A home for me. A home beneath the ground. A bed to sleep in, sleep and sleep until Pryrates and the king and the soldiers have all gone away... A few dragging steps forward and he stood beside the bed, the pallet as clean and unsmirched as the sails of the blessed. There was a face staring down at him from a niche above it, a splendid, clever woman's face—a statue. Something about it was wrong, though: the lines were too angular, the eyes too deep and wide, the cheekbones high and sharp. Still it was a face of great beauty, captured in translucent stone, forever frozen in a sad, knowing smile. As he reached out to gently touch the sculpted cheek his shin nudged the bedframe, a touch delicate as a spider's step. The bed crumbled into powder. A moment later, as he stared in horror, the bust in the niche dissolved into fine ash beneath his fingertips, the woman's features melting away in an instant. He took a stumbling step back and the light of the sphere glared and then waned to a dim glow. The thump of his foot on the floor leveled the chair and delicate fountain, and a moment later the ceiling itself began to sift down, the twining branches moldering into soft dust. The sphere flickered as he lurched for the door, and as he plunged back out into the corridor the blue light guttered out. Standing in the darkness again, he heard someone crying. After a long minute he reeled forward, down into the never-ending shadows, wondering who it was that could still have tears left to shed. The passage of time had become a thing only of fits and starts. Somewhere behind him he had dropped the spent crystal to lie forever in darkness, a pearl in the blackest trenches of the secret sea. In a last, sane part of his wandering thought, thoughts now unbounded by the hedge of light, he knew that he was moving still further downward. Going down. Into the pit. Going down. Going where? To what? From shadow to shadow, as a scullion always travels. Dead mooncalf. Ghost mooncalf... Drifting, drifting... Simon thought of Morgenes with his wispy beard curling in flame, thought of the shining comet glaring redly down on the Hayholt... thought of himself, descending—mounting?—through the black nothing spaces like a small, cold star. Drifting. The emptiness was complete. The darkness, at first just an absence of light and life, began to assume qualities of its own: narrow, choking dark when the tunnels narrowed, Simon clambering over drifts of rubble and tangling roots, or the lofty, airy darkness of invisible chambers, full of the parchment scrape of bat wings. Feeling his way through these vast, underground galleries, hearing his own muffled footfalls and the hissing patter of dirt shaken loose from the walls, any remaining sense of direction fell away. He might be walking straight up the walls, for all he could tell, or staggering across the ceilings like a maddened fly. There was no left or right; when his fingers found solid walls again, and doors leading to other tunnels, he groped mindlessly on through more constricted passageways and into other bat-squeaking, measureless catacombs. Ghost of a mooncalf! The odor of water and stone was everywhere. His sense of smell, like his hearing, seemed to have grown more acute in the blind, black night, and as he fumbled his way ever downward the scents of this midnight world washed over him—damp, loamy earth, nearly as rich as bread dough, and the bland but harsh fragrance of rocks. He was awash in the vibrant, breathing odors of moss and roots, the busy, sweet rottenness of tiny things living and dying. And floating through everything, permeating and complicating all, was the sour, mineral tang of seawater. Seawater? Sightless, he listened, hunting the booming sounds of the ocean. How deep had he come? All he heard were the minute shufflings of digging things and his own ragged breathing. Had he tunneled beneath even the unsounded Kynslagh? There! Faint musical tones, chiming in the farther depths. Water dripping. Down he went. The walls were moist. You are dead, Simon Mooncalf. A spirit, doomed to haunt a void. There is no light. There never was such a thing. Smell the darkness? Hear the resounding nothing? This has ever been. The fear was all he had left, but even that was something—he was afraid, so he must be alive! There was darkness, but there was Simon, too! They were not one and the same. Not yet. Not quite... And now, so slowly he did not perceive the difference for a long time, light came back. It was a light so faint, so dim, that at first it was less than the points of color hovering before his useless eyes. Then curiously, he saw a black shape before him, a deeper shadow. A clot of worms, wriggling? No. Fingers... a hand... his hand! It was silhouetted before him, bathed in a faint glow. The close-bending tunnel walls were thick with twining moss, and it was the moss itself that gleamed—a pale, green-white shimmer that threw only enough light to show the greater darkness of the tunnel before him, and the light-blocking shadow of his own hands and arms. But it was light! Light! Simon laughed soundlessly, and his nebulous shadows crisscrossed the passageway. The tunnel opened out into another open gallery. As he looked up, astounded at the constellation of radiant mosses sprouting on the faraway ceiling, he felt a drop of cold water on his neck. More water drizzled slowly from above, each drop striking the rocks below with a sound like a tiny mallet falling on glass. The vaulting chamber was full of long pillars of stone, fat on either end, narrow in the middle; some were as slender as a hair's-breadth, like strands of oozing honey. As he trudged forward he realized, in some remote part of his battered mind, that most of this was the work of stone and dripping water, not of laboring hands. But still, there were lines in the dimness that did not seem natural: right-angled creases on the moss-girdled walls, ruined pillars among the stalagmites too orderly to be accidental. He was moving through a place that had once known something other than the ceaseless rhythm of water pattering in stone pools. Once it had echoed to other footsteps. But "once" only meant something if Time was still a barrier. So long had he been crawling in dark places, he might have dug through into the misty future or the shadowed past, or into unmapped realms of madness—how was he to know... ? Putting his foot down, Simon felt a moment of shocking emptiness. He plunged into cold, wet blackness. His hands lit on the far edge as he fell, and the water proved only as deep as his knees. He thought some clawed thing clutched at his leg as he yanked himself back out onto the passageway, shaking from more than the cold. I don't want to die. I want the sun again. Poor Simon, his voices responded. Mad in the dark. Dripping, shivering, he limped on through the green-glimmered chamber, watching carefully for the empty blacknesses that next time might not be so shallow. Faint flickers, glowing pink and white, darted to and fro in the holes as he stepped across or made his way carefully around them. Fish? Shining fish in the deeps of the earth? Now, as one large chamber opened into another, and another, the lines of hand-wrought things began to show more clearly beneath the cloak of moss and stone-drip. They made strange silhouettes in the dim half-light: crumbled spans that might once have been balconies, arched depressions matted in pallid moss that could have been windows or gateways. As he squinted, trying to make out details in the near-darkness, he began to feel his vision was slipping sideways, somehow—the overgrown shapes, smothered in shadow, seemed to simultaneously nicker with the lineaments they had once worn. From the corner of his eye he saw one of the shattered columns lining the gallery suddenly standing straight, a shining white thing carved with trains of graceful flowers. When he turned to stare, it was only a clump of broken stone once more, half-shrouded in moss and encroaching earth. The deep gloom of the chambers bent crazily at the corners of his sight, and his head pounded. The ceaseless sound of falling water now began to feel like hammerblows to his reeling mind. His voices came chittering back, revelers excited by wild music. Mad! The boy is mad! Have pity, he's lost, lost, lost...! We will have it back, manchild! We will have it all back! Mad mooncalf! And as he passed down yet one more sloping tunnel he began to hear other voices in his head, voices he had not heard before, somehow both more real and more unreal than those which had long been his unwanted companions. Some of these shouted in languages that he did not know, unless he had glimpsed them in the doctor's ancient books. Ruakha, ruakha Asu'a! T'si e-isi'ha as-irigu! The trees are burning! Where is the prince?! The witchwood is in flames, the gardens are burning! The half-darkness was contorting around him, bending, as though he stood at the center of a spinning wheel. He turned and stumbled blindly down a passageway and into one more lofty hall, holding his agonized head in his hands. There was other,'different light here: thin blue beams angling down from cracks in the unseen ceiling above, light that pierced the darkness but illuminated nothing where it fell. He smelled more water, and strange vegetation; he heard men running, shouting, women crying and the ring of metal on metal. In the strange ahnost-blackness the sound of some terrible battle raged all around, but did not touch him. He screamed—or thought he did—but could not hear his own voice, only the ghastly din in his head. Then, as if to confirm his already certain madness, dim figures began to rush past in the blue-lanced darkness, bearded men with torches and axes chasing others more slender who bore swords and bows. All of them, pursuers and pursued, were as transparent and ill-defined as mist. None touched or saw Simon, although he stood squarely in their midst. Jinguzul Aya'aif 0 Jingizu! came a wailing cry. Kill the Sithi demons, harsher voices shouted. Put fire to their nest! Hands clutched tight over his ears could not keep the voices away. He stumbled forward, trying to escape the swirling shapes, and fell through a doorway, coming to rest at last on a flat landing of gleaming white stone. He could feel cushioning moss beneath his groping hands, but his eyes saw nothing but polished blankness. He crawled forward on his stomach, still trying to escape the horrible voices shrieking in pain and anger. His fingers felt cracks and pits, but still the stone looked as flawless as glass. He reached the Up and stared out across a great, level field of black emptiness which smelled of time and death and the patient ocean. An invisible pebble rolled from beneath his hand to fall silently for long moments and then splash in the depths below. Something large and white gleamed beside him. He lifted his heavy, aching head from the lip of the dark tarn and looked up. Scant inches from where he lay jutted the bottom steps of a great stone staircase, an upward-sweeping spiral that climbed away, mounting the side of the cavem and circling the underground lake to disappear at last into upper darkness. He gaped as an urgent, fractured memory pushed through the clamor in bis head. Stairs. Tan 'za Stairs. Doctor said look for stairs.... He clambered forward, pulling himself up onto the cool, polished stone, and knew that he was mad beyond salvation, or had died and was trapped in some terrible netherworld. He was beneath the earth in final darkness: there could be no voices, no phantom warriors. There would be no light making the steps gleam before him like moonlit alabaster. He began to climb, pulling himself up to the next high step with trembling, sweat-slippery fingers. As he mounted higher, sometimes standing, sometimes clawing his way up in a scrabbling crouch, he peered out from the stairs. The silent lake, a vast pool of shadow below him, lay at the bottom of a great circular hall, bigger by far than the foundry. The ceiling stretched immeasurably upward, lost in the blackness above with the top of the slender, beautiful white pillars ringing the chamber. A foggy, directionless light glinted on the sea-blue and jade-green walls, and touched the frames of high-vaulting windows that flickered now with an ominous crimson glare. In the middle of the pearly mists, hovering above the silent lake, sat a dark, wavering shape. It cast a shadow both of wonder and of terror, and it filled Simon with inexpressible, pitying dread. Prince Ineluki! They come! The Northerners come! As this last impassioned cry echoed in the dark walls of Simon's skull, the figure at the room's center lifted its head. Gleaming red eyes bloomed in its face, cutting through the fog like torches. Jingizu. a voice breathed. Jingizu. So much sorrow. The crimson light flared. The shriek of death and fear rose from below like a great wave. At the center of it all, the dark figure lifted a long slender object and the beautiful chamber shuddered, shimmering like a shattered reflection, then fell away into nothingness. Simon turned away in horror, enveloped in a strangling pall of loss and despair. Something was gone. Something beautiful had been destroyed beyond retrieval. A world had died here, and Simon felt its failing cry embedded in his heart like a gray sword. Even his consuming fear was driven out by the terrible sadness that cut through him, bringing painful, shuddering tears from reservoirs that should have been long dry. Embracing the darkness, he lurched on up the endless climb, winding around the mighty chamber. The shadows and silence swallowed the dream-battle and the dream-chamber below him, bringing a black shroud to pull over his fevered mind. A million steps passed beneath his blind touch. A million years slid past as he traveled in the void, drowning in sorrow. Darkness without and darkness within. The last thing he felt was metal beneath his fingers and fresh air on Bis face.
14 The Hill Fire HE AWAKENED in a long, dark room, surrounded by still, sleeping figures. It had all been a dream, of course. He was back in his bed among the other slumbering scullions, the only light a thin film of moonglow sliding in through a crack in the door. He shook his aching head. Why am I sleeping on the floor? These stones are so cold... And why did the others lie so unmovingly, their shadowy shapes fantastic with helmets and shields, laid out on their beds in neat rows, like... like the dead awaiting judgment...? It had all been a dream... hadn't it...?' With a gasp of terror Simon crawled away from the black mouth of the tunnel toward the blue-white chink in the doorway. The images of the dead, fixed in immobile stone atop their ancient tombs, did not stay his passing. He shouldered open the heavy door of the crypt and fell forward into the long, damp grass of the lich-yard. After what had seemed countless years in the black places below, the round ivory moon that ranged high in the darkness above looked like yet another hole, this one leading to a cool, lamplit place beyond the sky, a country of shining rivers and forgetfulness. He lowered his cheek to the ground and felt the wet strands bend beneath his face. Fingers of time-worn rock thrust up on either side through the prisoning grass, or stretched headlong in broken segments, etched by the moon in bone-white light, nameless and uncaring as the ancient dead whose graves they marked. In Simon's mind the dark span of hours from the last fiery moments in the doctor's chambers to the night-damp grass of the present was as unreachable as the nearly invisible clouds threading the sky. The shouting and the cruel flames, Morgenes* burning face, Pryrates' eyes like punch-holes into ultimate darkness—these were as genuine as the breath he had just taken. The tunnel was only dwindling, half-remembered pain, a fog of voices and empty madness. He knew there had been rough walls, and cobwebs, and endlessly forking tunnels. It seemed there had also been vivid dreams of sadness and the death of beautiful things. Altogether he felt drained dry like an autumn leaf, fragile and without strength. He thought he had crawled at the end—his knees and arms were certainly sore enough, and his clothing was torn—but his memory seemed cloaked in darkness. None of it was quite real. Not like the lich-ground where he now lay, the moon's quiet commons yard. Sleep was pushing at the back of his neck with soft, heavy hands. He fought it, rising to his knees with a slow shake of the head. It would not do to doze off here: there had been, as far as he knew, no pursuit through the blocked doorway of the doctor's chamber, but that didn't mean a great deal. His enemies had soldiers, and horses, and the king's authority. Drowsiness was pushed aside by fear, and not a little anger. They had stolen all else from him; his friends, his home—they would not take his life and freedom, too. He climbed carefully to his feet and looked around, steadying himself on the leaning stones of the tomb as he wiped away tears of exhaustion and fear. The town wall of Erchester loomed some half a league away, a moonlit belt of stone separating the sleeping citizens from the lich-yard and the world beyond. Before the outer gates sprawled the pale band of the Wealdhelm Road; on Simon's right it meandered gradually north to the hills; on his left it companioned the river Ymstrecca through the farmlands below Swertclif, past Falshire on the far bank, and ultimately to the grasslands of the East. It seemed likely that these towns along the great road would be the first place that the Erkynguard would search for a fugitive. Also, much of the road's length wandered through the valley farms of Hasu Vale, where he would be hard-pressed to find a hiding place if forced off the path. Turning his back on Erchester, and the only home he had yet known, Simon hobbled out across the lich-yard toward the far downs. His first steps set off a flair of pain at the base of his skull, but he knew it would be best to ignore the aches of body and spirit for a while longer, fleeing as far away from the castle as possible while it was still dark; he could worry about the future when he had found a safe place to lie up. As the moon scudded across the warm sky toward midnight, Simon's steps grew heavier and heavier The lich-yard seemed to have no ending—indeed, the ground had begun to rise and fall over the gentle humps of the outer downs while he still walked among the weathered stone teeth, some solitary and upright, others leaning together like old men in senile colloquy He wove in and out among the buried pillars, stumbling across the uneven, tussocky ground Every step became a struggle, as though he waded in high waters Staggering with weariness, he tripped over yet one more concealed stone and fell heavily to the ground He tried to rise, but his limbs felt like sacks of wet sand. After crawling forward a short distance he curled up on the sloping shoulder of a grassy mound. Something dug into his back and he rolled clumsily to one side, this made him almost equally uncomfortable, since he was now lying on Morgenes' folded manuscript, tucked under his belt. Staring, eyes half-shut with exhaustion, he reached out to find the original source of irritation It was a piece of metal, thick with corrosion and perforated like worm-gnawed wood. He tried to pull it free, but it was stuck fast in the earth. Perhaps the rest of it, whatever it might be, lay deep in the soil of the moon-frosted mound, anchored by dirt—a spear point? A belt buckle or greave from some costume whose owner had long since gone to feed the grass on which he lay. Simon thought for a bleary moment of all the bodies lying deep beneath the earth, the flesh that had once been quick with life but now moldered in silence and darkness. As sleep captured him at last, it seemed that he was again on the roof of the chapel. Below him sprawled the castle… but this castle was made of damp, crumbling soil and blind white roots. The people in the castle slept on and on, tossing uneasily as in their dreams they heard Simon walking on the rooftop above their beds. He walked now—or dreamed he did—along a black river that splashed noisily but reflected no light, like fluid shadow. He was surrounded by mist, and could discern nothing of the land he walked on but a certain dimness. He heard many voices in the obscurity behind him, their murmurs intermixed with the slurring voice of the black water, coming closer, rushing like wind through the leaves. No mist or fog shrouded the far side of the river. The grass on the nether bank stretched out before his gaze, and beyond it a somber grove of alder trees sloped up to the skirts of the hills. All the country beyond the river was dark and moist, as though it stood at dawn or twilight; after a moment it seemed clear that it must be evening, for the close-leaning hills echoed with the distant, solitary song of a nightingale. Everything seemed fixed and unchanging. He peered across the burbling water and saw a figure standing by the river's edge on the far shore, a woman dressed all in gray, long straight hair shadowing the sides of her face; in her arms she held something close-cradled. When she turned her eyes up to him he saw that she was weeping. It seemed that he knew her "Who are you?" he cried His voice died out as the words left his mouth, swallowed up by the damp hiss of the river. The woman stared at him as if to memorize every feature with her wide dark eyes. At last she spoke. "Seoman." Her words came as down a long corridor, faint and hollow. "Why have you not come to me, my son? The wind is drear and chill, and I have been such a long tune waiting." "Mother?" Simon felt a terrible coldness. The soft rush of the water seemed everywhere She spoke again. "We have not met for so long, my beautiful child. Why do you not come to me? Why do you not come and dry a mother's tears? The wind is cold, but the nver is warm and gentle. Come…. will you not cross over to me?" She held her arms outstretched, her mouth below her black eyes opened in a smile. Simon moved toward her, his lost mother who called to mm, walking down the soft riverbank toward the laughing black river. Her arms were open for him for her son. And then Simon saw that what she had cradled, that which now dangled from an outflung hand, was a doll… a doll made from reeds and leaves and twining stems of grass. But the doll was blackened, the shriveled leaves curling back from their stems, and Simon knew suddenly that nothing alive crossed that river into the twilight country. He stopped at the water's edge and looked down. Down in the inky water there was a faint gleam of light; as he watched, it rose toward the surface, becoming three slender, shining shapes. The sound of the river changed, became a kind of prickling, unearthly music. The water leaped and boiled, obscuring the objects' true forms, but it seemed that if he desired to, he could reach down and touch them.... "Seoman...!" his mother called again. He looked up to see her farther away, receding swiftly, as though her gray land were a torrent rushing away from him. Her arms were held wide, and her voice was a thing of vibrant loneliness, of the cold's lust for the warm, and the darkness' hopeless desire for the light.