Viriconium, p.15

Viriconium, page 15



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  Fulthor was intrigued, and a little taken aback. It was a strange place for such a meeting. He shrugged and smiled.

  “Why do you waste yours in asking, old man?” he answered.

  The old man shivered, and with a quick unconscious movement of the head glanced up at the southern sky before he spoke again. The high, naked shriek of a fish eagle echoed over the fells, but there was no moon yet in the sky.

  In a palace like a shell-in Methven’s hall where the Proton Circuit draws itself up into a spiral on a hundred pillars of thin black stone-Methvet Nian, Queen Jane, Queen in Viriconium, who in her youth had taken to the windy birch stands and glacial lakes of the Rannoch Moor, hunted away by the Chemosit and wild as any moss-trooper’s daughter (with the last of the Methven limping and scarred to guard her, a poet and a dead metal bird to guide her, and a giant dwarf to expedite her passage), sat before five false windows in a tall room floored with cinnabar crystal. She was surrounded by precious, complex objects of forgotten use-machines or sculptures excavated from ruined cities in the Rust Desert beyond Duirinish. Curtains of pale, fluctuating light drifted irregularly about the chamber like showers of rain, and through the dreamlike shadows thus created shambled the Queen’s Beast-one of the great white sloths of the Southern forests, who are said to be the fallen remnants of a star-faring race invited or lured to earth during the madness of the Afternoon.

  Eighty years had passed since Usheen, the first of her beasts, died on Canna Moidart’s knife, and in dying sealed the final defeat of the North. tegeus-Cromis lay two decades still and dead beneath the fields of sol d’or at Lowth. Methvet Nian was no longer young, even by the standards of the Evening. Still, in her purple eyes there might yet be discerned something of the girl who in the space of one year lost and gained the Last Kingdom of the world: and in the dreaming light where those five false windows showed landscapes to be found nowhere in Viriconium, her age weighed only lightly on her-like the hand of some imaginary child. Inside, the windows flickered. Outside it was autumn, and under a cold moon processions of men with insect faces went silently through the streets.

  A curious thing happened to her.

  Often in that flickering room the past had come to touch her with quiet persistence, tugging at her sleeve in the effort to capture her attention: white hares in the twilight at Shining Clough Moss or Torside Naze; the long brown sweep of the Rannoch peat moors like a brush stroke in some enormous written language; desert dust piling itself noiselessly in the bleak plazas of Ruined Drunmore. But these were no more or less than the sad fingerprints of memory on her brain (she remembered the verses tegeus-Cromis made, the ancient cry of the fish eagles, and his voice out of night and morning): tonight it was something more. The windows flickered; the windows shimmered; the windows said,

  “Methvet Nian.”

  All five went blank and dark.

  “Methvet Nian!”

  Smoke and snow filled them, a pearly grey light like dawn over the tottering seracs of some marine glacier in the north beyond the North. It shivered and was wrenched away “Methvet Nian!”

  Fused sand, and a sky filled with mica, the rolling dunes and dry saline wadis of the sempiternal erg. In the fierce air hung a perfect mirage of the city, pastel towers tall and mathematical, cut with strange designs. The wind stooped like a hawk “Methvet Nian!”

  She approached the windows fatalistically, and with a sense of being drawn or invoked (seeing herself perhaps walk complaisantly through them and out into some other time). Now they poured out on her a green and submarine radiance, as if the palace she stood in truly were a shell, or a ship full of drowned sailors spinning forever beneath the ancient clammy sea. All other lights in the throne room were dimmed; the sloth whimpered, rearing puzzledly up on its hind legs, great ambered claws extending and retracting nervously.

  “Hush,” she said. “Who wishes to speak to me?” and was still.

  “Methvet Nian.”

  The deep-sea gloom surged, foamed, blew away, like spindrift off a wave in the invisible wind, only to be replaced by the image of a cavernous, ruined room which seemed to be full of dusty stuffed birds. Moonlight filtered through rents in the walls. An old man stood before her, pentadic, five-imaged. His long domed skull was yellow and fleshless, his eyes green and his lips thin. His skin was so fine and tight as to be translucent, the bones shining through it like jade. His age, she thought, has outstripped mere physical symptoms, and exalted him. His robe was embroidered with subtle gold designs having this property, that in every draught of air they seemed to shift and flow, responsive to each movement of the cloth but independent of it.

  She trembled. She put out a hand to touch cold glass.

  The cry of gulls rang in her ears, and the sound of a cold grey sea lapping on black sand far away and long ago.

  “Do the dead live in that country, then?” she whispered, twisting her fingers in the white fur of the sloth. “Beyond the windows?”

  “Methvet Nian.”

  East and south of Monar runs a strip of heathland whose name, when it still had one, was a handful of primitive syllables scattered like a question into the damp wind. It is a deserted and superseded country, that one, full of the monuments and inarticulate ghosts of a race older than Viriconium, younger than the Afternoon Cultures, and possibly more naive than either: a short-lived nation of tribal herdsmen who buried their dead once-yearly in tiered barrows and knew nothing more of their heritage than that it should be avoided. Of the future they knew nothing at all. Worked metal was the death knell of them, tolling from the crude and ceaseless smithies of the North. Their works, ridge path and necropolis alike, have now taken on the air of natural features and, overgrown with gorse and young beech, become one with the sombre expanse of long mounds and shallow valleys sloping away to merge imperceptibly with the Rannoch beyond.

  This place avoided the poisoned hands of the Afternoon only to age and grow enfeebled instead. Curlews make free of its sad desuetude; hares play in the deep cloughs and sheltered hollows of a land which has quietly exhausted itself; it ignores the traveller, and gently seeks the night. Here on many an evening in the latter part of the year darkness visits the earth while the pale wreck of the sunset still commands the sky. The air is suffused with brightness yet somehow lacks the power to illuminate. In a moment each declivity has brimmed up with shadow and become the abode of mumbling wind and the shy thin ghosts who never dreamed of the Afternoon or knew its iron, at first or second hand. On just such an evening one autumn, eighty years after the Fall of the North, grey smoke might have been seen issuing from the chimney of a small red caravan parked on an old ridgeway deep in the heart of the heath; and from a considerable hole newly dug in the ground nearby, the chink of metal on metal It was a four-wheeled caravan of the type traditionally used by the Mingulay tinker to move his enormous family and meagre equipment along the warm summer roads of the South. Indeed, the South vibrated in it, every panel and peg, lively atrocious designs in electric blue rioting over its sides, its thick spokes picked out in canary yellow, the curved roof a racy purple to throw back the last of the light in a challenge to the sombre crawling umbers of the heath. The hilarious, slovenly children, it seemed, were not long departed, run off snot-nosed to go blackberrying among the brambles. Smoke rose, and a smell of food. Two dusty ponies tethered to the backboard with a bit of frayed rope cropped the short ridgeway turf in noisy self-absorption, lop ears cocked to catch the voice of their master, who, though rendered invisible by the embankment of fresh sandy soil surrounding his pit, could be heard from time to time punctuating with vile threats and oaths the low monotonous humming of some Rivermouth dirge. But no children returned from the bracken (we hear their voices fade and recede across the long darkness of the heath), and this impatient excavation continued unwearyingly until the light had almost left the sky. Long shadows engulfed the caravan; its chimney ceased to smoke; the ponies shuffled at the end of their tether. Fresh showers of earth added height to the rampa
rts. Then a peculiar thing happened.

  The sound of digging ceased…

  A great white light came up out of the pit and flared soundlessly into the sky like a signal to the stars…

  (Simultaneously an enormous voice could be heard to shout, “OOGABOURINDRA! BORGA! OOGABOURINDRA-BA!”)

  And a small figure dressed in the leather leggings of a metal-prospector was hurled out of the hole, cartwheeling like a horse-chestnut leaf in a March wind, to fall heavily in a heap of harness near the tethered ponies (who bared their old yellow teeth in brief contempt and immediately resumed their greedy pulling at the turf), its beard smouldering furiously, its long white hair alight, and all its accoutrements charred. For a moment it sat on the ground as if stunned; beat feebly at itself, muttering the foulest of marsh oaths from Cladich; then sank back, insensible, silent, smoking. All around, the light that had come up from the earth was fading from white and the invisible colours through a strange series of violets and pinks to darkness and vanishment. A small breeze searched the rowan and thorn for it; shrugged; and departed.

  Tomb the Iron Dwarf, acting at the lean end of his life on an impulse he didn’t fully understand, had left the Great Brown Waste, his longtime prospecting ground, and in his one hundred and fiftieth year travelled through Methedrin in the spring, where amid the tumbling meltwater and short-lived flower meadows he recalled other times and other journeys. Surprised by his own sentimentality and suddenly aware he was seeking something special, he’d dawdled south down the Rannoch, warming his old bones. “One last discovery,” he had promised himself, one last communion with ancient metal, and then an end to arthritic nights; but this seemed a strange place to make it. What he might find in a land that hadn’t known industry for millennia, what he might return with for the last time to the Pastel City, he couldn’t imagine. He had not seen the city for twenty years, or his friend Fulthor. He had never seen the Sign of the Locust.

  When he woke up, it was dark, and he was inside his caravan. A tall old man in a hooded cloak bent over him like a question mark in the orange lamplight. Strange designs worked into the weave of the garment seemed to shift and writhe as he moved.

  Tomb winced away, his thick gnarled hands yearning for the axe he had not used in a decade (it lay beneath his bed; his armour was there too, packed in a trunk; so his life had gone since the Fall of the North). “Why have you come here, old ghost?” he said. “I’ll cut off your arms!” he whispered as he lost consciousness again, feeling an old cruelty sweep over him like a familiar pain; and then, waking suddenly with his wide astonished eyes staring into that aged face, skin like parchment stretched over a clear lemon-yellow flame, he remembered! Ten thousand grey wings beat down the salty wind like a storm in his head!

  “We thought you were dead,” he said. “We thought you were dead!” And slept.



  Autumn. Midnight. The eternal city. The moon hangs over her like an attentive white-faced lover, its light reaching into dusty corners and empty lots. Like all lovers it remarks equally the blemish and the beauty spot- limning the iridium fretwork and baroque spires of the fabled Atteline Plaza even as it silvers the fishy eye of the old woman cutting fireweed and elder twigs among the ruins of the Cispontine Quarter, whose towers suffered most during the War of the Two Queens. The city is a product of her own dreams, a million years of them. Now she turns in her sleep, so quietly you can hear the far-off rumour of the newest: white bones, the Song of the Locust, dry mandibles rubbing together in desert nights… or is it only a wind out of Monar, and autumn leaves filling the air, to scrape and patter in the side streets?

  In the Artists’ Quarter it is that hour of the night when all and nothing seem possible. The bistros are quiet. The entertainments and smoking parlours are all closed. Even Fat Mam Etteilla the fortune-teller has shipped her wicked pack of cards, put up for a few hours the shutters of her grubby satin booth, and waddled off with her aching ankles and her hacking cough, which is bad tonight. Canker, the Dark Man of the cards, has her by the lungs; she leans against a wall to spit in a puddle of moonlight, whispering the word that will hold him back; it falls hollowly into the vibrant, vacant street. The canker, she confides to her shadow, will take her in its own good time; at present she is less concerned about herself than her last customer of the evening. She has a wan belief in her own efficacy, and tells the silent Quarter, “I did my best, I did my best-”

  She did her best “There is nothing good in the cards spread thus.

  “Bogrib, NOTHINGNESS, crosses you, and here is NUMBER FOUR, called by some ‘the Name Stars’: beware a fire.

  “A woman shadows you, POVERTY lies behind you, the Lessing; and before you a discussion, or it may be water.

  “Nothing is clear tonight-who is that, running in the alley? I heard steps for a moment in the alley-but see the MANTIS here, praying at the moon beneath three arches. The first is for something new; the second for injustice; under the third arch all will be made different. Something taken away long ago is now returned.

  “These are your thoughts on the matter, to turn this card I must have something more. Thank you. FIVE TOWERS! Do nothing, I beseech you, that you might regret. Fear death from the air, and avoid the North “Wait! We have hardly begun! Three more cards remain to be turned!”

  – but he went all the same, rapidly down the street and into the Alley of Bakers: a dark self-sufficient figure whose face she never clearly saw, going with a light and dangerous tread.

  Once in the alley and out of Mam Etteilla’s earshot (for fear perhaps she might pursue him, predicting, haranguing, or merely coughing up her lungs), he allowed himself to laugh a little, baring his teeth wryly to the grim city, the walls which contained him, the towers which had failed him, the night which covered him; and he quickened his pace, making for the Bistro Californium, that home of all errors and all who err. The air had stilled itself; it was sharp and cold, and his breath hung about him in a cloud. He did not enter the Californium at once but hung like a bird of prey on the edge of the lamplight to see who might await him inside. In this bright, static quadrant of the night’s existence the city seemed shattered and fragmentary, tumbled into hard meaningless patterns of light and shade, blue and grey and faded gamboge, grainy of texture and difficult of interpretation. Stray beams of smoky lemon-yellow barred his harsh worn features, his tired hooded eyes. When a dog barked down in the Cispontine Quarter-desultory, monotonous, distant-he seemed to stiffen for a moment; pass his hand over his face; and look puzzledly about him, for all the world like a man who wakes from a nightmare to an empty, buzzing dream, and wonders briefly how his life has led him here…

  Fear death from the air!

  His name was Galen Hornwrack. He was a lord without a domain, an eagle without wings, and he did not fear the air, he loved it. The War of the Two Queens had ended his boyhood without hope, and he had spent the slow years since hidden away in the mazy alleys of the Artists’ Quarter, the better to regret an act of fate which (so it appeared to him) had robbed his existence of any promise or purpose before it was fairly begun. Out of spite against himself or against the world, he never knew which, he had not taken up a profession, learning to use the steel knife instead to cut a living from the streets, shunning his peers and watching himself turn from a young man full of dreams into an older one stuffed with emptiness and fear. Fear death from the air! He feared it at every corner-it yawned at him from every alley’s mouth-but never from there, where he would willingly have burned or bled or hung like a corpse from the million-year gallows of his own pain!

  Presently he shook himself, laughed harshly, and, certain that the Californium contained no obvious trap or enemy, abandoned the shadows like a viper. One hand hung visible by his side while the other, beneath his threadbare grey cloak, rested on the hilt of his good plain knife. In that manner he made his way through the notorious chromium portals behind which Rotgob Mungo, a captain of the No
rth, had in the last days of Canna Moidart’s rule laid his vain and valiant plans to break the siege of the Artists’ Quarter, only to bleed out his life-albeit more honourably than many of his kin-under the strange axe of Alstath Fulthor.

  Californium! The very word is like a bell, tolling all the years of the city-tolling for the mad poets of the Afternoon with all their self-inflicted wounds and desperate drugged sojourns at its rose-coloured glass tables; tolling for their skinless jewelled women who, lolling beneath the incomprehensible frescoes, took tea from porcelain as lucid as a baby’s ear; tolling for Jiro-San and Adolf Ableson, for Clane and Grishkin and the crimes which sickened their minds in the rare service of Art-their formless, quavering light extinguished now, their names forgotten, their feverish stanzas no more than a faint flush on the face of the world, a fading resonance in the ears of Time!

  Californium!-a knell for the new nobles of Borring’s court, the unkempt rural harpists who only five centuries ago filled the place with sawdust and thin beer and vomit, beating out their sagas and great lying epics like swords on a Rivermouth anvil while Viriconium, the only city they had ever seen, refurbished itself around them (remembering, perhaps, its long declining dream) and, at the head of Low Leedale, the cold stronghold of Duirinish levered its way upward stone by stone to bar the way to the wolves of the North. They were here!

  Here too came the young tegeus-Cromis, a lord in Methven’s halls before the death of his proud sister, morose and ascetic in a bice velvet cloak, eager to stitch the night through with the eerie self-involved notes of a curious Eastern gourd… Californium! Philosophers and tinkers; poetry, art, and revolution; princes like vagrants and migrant polemicists with voices soft as a snake’s; the absolute beat and quiver of Time, the voice of the city; millennia of verse echo from its chromium walls, drift in little dishonest flakes of sound from that peculiarly frescoed ceiling!


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