Viriconium, p.13

Viriconium, page 13

 

Viriconium
 



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  The door opened; their jailor entered.

  He had an energy blade in his right hand, but it did him no good.

  Grif stood over the folded corpse, eyeing with satisfaction its pumping stomach wound. He wiped his broadsword on the hem of its cloak, sheathed it. He wrested the flickering power-blade from its tightening grip. A terrible light was in his eye.

  “Now,” he said.

  Cromis found himself dulled and slowed by horror.

  “Grif,” he murmured, “you are mad.”

  Birkin Grif stared levelly at him.

  “Have we become cowards?” he said.

  And he turned and ran from the hold, quick and silent.

  Cromis bent over the ruin that meant death for the Queen. In the distance, cries of pain and surprise: Grif had come against the Northmen in the forepart of the ship, berserk.

  The nameless sword in his hand, Cromis followed the trail of slaughter. On the command bridge, three dead men. They sprawled grotesquely, expressions of surprise on their faces, their blood splashed over the walls. The place stank. The open hatch yawned. Wind blew in from the desert, filling the dead eyes with fine dust.

  Outside, the wind tugged at him. A fifth corpse lay at the entrance to the bunkers. The door moaned and hissed as he entered. “OUROBUNDOS,” it said. It snickered. Cromis caught up with Grif halfway down the corridor that led to the brain chamber-too late.

  His ragged cobalt mail was smeared with blood, his hands were red with murder. Over the corpse of his final victim, he faced Norvin Trinor. And behind the traitor, their blades spitting, stood ten Northern wolves.

  Trinor acknowledged Cromis’s arrival with an ironical nod.

  “I did not expect quite such stupidity,” he said. “I will make no more contracts with you. I see they are worthless.”

  Birkin Grif ground his heel into the chest of the dead Northman. His eyes sought Trinor’s, held them.

  “You have killed your queen,” Trinor said. “Yourself, too.”

  Grif moved a pace forward.

  “Listen to me, Norvin Trinor,” he whispered. “Your mother was had by a pig. At the age of ten, she gave you a disease. You have since licked the arse of Canna Moidart.

  “But I will tell you this. There is still Methven enough in you to meet me now, without your dirty henchmen-”

  He turned to the Northerners. “Make a combat ring,” he said.

  Trinor fingered his scar. He laughed. “I will fight you,” he said. “It will change nothing. Four men are with Methvet Nian. They have instructions to kill both her and the dwarf if I do not shortly return to them. You understand: die or live, you or I, it will change nothing.”

  Birkin Grif dropped the stolen energy blade and slid his broadsword from its scabbard.

  The dead Northman was dragged away. In the strange milky light from the windows of the corridor, the combatants faced each other. They were not well matched. Grif, though a head taller, and of longer reach, had expended much of his strength in the cabin of the airboat: and his slow, terrible rage made him tremble. Trinor regarded him calmly.

  In the days of King Methven, both of them had learned much from tegeus-Cromis-but only one of them had ever matched his viperish speed.

  They clashed.

  Behind the windows, queer objects stirred and drifted, on currents of thick liquid.

  Two blades made white webs in the air. The Northmen cheered, and made bets. They cut, and whirled, and leapt-Grif cumbersome, Trinor lithe and quick. Fifteen years or more before they had fought thus side by side, and killed fifty men in a morning. Against his will, Cromis drew closer, joined the combat ring, and marked the quick two-handed jab, the blade thrown up to block…

  Grif stumbled.

  A thin line of blood was drawn across his chest. He swore and hacked.

  Trinor chuckled suddenly. He allowed the blow to nick his cheek. Then he ducked under Grif’s outstretched arms and stepped inside the circle of his sword. He chopped, short-armed, for the ribs.

  Grif grunted, threw himself back, spun round, crashed unharmed into the ring of Northmen.

  And Trinor, allowing his momentum to carry him crouching forward, turned the rib cut into an oblique, descending stroke that bit into the torn mail beneath his opponent’s knees, hamstringing him.

  Grif staggered.

  He looked down at his ruined legs. He showed his teeth. When Trinor’s sword couched itself in his lower belly, he whimpered. A quick, violent shudder went through him. Blood dribbled down his thighs. He reached slowly down and put his hands on the sword.

  He sat down carefully. He coughed. He stared straight at Cromis and said clearly: “You should have killed him when you had the chance. Cromis, you should have done it-”

  Blood filled his mouth and ran into his beard. tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of the Pastel City, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, clenched his long, delicate fingers until their rings of intagliated, non-precious metal cracked his knuckles and his nails made bloody half-moons on his palms.

  A huge, insane cry welled up out of him. Desolation and murder bloomed like bitter flowers in his head.

  “Trinor!” he bawled. “Grif! Grif!”

  And before the turncoat’s hand had time to reach the energy blade his victim had discarded-long, long before he had time to form a stroke with his arm, or a word with his lips-the nameless blade was buried to its hilt in his mouth. Its point had levered apart the bones of his neck and burst with a soft noise through the back of his skull. tegeus-Cromis shuddered. He threw back his head and howled like a beast. He put his foot against the dead man’s breastbone and pulled out his blade.

  “You were never good enough, Trinor,” he said, savagely. “Never.”

  He turned to face his death and the death of the world, weeping.

  “Come and kill me,” he pleaded. “Just come and try.”

  But the Northmen had no eyes for him.

  12

  His face fired up with hate and madness, the nameless sword quivering before him, he watched them back away, toward the chamber of the brain. So he kicked the stiff, bleeding face of their dead captain. He crouched like a wolf, and spat: he presented them with lewd challenges, and filthy insults.

  But they ignored him, and stared beyond him, their attitudes fearful; and finally he followed the direction of their gaze.

  Coming on from the direction of the door, moving swiftly through the milky light, was a company of men.

  They were tall and straight, clothed in cloaks of black and green, of scarlet and the misleading colour of dragonfly armour. Their dark hair fell to their shoulders about long, white faces, and their boots rang on the obsidian floor. Like walkers out of Time, they swept past him, and he saw that their weapons were grim and strange, and that their eyes held ruin for the uncertain wolves of the North.

  At their head strutted Tomb the Dwarf.

  His axe was slung jauntily over his thick shoulder, his hair caught back for battle. He was whistling through his horrible teeth, but he quieted when he saw the corpse of Birkin Grif.

  With a great shout he sprang forward, unlimbering his weapon. He fell upon the retreating Northmen, and all his strange and beautiful crew followed him. Their curious blades hummed and sang.

  Like a man displaced amid his own dreams, Cromis watched the dwarf plant himself securely on his buckled, corded legs and swing his axe in huge circles round his head; he watched the strange company as they flickered like steel flames through the Northmen. And when he was sure that they had prevailed, he threw down the nameless sword.

  His madness passed. Cradling the head of his dead friend, he wept. When Methvet Nian discovered him there, he had regained a measure of his self-possession. He was shivering, but he would not take her cloak.

  “I am glad to see you safe, my lady,” he said, and she led him to the brain chamber. He left his sword. He saw no use for it.

  In the centre of the chamber, a curious and moving chore
ography was taking place.

  The brain danced, its columns of light and shadow shifting, shifting; innumerable subtle graduations of shape and tint, and infinitely various rhythms.

  And among those rods and pillars, thirteen slim figures moved, their garments on fire with flecks of light, their long white faces rapt.

  The brain sang its single sustained chord, the feet of the dancers sped, the vaulting dome of diamond threw back images of their ballet.

  Off to one side of the display sat Tomb the Dwarf, a lumpen, earthbound shape, his chin on his hand, a smile on his ugly face, his eyes following every shade of motion. His axe lay by his side.

  “They are beautiful,” said tegeus-Cromis. “It seems a pity that a homicidal dwarf should discover such beauty. Why do they dance in that fashion?”

  Tomb chuckled.

  “To say that I appreciated that would be a lie. I suspect they have a method of communication with the brain many times more efficient than crude passes of the hand. In a sense, they are the brain at this moment-”

  “Who are they, Tomb?”

  “They are men of the Afternoon Cultures, my friend. They are the Resurrected Men.”

  Cromis shook his head. The dancers swayed, their cloaks a whirl of emerald and black. “You cannot expect me to understand any of this.”

  Tomb leapt to his feet. Suddenly, he danced away from Cromis and the Queen in a queer little parody of the ballet of the brain, an imitation full of sadness and humour. He clapped his hands and cackled.

  “Cromis,” he said, “it was a master stroke. Listen-”

  He sat down again.

  “I lied to Trinor. Nothing was simpler than dealing with the geteit chemosit. Those golems stopped operating twenty minutes after I had entered this room. Wherever they were, they froze, their mechanisms ceased to function. For all I know, they are rusting. Cellur taught me that.

  “What he did not tell me was that a dialogue could be held with the brain: that, I learnt for myself, in the next twenty minutes. Then “Cromis, Cellur was wrong. One vital flaw in his reasoning led to what you have seen today. He regarded the chemosit as simple destroyers, but the Northmen were nearer to the truth when they called them the brain-stealers. The chemosit are harvesters.

  “It was their function in the days of the Afternoon Cultures not to prevent the resurrection of a warrior, but to bring the contents of his skull here, or to a similar centre, and give it into care of the artificial brain. This applied equally to a dead friend or a foe actually slain by the chemosit -I think they saw war in a different way to ourselves, perhaps as a game.

  “When Canna Moidart denied the chemosit their full function by using them solely as fighters, she invited destruction.

  “Now. Each of the ‘windows’ in this place is in reality a tank of sustaining fluid, in which is suspended the brain of a dead man. Upon the injection of a variety of other fluids and nutrients, that brain may be stimulated to re-form its departed owner.

  “On the third day of our captivity here, the artificial brain reconstructed Fimbruthil and Lonath, those with the emerald cloaks.

  “On the fourth day, Bellin, and Mader-Monad, and Sleth. See how those three dance! And yesterday, the rest. The brain then linked me to their minds. They agreed to help me. Today, we put our plan into effect.

  “Twelve corridors lead from this chamber, like the spokes of a wheel miles in diameter: the Resurrected Men were born in the northwestern corridor. At a given signal, they issued from their wombs, crept here, and slew the guards Trinor had left when he went to his death. The fourteen of us stepped into the light columns. From there, by a property of the brain complex, we were… shifted… to the desert outside.

  “We waited there for Trinor and his men. By then, of course, he was… otherwise involved. We eventually reentered the bunker, and arrived in time to save you from yourself.” tegeus-Cromis smiled stiffly.

  “That was well done, Tomb. And what now? Will you send them back to sleep?”

  The dwarf frowned.

  “Cromis! We will have an army of them! Even now, they are awakening the brain fully. We will build a new Viriconium together, the Methven and the Reborn Men, side by side-”

  The diamond walls of the chamber shone and glittered. The brain hummed. An arctic coldness descended on the mind of tegeus-Cromis. He looked at his hands.

  “Tomb,” he said. “You are aware that this will destroy the empire just as surely as Canna Moidart destroyed it?”

  The dwarf came hurriedly to his feet.

  “What?”

  “They are too beautiful, Tomb; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire-instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.

  “No malice will be involved. Indeed, they may thank us many times over for bringing them back to the world. But, as you have said yourself, they have a view of life that is alien to us; and do not forget that it was them who made the waste around us.”

  As he gazed at the perfect bodies of the Resurrected Men, a massive sadness, a brutal sense of incompleteness, came upon him. He studied the honest face of the dwarf before him, but could find no echo of his own emotion-only puzzlement, and, beneath that, a continuing elation.

  “Tomb, I want no part of this.”

  As he walked toward the arch from which they had issued, his head downcast so that he should not see that queer dance-so that he should not be ensnared and fascinated by its inhumanity-Methvet Nian, Queen Jane of Viriconium, barred his way. Her violet eyes pierced him.

  “Cromis, you should not feel like this. It is Grif’s death that has brought you down. You blame yourself, you see things crookedly. Please-” tegeus-Cromis said: “Madam, I caused his death. I am sick of myself; I am sick of being constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time; I am sick of the endless killing that is necessary to right my mistakes. He was my friend. Even Trinor was once my friend.

  “But that is not at issue.

  “My lady, we regarded the Northmen as barbarians, and they were.” He laughed. “Today, we are the barbarians. Look at them!”

  And when she turned to watch the choreography of the brain, the celebration of ten thousand years of death and rebirth, he fled.

  He ran toward the light. When he passed the corpse of his dead friend, he began to weep again. He picked up his sword. He tried to smash a crystal window with its hilt. The corridor oppressed him. Beyond the windows, the dead brains drifted. He ran on.

  “You should have done it,” whispered Birkin Grif in the soft spaces of his skull; and, “OUROBUNDOS!” giggled the insane door, as he fell through it and into the desert wind. His cloak cracking and whipping about him, so that he resembled a crow with broken wings, he stumbled toward the black airboat. His mind mocked him. His face was wet.

  He threw himself into the command bridge. Green light swam about him, and the dead Northmen stared blindly at him as he turned on the power. He did not choose a direction, it chose him. Under full acceleration, he fled out into the empty sky.

  And so tegeus-Cromis, Lord of the Methven, was not present at the forming of the Host of the Reborn Men, at their arming in the depths of the Lesser Waste, or their marching. He did not see the banners.

  Neither was he witness to the fall of Soubridge, when, a month after the sad death of Birkin Grif, Tomb the Giant Dwarf led the singing men of the Afternoon Cultures against a great army of Northmen, and took the victory.

  He was not present when the wolves burned Soubridge, and, in desperation, died.

  He did not see the Storming of the Gates, when Alstath Fulthor-after leading a thousand Resurrected Men over the Monar Mountains in the depths of winter-attacked the Pastel City from the northeast;

  Or the brave death of Rotgob Mungo, a captain of the North, as he tried in vain to break the long Siege of the Artists’ Quarter, and bled his life out in the Bistro Californium;

  Nor was he there when T
omb met Alstath Fulthor on the Proton Circuit, coming from the opposite end of the city, and shook his hand.

  He was not present at that final retaking of Methven’s hall, when five hundred men died in one hour, and Tomb got his famous wound. They looked for him there, but he did not come.

  He did not break with them into the inner room of the palace, there among the drifting curtains of light; or discover beneath the dying wreck of Usheen the Sloth, the Queen’s Beast, the cold and beautiful corpse of Canna Moidart, the last twist of the knife.

  It is rumoured that the Young Queen wept over the Old, her cousin. But he did not see that, either.

  EPILOGUE

  Methvet Nian, the Queen of Viriconium, stood at early evening on the sand dunes that lay like a lost country between the land and the sea. Swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over her downcast head.

  She was a tall and supple woman, clad in a gown of heavy russet velvet, and her skin was neither painted nor jewelled, as was the custom of the time. The nine identical Rings of Neap glittered from her long fingers. Her hair, which recalled the colour of autumn rowans, hung in soft waves to her waist, coiled about her breasts.

  For a while, she walked the tideline, examining the objects cast up by the sea: paying particular attention to a smooth stone here, a translucent spiny shell there, picking up a bottle the colour of dragonfly armour, throwing down a branch whitened and peculiarly carved by the water. She watched the gulls, but their cries depressed her.

  She led her grey horse by its white bridle across the dunes, and found the stone path to the tower which had no name: though it was called by some after that stretch of seaboard on which it stood, that is, Balmacara.

  Balmacara was broken-its walls were blackened, it was like a broken tooth-and despite the spring that had brought green back to the land after a winter of darkness and harsh contrasts, the rowan woods that surrounded it were without life.

  Among them in the growing gloom of twilight, she came upon the wreck of the crystal launch that had brought down the tower. It was black, and a wolf’s head with wine-red eyes stared at her from its buckled hull- quite without menace, for the paint was already beginning to peel.

 

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