A boy of the bustling, colorful docks of port Kolhari, during a political coup, fifteen-year-old Gorgik, once his parents are killed, is taken a slave and transported to the government obsidian mines at the foot of the Faltha mountains. When, in the savagely primitive land of Nevèrÿon, finally he wins his freedom, Gorgik is ready to lead a rebellion against the rulers of this barely civilized land. His is the through-story that, now in the background, now in the foreground, connects these first five stories, in Tales of Nevèrÿon—and, indeed, all the eleven stories, novellas, and novels that comprise Delany’s epic fantasy series, Return to Nevèrÿon, where we can watch civilization first develop money, writing, labor, and that grounding of all civilizations since: capital itself.
In these sagas of barbarism, new knowledge, and sex, you’ll find far more than in most sword-and-sorcery. They are an epic feat of language, an ironic analysis of the foundations of civilization, and a reminder that no weapon is more powerful than a well-honed legend.
This “eminently readable and gorgeously entertaining” (The Washington Post Book World) novel reads “as if Umberto Eco had written about Conan the Barbarian” (USA Today).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Samuel R. Delany including rare images from his early career.
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Tales of Nevèrÿon
By Samuel R. Delany
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Samuel R. Delany
All rights reserved.
His mother from time to time claimed eastern connections with one of the great families of fisherwomen in the Ulvayn Islands: she had the eyes, but not the hair. His father was a sailor who, after a hip injury at sea, had fixed himself to the port of Kolhari, where he worked as a waterfront dispatcher for a wealthier importer. So Gorgik grew up in the greatest of Nevèrÿon ports, his youth along the docks substantially rougher than his parents would have liked and peppered with more trouble than they thought they could bear—though not so rough or troubled as some of his friends': he was neither killed by accidental deviltry nor arrested.
Childhood in Kolhari? Somehow, soldiers and sailors from the breadth of Nevèrÿon ambled and shouted all through it, up and down the Old Pave; merchants and merchants' wives strolled on Black Avenue, so called for its topping that, on hot days, softened under the sandals; travelers and tradesmen met to chat in front of dockside inns—the Sump, the Kraken, the Dive; and among them all slipped the male and female slaves, those of aristocratic masters dressed more elegantly than many merchants, while others were so ragged and dirty their sex was indistinguishable, yet all with the hinged iron collars above fine or frayed shirt necks or bony shoulders, loose or tight around stringy or fleshy necks, and sometimes even hidden under jeweled pieces of damasked cloth set with beryls and tourmalines. Frequently this double memory returned to Gorgik: leaving a room where a lot of coins, some stacked, some scattered, lay on sheets of written-over parchment, to enter the storage room at the back of the warehouse his father worked in—but instead of bolts of hide and bales of hemp, he saw some two dozen, cross-legged on the gritty flooring, a few leaning against the earthen wall, three asleep in the corner, and one making water astraddle the trough that grooved the room's center. All were sullen, silent, naked—save the iron at their throats. As he walked through, none even looked at him. An hour, or two hours, or four hours later, he walked into that storage room again: empty. About the floor lay two dozen collars hinged open. From each a chain coiled the pitted grit to hang from a plank set in the wall to which the last, oversized links were pegged. The air was cool and fetid. In another room coins clinked. Had he been six? Or seven? Or five ...? On the street behind the dockside warehouses women made jewelry and men made baskets; for oiled iron boys sold baked sweet potatoes that in winter were flaky and cold on the outside with just a trace of warmth in the center and, in summer, hot on the first bite but with a hard wet knot in the middle; and mothers harangued their girls from raffia-curtained windows: 'Get in the house, get in the house, get in the house this instant! There's work to do!'
With spring came the red and unmentionable ships from the south. And the balls. (Most things dubbed unmentionable have usually been mentioned quite fully in certain back alleys, at certain low dives, beside certain cisterns, by low men—and women—who do not shun low language. There have always been some phenomena, however, which are so baffling that neither high language nor low seems able to deal with them. The primitive response to such phenomena is terror and the sophisticated one, ignoral. These ships produced their share of both, sold their cargo, and were not talked of.) The balls were small enough for a big man to hide one in his fist and made of some barely pliable blackish matter that juvenile dissection revealed hid a knuckle-sized bubble. With the balls came the rhyme that you bounced to on the stone flags around the neighborhood cistern:
I went out to Babàra's Pit
At the crescent moon's first dawning.
But the Thanes of Garth had covered it,
And no one found a place to sit,
And Belham's key no longer fit,
And all the soldiers fought a bit,
And neither general cared a whit
If any man of his was hit ...
The rhyme went on as long as you could keep the little ball going, usually with a few repetitions, as many improvisations; and when you wanted to stop, you concluded:
... And the eagle sighed and the serpent cried
For all my lady's warning!
On warning! you slammed the ball hard as you could into the cistern's salt-stained wall. The black ball soared in sunlight. Boys and girls ran, pranced, squinted ... Whoever caught it got next bounce.
Sometimes it was '... for all the Mad witch's warning ...' which didn't fit the rhythm; sometimes it was '... for all Mad Olin's warning ...' which did, but no one was sure what that meant. And anyone with an amphibrachic name was always in for ribbing. For one thing was certain: whoever'd done the warning had meant no good by it.
A number of balls went into cisterns. A number simply went wherever lost toys go. By autumn all were gone. (He was sad for that, too, because by many days' practice on the abandoned cistern down at the alley end behind the grain warehouse, he'd gotten so he could bounce the ball higher than any but the children half again his age.) The rhyme lingered in the heaped-over corners of memory's store, turned up, at longer and longer intervals, perhaps a moment before sleep on a winter evening, in a run along the walled bank of the Big Khora on some next-summer's afternoon.
A run in the streets of Kolhari? Those streets were loud with the profanity of a dozen languages. At the edges of the Spur, Gorgik learned that voldreg meant 'excrement-caked privates of a female camel,' which seemed to be the most common epithet in the glottal-rich speech of the dark-robed northern men, but if you used the word ini, which meant 'a white gilley-flower,' with these same men, you could get a smack for it. In the Alley of Gulls, inhabited mostly by southern folk, he heard the women, as they lugged their daubed baskets of water, dripping over the green-gray flags, talk of nivu this and nivu that, in their sibilant, lisping way and usually with a laugh. But when he asked Miese, the southern barbarian girl who carried vegetables and fish to the back door of the Kraken, what it meant, she told him—laughing—that it was not a word a man would want to know.
'Then it must have something to do with what happens to women every month, yes?' he'd asked with all the city-bred candor and sophistication of his (by now) fourteen years.
Miese tugged her basket higher on her hip: 'I should think a man would want to know about that!' She stepped up the stairs to shoulder through the leather curtain that, when the boards were removed for the day, became the Kraken's back door. 'No, it has nothing to do with a woman's monthly blood. You city people have the strangest ideas.' And she was gone inside.
He never did learn the meaning.
The lower end of New Pave (so called somewhere between ten and ten thousand years) was one with the dockside. Along the upper end, where the road dipped down again to cross the Bridge of Lost Desire, male and female prostitutes loitered or drank in the streets or solicited along the bridge's walkways, many come from exotic places and many spawned by old Kolhari herself, most of them brown by birth and darkened more by summer, like the fine, respectable folk of the city (indeed, like himself), though here were a few with yellow hair, pale skin, gray eyes, and their own lisping language (like Miese) bespeaking barbaric origins.
And weren't there more of them up this year than last?
Some stood about all but naked, squinting in the sun, while some wore elaborate skirts and belts and necklaces, most of the women and half the men with dark wings of paint laid about their eyes, some sleepy and slow-moving, some with quick smiles and inquisitive comments to every passerby, with sudden laughter and as-sudden anger (when the words for women's genitals, men's excreta, and cooking implements, all combined in truly novel ways, would howl across the bridge: the curses of the day). Yet all of them had, once they began to talk to you, astonishingly similar stories, as if one tale of pain, impoverishment, and privation (or a single, dull, if over-violent, life) had been passed from one to the other, belonging really to none of them, but only held by each the length of time it took to tell it, the only variation, as this one or that one recounted it, in the name of this small town or that abusive relative, or perhaps the particular betrayal, theft, or outrage that meant they could not go home.
By the dusty yards and stone-walled warehouses where the great commercial caravans pulled up after their months out in the land, with their mules and horses and covered carriages and open carts and provision wagons, once Gorgik stopped to talk to a caravan guard who stood a bit away from some others—who were squatting at the corner over a game of bones.
Rubbing his sweating hands against his leather kilt, the man began to speak to Gorgik of bandits in the mountains and brigands in the deserts—till, in a swirl of dark brocade, with street dust rising about his sandals, a merchant with cheeks as wrinkled as prunes, long teeth stained brown and black, and a beard like little tufts of wool stuck all over his dark jaw, rushed forward waving both his fists about his shoulders. 'You ...! You ...! You'll never work for me again! The steward has told me all, all about your thievery and your lies! Oh, no—you'll not endanger my carriages with your cowardice and your conniving! Here—' From among his robes the old man pulled out a handful of coins and flung them so that gold and iron struck the guard's neck, chest, and hip. (As if the disks were hot from the smithy across the street, the guard flinched away.) 'That's half your pay! Take it and be happy for it—when you're not worth a single bit of iron!' And though the guard wore a knife at his hip (and that must have been his spear leaning on the wall behind them) and was younger, bigger, and certainly stronger than the enraged merchant, he went scrabbling for his coins in the street and, with only a snarl and a glare—not even a fully articulated curse—snatched up his spear and hurried off. Only when he was a block away did he look back. Once. That's when Gorgik saw that the other guards had stopped their gambling to stand and move a step nearer. Still muttering, the old man turned back among them (who, Gorgik realized, were still very much expecting their own full salaries). They followed the merchant back to the warehouse, leaving Gorgik in the street with half an adventure in his head, a tale yearning for completion.
Another time when he and some friends were playing near the docks, from beside a mound of barrels a woman called to them: 'Come here ... you children!' She had a hard, lined face, was taller than his father, and her hair was shorter than his mother's. Walking up to her, they could see her hands and feet both were callused and cracked about their lighter edges. 'Where ...,' she asked, quiet, tentative, 'tell me ... where do they hire the women to wash the clothes?'
He and his friends just looked.
'Where do they ... hire the washerwomen?' Her speech was accented; her skin was that deep, deep brown, a shade or two darker than his own, so often called black. 'They hire women ... somewhere near here, to wash the clothes. I heard it. Where is it? I need work. Where ... where should I go?'
And he realized what halted and held back her words was fear—which is always difficult for children to understand in adults; especially in an adult as tall and as strong as this hard, handsome woman.
One of the older girls said: 'You don't want to do that. They only hire barbarian women to do that, up in the Spur.'
'But I need work,' she said. 'I need it ... the Spur—where is that?'
One of the younger boys started to point. But, as if in an excess of nervousness or just high spirits, another suddenly shouted and at the same time flung his ball into the air. A moment later all of them were running and yelling to each other, now leaping across a coil of rope, now dodging around an overturned dingy. He looked back to see the woman calling after them—though, for the shouting, he could not hear—and turned, as a friend tagged him, around a corner into another alley, all the time wondering what she was crying, what more she wanted to tell, what else she wanted to ask ... The rest of the afternoon, in the dockloaders' calls, just below his friends' shrieks between the warehouses, behind the echoes of his own shouts across the yard where he ran after the others, he seemed to hear her, hear the fragments of some endless want, fear, hope, and harassment ...
And still another time, when he wandered into the yard, he saw the boy (a few years older than himself? an old-looking sixteen? a young-looking eighteen?) sitting on the abandoned cistern's wall.
That's the first thing he thought, looking at those knobbly shoulders, those sharp knees. Gorgik walked nearer. The boy's skin had begun the same brown as his own. But it was as if some black wash of street dirt and gutter water had been splashed over him, heels to ears. The boy was not looking at him but stared at some spot on the flagstones a little ahead, so that it was easy to walk by and look at him more closely—
When he saw the iron collar around the boy's neck, Gorgik stopped—walking, thinking, breathing. There was a thud, thud, thud in his chest. For moments, he was dizzy. The shock was as intense as heat or cold.
When his vision cleared, the next thing Gorgik saw were the scars.
They were thick as his fingers and wormed around the boy's soiled flanks. Here the welts were brown, there darker than the surrounding skin—he knew what they were, though he had never seen anyone bearing them before. At least not from this close. They were from a flogging. In provincial villages, he knew, whipping was used to punish criminals. And, of course, slaves.
Wanting desperately to move away, he stood staring for seconds, minutes, hours at the boy—who still did not look at him. No. Only seconds, he realized when, a breath later, he was walking on. Reaching the other alley, he stopped. He took three more breaths. And a fourth. Then he looked back.
Under his matted hair, the slave still had not looked up.
Stepping close to the wall, Gorgik stood there a long time. Soon he had framed ten, twenty, fifty questions he wanted to ask. But each time he pictured himself going up to speak to the collared boy, his breath grew short and his heart pounded. Finally, after trying three times, he managed to saunter again across the yard—first behind the cistern: the boy's back was webbed with six welts that, even as Gorgik counted them with held breath, seemed like a hundred in their irruptions and intersections. After waiting almost three minutes, he crossed the yard again, walking in front of the boy this time—then crossed twice more, once in front and again in back. Then, all at once, he left hurriedly, fearing, even though the boy still had not looked, someone passing by one of the alley openings might have seen—though the slave himself (newly escaped? a mad one who'd wandered off from, or been abandoned by, his master?), immobile on the cistern wall, gazed only at the ground.
Half an hour later, Gorgik was back.
The boy sat on the flags now, eyes closed, head back against the cistern wall. What had begun as a series of silent questions had turned for Gorgik into an entire dialogue, with a hundred answers the boy had begun to give him, a hundred stories the boy had begun to tell him. Gorgik walked past, his own feet only inches from the foul toenails. He gazed at the iron collar, till, again, he was moving away. He left by the Alley of No Name, telling himself that, really, he'd spied enough on this pathetic creature.
The dialogue, however, did not end.
When he returned in the lowering light an hour on, the boy was gone from the wall. Seconds later, Gorgik saw him, on the other side of the yard, by one of the buildings, curled up with his back against the sandstone, asleep. Again Gorgik walked past him, at several distances, several times—one minute or five between each passage. But finally he settled himself against the far alley entrance to watch, while the tale the boy told him went on and on, stopping and starting, repeating and revising, sometimes whispered so faintly he could not catch the words, sometimes crisp and vivid as life or dream, so that the square before him, with its circular cistern and the few pots, mostly broken, beside it, grew indistinct beneath a sky whose deepening blue was paled by an ivory wash above the far building, as the moon's gibbous arc slid over it—
Excerpted from Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 1993 Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsReturn ... a preface by K. Leslie Steiner,
The Tale of Gorgik,
The Tale of Old Venn,
The Tale of Small Sarg,
The Tale of Potters and Dragons,
The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers,
Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S. L. Kermit,
A Biography of Samuel R. Delany,