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Legends 3 22
All that day I felt distracted and feverish, but this time it was not love that fevered me. I was terrified for my lover and fearful for my stepfather and the witch Valada, but what I knew and how I had discovered it I could not tell to anyone. For the first time since my soldier had kissed me, I felt alone. I was full up with secrets, and unlike Sulis, had not even a book to which they could be confided.
I would follow them, I decided at last. I would follow them into the place my stepfather spoke of, the place beneath the keep where the walls were thin and the voices strong. While they searched for the Black Fire, I would watch for danger. I would protect them all. I would be their angel.
* * *
Stoning Night came around at last.
Even had I not read my stepfather’s writings, I think I would have known that the hour had come in which they meant to search for Black Fire, because Tellarin was so distracted and full of shadows. Although he admitted nothing to me as we lay together in my bedchamber, I could feel that he was anxious about what would happen that night. But he was bound to my stepfather by honor and blood, and had no choice.
He snapped at me when I kissed his ear and curled my fingers in his hair. “Give a man some peace, girl.”
“Why are you a man and I am a girl?” I teased him, pretending a lightness I did not truly feel. “Is there such a difference in our ages? Have I not given to you already that which makes me a woman?”
My soldier was short-tempered and did not hear the love in what I said. “Anybody who will not leave off when she is asked proves herself still a child. And I am a man because I wear a soldier’s badge, and because if my master asks, I must give my life.”
Tellarin was five years my elder, and in those long-ago days I was almost as impressed by the difference as he was, but I think now that all men are younger than their women, especially when their honor has been touched.
As he stared at the ceiling his face turned from angry to solemn, and I knew he was thinking of what he must do that night. I was frightened too, so I kissed him again, softly this time, and apologized.
When he had gone, full of excuses meant to hide his actual task, I prepared for my own journey. I had hidden my thickest cloak and six fat candles where Ulca and the other serving-women would not find them. When I was dressed and ready, I touched my mother’s golden Tree where it lay against my heart, and said a prayer for the safety of all who would go with me into darkness.
* * *
Stoning Night—the last night of Avrel, on the eve of Maia-month, the black hours when tales say spirits walk until driven back to their graves by dawn and the crowing cock. The High Keep lay silent around me as I followed my beloved and the others through the dark. It did not feel so much that the castle slept as that the great keep held its breath and waited.
There is a stairwell beneath the Angel Tower, and that was where they were bound. I learned of it for the first time on that night, as I stood wrapped in my dark cloak, listening from the shadows of the wall opposite the tower. Those I followed were four—my stepfather, Tellarin and his friend Avalles, and the woman Valada. Despite the bargain she had made, the witch’s arms were still chained. It saddened me to see her restrained like an animal.
The workmen who had been repairing the tower had laid a rough wooden floor over the broken stones of the old one—perhaps to make certain no one fell down one of the many holes, perhaps simply to close off any openings into the castle’s deepest places. Some had even suggested that all the old castle floor should be sealed under brick, so that nothing would ever come up that way to trouble the sleep of God-fearing folk.
Because of this wooden floor, I waited a long time before following them through the tower’s outer portal, knowing it would take some time for my stepfather and his two bondmen to shift the boards. As I lurked in the shadows by the tower wall while the wind prowled the Inner Bailey, I thought about the Angel who stood at the top of the tower, a figure black with the grime of centuries that no rain could wash away, tipped sideways as though about to lose her balance and fall. Who was she? One of the blessed saints? Was it an omen—did she watch over me as I meant to look over Tellarin and the rest? I looked up, but the tower’s high top was invisible in the night.
At last I tried the latch of the tower door and found the bolt had not been shot. I hoped that it meant the Angel was indeed looking out for me.
Inside the tower the moonlight ended, so while still in the doorway I lit my first candle from the hidden touchwood, which had nearly burnt down. My footsteps seemed frighteningly loud in the stony entry hall, but no one appeared from the shadows to demand my business in that place. I heard no sound of my stepfather or the rest.
I paused for a moment in front of the great, upward-winding staircase, and could not help but wonder what the workmen would find when they cleared the rubble and reached the top—as I still wonder all these years later, with the painstaking work yet unfinished. I suppose I will not see it in my lifetime. Will they discover treasures left by the fairy-folk? Or perhaps only those ancient beings’ frail bones?
Even were it not for the things that happened on that fateful night, still the Angel Tower would haunt me, as it haunts this great keep and all the lands beneath its long shadow. No mortals, I think, will ever know its all its secrets.
Once, long ago, I dreamed that my stepfather gave me the Angel herself to clean, but that no matter how I tried, I could not scrub the black muck from her limbs and face. He told me that it was not my fault, that God would have lent me the strength if He truly wanted the Angel’s face to be seen, but I still wept at my failure.
* * *
I moved from the entry hall to a place where the floor fell away in great broken shards, and tried to imagine what could smash stones so thoroughly and yet leave the tower itself still standing. It was not easy to follow where my stepfather and my beloved had already gone, but I climbed down the rubble, leaning to set my candle before me so that I could have both my hands free. I wished, not for the last time, that I had worn something other than my soft shoes. I clambered down and down, hurting my feet, tearing my dress in several places, until I reached the jumble of smaller broken stones which was the floor, at least a half dozen times my own height below the level of the Inner Bailey. In the midst of this field of shards gaped a great, black hole bigger than the rest, a jagged mouth that waited to swallow me down. As I crunched closer to it, I heard what I knew must be the voices of the others floating up from the depths, although they sounded strange to me.
More stones had been pushed aside to reveal the entrance to the stairwell, a lip of shiny white with steps inside it that vanished into shadow. Another voice floated up, laughing. It belonged to no one I knew.
Even with all that had happened in the previous days, I had never yet felt so frightened, but I knew Tellarin was down there in the dark places. I made the sign of the Tree upon my breast, then stepped onto the stairway.
* * *
At first I could find no trace of them.
As I descended, the light of my single candle served only to make the stairwell seem more than ever like a shadowy throat waiting to swallow me, but fear alone could not keep me from my beloved—if anything, it sped my steps. I hurried downward until it seemed I must have gone as far beneath the castle as the Angel Tower loomed above it, but still I had not caught up with them.
Whether it was a trick of sound, or of the winds that are said to blow through the caves of the Kingslake cliffs, I continued to hear unfamiliar voices. Some seemed so close that if I had not had a candle, I would have been certain I could reach out and touch the person who whispered to me, but the flickering light showed me that the stairwell was empty. The voices babbled, and sometimes sang, in a soft, sad tongue I did not understand or even recognize.
I knew I should be too frightened to remain, that I should turn and flee back to moonlight and clean air, but although the bodiless murmurs filled me with dismay, I felt no evil in them. If they were ghosts, I d
o not think they even knew I was there. It was as though the castle talked to itself, like an old man sitting beside the fire, lost in the memories of days long past.
The stairwell ended in a wide landing with open doorways at either end, and I could not help thinking of the doorways mentioned in my stepfather’s book. As I paused to consider which way I should go, I examined the carvings on the walls, delicate vines and flowers whose type I had never seen before. Above one doorframe a nightingale perched on a tree bough. Another tree bough was carved above the far doorway—or rather, I saw as I moved my candle, they were both boughs from one single tree, which had been carved directly above me, spreading across the ceiling of the stairwell as though I myself were the tree’s trunk. On the bough above the second doorway twined a slender serpent. I shuddered, and began to move toward the nightingale door, but at that moment words floated up out of the darkness.
“… if you have lied to me. I am a patient man, but…”
It was my stepfather, and even if I had not recognized his faint voice, I would have known him by the words, for that is what he always said. And he spoke the truth—he was a patient man. He had always been like one of the stones of the hilltop rings, cool and hard and in no hurry to move, growing warm only after the sun of an entire summer has beat upon him. I had sometimes felt I would like to break a stick upon him, if only to make him turn and truly look at me.
Only once did he ever do that, I had believed—on that day when he told me that “they” had taken everything from him. But now I knew he had looked at me another time, perhaps seen me smile on a day when my lover had given me a gift or a kiss, and had written in his book, “Breda happy Today.”
My stepfather’s words had drifted up through the other doorway. I lit another candle and place it on top of the first, which had burned almost to the holder, then followed the voice of Sulis through the serpent door.
* * *
Downward I went, and downward still farther—what seemed a journey of hours, through sloping, long-deserted corridors that twisted like yarn spilled from a sack. The light of the candles showed me stone that, although I knew it was even more ancient, seemed newer and brighter than that which I had seen farther above. In places the passageways opened into rooms choked with dirt and rubble, but which must have been massive, with ceilings as high as any of the greatest halls I have ever heard of in Nabban. The carvings I could see were so delicate, so perfect, that they might have been the actual things of nature—birds, plants, trees—frozen into stone by the sort of magical spells that so often had been part of my mother’s and Ulca’s stories.
It was astonishing to think that this entire world had lain in its tomb of earth below us as long as we had lived in the High Keep, and for generations before that. I knew I was seeing the ancient home of the fairy-folk. With all the stories, and even with the evidence of the tower itself, I had still never imagined they would have such a way with stone, to make it froth like water and shimmer like ice, to make it stretch overhead in slender arcs like the finest branches of a willow tree. Had the Northmen truly killed them all? For the first time, I understood something of what this meant, and a deep, quiet horror stole over me. The creators of all this beauty, slaughtered, and their houses usurped by their slayers—no wonder the darkness was full of unquiet voices. No wonder the High Keep was a place of haunted sadness for everyone who lived in it. The castle of our day was founded on ancient murder. It was built on death.
It pulled at me, that thought. It became tangled in my mind with the memory of my stepfather’s distracted stare, of the witch in chains. Good could not come from evil, I felt sure. Not without sacrifice. Not without blood and atonement.
My fear was growing again.
* * *
The Peaceful Ones might have been gone, but I was learning that their great house remained lively.
As I hurried downward, following the tracks of my stepfather and his company in the dust of centuries, I found suddenly that I had taken a wrong turning. The passage ended in a pile of broken stone, but when I returned to the last cross-corridor, there was no sign of footprints, and the place itself was not familiar, as though the ruins themselves had shifted around me. I closed my eyes, listening for the sound of Tellarin’s voice, for I felt sure that my heart would be able to hear him through all the stone in Erkynland. But nothing came to me but the ghost-murmurs, which blew in like an autumn breeze, full of sighing, rustling nonsense.
I was lost.
For the first time it became clear to me what a foolish thing I had done. I had gone into a place where I should not be. Not one person knew I was there, and when my last candle burned out, I would be lost in the darkness.
Tears started in my eyes, but I wiped them away. Weeping had not brought my father back, or my mother. It would do me no good now.
I did my best to retrace my steps, but the voices flittered around me like invisible birds, and before long I was wandering blindly. Confused by the noises in my head and by the flickering shadows, twice I almost tumbled into great crevices in the passageway floor. I kicked a stone into one that fell without hitting anything until I could not bear to listen any longer.
The darkness seemed to be closing on me, and I might have been lost forever—might have become another part of the whispering chorus—but by luck or accident or the hand of fate, I made a turning into a corridor I did not recognize and found myself standing at the lip of another stairwell, listening to the voice of the witch Valada drift up from the deeps.
“… not an army or a noble household that you can order about, Lord Sulis. Those who lived here are dead, but the place is alive. You must take what you are given…”
It is as though she had heard my very thoughts. Even as I shuddered to hear my forebodings spoken aloud, I hurried toward the sound, terrified that if it faded I would never again hear a familiar voice.
* * *
What seemed another hour went by, although I had been so long in the haunted dark that I was no judge. My lover and the rest seemed almost to have become phantoms themselves, floating ahead of me like dandelion seeds, always just beyond my reach.
The stairs continued to curl downward, and as my third and fourth candles burned I could see glimpses of the great spaces through which we all descended, level upon level, as if making a pilgrimage down the tiers of Heaven. At times, as the candles flickered on the wooden base, I thought I could see even more. From the corner of my eye the ruins seemed to take on a sort of life. There were moments when the ghost-voices swelled and the shadows seem to take on form. If I half-closed my eyes, I could almost see these bleak spaces full of bright, laughing folk.
Why did the Northmen kill such beauty? And how could a people who built such a place be defeated by any mortals, however bloodthirsty and battle-hungry?
A light bloomed in the depths, red and yellow, making the polished stone of the stairwell seem to quiver. For a moment I thought it only another wisp of my imagination, but then, from so close it seemed we could kiss if we wished, I heard my beloved’s voice.
“Do not trust her, sire,” Tellarin said, sounding more than a little fearful. “She is lying again.”
Intensely happy, but with my caution abruptly restored, I shaded the candle with my palm and hurried down the stairs as quietly as I could. As their voices grew louder, and I saw that the light blooming in the darkness came from their torches, I pinched the flame to extinguish my candle completely. However glad I was to find them, I guessed they would not feel the same about me.
I crept closer to the light, but could not see Tellarin and the others because something like a cloud of smoke blocked my view. It was only when I reached the base of the curving stair and stepped silently onto the floor of the great chamber that I could actually see the four shapes.
They stood in the middle of a room so cavernous that even the torches my lover and Avalles held could not carry light to its highest corners. Before them loomed the thing I had thought was smoke. I still could not
see it clearly, despite the torch flames burning only an arm’s length from it, but now it seemed a vast tree with black leaves and trunk. A shadow cloaked it and hid all but the broadest outline, a dark shroud like the mist that hid the hills on a winter morning, but it was not mist in which the tree-shape crouched, I felt sure. It was pure Darkness.
“You must decide whether to listen to me or a young soldier,” the witch was saying to my stepfather. “I will tell you again—if you cut so much as a leaf, you will mark yourselves as ravagers and it will not go well with you. Can you not feel that?”
“And I think Tellarin is right,” Avalles proclaimed, but his voice was less sure than his words. “She seeks to trick us.”
My stepfather looked from the tree-shadow to the witch. “If we may not take any wood, then why have you brought us here?” he asked slowly, as though it cost great effort just to speak.
I could hear the sour smile in Valada’s answer. “You have held me captive in your damp pile of stones for two moons, seeking my help with your mad questions. If you do not believe that I know what I know, why did you shackle me and bring me here?”
“But the wood…?”
“I did not say you could not take anything to burn, I said that you would be a fool to lift axe or knife to the Great Witchwood. There is deadfall beneath, if you are bold enough to search for it.”
Sulis turned to Avalles. “Go and gather some dead wood, nephew.”
The young knight hesitated, then handed his torch to my stepfather and walked a little unsteadily toward the great dark tree. He bent beneath the outer branches and vanished from sight. After an interval of silence, Avalles stumbled back out again.
“It is … it is too dark to see,” he panted. His eyes were showing white around the edges. “And there is something in there—an animal, perhaps. I … I can feel it breathing.” He turned to my stepfather. “Tellarin’s eyes are better than mine…”