An excerpt from the new fantasy novel, Alpha Centauri.
“The Moon of First Harvest” is an excerpt from the new fantasy novel, Alpha Centauri, by Robert Siegel (Cornerstone, 1980). The novel takes place in a mythic time when an evil people called the Rock Movers sought to exterminate the last of the centaurs. Transported through an aperture in time and space, a modern girl, Becky, finds herself caught up in this fight between good and evil; she must finally intercede with Providence on the centaurs’ behalf in order to effect their escape to the star Alpha Centauri. Her ability to do so depends on her enduring many trials, and, most important, learning several crucial lessons. Cavallos, a leader of the centaurs, enacts the most important lesson in “The Moon of First Harvest”; by risking his own life, he shows Becky that love (the source of all true religion) consists in an exchange of one’s own life for another. This is in direct opposition to the false paganism of the Rock Movers who are about to sacrifice another’s life to propitiate their angry god Phogros and thus secure their own well-being. Cavallos and Becky have just escaped from the evil city of the Rock Movers, Longdreth, when they have this excerpted encounter. It shows in miniature, like the works of C. S. Lewis, the “adventure of salvation.”
The moon had come up and her silver light winked through the leaves as Cavallos with Becky riding on his back threaded his way south in the shadow of hedgerows. This night was colder than last, the stars above bright and hard edged. The hint of fall that often haunts early August was in the air. All the insects in the world woke and sang to the full moon as she climbed toward the zenith.
Hour after hour they walked in a dream, punctuated here and there by light from a distant cottage. When they must cross an open field, Cavallos galloped full speed. The moon travelled south with them, and it was hard to believe the noisy crowds of Longdreth and Targ’s foul dungeons could exist in so quiet and beautiful a world.
Becky was nearly asleep when Cavallos stopped.
“What is it?” She sat up.
“Shhh,” he said. They listened. Far ahead and very faint, she heard a long, heart-rending wail.
“There it is again!” Cavallos exclaimed. “It seems to come from the top of that hill.” Becky shuddered. All evening they’d moved closer to the hills, and now the first of any size—still fairly low—lay across their path.
Without warning a light burst from its top. They saw a brief tongue of flame and a rush of sparks heavenward. The sparks were followed by a roar of many voices. The moon stood nearly overheard.
“They must be celebrating the Moon of First Harvest,” Cavallos said softly.
“We can skirt the bottom of the hill,” Becky suggested.
“Yes, we can. And yet—” he broke off.
“Yet what?” Becky shivered, afraid of his answer.
“Yet, if it hadn’t been for you and Rhadas, I would have been the victim at such a ceremony. I feel we must try to save whoever or whatever made that scream.”
And so began a night Becky never forgot. Swiftly they crossed the field into the trees at the foot of the hill. Slowly, tree by tree, they climbed to the top. Here the underbrush had been cleared away, and when close enough, they saw red flames flickering between the trunks. Keeping to the shadows, they crept closer. Soon they heard a rhythmic chant, a low drone, and glimpsed grotesque shadows passing between them and the fire. They couldn’t make out any words except the repeated name, “Phogros.”
The last tree was still 20 yards from the fire. Leaving Cavallos, Becky crept behind it. On the far side of the fire stood a group of men, women, and children in ordinary dress, except for a mark on their foreheads and holly in their hair. They were staring at something with great interest.
Becky jumped when she saw what they were watching.
Naked, except for leaves about the hips, seven tall men danced around the fire. One side of their bodies glistened blood-red; the other, black. The black and red paint divided them from their toes to their scalps, and the whites of their eyes shone hideously. Their hair, red and black to the waist, whirled madly as they danced. Each clutched a stone knife and chanted, raising it whenever he muttered the name of Phogros.
After a while Becky noticed something else. Next to the fire, on a low stone, lay a small bundle, mostly rope. Horns stuck out of one end and little cloven hoofs out of the other. “A sheep,” she thought. “They’re sacrificing a sheep.” Then the horns lifted and, as a log burst, she glimpsed a resigned and terribly sorrowful human face.
Stumbling back into the shadows, she gasped the news to Cavallos. “I was afraid of that,” he said, his voice cool and even. “They’ve found a faun.” Quickly he outlined a plan.
They moved quietly around the hilltop to a point directly opposite and about 50 yards below the top. On the way Becky took out her knife and tested its sharpness. From the new spot, they heard the frenzy increase. “There’s no time to lose!” Cavallos whispered.
Putting his hands to his mouth, his chest expanding far beyond a man’s, he called out in a deep and frightening voice, “I AM PHOGROS! I AM PHOGROS!”
The revel above came to a sudden halt. “I AM PHOGROS!” he repeated.
A high, almost feminine, voice shrieked. “Kill the blasphemer!” With a roar and a flicker of torches the crowd crashed down the slope toward them. Cavallos, Becky clinging to him, slipped quickly around the hill toward their original hiding place. The crowd, as he had gambled, hurried down the far side and spread out over the fields, looking for the “blasphemer.”
From behind the tree, they saw that five priests had left with the crowd. Only two now stood above the victim, watching the moon and chanting under their breath. Cries of “There he is!” and “This way!” floated up from below, answered by others of, “I see him!” and “Over here!” Soon the crowd would return. They must act quickly.
The priests now stood silent over the stone, their eyes wide and unseeing, waiting for the precise second the moon would cross the zenith. From one’s mouth a little foam trickled white in the moonlight. Slowly they raised their knives high over the victim.
“Now!” Cavallos said under his breath, and charged. “I AM PHOGROS!” he shouted, halfway across the clearing. Amazed, the priests turned to find a centaur bearing down on them. They staggered back as Cavallos reached down and snatched up the faun. As he whirled about, one shrieked and with both hands thrust a crooked knife at Becky. Cavallos’s hind hoofs lashed out. Thud, one caught the priest in the middle and his knife flew into the fire. With a cry the other priest turned and ran. Cavallos let that one go and rushed headlong down the hill the way they’d come. At the bottom he raced across the field without pausing, the faun still in his arms.
“There they go—on a horse,” a voice cried out. Becky saw the sparkle of a torch behind them to the right. Cavallos jumped the first hedge, turned a sharp left, and began a wild zigzagging detour around the hill, far ahead of their pursuers. Becky hung on for dear life. After three fields, the farm land gave out and they found themselves in a moonlit beech wood by a stream sparkling among boulders. Cavallos waded in and climbed upstream to avoid leaving a scent.
After a half-hour, they paused to listen. There was no sound of pursuit. Breathing hard, he put down the faun by a moonlit pool, and Becky dismounted to untie him.
“Bless you! Bless you!” was all the faun would reply to their questions as he rubbed his limbs, sore and stiff from the ropes. “Ah, that was a close one, that was!” He kept looking to every side, as if he couldn’t believe they weren’t surrounded by enemies.
By dint of much patient questioning, Cavallos and Becky managed to calm the faun and to piece together his story. He’d been one of a nutting party that ventured out of the wild wood to collect the still unripe acorns favored by the fauns. They’d dared to search for them on the hill sacred to Phogros.
“I sneaked off from the party to have a bit of a snooze,” the faun winked, “and went to sleep under an ash. When I woke, I was surrounded by the two-footed kind. They held hooked knives at my chin.” The party of reapers had bound and imprisoned him. At the memory, he snuffled loudly.
“Do you know these hills then?” Cavallos asked, changing the subject.
“Aye, I was raised in them,” the faun winked again and then, suddenly suspicious—“Why d’ye want to know?” Cavallos explained that their only chance was to hide deep in the hills before they were tracked to this spot.
“And if you don’t wish to roast, we’d better hurry!” Cavallos added, not unkindly. At a whisk, the other was off.
Dorm (for that was the faun’s name) proved to be a reliable, if unusual, guide. He led them up the stream by leaping from rock to rock and then on a stony path that only his eye could follow. Last, he disappeared. When they’d nearly given up on him, he returned to lead them across the shoulder of a hill. Finally, squeezing between two rocks (at least Cavallos had to squeeze) the party entered a small dingle crowded with giant rowan and beech. The dingle had limestone sides. It was watchfully silent.
Dorm gave a low whistle. Suddenly the rocks were scrambling with fauns. They crowded around him, all speaking and laughing at once. A very fat female, with white hair on her head and haunches, shrieked and waddled over to him weeping. At that, all the fauns wept.
Some threw dust in the air and stamped their feet, so mournfully glad were they that Dorm had returned. Only after this commotion had gone on for some time did they notice the centaur and human.
When Dorm had introduced his new friends and told of the rescue, the others cheered and formed a ring about them. They danced in a circle, moving feet and short tails so fast that Becky saw nothing but a moonlit flashing of hoofs. All was done to the skirl of pipes hidden in the rocks, sounding like the soul of a beech tree bleeding from a broken branch. The dance and music stopped. For a moment the trees sighed and rustled; Becky glimpsed a figure with pipes scurrying into a hole. The dingle was empty, except for themselves and Dorm.
“My people are very shy, and it is time to go on,” he whispered. “Also, the trees tell us men follow.” He led them out the other end of the dingle, down a ravine into a forest of solemn elms. The moon had set by the time they came to its far edge. To the south open fields grayed in the early light. They paused.
“Goodbye,” Dorm sighed, and once again burst into tears. Becky tried to comfort him, but it was no use. She herself felt sad, though she’d known him only a few hours.
“Here,” he said, handing her a small pipe of greenish wood. “Breathe on it lightly and it will play itself—especially in the moonlight.” When she looked up again, he was gone. She and Cavallos stared after him wordlessly. A robin gave a sleepy cry, and they heard from far, resounding on a hollow log, the tattoo of little hoofs.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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