Viriconium, p.24

Viriconium, page 24

 

Viriconium
 



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  “ ‘The world is coming to bits,’ said Galen Hornwrack, and someone answered dryly, ‘The world is being exchanged for something else.’

  “It comes to me that each of us suffered during this northern transit an emptying or bleaching of the identity in preparation for a future we could not describe. Viriconium was behind us. (Even those of us who returned there never saw it again, but found a changed city, one in which we were not comfortable.) In the sense that it no longer filled our day-to-day thoughts, we had forgotten our purpose. We existed simply to slip through the rain, a handful of salt-lipped figures beneath the unending cliffs, speaking in low sepulchral voices. Before went, like a banner, the raging glory of the Afternoon, with its great horse and scarlet armour; while a sniggering dwarf in a leather hat brought up the rear on a pony no bigger than a dog; and above us floated the balloon-like form of the ancient airman, chivvied like a dying whale by gangs of raucous gulls. Cyphers, we pass beneath the hungry ironic eyes of the gannets and guillemots-the assassin resentful and disfigured; the woman who believes herself lost in Time; and myself- a thing, alive beyond its rightful years, far beyond its rightful place! The landscape, though, anticipates our release: this preparation or interlude is drawing to a close…

  “ ‘We should turn east soon if we are to find your village,’ Fulthor insisted patiently. Fay Glass frowned at him like a child, her hair plastered to her skull. She wore two or three purple flowers which she had previously offered to Hornwrack, and due to his refusal of them was agreeing with no one. ‘Nobody who truly cared about hygiene could read the message above,’ she declared with a mutinous dignity. ‘How can we prevent abuse in the first place?’ Fulthor could only shrug. Shortly after this exchange it became evident that we had lost the Glenluce road: the beach became narrow and steeply shelving, the cliffs undercut, and our progress dependent on the state of the tide, from which we were forced to take refuge twice a day. Eventually we led our horses up the first tottering rake which offered a way to the top of the cliffs.

  “That was evening or late afternoon. The light was fading. Squalls of rain blew out of the advancing sea fog, dotted with large wet flakes of snow. A melancholy heath dipped away inland-shadowy, sheep-cropped turf, black gorse, and bent hawthorn trees. Northwards and at right angles to the coast, defile succeeded narrow defile, each one cutting through the limestone to the underlying metamorphic shales and broadening as it reached the sea. The landscape was scattered with old metal bridges. It had a discarded air. We passed the night huddled at the foot of a ruined stone wall, unaware that a mile or so ahead lay the port of Iron Chine, nexus of a strange war, with its weird banners and demented prince. Rusty iron creaked in the wind.”

  Cellur does not relate how on the next morning they found that Paucemanly’s ghost had abandoned them, or how they slumped on their soaked and surly animals staring dully at the desolation which stretched away inland: that half-fertile strip of dissected peat and tough ling heather pocked with lethal seepage hollows which was the merest periphery of the Great Waste. Unpredictable soughs full of brown water threaded its endless slopes of sodden tussocky grass, and queer rocks were embedded along its rheumy skylines, eroded by the wind into vague and organic silhouettes. This was their ultimate destination (it is, in another way, the ultimate destination of everything, as the earth enters its long Evening), or so they imagined: but in the face of its winter they faltered. Instead of turning eastward Alstath Fulthor led them first along the cliffs and then down into Iron Chine. They followed him like a handful of refugees from some chronological disaster, heads bowed against the bitter blow of Time.

  The cyclopean quays of Iron Chine are older than the Afternoon. No one knows who built them, or for what crude purpose. The massive untrimmed blocks which comprise them are not native to this coast but cut from granites formed much further north. Who brought them down from there to bind them with iron and pile them in the cold sea, or when, is not known. They are black, and wet with fog, like the vertical walls of the fjord which contains them, the archaean unvegetated slates of which sweep down to an ebon sea. The enormous quayside buildings are also black; their purpose is quite lost and most of them have fallen into decay. The modern port subsists on fish, gulls’ eggs, and mutton. Cowed by geography, Time, and the sea, its lime-washed cottages huddle uneasily amid a greater architecture; above them a road has been pushed through the rotting slates, and winds its way perilously up to the clifftop pastures.

  Down this Galen Hornwrack now rode (the dwarf beside him croaking tunelessly), puzzled by the mist that lay in the trough of the fjord. It was ashen and particulate. Inner currents stirred it sluggishly. A gust of wind, exploding over the lip of the cliffs and roiling down past him, parted it for a moment, but revealed only black water patterned by the rain. Yet he sensed it was occupied (although he could hardly have said by what): he stopped his horse, stood up in his stirrups, and craned his neck anxiously until the rift had closed again. “What’s this then?” he asked himself. He shook his head. “Fulthor,” he called back, “this may be unwise.” Further down, where the air was calmer, he smelt smoke, urgent and powdery at the back of his nose. Now the dwarf became agitated too, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, squinting and sniffing about him like a nervous dog. Behind the smell of smoke was something sharper, less easy to identify.

  Lower still, at the edge of the mist, halted before it like a swimmer at the margin of an unknown lake, he became convinced that people were moving about down there on the water in a panicky and disorientated fashion; and distant shouts came up to him, partly muffled by the mist but discernibly cries for aid. “It may be unsafe, Fulthor.” But Fulthor motioned him on, and from then on events seemed to reach him at one remove, as if he was not quite part of them. It was a familiar feeling, and one that recalled the Bistro Californium, the deadly gamboge shadows of the Low City Inside the mist was a distinct smell of lemons, and of rotting pears-a moist and chemical odour which sought out and attacked the sensitive membranes of the body. The light was sourceless, and had the effect of sharpening outlines while blurring the detail contained within them: on Hornwrack’s right, the dwarf looked as if he had been cut from grey paper a moment before-a tall queer hat, a goblin’s profile, an axe head bigger than his own. Beyond this paper silhouette the path fell away into a whitish void in which Hornwrack made out now and then a localized and fitful carmine glow. While he was trying to remember what this reminded him of, Alstath Fulthor took station on his left. Their throats raw, their eyes streaming, and their noses running, they advanced in a cautious formation until the path began to level out and they found themselves without warning on a wide stone concourse bordering the estuary.

  Here the mist was infused with a thin yellow light. But for the slap of the waves on the water stair below, but for the silence and the smell of the fog, they might have been in the Low City on any cold October night. Hornwrack led them to the water’s edge, the hooves of the horses clacking and scraping nervously across an acre of worn stone slabs glistening with shallow puddles. A languor of curiosity came over them. Despite their forebodings they tilted their heads to hear the distant thud of wood on wood, the faint cries of men echoing off the estuary. Even Fay Glass was quite silent.

  Hornwrack narrowed his eyes. “Fulthor, there are no longer fishermen in this place.” Distances were impossible of judgement. He wiped his eyes, coughed. “Something is on fire out there.”

  The smell of smoke had thickened perceptibly, perhaps carried to them by some inshore wind. With it came a creaking of ropes and a smell of the deep sea; groans and shouts startlingly close. Now a node of carmine light appeared, expanding rapidly. A cold movement of the air set the mist bellying like a curtain. Hornwrack shook his head desperately, looking about him in panic: abruptly he sensed an enormous object moving very close to him. The mist had all along distorted his perspectives.

  “Back!” he shouted. “Fulthor, get them back from the water!” Even as he spoke the mist writhed an
d broke apart. Out of it thrust the foreparts and figurehead of a great burning ship.

  Its decks were deep with blood. Once it had been white. Now it rushed to destruction on the water stair, spouting cinders. Its strange slatted metal sails, decorated with unfamiliar symbols, were melting as they fell. Captained by despair, it emerged from the mist like a vessel from Hell, its figurehead an insect-headed woman who had pierced her own belly with a sword (her mouth, if it could be called a mouth, gaped in pain or ecstasy). “Back!” cried Galen Hornwrack, tugging at his horse’s head. “Back!” Fay Glass, though, only stared and sneezed like an animal, transfixed by the mad carven head gaping above her. Dying men tumbled over the sides of the ship, groaning “Back!” as the lean, charred hull drove blindly at the shore; “Back!” as it smashed into the water stair and with its bow torn open immediately began to sink.

  Down it went, with a roar and a shudder. The deep cold water gurgled into its ravaged hull. Ratlines and halyards fell in blazing festoons about its cracked bowsprit. Hornwrack pulled the madwoman off her horse and dragged her away. She wiped her nose. Sparks flew about their heads. The hulk lurched, settled a little lower in the water. A sail fell, showing Hornwrack for a moment a curious symbol-a hexagon with eccentric sides, through which crawled orange-throated lizards-before it hissed molten into the sea. High up in the doomed forecastle a solitary figure stood mantled in blood. “Murder!” it sobbed, staring wildly down at Hornwrack. “They’ve followed us into the estuary!” It hacked with a blunt shortsword at a flaming spar. “Oh, this damned mist!” Suddenly it was catapulted from its perch and with a thin wail fell into the water.

  “Hornwrack!”

  The burning ship reminded him of some childhood ritual, some solstitial bonfire lit in the wet dark ploughland. He turned almost reluctantly from it, his face stiff with heat. Fulthor, Tomb, and the old man stood a little way off; toward them across the gleaming concourse men were running. “To you, Fulthor!” he cried, just as he might have done beneath the heights of Minnet-Saba, where the rival factions of the Low City clash without chivalry at night; and, encumbered by the madwoman, promptly dropped the unfamiliar sword. “Black filth, girl. Let go.” The weapon tolled like a bell on the worn flagstones. His horse trod on it. A fit of coughing racked him.

  As he disentangled himself, though, he realised that the mist was dwindling round him like a dream, to reveal the giant quays and boatsheds; the little town; the slatey cliffs. Seabirds called as they skimmed the water. Even the clouds were blowing away. For all the fears of the dead sailor, nothing floated out there on the roadstead. But for the bubbling wreck on the water stair, the estuary was empty of menace, quite empty. Puzzled, he drew his knife and urged forward his horse.

  7

  ST. ELMO BUFFIN AND THE NAVIGATORS OF IRON CHINE

  With the mist dispersed, the village smelt of smoked fish and salt. Fulthor and his party stood outnumbered and uncertain at the centre of an unarmed crowd. Hornwrack had put up his knife. Like the survivors of some forgotten colonial war (desultory, expedient, never quite resolved), the occupants of Iron Chine drew round him: thin intelligent women, a few bare-limbed children. There were no young men present, only some old ones who stamped their feet and turned up their heavy collars, faded blue eyes watering in the cold wind. They stared up at him with a defiant incuriosity and he stared back embarrassed, although he could not have said precisely why. It was a mixed community; at the periphery of the crowd a handful of the Reborn hovered like strange, long-necked animals, their delicate features coarsened a little by an unrelenting deprivation. What had they left behind them in the Afternoon, what mad sophistications exchanged for the smell of dead fish?

  A few sailors who had escaped the wreck now swam ashore.

  No one offered them any help, nor did they seem to expect it, but pulled themselves up on to the quay and sprawled there with the blind, open-mouthed look of the exhausted. After a moment two of them got up again and between them pulled out a third. He kept trying to thank them. They knelt by his atrociously burnt head until a trickle of clear fluid ran out of the corner of his mouth; then they left him to stare sightlessly at a flock of gulls tearing pieces off something out on the estuary. They were yellow-haired, guileless, hardly more than children, but their faces were full of despair, as if they had fought a lifetime of holding actions and unplanned retreats. Alstath Fulthor observed them gravely for a minute or two, then, finding no other authority and extricating himself with difficulty from the civilian crowd, presented them with his safe conducts.

  “Our mission is one of importance,” he told them.

  Eventually one of them said, “This was not the time to come here.” He turned his back and, quietly dismissing the intrusion, vomited up a quantity of seawater. His companion put a placatory hand on his shoulder and reminded him,

  “Captain, they come from the capital-”

  But he only wiped his mouth and laughed wildly. “Ay, and look at them! Some yellow old man, and a woman. Two city lordlings and their dwarf!”

  A fit of dry retching shook him. “There will never be any help from Viriconium,” he said indistinctly. There was self-pity in his voice, and after a moment or two he acknowledged it with a disgusted twist of his mouth. “Did you see anything out there?” he asked, and when the other shook his head, whispered, “I pity those that did.”

  He tried to squeeze the salt water from his hair.

  “One of our own vessels rammed us, that’s certain,” he continued thoughtfully. “But by then we were already burning.”

  He shrugged.

  “It was as usual. Those who saw anything were struck mad immediately. Those who did not, got lost in the mist.”

  Thus the defeated, locked in their dreams of defeat.

  “You are bound to help us!” shouted Alstath Fulthor suddenly.

  “Leave them alone, Fulthor,” advised Hornwrack. Often enough he had been among the defeated himself. His sudden compassion surprised him nevertheless, and that he should recognise it as such surprised him even further. He looked sidelong at Tomb the Dwarf to see if he had noticed anything, but the dwarf wasn’t interested-he only grinned pleasantly and unforgivingly down at the sailors and said, “There is no enemy in sight now.”

  “They are bound by those signatures to help us,” said the Reborn Man less loudly.

  They regarded him with puzzlement, and some scorn.

  “Go up to the new hall,” was all they said, “and leave us alone.” And they wandered off along the quay to where the remaining mast of the foundered ship poked up at a strange angle from a scum of floating wreckage. There a smell of lemons clung, as if some bitter dew had condensed on that doomed hull during its confused final voyage. It was an unearthly, chemical smell. The horses hated it.

  The crowd, sensing a termination, looked on emptily for a minute or two, then began to disperse-the children drawn by a kind of magnetism toward the wreck while their elders took to the cobbled road which wound up into Iron Chine proper, where they vanished in twos and threes among the little two-storey houses with the wet slate roofs, the drying nets, and lines of flaccid laundry. Dulled by the cold and continual privation, they seemed unable to react to a tragedy which, as someone in Fulthor’s party pointed out later, must have involved them all. One woman did stand for a time staring out into the estuary, a few tears drying on her cheeks in the wind. Only then did Hornwrack realise that more than one vessel had been involved. A spatter of rain blew out of the west (where like a great ancient fish there lay in wait the island continent of Fenlen) and into his face. He could see the “new hall” on a rise above the village. He felt wretched.

  “This wind is prising my joints apart,” said Cellur the Birdmaker cheerfully. When no one answered him he gave an impatient shrug. “These people need more help than they could ever give us,” he told Fulthor. “When you stop sulking you will see that.”

  It came on to rain in earnest as they passed through the Chine. The peeling walls had once b
een gaily whitewashed, the window boxes tended; now pale faces observed them from behind the streaming windows. Higher, they found they could look down into the boatyards of St. Elmo Buffin, from which rose the masts and spars of his white and fated fleet- rakish three-hulled craft fitted with those peculiar slatted metal sails over which rioted orange lizards, green beetles glowing like fresh tattoos, and subtly distorted geometrical figures. Designed by the Afternoon, built by the Evening, blessed by a new madness of both, they were arming for some invisible war. DEATH proclaimed one sail, and LIFE another, in calligraphies rich and outlandish; while on the decks beneath, shipwrights and sailors swarmed like rats.

  “No hint of this war has ever come to us in the High City,” said Alstath Fulthor wonderingly. “It is no wonder they are poverty-stricken here.”

  Higher still, the “new hall” hung above them like a threat. Sombre, columnar, mysterious of purpose, it had about it a most appalling air of age, an age which emptied out the cultural luggage of Alstath Fulthor’s vanished race-all the moral atrocities and philosophical absurdities and expired technologies-and found it meaningless; rendering meaningless in the end even the deserts which were their only legacy to the Evening. As he approached it, wincing from the weather, huddling into his cloak against a wind a million years old, it spoke to Galen Hornwrack from an age fully as naive but by no means as puzzled as his own. It was a survivor of the Morning.

 

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