiny, bright, remote, caught in a narrow opening like the slot in the observatory dome: an oblong full of stars in blackness.

He got up, forgetting about the candle, and began to run towards the stars.

They moved, dancing, like the stars in the telescope field when the clockwork mechanism shuddered or when his eyes were very tired. They danced, and brightened.

He came among them, and they spoke to him.

The flames cast queer shadows on the blackened faces and brought queer lights out of the bright, living eyes.

“Here, then, who’s that? Hanno?”

“What were you doing up that old drift, mate?”

“Hey, who is that?”

“Who the devil, stop him—”

“Hey, mate! Hold on!”

He ran blind into the dark, back the way he had come. The lights followed him and he chased his own faint, huge shadow down the tunnel. When the shadow was swallowed by the old dark and the old silence came again he still stumbled on, stooping and groping so that he was oftenest on all fours or on his feet and one hand. At last he dropped down and lay huddled against the wall, his chest full of fire.

Silence, dark.

He found the candle end in the tin holder in his pocket, lighted it with the flint and steel, and by its glow found the vertical shaft not fifty feet from where he had stopped. He made his way back up to his camp. There he slept; woke and ate, and drank the last of his water; meant to get up and go seeking water again; fell asleep, or into a doze or daze, in which he dreamed of a voice speaking to him.

“There you are. All right. Don’t startle. I’ll do you no harm. I said it wasn’t no knocker. Who ever heard of a knocker as tall as a man? Or who ever seen one, for that matter. They’re what you don’t see, mates, I said. And what we did see was a man, count on it. So what’s he doing in the mine, said they, and what if he’s a ghost, one of the lads that was caught when the house of water broke in the old south adit, maybe, come walking? Well then, I said, I’ll go see that. I never seen a ghost yet, for all I heard of them. I don’t care to see what’s not meant to be seen, like the knocker folk, but what harm to see Temon’s face again, or old Trip, haven’t I seen ’em in dreams, just the same, in the ends, working away with their faces sweating same as life? Why not? So I come along. But you’re no ghost, nor miner. A deserter you might be, or a thief. Or are you out of your wits, is that it, poor man? Don’t fear. Hide if you like. What’s it to me? There’s room down here for you and me. Why are you hiding from the light of the sun?”

“The soldiers . . .”

“I thought so.”

When the old man nodded, the candle bound to his forehead set light leaping over the roof of the stope. He squatted about ten feet from Guennar, his hands hanging between his knees. A bunch of candles and his pick, a short-handled, finely shaped tool, hung from his belt. His face and body, beneath the restless star of the candle, were rough shadows, earth-colored.

“Let me stay here.”

“Stay and welcome! Do I own the mine? Where did you come in, eh, the old drift above the river? That was luck to find that, and luck you turned this way in the crosscut, and didn’t go east instead. Eastward this level goes on to the caves. There’s great caves there; did you know it? Nobody knows but the miners. They opened up the caves before I was born, following the old lode that lay along here sunward. I seen the caves once, my dad took me, you should see this once, he says. See the world underneath the world. A room there was no end to. A cavern as deep as the sky, and a black stream falling into it, falling and falling till the light of the candle failed and couldn’t follow it, and still the water was falling on down into the pit. The sound of it came up like a whisper without an end, out of the dark. And on beyond that there’s other caves, and below. No end to them, maybe. Who knows? Cave under cave, and glittering with the barren crystal. It’s all barren stone, there. And all worked out, here, years ago. It’s a safe enough hole you chose, mate, if you hadn’t come stumbling in on us. What was you after? Food? A human face?”

“Water.”

“No lack of that. Come on, I’ll show you. Beneath here in the lower level there’s all too many springs. You turned the wrong direction. I used to work down there, with the damned cold water up to my knees, before the vein ran out. A long time ago. Come on.”

***

The old miner left him in his camp, after showing him where the spring rose and warning him not to follow down the watercourse, for the timbering would be rotted and a step or sound might bring the earth down. Down there all the timbers were covered with a deep glittering white fur, saltpeter perhaps, or a fungus: it was very strange, above the oily water. When he was alone again Guennar thought he had dreamed that white tunnel full of black water, and the visit of the miner. When he saw a flicker of light far down the tunnel, he crouched behind the quartz buttress with a great wedge of granite in his hand: for all his fear and anger and grief had come down to one thing here in the darkness, a determination that no man would lay hand on him. A blind determination, blunt and heavy as a broken stone, heavy in his soul.

It was only the old man coming, with a hunk of dry cheese for him.

He sat with the astronomer, and talked. Guennar ate up the cheese, for he had no food left, and listened to the old man talk. As he listened the weight seemed to lift a little, he seemed to see a little farther in the dark.

“You’re no common soldier,” the miner said, and he replied, “No, I was a student once,” but no more, because he dared not tell the miner who he was. The old man knew all the events of the region; he spoke of the burning of the Round House on the hill, and of Count Bord. “He went off to the city with them, with these black-gowns, to be tried, they do say, to come before their council. Tried for what? What did he ever do but hunt boar and deer and foxen? Is it the council of the foxen trying him? What’s it all about, this snooping and soldiering and burning and trying? Better leave honest folk alone. The count was honest, as far as the rich can be, a fair landlord. But you can’t trust them, none of such folk. Only down here. You can trust the men who go down into the mine. What else has a man got down here but his own hands and his mates’ hands? What’s between him and death, when there’s a fall in the level or a winze closes and he’s in the blind end, but their hands, and their shovels, and their will to dig him out? There’d be no silver up there in the sun if there wasn’t trust between us down here in the dark. Down here you can count on your mates. And nobody comes but them. Can you see the owner in his lace, or the soldiers, coming down the ladders, coming down and down the great shaft into the dark? Not them! They’re brave at tramping on the grass, but what good’s a sword and shouting in the dark? I’d like to see ’em come down here . . .”

The next time he came another man was with him, and they brought an oil lamp and a clay jar of oil, as well as more cheese, bread, and some apples. “It was Hanno thought of the lamp,” the old man said. “A hempen wick it is, if she goes out blow sharp and she’ll likely catch up again. Here’s a dozen candles, too. Young Per swiped the lot from the doler, up on the grass.”

“They all know I’m here?”

We do,” the miner said briefly. “They don’t.”

Some time after this, Guennar returned along the lower, west-leading level he had followed before, till he saw the miners’ candles dance like stars; and he came into the stope where they were working. They shared their meal with him. They showed him the ways of the mine, and the pumps, and the great shaft where the ladders were and the hanging pulleys with their buckets; he sheered off from that, for the wind that came sucking down the great shaft smelled to him of burning. They took him back and let him work with them. They treated him as a guest, as a child. They had adopted him. He was their secret.

There is not much good spending twelve hours a day in a black hole in the ground all your life long if there’s nothing there, no secret, no treasure, nothing hidden.

There was the silver, to be sure. But where ten crews of fifteen had used to work these levels and there had been no end to the groan and clatter and crash of the loaded buckets going up on the screaming winch and the empties banging down to meet the trammers running with their heavy carts, now one crew of eight men worked: men over forty, old men, who had no skill but mining. There was still some silver there in the hard granite, in little veins among the gangue. Sometimes they would lengthen an end by one foot in two weeks.

“It was a great mine,” they said with pride.

They showed the astronomer how to set a gad and swing the sledge, how to go at granite with the finely balanced and sharp-pointed pick, how to sort and “cob,” what to look for, the rare bright branchings of the pure metal, the crumbling rich rock of the ore. He helped them daily. He was in the stope waiting for them when they came, and spelled one or another on and off all day with the shovel work, or sharpening tools, or running the ore-cart down its grooved plank to the great shaft, or working in the ends. There they would not let him work long; pride and habit forbade it. “Here, leave off chopping at that like a woodcutter. Look: This way, see?” But then another would ask him, “Give me a blow here, lad, see, on the gad, that’s it.”

They fed him from their own coarse meager meals.

In the night, alone in the hollow earth, when they had climbed the long ladders up “to grass” as they said, he lay and thought of them, their faces, their voices, their heavy, scarred, earth-stained hands, old men’s hands with thick nails blackened by bruising rock and steel; those hands, intelligent and vulnerable, which had opened up the earth and found the shining silver in the solid rock. The silver they never held, never kept, never spent. The silver that was not theirs.

“If you found a new vein, a new lode, what would you do?”

“Open her, and tell the masters.”

“Why tell the masters?”

“Why, man! We gets paid for what we brings up! D’you think we does this damned work for love?”

“Yes.”

They all laughed at him, loud, jeering laughter, innocent. The living eyes shone in their faces blackened with dust and sweat.

“Ah, if we could find a new lode! The wife would keep a pig like we had once, and by God I’d swim in beer! But if there’s silver they’d have found it; that’s why they pushed the workings so far east. But it’s barren there, and worked out here, that’s the short and long of it.”

***

Time stretched behind him and ahead of him like the dark drifts and crosscuts of the mine, all present at once, wherever he with his small candle might be among them. When he was alone now the astronomer often wandered in the tunnels and the old stopes, knowing the dangerous places, the deep levels full of water, adept at shaky ladders and tight places, intrigued by the play of his candle on the rock walls and faces, the glitter of mica that seemed to come from deep inside the stone. Why did it sometimes shine out that way? as if the candle found something far within the shining broken surface, something that winked in answer and occulted, as if it had slipped behind a cloud or an unseen planet’s disc.

“There are stars in the earth,” he thought. “If one knew how to see them.”

***

Awkward with the pick, he was clever with machinery; they admired his skill, and brought him tools. He repaired pumps and windlasses; he fixed up a lamp on a chain for “young Per” working in a long narrow dead end, with a reflector made from a tin candleholder beaten out into a curved sheet and polished with fine rock-dust and the sheepskin lining of his coat. “It’s a marvel,” Per said. “Like daylight. Only, being behind me, it don’t go out when the air gets bad, and tell me I should be backing out for a breath.”

For a man can go on working in a narrow end for some time after his candle has gone out for lack of oxygen.

“You should have a bellows rigged there.”

“What, like I was a forge?”

“Why not?”

“Do ye ever go up to the grass, nights?” asked Hanno, looking wistfully at Guennar. Hanno was a melancholy, thoughtful, softhearted fellow. “Just to look about you?”

Guennar did not answer. He went off to help Bran with a timbering job; the miners did all the work that had once been done by crews of timberers, trammers, sorters, and so on.

“He’s deathly afraid to leave the mine,” Per said, low.

“Just to see the stars and get a breath of the wind,” Hanno said, as if he was still speaking to Guennar.

***

One night the astronomer emptied out his pockets and looked at the stuff that had been in them since the night of the burning of the observatory: things he had picked up in those hours which he now could not remember, those hours when he had groped and stumbled in the smoldering wreckage, seeking . . . seeking what he had lost . . . He no longer thought of what he had lost. It was sealed off in his mind by a thick scar, a burn-scar. For a long time this scar in his mind kept him from understanding the nature of the objects now ranged before him on the dusty stone floor of the mine: a wad of papers scorched all along one side; a round piece of glass or crystal; a metal tube; a beautifully worked wooden cogwheel; a bit of twisted blackened copper etched with fine lines; and so on, bits, wrecks, scraps. He put the papers back into his pocket, without trying to separate the brittle half-fused leaves and make out the fine script. He continued to look at and occasionally to pick up and examine the other things, especially the piece of glass.

This he knew to be the eyepiece of his ten-inch telescope. He had ground the lens himself. When he picked it up he handled it delicately, by the edges, lest the acid of his skin etch the glass. Finally he began to polish it clean, using a wisp of fine lambswool from his coat. When it was clear, he held it up and looked at and through it at all angles. His face was calm and intent, his light wide-set eyes steady.

Tilted in his fingers, the telescope lens reflected the lamp flame in one bright tiny point near the edge and seemingly beneath the curve of the face, as if the lens had kept a star in it from the many hundred nights it had been turned toward the sky.

He wrapped it carefully in the wisp of wool and made a place for it in the rock niche with his tinderbox. Then he took up the other things one by one.

During the next weeks the miners saw their fugitive less often while they worked. He was off a great deal by himself: Exploring the deserted eastern regions of the mine, he said, when they asked him what he did.

“What for?”

“Prospecting,” he said with the brief, wincing smile that gave him a very crazy look.

“Oh, lad, what do you know about that? She’s all barren there. The silver’s gone; and they found no eastern lode. You might be finding a bit of poor ore or a vein of tinstone, but nothing worth the digging.”

“How do you know what’s in the earth, in the rock under your feet, Per?”

“I know the signs, lad. Who should know better?”

“But if the signs are hidden?”

“Then the silver’s hidden.”

“Yet you know it is there, if you knew where to dig, if you could see into the rock. And what else is there? You find the metal, because you seek it, and dig for it. But what else might you find, deeper than the mine, if you sought, if you knew where to dig?”

“Rock,” said Per. “Rock, and rock, and rock.”

“And then?”

“And then? Hellfire, for all I know. Why else does it get hotter as the shafts go deeper? That’s what they say. Getting nearer hell.”

“No,” the astronomer said, clear and firm. “No. There is no hell beneath the rocks.”

“What is there, then, underneath it all?”

“The stars.”

“Ah,” said the miner, floored. He scratched his rough, tallow-clotted hair, and laughed. “There’s a poser,” he said, and stared at Guennar with pity and admiration. He knew Guennar was mad, but the size of his madness was a new thing to him, and admirable. “Will you find ’em then, the stars?”

“If I learn how to look,” Guennar said, so calmly that Per had no response but to heft his shovel and get back to loading the cart.

One morning when the miners came down they found Guennar still sleeping, rolled up in the battered cloak Count Bord had given him, and by him a strange object, a contraption made of silver tubing, tin struts and wires beaten from old headlamp-sockets, a frame of pick handles carefully carved and fitted, cogged wheels, a bit of twinkling glass. It was elusive, makeshift, delicate, crazy, intricate.

“What the devil’s that?”

They stood about and stared at the thing, the lights of their headlamps centering on it, a yellow beam sometimes flickering over the sleeping man as one or another glanced at him.

“He made it, sure.”

“Sure enough.”

“What for?”

“Don’t touch it.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

Roused by their voices, the astronomer sat up. The yellow beams of the candles brought his face out white against the dark. He rubbed his eyes and greeted them.

“What would that be, lad?”

He looked troubled or confused when he saw the object of their curiosity. He put a hand on it protectively, yet he looked at it himself without seeming to recognize it for a while. At last he said, frowning and speaking in a whisper, “It’s a telescope.”

“What’s that?”

“A device that makes distant things clear to the eye.”

“How come?” one of the miners asked, baffled. The astronomer answered him with growing assurance. “By virtue of certain properties of light and lenses. The eye is a delicate instrument, but it is blind to half the universe—far more than half. The night sky is black, we say: between the stars is void and darkness. But turn the telescope-eye on that space between the stars, and lo, the stars! Stars too faint and far for the eye alone to see, rank behind rank, glory beyond glory, out to the uttermost boundaries of the universe. Beyond all imagination, in the outer darkness, there is light: a great glory of sunlight. I have seen it. I have seen it, night after night, and mapped the stars, the beacons of God on the shores of darkness. And here too there is light! There is no place bereft of the light, the comfort and radiance of the creator spirit. There is no place that is outcast, outlawed, forsaken. There is no place left dark. Where the eyes of God have seen, there light is. We must go farther, we must look farther! There is light if we will see it. Not with eyes alone, but with the skill of the hands and the knowledge of the mind and the heart’s faith is the unseen revealed, and the hidden made plain. And all the dark earth shines like a sleeping star.”

He spoke with that authority which the miners knew belonged by rights to the priests, to the great words priests spoke in the echoing churches. It did not belong here, in the hole where they grubbed their living, in the words of a crazy fugitive. Later on, one talking to another, they shook their heads, or tapped them. Per said, “The madness is growing in him,” and Hanno said, “Poor soul, poor soul!” Yet there was not one of them who did not, also, believe what the astronomer had told them.

“Show me,” said old Bran, finding Guennar alone in a deep eastern drift, busy with his intricate device. It was Bran who had first followed Guennar, and brought him food, and led him back to the others.

The astronomer willingly stood aside and showed Bran how to hold the device pointing downward at the tunnel floor, and how to aim and focus it, and tried to describe its function and what Bran might see: all hesitantly, since he was not used to explaining to the ignorant, but without impatience when Bran did not understand.

“I don’t see nothing but the ground,” the old man said after a long and solemn observation with the instrument. “And the little dust and pebbles on it.”

“The lamp blinds your eyes, perhaps,” the astronomer said with humility. “It is better to look without light. I can do it because I have done it for so long. It is all practice—like placing the gads, which you always do right, and I always do wrong.”

“Aye. Maybe. Tell me what you see—” Bran hesitated. He had not long ago realized who Guennar must be. Knowing him to be a heretic made no difference, but knowing him to be a learned man made it hard to call him “mate” or “lad.” And yet here, and after all this time, he could not call him Master. There were times when, for all his mildness, the fugitive spoke with great words, gripping one’s soul, times when it would have been easy to call him Master. But it would have frightened him.

The astronomer put his hand on the frame of his mechanism and replied in a soft voice, “There are . . . constellations.”

“What’s that, constellations?”

The astronomer looked at Bran as if from a great way off, and said presently, “The Wain, the Scorpion, the Sickle by the Milky Way in summer, those are constellations. Patterns of stars, gatherings of stars, parenthoods, semblances . . .”

“And you see those here, with this?”

Still looking at him through the weak lamplight with clear brooding eyes, the astronomer nodded, and did not speak, but pointed downward, at the rock on which they stood, the hewn floor of the mine.

“What are they like?” Bran’s voice was hushed.

“I have only glimpsed them. Only for a moment. I have not learned the skill; it is a somewhat different skill . . . But they are there, Bran.”

Often now he was not in the stope where they worked, when they came to work, and did not join them even for their meal, though they always left him a share of food. He knew the ways of the mine now better than any of them, even Bran, not only the “living” mine but the “dead” one, the abandoned workings and exploratory tunnels that ran eastward, ever deeper, towards the caves. There he was most often; and they did not follow him.

When he did appear amongst them and they talked with him, they were more timid with him, and did not laugh.

One night as they were all going back with the last cartload to the main shaft, he came to meet them, stepping suddenly out of a crosscut to their right. As always he wore his ragged sheepskin coat, black with the clay and dirt of the tunnels. His fair hair had gone grey. His eyes were clear. “Bran,” he said, “come, I can show you now.”

“Show me what?”

“The stars. The stars beneath the rock. There’s a great constellation in the stope on the old fourth level, where the white granite cuts down through the black.”

“I know the place.”

“It’s there: underfoot, by that wall of white rock. A great shining and assembly of stars. Their radiance beats up through the darkness. They are like the faces of dancers, the eyes of angels. Come and see them, Bran!”

The miners stood there, Per and Hanno with backs braced to hold the cart from rolling: stooped men with tired, dirty faces and big hands bent and hardened by the grip of shovel and pick and sledge. They were embarrassed, compassionate, impatient.

“We’re just quitting. Off home to supper. Tomorrow,” Bran said.

The astronomer looked from one face to another and said nothing.

Hanno said in his hoarse gentle voice, “Come up with us, for this once, lad. It’s dark night out, and likely raining; it’s November now; no soul will see you if you come and sit at my hearth, for once, and eat hot food, and sleep beneath a roof and not under the heavy earth all by yourself alone!”

Guennar stepped back. It was as if a light went out, as his face went into shadow. “No,” he said. “They will burn out my eyes.”

“Leave him be,” said Per, and set the heavy ore-cart moving towards the shaft.

“Look where I told you,” Guennar said to Bran. “The mine is not dead. Look with your own eyes.”

“Aye. I’ll come with you and see. Good night!”

“Good night,” said the astronomer, and turned back to the side-tunnel as they went on. He carried no lamp or candle; they saw him one moment, darkness the next.

***

In the morning he was not there to meet them. He did not come.

Bran and Hanno sought him, idly at first, then for one whole day. They went as far down as they dared, and came at last to the entrance of the caves, and entered, calling sometimes, though in the great caverns even they, miners all their lives, dared not call aloud because of the terror of the endless echoes in the dark.

“He has gone down,” Bran said. “Down farther. That’s what he said. Go farther, you must go farther, to find the light.”

“There is no light,” Hanno whispered. “There was never light here. Not since the world’s creation.”

But Bran was an obstinate old man, with a literal and credulous mind; and Per listened to him. One day the two went to the place the astronomer had spoken of, where a great vein of hard light granite that cut down through the darker rock had been left untouched, fifty years ago, as barren stone. They re-timbered the roof of the old stope where the supports had weakened, and began to dig, not into the white rock but down, beside it; the astronomer had left a mark there, a kind of chart or symbol drawn with candle-black on the stone floor. They came on silver ore a foot down, beneath the shell of quartz; and under that—all eight of them working now—the striking picks laid bare the raw silver, the veins and branches and knots and nodes shining among broken crystals in the shattered rock, like stars and gatherings of stars, depth below depth without end, the light.

© 1974 by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Originally published in Orbit 14,
edited by Damon Knight.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin, Ursula K. (Photo by Eileen Gunn)Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of innumerable SF and fantasy classics, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and A Wizard of Earthsea (and the others in the Earthsea Cycle). She has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and is the winner of five Hugos, six Nebulas, two World Fantasy Awards, and twenty Locus Awards. She’s also a winner of the Newbery Medal, The National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

3 Responses »

  1. I was pleasantly surprised by this story. At the beginning, it didn’t draw me, but as the minors got drawn into what the astronomer was talking about. Just like the men, I began wondering “How could you see stars below when they’re above?” I was so glad when the astronomer’s work lead the men to a silver strike. Wonderful work. Well done, and well recorded. Thanks to all involved.

  2. Loved it, not just the themes on the conflicts of rational thought against those of faith. But the lives that such things touch, the ordinary lives of people caught between the clashing themes of intellect over sublime.

    Great work.

  3. I have finally read this story. Viva LeGuin!

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