Viriconium, page 23
Hornwrack shrugged, paced the corridors at night, gazing in a sort of savage abstraction at the old machines and whispering sculptures, and refused to answer his door. On the day of their departure he had to be fetched from his apartment (he was staring into a mirror). On the day of their departure, sleet fell, quickly soaking the striped awnings in the street markets and filling the gutters with a miserable slush. On the day of their departure a vision was vouchsafed to them; Tomb the Dwarf remembered a legend at whose birth he had presided long ago; and their ill-fated expedition acquired its tutelary or presiding spirit This apparition, which was to remain with them until the peculiar termination of their journey, manifested itself first in the throne room at Viriconium. Besides Cellur the Birdmaker, only Hornwrack was present. (Methvet Nian was to watch their departure from the city by the Gate of Nigg, and had gone there early. Alstath Fulthor fretted in an outer yard with Fay Glass and the horses. Tomb the Dwarf, having worked all night in his caravan-white heat flickering out over the tailboard to the accompaniment of a sad hammer-was dozing in some corner.) It was not yet light: the palace was chilly, echoic, nautiloid. Cellur, hoping to contact his own machines in their redoubt beneath the Lendalfoot estuary, passed a yellow hand through his beard. “Brown, green, counting,” he whispered, and in response a flock of grey images twittered like bats across the five false windows of the throne room. Clearly this was not the result he had forecast. “Do you see nothing?” he said impatiently. “I must have fresh news!”
“Be quick, old man,” said Hornwrack neutrally. He yawned and rubbed his face, feeling an obscure tension in the muscles of his neck. This he put down to being woken early. Like Fulthor, for reasons more or less complex, he was anxious to be off. Alone with wound, knife, and mirror over the last twenty-four hours, he had been surprised to find that he no longer regretted his psychic severance from the Low City. He thought now only rarely of the boy in the Rue Sepile, the bitter smell of dead geraniums, instead looked forward with a dry eagerness, curious as to the fate of his obsessions now that their confining frame had been removed. He massaged his neck. The old man muttered fractiously. In the upper air of the throne room the light was becoming stratified, bands of very pale pink and yellow leaking through the high eastern skylights. Dawn had arrived early. Fresh news! “Be quick!”
“Abrogate all rituals,” said a soft confidential voice from somewhere above him. He looked up, startled. It sniggered. “What a lovely piece of meat!”
Up near the vaulted ceiling a salmon-coloured layer of light had begun curdling into grey muculent lumps and strings which floated about like bits of fat in a lukewarm soup, bumping one another gently. After a minute or two of slow tidal effort, these in their turn merged to form a thick, lobed nucleus, from which presently evolved the crude figure of a man. Hornwrack studied this process with disgust, noting how, as they strained to become arms and legs, the lobes heaved and struggled like something trapped in an elastic bag. He caught the birdmaker staring puzzledly upwards and sniffed sarcastically.
“Have you finished tampering, old man?”
Cellur made an impatient movement with one hand.
The man hanging in the air above them (if it was a man) wore clothes of some rough faded material, originally black, tailored in a fashion which had not been common in the city for over a century. Where it could be seen, his skin was pallid, greenish, covered in withered silvery patches. Over his face was clamped a kind of mask or breathing apparatus from the black snout of which sprouted many truncated tubes and proboscides; this was attached by four black straps which, cutting into the swollen flesh of his cheeks, met in the straggling yellow hair at the back of his head. He was enormously fat, as if he had passed much of his life in a sphere where human conditions of growth no longer pertained: his hypertrophied buttocks floated over their heads like shadowy moons, accompanied by a thin monologue, cabalistic and futile, of which no sense might be made whatever “Here I sit, an old man in the Neant of the wind (Prima convien che tanto il ciel), stranded for so long in the fractured white spaces, a hundred years of pearly silence in the garden behind the world: there I lay in the biting wind-ABRACADABRA-there ate in the shadow of the veinous wing manna (perch’ io indugiai al fine i buon sospiri); and what for? WAR! Now they burrow in the great borrowed abracadabra of my surviving soul. Ah! Fear death from the air! What a lovely piece of meat, my dear!”
– And so on, punctuated by roars of pain or rage as, rolling slowly from one corner of the room to another, he attempted to right his huge floundering bulk or adjust its height from the floor. At times he seemed quite solid, while at others an appalling smell filled the throne room and his outlines became vague and mucous again. In moments of solidity he would struggle and thresh; he waved his arms, perhaps for attention, perhaps to keep his balance in whatever grotesque medium he was floating. (It was plain that the air of earth could not support so gross a body-he wallowed rather in some mysterious water glass, some dimension of his own.) When he faded, his voice faded too, becoming feeble and distant and distorted, as if by passage through some inhospitable aether.
Cellur the Birdmaker was transfixed. “This is none of my doing!” he cried, full of an ancient excitement. “Hornwrack, it is the voice from the moon!”
(“It’s a voice from a sewer,” declared Hornwrack, and, sotto voce: “A voice from a pantomime.”)
Cellur addressed the floating man. “Many nights I listened to you. What have you to tell me? Speak!”
“Blork,” said the floating man.
Thereafter he disregarded Cellur, but courted Hornwrack vigorously, his eyes ingenuous and fishy behind the tinted faceplate of his mask. Sidling up to the assassin he would wink coyly and embark on some earnest incoherent suit, only to topple helplessly over on his side before he could complete it, like the corpse of some small decomposing whale. “Listen to me, my lad (black buggery!). I can see you’re a flier. Listen, the regenerated word burrows within me! We must have a talk, you and I-” Then, making a terrified pushing motion: “No more, no more of that!” And off he would go, bobbing about the throne room at the height of Hornwrack’s head, a sour fluid dribbling from the edges of his mask.
This was too much for Hornwrack, who, eyeing the apparition superstitiously, got out the sword of tegeus-Cromis and followed it about, making lethal cuts at the air. “Back to your sewer!” he shouted. “Back to your madhouse!” while Cellur in an attempt to restrain him plucked feebly at his cloack and the apparition evaded them both, chuckling and sneezing.
Nothing could be got from it. If they left it alone, it harangued them mercilessly, in fragments of infernal languages. When they pursued it, Cellur in a spirit of conciliation, Hornwrack with murderous blows, it merely hiccupped behind its mask and blundered off. For half an hour this pantomime continued, until, in the face of the growing daylight, its periods of stability became fewer, its outline grey and debatable. Its voice faded into an enormous echoing distance in which might be heard quite distinctly the sound of waves on some unimaginable shore. Eventually it vanished into the same odd brew of light as had engendered it, and they were left stranded in the empty throne room, furious and futile.
This was how Alstath Fulthor found them: staring breathlessly into the vacant air. Had he listened carefully, as they begged him, he might have heard a feeble buzzing voice exhorting him to “Fear death from the air!” The sound of waves, or something like it. Silence. But what were voices to him, who now heard them constantly in his head?
“It is long past dawn,” he said irritably, “and the Queen will be waiting for us.”
In the event they saw very little of her, for it was a brutally cold day: only a white face in a window near the top of a tower; a white hand raised; and then nothing. Alstath Fulthor, his great black horse and blood-red armour glowing heraldically beneath the overcast, drew an ironic cheer from the handful of Low City dwellers who stood in the slush to watch them through the Gate of Nigg. Viriconium fou
Outside on the low brown foothills of Monar lay the first snow of the season, drifted up against the stone intake walls and sheep enclosures. The pack animals were fractious, the wind bitter. They travelled slowly, but the dwarf, who had been sleeping in some straw, did not catch up with them until much later.
When he did, he said, “This ‘bloated ghost’ you speak of: he was the finest airboatman of them all.”
And that night, huddled by a dying fire in the hills above the distant city, he continued: “At Mingulay he flew one machine against eight. Cooking rats in the sun at noon we watched, my long-dead friends and I, from the beleagured city. His boat was old, his crew haggard; the drugs he took to stay awake had made him shake and stagger; but how that boat spun and turned, how it dropped like a hawk amid the violet bolts of the power cannon! How the brassy light of the South glanced off its crystal hull! Benedict Paucemanly: seven wrecks dotted the arid plain before the siege was lifted; the eighth he rammed afterwards, in an oversight.
“But war was never enough for Paucemanly. When the world was still young (and the Methven still casting their shadows across it) he flew round it. I know, for I was with him, a dwarf of few summers who fancied himself an adventurer. We crossed the oceans, Hornwrack, and all the broken continents! Deserts drifted beneath our hull, rapt in their millennial declining dream. At the poles, aurorae cascaded and roared above us like spectral rivers. We sampled the tropics; the equatorial air burned about us. That was Paucemanly’s first flight in the Heavy Star. But if war failed to satisfy him, so did the world. He grew bored. He grew melancholy and thin.
“He began to stare each night at the wan and sovereign moon.
“Oh, he yearned after that sad planet. His plan was to go there. ‘The mysterious navigators of the Afternoon,’ he reasoned, ‘had commerce with it daily, in just such boats as these. The space outside the earth was of no consequence to them. Perhaps,’ he persuaded himself, ‘the boats remember the way.’ We watched him leave on a black night, in that famous ship. She rose into the darkness, hunting like a compass needle. Old sense revived in her. She trembled in anticipation, and strange new lights glimmered at her stern.
“We never saw her again, any of us. The Heavy Star, the Heavy Star ! That was a hundred years ago-”
The old dwarf’s eyes were red and flat in the gloom, reflecting the firelight like the eyes of an animal.
“Hornwrack,” he whispered, “she knew her way. Don’t you see? This ‘bloated ghost’ you describe is Benedict Paucemanly returned to us. He has been a hundred years in the moon!”
Hornwrack stirred the embers with his boot.
“That is all very well,” he said a little cruelly (for he envied the dwarf these memories, with which he had nothing to compare). “But what has he brought with him past the gates of earth? And why is he a gibbering idiot?”
The dwarf looked at him thoughtfully.
Later, Cellur the Bird Lord was to describe their journey north in these terms:
“Among the stone crowns and aimless salients of the empty foothills we received hints of some state of being we could not imagine. The world was bleached of its old meanings even for those of us who had previously accepted them. (I do not count myself among these. How could I?) This happened immediately after we left the city. It was as if a protection had been removed from us. Mosaic eyes seemed to observe us from behind the dry-stone walls. In the outline of a ridge or a wayfarer’s tree might be contained the suggestion of quite another object-a folded wing, for instance, or the coiled tongue of a moth.
“Alstath Fulthor led the way. Some internal process held him rapt. He had begun, perhaps, to map the paths inside himself which led to the Past. This gave him an absentminded air, and an irritable one, as if by our presence we interrupted some private conversation-although had anyone suggested this he would have rejected it angrily. Attempting to live simultaneously in two worlds, he rode moodily ahead and seemed to see nothing-head bowed into the rain, blood-red armour pulsing like a beacon. If it was madness then it was only the madness that has infected all his people since their Rebirth. They will learn in the end that the journey they long for is impossible, and accept the world as it is.
“The unmarked journeys of the soul: as we descended the foothills, we came upon old roads lined with sagging yews and blunt formless stone beasts. Here there is little left to humanize the debased earth; this is the beginning of the end, where the empire wastes away with its own geography. On the narrow strip between the mountains and the coastal flats only the giant hemlock grows now, and among it the ruins of the Afternoon are rotting, cities made of bloody glass submerged beneath cold and muddy lagoons: the ancient Fen Cities, among whose broken towers now creep the black wherries of the Evening, tacking and creaking from staithe to staithe in pursuit of a bleak diminishing trade. Of the old roads none are whole. The wide fused highways of the Afternoon peter out into shattered flags or limestone cobbles laid in Borring’s day, eventually into sheep-trod, nettle, and smallholding.
“The best of them, though, skirting warily both salt marsh and massif, makes its way to Duirinish, that grey outpost of former kings which is gateway to the Great Brown Waste and to the old cities of the North; and along this we took ourselves, under the patronage of the hallucinatory pilot Benedict Paucemanly. Exhorting, demanding, mumbling eternally in its strange self-constructed language, vanishing at intervals only to return refreshed, his ghost (if indeed it was his) had haunted us for a hundred miles or more. Now it wallowed above us like a waterlogged tree; now hid like a girl among the fleshy etiolated hemlock stems; now muttered, ‘On the moon it was like white gardens. Pork.’ It would not answer Alstath Fulthor, which put him out of temper; nor would it speak to me; Tomb the Dwarf it actively avoided, as though embarrassed by his persistence, sidling away down the hemlock glades grinning and breaking wind apologetically. And if he spoke to it of the ‘old days’ it regarded him with wide panicky eyes and flapped deprecatingly its awkward great hands.
“Galen Hornwrack, however, it courted ardently, trying to capture his attention with a wink or a whistle. ‘Land ho, lad!’ it would cry, and, bobbing in the air before him, make an elaborate mime of discovering some terra incognita: shading its eyes with one hand while with the other it pointed north and west. (Fulthor made light of this mummery, arguing that the thing was mad if it could be said to exist at all: yet after a few repetitions one felt a profound sense of urgency, as if some fading fragment of the original airboatman was struggling to act out or insinuate something he could no longer articulate.) Hornwrack’s response was characteristic. He hated to appear a fool. The more the thing wooed him the more he averted his gaze. And at night when he thought himself unobserved he stalked it patiently through the firelight, the partly healed scars on his cheeks burning like the ritual stigmata of some primitive hunter. Each failure to kill or confine it increased his anger: when the girl Fay Glass sang, ‘We are off to Vegys now,’ and smiled at him-which was some days her only human contact-he would not smile back, which made her fractious and difficult to manage in her turn.
“In this way we came to Duirinish, which we avoided to the west, having no business there. It is a great place, that, the bulk of it being built facing north. We passed it in a pale dawn, the sun striking grave and oblique on the dwarf oaks of Low Leedale. A bitter metallic smell hung in the air, making the horses delicate of temper; the grey stones of the city had a brooding look. Small dour figures could be seen staring down from among its parapets and machicolations, but they had no time for us. For five hundred years the men of Duirinish had kept the border:
“Shrewd sea winds courted us. On our right marched a line of tall cliffs. Originally deposited as a limestone reef front some hundreds of miles long, these had been worked during earth’s long Afternoon into a chain of quarries broken here and there by little steep-sided valleys with crumbling mossy headwalls. In and out of the hidden caves and sinkholes of this region (in effect the lip of a vast plateau, stretching a mile or so back inland before being buried under the culm measures and doomed black soils of the Great Brown Waste) there flowed whitish polluted streams. The trees were grey and dry. Now we moved deeper into it, and into a kind of psychic dislocation, picking a way through the gummy, lifeless tidal pools while mirages came and went over our bowed heads.
“We had no idea of what might disclose itself from day to day. At evening we left the beach and lit fires in the tottering mazes where interleaving bituminous strata had made the rock rotten and easily eroded. But the flames were hard to kindle. They were pale and cool. Later the echo of falling rocks clattered through the dark like the sound of skittles falling in a deserted alley. From the upper ledges there drifted down an endless rain of tiny luminous beetles. All night long the wind shook the skeins of dead ivy; and in the morning, as the sea fogs cleared, vast insects would appear in the distance, their reflections perfect in the wet sand of the tidal flats; they moved ponderously away before we could identify them. All this, as I have said, was contained at first in the outlines of ordinary things, much as a shadowy architecture of colonnades and alien galleries can be made out in the walls of an empty quarry, but as we moved north the landscape itself became thin and grey, textured like mucus, with the bones of some other landscape showing more or less clearly through.
Other author's books:
- You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of GhostsThe Course of the HeartEmpty Space ktt-3A Storm of Wings v-2Viriconium
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