Viriconium, p.27

Viriconium, page 27

 

Viriconium
 



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  “In the maze,” said Cellur, “my errors were made plain. Much, if not all, is now clear to me. I cannot yet explain the ghost”-he prodded Hornwrack’s shoulder, pointed up into the wrack where Paucemanly bobbed, smirking and bowing like a butler-“but I have at last learnt what he was trying to tell us.

  “You must go and rouse Iron Chine. Pray that St. Elmo Buffin, a man ill-used by circumstance, is not as mad as he seems! Tell him the time has come to launch his fleet. Tell him help is on its way.” He smiled bitterly. “Lunatics and ghosts-all along they have had the right of it!” For a second he stared slack-faced and frightened into the west, his hooded eyes human for once. (After all, he is out in the world now, thought Hornwrack-who sympathized, being newly out in it himself-like a crab out of its shell: what guarantees has he left? And again: What can he fear after ten thousand years?) He made a cutting motion with his hand. “Still, I was slow to connect these things. I have been too content to sit by and let Fulthor lead. Now Fulthor has failed me, and there it is.

  “Fenlen, the island continent, is infested. They have been established there since they poured down from the moon eleven years ago. (I looked on like a fool. What else could I have done? I forget.) But they cannot bear earth’s airs: and when their scouts fly inland low over the sea, which they do night and day, they do so surrounded by an atmosphere of their own manufacture. By day they blunder into Buffin’s sailors. They are as motiveless and mad as the men they kill. They do not belong here.”

  He gestured at the empty village, the creaking husks. “Can you doubt it? Yet they are trying to make the air over to suit them. This is only the beginning.” He shuddered. “They will remake the earth, if they can. Rouse Iron Chine, Hornwrack. I ride now to the capital. Delay me no longer!”

  Hornwrack hung on to the stirrup. All he could think of to say was, “Something is the matter with Alstath Fulthor. Up on the escarpment he tried to kill me.”

  “Oh, I am in Hell,” said Alstath Fulthor, shaking his head. He had come up behind them silently, the baan like a live thing in his hand. “I am not myself.” Tomb the Dwarf, who had tightened the final strap, tried to take the weapon away from him for his own good. “Come on, old friend.” They rolled about in the road, cursing and biting. Fulthor wriggled away and got up again. “Come down off your horse,” he ordered, “and explain all this. Why, up there, great cock-a-roaches walk along the ridge!” He pointed in the wrong direction. (The dwarf crawled away, holding his face and spitting.) “Or is it in my head?” He shrugged, smiled shyly, lurched off. Fay Glass woke up and looked at him sharply. Keeping a wary eye on the dwarf, she got off her horse.

  Suddenly they both began singing, “We are off to Vegys now.” Hornwrack looked on, appalled. “Fal di la di a.”

  (When he fled through the High City like a bleeding king, in a sweat of fear in the middle of the night, and hoped no one would notice; when he muttered in the palace the nine long alchemical names of his House, and hoped no one would hear: all heard, all knew but himself. Alstath Fulthor: the past was pulling him down.)

  “When we first met,” said Cellur, “he spoke to me often of memory, which he conceived of as a hidden stream, himself perched on its bank looking into the water. Also of something which hovered like a dragonfly over the moment of his reawakening in the desert at Knarr.” He sighed. “What did he kill down there in the maze? Nothing you or I saw. All this has hastened the inevitable.

  “Soon he will be as mad as the woman. She will help him. You must help them both. It is why I brought you.”

  “I brought myself, old man.”

  “Be that as it may.”

  “What am I to do?”

  “Earn what you were given,” said Tomb the Dwarf, and meant, perhaps, the sword. “I believe you’ll get no other pay.” He was in a bad temper. He wiped his pocked old nose on the back of his hand to show what he thought of it all, and pushed his sodden conical hat firmly down onto his head. “You were not brought but bought,” he said with a hard grin. “Goodbye, Hornwrack.” Hauling himself up into his saddle he added, “We’ll go back across the waste to Duirinish-for it’s quicker if you know the paths and don’t mind old battles or old lizards-and thence to Viriconium. Cellur fears the Sign of the Locust. He fears for the Queen. He does not quite know what he fears.” He looked about him like a man expecting rain. “I fear this. Still: one way or another I daresay we shall all have some heads to cut off before long. Do you look after the mad folk.” And he gave the pony vigorous kicks until it consented to move off into the weather. Teetering on the edge of visibility for a moment, dwarf and pony made a curious uncouth silhouette, a composite creature above which flew like a flag on its long haft the curved evil blade of the power-axe. “Never say I disliked you!” The eyes of the pony before it turned its head away were a flat and empty green.

  Out there Cellur waited impatiently, staring west or south. “Rouse Iron Chine!” came a faint cry through the crack and belly of the gale. Hornwrack never saw either of them again. “On the shores of the diamond lake,” sang the madwomen in a weird voice,

  “We shall watch the fishes,

  On the summits of the mountains

  Cry Erecthalia!

  We are off to Vegys now.”

  The weather closed in. He was alone. Even the ghost of Benedict Paucemanly, part at least of its purpose accomplished, had gone out like a candle. In the deserted village it might as easily have been evening as afternoon. Out of the crepuscular sky issued a thin snow which drifted up behind the dry corpses, blew into the empty rooms, and plastered itself to the windward eaves. Every so often the wind from the Deep Waste mingled with it a scatter of old ice, flinging it down the street like two handfuls of dirty glass beads. He rubbed the back of his neck. How had he come to be stranded in the cold North with two lunatics, and no option but to go and look for a third? After Iron Chine he would make his way south along the coast, since he knew no other route (that inhospitable strand, with its distant illusions and tottering cliffs, now seemed familiar and comforting); he would lose himself again in the Low City. Perhaps he would find the boy. He would kill the dwarf if he ever had the chance.

  All this time, off at the edge of his awareness, faint telepathies crawled like maggots round the rim of a saucer. Up there on the Agdon scarp was a stealthy and purposeful movement, too far away to hurt him yet, too close for comfort. Suddenly he became frightened that they would come down unexpectedly and discover him among their dead. What delicate revenge might they take? In any case he could not bear their thoughts in his skull. Two horses had been left him for three people. Feverishly he urged the madwoman up onto one of them, and then with his hand on his knife approached the Reborn Man, wishing the dwarf had captured the baan during their brief scuffle beneath the horse. Eyeing him with a sad amusement, Fulthor said, “I will run beside you. It is not so far.”

  The ramshackle conservatory of St. Elmo Buffin, with its invented flags and fantastic telescopes, teetered high above the fish docks of the port, full of silence, brackish air, and the smell of the food they had been served there a week or more ago. Buffin sat as if he had not moved since then, in a high-backed chair surrounded by plates of congealed herring. He had taken off his father’s armour and underneath was swathed in some dirty white stuff, linen or flannel, as if he suffered with his joints. He was staring at nothing, his long thin legs thrust out in front of him and crossed as though they belonged to someone else, his bag-like face crumpled and desperate. His instruments lay smashed. They were no more or less meaningful for it: nests of bent brass tubing, complex coloured lenses pulled apart like sugared anemones underfoot. The charts he had ripped down, to reveal the walls beneath. He had lost his patience with them, perhaps.

  Hornwrack wiped the condensation from a cracked pane, looked out.

  “You need not have done this to yourself,” he said.

  It was such a waste. He felt hot and angry, cold and remote, all at once.

  “What happened here?”
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  Buffin did not answer for a long time. The Afternoon had betrayed him again, and the old powered knife with which he had tried to kill himself now lay sputtering feebly in his lap, its energies spent at last. Some blood had flowed, then dried brown. He did not seem to be able to move his head. The silence drew out. Wondering if he was already dead, Hornwrack waited, breathing evenly and trying to make out what was happening in the port below.

  “What does it matter?” came the eventual answer. Then, after another long pause: “Of the fleet I ordered the uncompleted part destroyed. It is of no use now. Viriconium will never help us now.” He laughed quietly. “The rest has sailed, into madness and death. The mist surrounds us (can you not hear it? It is like bells!) and all has failed.”

  He bit his bottom lip. “I dare not move my head,” he said, staring forward at nothing, fingering the hilt of the useless knife. “Can you see what I have done?”

  “Your throat is cut,” said Hornwrack, breathing on the glass. “But not well.”

  If he wiped a circle on the glass with the palm of his hand he could see framed in it the black original buildings of the fjord squatting like toads on the lower slopes. To his right a cliff swept up, also black, and laced for five hundred feet with icy ledges. Until recently ice had locked the harbour; now churned and broken sheets of it bobbed in the black channels cut by the departed fleet. Beneath him banks of white vapour hung, drifting sluggishly down the cobbled slopes toward the shrouded quays. In places it was deep enough to cover the upper casements of the cottages as it was driven reluctantly between them by the bitter intermittent wind; in others, where it was shallower, he thought he could see heads and torsos going about above it on some cryptic dislocated errand. The suggestion of movement beneath it he tried to ignore. Above all this in the green subarctic sky, aurorae flickered, and great streaks of red and black cloud mimicked the flame and smoke beneath, where men ran despairingly among the boatyards with torches, setting fire to their labour of years.

  Death was written in the scrollwork at the bows, death on the painted sterns and the ornate brass bells. DEATH, proclaimed the painted sails, while the white decks beneath bubbled and charred, generating a heat fierce enough to melt the metal masts. Ash whirled into the air, unknown incandescent alloys showered down, last fruit of that doomed collaboration between Afternoon and Evening (which now pursue their separate courses, as we know). Rolling into the flames, the mist turned them instantly green and blue, and was itself transformed with a roar into a greyish powdery smoke which, sucked up in the merciless updraughts, bellied out above the doomed craft in a choking spherical cloud. Spars flared and fell. Ratlines parted with the sound of a broken violin. Here and there a man was trapped in a tangle of ropes, or caught among the stays beneath a blazing bowsprit with no one to hear his cries. At the height of the fire a single painted sail escaped its ties, unfurled, billowed upward. For a brief moment a pair of great illusory lizards danced in the air!-only to sink with a regretful whisper and be consumed, writhing amid the smoke in a counterfeit of the pain in St. Elmo Buffin’s frigid, frightened stare.

  “I had no life,” said Buffin, “even as a child.” Hornwrack bent close to the cold lips to hear. “My father bade me, ‘Watch the sea.’ ”

  “I’ve had no life, either,” said Hornwrack.

  He forced himself to look through the one surviving telescope. At first he could see nothing. A sailor rushed into the room behind him, shouting, “Buffin, they are among us in the fog!” Seeing Hornwrack he halted uncertainly. A pleading note entered his voice. “Buffin, only one ship remains. Let us take you aboard her!”

  “He is dead,” said Hornwrack, who now discerned a sad grey ground, and against that something spinning at the end of a thread. “What’s happened here?”

  “A fog followed us ashore this morning. The women and children are all dead of it.” He stared at Hornwrack’s back. “Great locusts inhabit it!”

  “They are your longtime enemy. Where does this last ship sail?”

  “West, after the fleet, as he would have wished.”

  Spinning, spinning.

  “Take me then,” said Hornwrack, “instead.”

  He turned from the telescope and went out of the door. In the empty room a masked figure materialised briefly in the air above the corpse, and was gone.

  During the journey from Agdon Roches, Alstath Fulthor had regained a measure of his sanity-that is to say he now remembered where and, to an extent, who he was; but the girl had chopped his hair to a ragged stubble one night while he slept, giving him something of her own hollow-eyed, perpetually surprised expression, and his skin had taken on a bleached unearthly look, like a saint’s. They were often together, reciting the rhymes that comprised her vocabulary, practising the scraps of meaningless dialogue and lists of nonexistent cities which seemed to be her “keys” to the Past. Fulthor was learning, in the way the child of an exile learns those bits and pieces of its heritage that remain (and which, after so much repetition, undergo a sea change, bearing less and less relationship to a vanished culture in a land it has never seen). Hornwrack tried to ignore their public tendernesses, their strange, almost unemotional sexual contacts, and clothed his embarrassment in a characteristic surliness.

  He found them now down in the port, two tall, awkward figures wrapped in cloaks, standing uncomfortably near the burning boatyards. Despite the heat and smoke they were waiting exactly where he had left them, the flames reflected in their calm odd eyes. Later, at the rail of the last ship, watching the sailors warp her sadly from the bleak shore, Fulthor seemed disposed to talk. He was lucid, polite, aware; but each new immersion in the stream of memory had carried him further from his Evening existence and its events, and he had forgotten his earlier shoddy treatment of St. Elmo Buffin. So when he asked, “How then did the shipwright die?” it was cruel of Hornwrack to reply,

  “He cut his own throat, but it was you he died of.”

  Iron Chine would not survive him. Fires had now sprung up among the cottages, set by the sailors before they left, and small flames danced behind the panes of the dilapidated conservatory above the town. The strip of black water between the boat and the quay grew wider. The frigid cliffs slipped past; the curious flags and strips of coloured rag flying over the conservatory blazed up one by one; above everything burned the clouds, like the bloody auroral sunset of some other planet.

  What happened to the fleet of St. Elmo Buffin? It was not provisioned well. He had given small thought to navigating it. Much of it was lost immediately amid the white water and foul ground, the atrocious currents and uncharted islands which outlie the jagged coast of Viriconium. Much of it, hampered by the ice which formed on decks and rigging, turned quietly turtle in the gelid sea. There were fogs, too, lying in hundred-mile banks across the straits which separate Fenlen from Iron Chine; and in these the greatest loss was incurred. Each ship fought alone, wrapped in a dream-like shroud of pearly light. Ice burned like alum on the ratlines and stays. There were collisions, mutinies, accidental fires, and shouts as of other men desperate and dying beyond the nacreous wall of fog. It was in all aspects a lost venture. The fog smelled of rotting fruit; and at the sound of wings men leapt overboard or cut their own throats, staring dumbly for a last few seconds at a universe faceted like an insect’s eye. One ship survived.

  Imagine a low dark coastline shelving back through a series of eroded fossil beaches into a desolation which makes the deepest waste of Viriconium seem like a water meadow. Nothing lives about these beaches but limpets and kelp, a few curiously furtive terns which survive for the most part by eating one another’s eggs, and in season a handful of deformed seals. Chemical rivers make their way here from the continental marshes north and west; tars and oils from sumps a thousand years old and a thousand miles inland trickle sluggishly down the terraces of black pumice, staining them emerald green, ochre, purple. Imagine a glaucous ocean; a low swell at the freezing point, lapping at the brutal shore. Strings and bulbs of mi
neral pigment wave beneath the water like weed, growing from the chemical silt. There is no wind to speak of. Out to sea about a mile, a bank of mist is rolling south, parallel to the coast.

  Imagine a white ship: rudderless, masts bent beneath their load of ice.

  Her deck plates are up, buckled like lead foil, her wheelhouse blackened by the same fire which lately ate into her hull amidships. Her figurehead hangs loose in a wreck of stays, a partly human form difficult of exact description. She is down at the stern and listing to starboard. Silently, captured by some current invisible from the shore, she is drawn in toward the beach, quicker and quicker until she rams the stained pumice shelves with a groan and, ripped open, goes over by the bow and begins to sink. A few birds fly up from her yards. Chips of ice rattle down. A sail, partly unfurled by the shock of the collision, shows a great drunken beetle to the empty beach. Bedded in the poisonous silt, she will settle no further, but nudges the shore with every wave.

  After a few minutes a grotesque shape begins to form in the cold air above her shattered deck, like a crude figure of a man projected somehow on a puff of steam.

  9

  THE EXPLANATIONS OF THE ANCIENT AIRBOATMAN

  Midwinter clutches the Pastel City, cold as thought.

  In the Cispontine Quarter the women have been to and fro all day gathering fuel. By afternoon they had stripped the empty lots to the bare hard soil, bobbing in ragged lines amid the sad induviate stems of last year’s growth, their black shawls giving them the air of rooks in a potato field. Not an elder or bramble is left now but it is a stump; and that will be grubbed up tomorrow by some enterprising mattock in a bony hand. At twilight, which-exhaled, as it were, from every shattered corner-comes early to the city’s broken parts, they filled the nearby streets for half an hour, hurrying westwards with their unwieldy bundles to where, along the Avenue Fiche and the Rue Sepile, Margery Fry Road and the peeling old “Boulevard Saint Ettiene,” the old men sat waiting for them with souls shrivelled up like walnuts in the cold. Now they sit by reeking stoves, using the ghost of a dog rose to cook cabbage!

 

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