A Heat Wave in the Hellers, and Other Tales of Darkover®
by Deborah J. Ross
In 1985, Deborah J. Ross sold her first Darkover to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Free Amazons of Darkover. “Midwife” relates the adventures of a young woman who inadvertently becomes the surrogate mother of a banshee chick — a smelly, sightless, carnivorous bird. Bradley featured Ross’s short stories — dramatic, bittersweet, romantic, and humorous — in subsequent anthologies.
Bradley often cited Ross’s turnabout-twist story, “The Death of Brendon Ensolare,” as one of her favorites. Eventually the two collaborated on novel-length works set in the world of the Bloody Sun. Following Bradley’s death in 1999, Ross has continued the series, as well as “paying forward” as the editor of anthologies such as Stars of Darkover and Crossroads of Darkover. For the first time, here are all of Ross’s Darkover short stories, some of them previously unpublished, now collected in one volume.
…A pair of City Guards cadets invent an imaginary recruit in order to avoid their chores, and then must face the consequences…
In the Ages of Chaos, a young wizard must rely on his uncertain powers to survive a haunted Tower…
When the new lord of a captured castle is found murdered, the all-too-obvious suspect is an Aldaran assassin…
Only the legendary Keeper could save her circle under the onslaught of forbidden weapons, but the results would cripple generations of women to come…
…and in the title story, written as a birthday gift, Ross sends Marion Zimmer Bradley herself to Darkover to solve a crisis in “A Heat Wave in the Hellers”…
“This is the best Darkover novel in a long time…. It’s a tale of culture clash, in classic Darkover style, a delightful return to a fascinating world, and a great read.”— Locus [on The Children of Kings]
The nest was empty except for a large dark egg. The second piece of good luck was that the entrance to the banshee’s lair was partially blocked by snow and debris, which meant that the bird could not return without giving Gavriela ample warning. Unfortunately, it also meant that she was trapped in a small, smelly place until she could dig herself out.
Gavriela n’ha Alys sat back on her heels and considered her situation. She had not cried since her oath-taking, and she did not cry now. She should have waited at Nevarsin for her Renunciate escort, which had been delayed by bad weather. Gavi had thought only of her own driving restlessness and the quickening snowfalls. She refused to spend another winter snowed-in, no matter how precious the medical records she was copying. Her replacement, a smiling, self-sufficient sister from Temora, had already settled in, so there was nothing between Gavi and the trail to Thendara but a stupid rule about not traveling alone. When she had realized she was being tracked, she’d panicked and become lost in the heights.
Gavi ran sweating hands over her trail-stained trousers. Surely she could afford to rest a little, trusting that the avalanche had destroyed, or at very least delayed, her pursuers. She could not face them or outrun them, even if she managed to find her pack animal. Her fighting skills were barely adequate; her escort would have been a competent woman with a sharp blade and ready fists. But she was alone.
All the smiths in Zandru’s forge can’t mend that broken egg, Gavi told herself sternly. And speaking of eggs . . .
She went over to the brown oval, breathing through her mouth to avoid the stench. It lay a little distance from the pile of bones and offal. In the half-light she detected a regular pattern of bumps and splotches on its surface. The egg was as ugly and smelly as its parent.
Her eyes lit on a large bone that appeared free from shreds of putrid meat, the scapula of a chervine. She picked it up, reassured by its smooth, dry texture, and turned back to the plug of snow and gravel. The bone spared her mittens from being shredded when she would need them later. Still, digging was hard work, and as her body heat soared, Gavi shed her outer layers of clothing.
Once or twice she thought she heard a sound from behind her, and turned, fearful that the banshee might have returned through another opening. She could not understand why the parent was absent–didn’t banshees incubate their eggs? Even in the partial light, she could see that the lair had no other entrance.
She had cleared a space almost large enough to crawl through when the egg began rocking violently. A curved beak, glistening wet, emerged from a jagged slit.
Gavi’s first impulse was to launch herself through the narrow aperture, regardless of damage to skin or clothing, but caution stayed her. What if the hatchling displayed the legendary speed and appetite of an adult banshee? It might seize her before she could draw her knife. Or, worse yet, what if it caught her midway through the opening?
Cr-rack! Fragments of shell splintered the rude floor. Behind the beak came a bony head, poking vaguely at the hole that was still too small for passage. The creature made a soft burbling noise.
Gavi gave a short, nervous laugh. “You stupid bird! Get your nose back inside so you can peck your way out.”
As if in response to her words, the egg began gyrating violently, and the cries escalated to shivering moans. The movements became so agitated that Gavi feared it might topple itself and split its skull on the rocks. She remembered the birthings she had witnessed, mute and miserable, in her childhood village. Her Guild Mothers had wanted her to train as a midwife or animal-healer, but she would have none of it. She had retorted that she had seen enough innocents die and had changed enough breech-clouts to last a lifetime. She had fled to the Thendara Guild House to escape the cycle of pain and incompetence.
She had not added that she had felt each dying mind call to her.
Now the struggling banshee chick had got itself coiled around her guts in the same way. She could sense its desperation as if it were her own, could feel its fading strength as it battered its soft head against the unyielding shell.
“Idiot, not like that.” Gavi put the chervine scapula down and stepped closer to the egg. She drew her short knife and thrust it into the shell, using the blade as a lever to widen the opening. The chick quieted as soon as she touched its prison. It was still wet with amniotic fluid but not as odorous as she had expected.
As soon as she had cleared an opening for the head, the thrashing began again, forcing her to step back lest the thing knock her from her feet. Soon the rest of the neck emerged from the splitting shell, then a rounded body on two thick legs. Except for the scaled hide on its feet, the chick was covered with wet down and looked very much like a drenched fowl, albeit an enormous one. Even in the gloom, Gavi could see that it had no eyes. She stepped back, her heart pounding. Of course, it hunted by sound and detection of body warmth. Its head swung back and forth as if sniffing the air. Any moment now it would sense her and strike.
The banshee chick took an unsteady step and began a wavering croon. Think, stupid! Gavi shrilled at herself. What do newborns need? Food, of course! And if you don’t give it anything else, it’ll eat you!
Despite the loss of her baggage animal, Gavi still had her small pack. She lifted the flap and took out a packet of dried meat. Fighting to control her trembling, she held out a strip. The chick continued its piteous cries, rocking back and forth on taloned feet. She approached closer, dangling the food under its nose. Suddenly the bird crouched, belly low to the floor, and opened its mouth.
“Look, stupid,” Gavi said as she dropped the jerky into the chick’s gaping beak. “Here it is. Who would have thought you’d need hand-feeding, a big, ugly brute like you?” The parent banshee would be doing the feeding under normal circumstances.
The chick swallowed the meat strip in a single gulp and resumed its begging posture. Gavi shook her head and fed it another, and then another. She was no longer trembling, but now she grew concerned about her food supply. If it was satisfied with everything she had, it might not attack her, but what would she eat before she could reach help? And if her meager hoard was not enough, it might decide she would make a fine dessert.
The chick gobbled all the meat plus some dried fruit and porridge meal, then closed its beak with a resounding snap. Still keeping its visibly bulging belly to the ground, it sidled up to her. Gavi told herself that this could not be an attack stance, and forced herself to stand still. The chick’s down was beginning to dry and to fluff out as it rubbed against her boots and thighs. She found herself tempted to touch the soft feathers. Repulsive as it might be to her human eyes, she supposed the gangling thing must be appealing to an adult of its own species.
Evanda and Avarra, it thinks I’m its mother!
“No! I may have helped get you out of the Zandru-cursed shell, but I won’t be a nursemaid to you, or anything else!”
But it was clearly no use. She had fed it, and spoken to it, and now it brushed against her legs in a fumbling caress, anchored to her body warmth. Banshees had a reputation of being as stupid as they were deadly, and sheer instinct had imprinted her upon this one’s brain as its sole source of food and love.
“I suppose that’s one small grace,” she said, moving toward the lair’s opening. “If you think I’m your mother, you won’t try to eat me. There’s just a little more to clear away here. No, don’t butt me with your head, you silly bird. You’ll start a slide and bury us both! Get back!”
As the chick lunged past her, she grabbed it with both hands around its thin neck. The down looked fluffy, but was covered with a sticky film. As soon as she touched it, the bird ceased struggling and took up its loving croon.
“Shut up. Just don’t get in my way, and we’ll both be free. I can be on my way to Thendara, where any reasonable woman would want to be for the winter, and you can be somewhere else, as high and as far away from me as you can get. Understand?” The banshee chick rubbed its head against her hip and intensified its hum of devotion.
Gavi pulled herself through the hole, noticing with some exasperation that she had made it amply large for the chick. While it wriggled and flapped through the opening, she got to her feet and looked around. There was no sign of her chervine on the new snow, but neither could she see any trace of her followers. The red sun had dipped well toward the horizon.
She still had some time before dark, and should waste none of it. With nightfall would come deathly cold and hunting banshees, if she should still be above the tree-line. She pulled on the last of the clothes she had shed during her dig, then oriented herself as best she could by the position of the sun and slope of the mountainside, and began to climb down. The chick flopped after her, wailing in distress.
“Oh, stop it. I’m not your mother. It’s no good pretending that I’m a heartless brute for abandoning you. You belong here, and I don’t. Get busy hunting something else. Shoo!” She made fending motions with her hands, and the infant halted, swinging its head from side to side in puzzlement. In the full light of day, it was even uglier than she had realized.
“I don’t have time for this; I’ve got to be going. No, don’t start that racket again. I can’t take you with me. Poor thing, I know the light makes you sleepy–so go find some place to curl up, and let me be about my business.”
Finally, seeing the chick resume its belly-down posture of adoration, she screamed, “Get out of here, you disgusting thing!” with such feeling that the creature, whimpering mournfully to itself, retreated to the mouth of its lair.
She passed the tree-line before dark, cold and scratched from a tumble on loose rock. One ankle throbbed ominously, her elbow was bruised and swollen, and her mittens were torn, but on the whole she had come off lightly. She was able to force down a portion of her food and find a sheltered spot beneath the branches of an evergreen grove. She made a bed of the dry fallen needles and buried herself in them for warmth.
Gavi awoke chilled on one side. A rather large and soft lump had planted itself along the length of her legs. She wrinkled her nose as a distinctive odor reached her, and opened her eyes.
The banshee chick, now noticeably larger than the day before, butted its head against her, warbling contentment.
“You stupid bird, what are you doing here? No, you’re not allowed to follow me. Oof! Idiot, get off my foot! You belong up there, above the tree-line, and you’re supposed to be nocturnal.” She got to her feet and surveyed the fawning monster.
“You seem to have done well enough without me. All that gore on your chest must be leftovers from dinner last night. Ugh! Your table manners could be improved. No, I won’t let you near me until I’ve cleaned you up a bit. Hold still!”
The pine needles were absorbent and would make the thing smell better. She discarded the last handful of soiled leaves and pushed the chick away.
“Now go, do you hear me? I don’t want you! Scat!”
The chick sidled a few steps away, the heat-sensing eye spots on its skull shining in the wan sunlight. The croon degenerated into a mournful sob.
Gavi could not suppress a smile. “You do make the most ridiculous noises, but that makes no difference. Off you go!” She turned on her heel and proceeded down the slope.
She knew the bird was following her, keeping hidden in the shadowed shelter of the rocks. Banshees were torpid by day, and the direct sunlight must make any activity difficult. If only the thing would give up and go back where it belonged! she fumed, wondering if she had created a perverted, daytime, human-loving monstrosity.
Before long she found the trail of wild mountain chervines, and knew that it would lead to a source of water. Upon examining the prints, she detected the impression of shod hooves. If Evanda’s own luck were with her, her pack animal had survived, and she stood a chance of recovering her food and gear. She quickened her pace along the trail.
She stumbled into the camp without warning. Just a turn off the main path, and suddenly she was practically in the lap of a strange man, hastily rising from a cook-fire. It was too late to rectify her error. She had been so preoccupied with escape from the banshee and finding her lost pack animal that she had forgotten the men who had shadowed her the day before. She knew she could not hold her own against multiple experienced attackers. Against one, maybe. Her small knife felt steady and solid in her hand.
The man before her, wiping his hands on his homespun breeches, was clearly no bandit, and he seemed to be alone. Gavi let the tip of her knife drop but did not relax her fighting stance. Her eyes lit upon her chervine, tied to a branch on the far side of the fire, partially unloaded. Her precious warm clothing and blankets lay scattered on the dirt.
“That’s my animal and my pack.”
The herdsman’s face reddened in a twisted grin, showing badly decayed teeth. “Ho-oh-oh!” he exclaimed in a thick provincial accent. “Finder keeps all, that’s the law of the hills. You be stranger, p’raps you not know the law. Who be your man?”
“I am a free woman, a Renunciate. I answer to no man.”
“Naw! But yet, I have hear of such. Lordless wenches you be. A bedding and a beating will soon lesson you, ho-oh-oh! Unless you relish them in the reverse order.” he guffawed, obviously much impressed by his own humor.
Gavi pressed her lips together in revulsion. And she had thought the banshee chick ugly! It was only a natural creature, bound by instinct. It meant her no personal harm and knew no better, whereas the man before her, sniggering as he approached, had at least the outward seeming of rationality, yet was incapable of decency or honor. She thrust out her knife so she could be sure he saw it.
“I warn you, I am prepared to defend myself!”
He halted, but his unpleasant expression did not change. “What, with that little pin-sticker?” He chuckled, looking down at his expanse of fat-cushioned gut. “Naw, wouldn’t do more than scratch. Might be good for pickin’ teeth afterward.”
Gavi fought to keep from trembling, realizing the weakness of her position. One part of her mind kept arguing, He’s trying to bully you into defeat, so don’t listen to him! A Free Amazon never gives up, haven’t you learned anything? What would your Guild sisters say to that? You can still aim for a vital target. His fat won’t protect his throat or eyes. You can use his own weight against him! But her psychological defenses had been breached, and she knew he could see the despair in her eyes.
The same fury that had driven her from her father’s house to the gates of the Thendara Guild House boiled up in Gavi’s heart. No! she stormed. I will not be cowed like some dumb beast! I’ve little skill as a fighter, but if I cannot stop him any other way, it’s my corpse he’ll have to rut on. May Avarra have mercy on my soul!
She took a step backwards, considering flight and discarding the idea. She was weakened from her night of exposure, and to be caught from behind would sacrifice any slim fighting advantage she might have. She tightened her grip on her small knife and took a breath. There was still a chance she could stun him enough to escape.
The herdsman made a quick movement, closing the distance between them by half. Gavi could not have outrun him, even panic-fueled. She prepared for the shock of his attack when suddenly the air shattered with a horrendous ululating cry. it stunned her, freezing her heart and almost causing her to drop her knife. Again came the shriek, so close she could not determine its direction.
The effect upon the man was equally astounding. Color evaporated from his face, leaving him ashen white, and he began to tremble violently. “Banshee,” he whispered. “Ach, ’tis doom for sure, to hear a banshee under the bloody sun.”
“’Tis doom for sure to lay a finger on me or mine!” Gavi cried. “Did you think I meant to defend myself with this small knife alone? Get you gone before I summon the demon to swallow you up!”
For a moment, she feared that his native shrewdness would give him pause, but his wits had fled along with his ruddy complexion. He vanished down the trail, leaving the remains of his own camp behind. Gavi did not stop shaking until he was well out of sight.
The wailing came another time, softer and more defined in direction. She could see the chick above her now, moving down with unexpected grace. The chervine whickered, its eyes rolling in fright, and pulled at its tether. Gavi petted it soothingly.
“No, stop, you dumb bird! You’ll scare the wits out of my baggage, and then I’ll be right back where I started. All right, I’ll come up to you. Just stay there!”
The chick seemed to have grown since the morning, its feathers smoother and less fluffy. Its hunting wail died into a croon of ecstasy as she approached it.
Relief swept away terror as Gavi bent to the banshee, her arms encircling it. It was long minutes before she could sob, “Oh, you ridiculous, disgusting bird, you saved me! I was dumb enough to travel without an escort, and you volunteered to be mine.”
She sat back on her heels. “What am I to do with you now? I can’t stay here, not even if I wanted to, not with winter coming on. No, stop butting me with your beak, it’s sharp! Listen, idiot–oh, who’s the idiot? Me for breaking a rule meant to protect me, or you for thinking I’m your mother?”
The banshee, still humming in delight, snaked its neck along the side of her thigh. She stroked it hesitantly, feeling the oiled smoothness of the feathers overlying its baby down.
“You truly can’t come with me,” she said in a soft voice. “You shouldn’t even be awake now. It’s unhealthy for you. And you’ve got to go back to the heights where you belong, just as I’ve got to return to Thendara.” She had grown attached to the infant, ugly though it might be. She had helped birth it, fed it, cared for it, spoken to it as a companion . . . and now she must let it go. She must make it return to its natural environment. But how? Scolding had not deterred it, although she owed her life to that failure.
Gavi took the hideous head in her hands, carefully avoiding the sensitive eyespots. She fumbled in her heart for the words that would make parting as much an act of love as following.
“You must go your own way, my friend, as I must go mine. Not because you are ugly in my sight, or because there is no bond between us. But rather because your life must be up there, you can flourish. You are a child of the gods, no less than I, and they have made us different. Return to your own place with my blessing. Adelandeyo. Go in peace.”
The banshee chick huddled still and warm by her side, its croon thrumming like a heartbeat. Gavi could see no flicker of response or of comprehension. Why had she expected it would understand? Banshees were so stupid as to be practically brainless, she had always been told. It was the victim’s own paralysis that enabled them to survive.
The chick dropped its beak with its wicked hook and razor serrations, caressing her thigh with the polished outer surface. Then it heaved itself to its feet and departed upward with surprising speed. Gavi watched until it was out of sight, then rubbed her hands and clothing with scented leaves before approaching the chervine again.
As she shook out and repacked her clothing and sleep roll, Gavriela thought, It couldn’t have understood me, but it did. If I can midwife a banshee, I can learn to love anything. Maybe I spoke to it in the same way it reached me from the shell. The Guild Mothers were right, I ought to be using my gifts, but not for watching babies die . . . for helping them live. But they’ll never believe the birthing that taught me that lesson!
The chervine butted her with its soft nose as she led it down the slopes toward Thendara and home.