Authors: Tanith Lee
“Yes, love is
madness,” said Oloru. “As all things are madness. Piety, wickedness, pleasure,
sorrow—every one an insanity. Indeed, to live at all—”
cried the young men. Two of them ran forward as if to thrash him.
Oloru shrank back
against the tree. He lifted both hands in their gemmed gloves, to shield
himself. “No—forgive me, my friends—what have I done to anger you?”
gathered menacingly. Oloru was at all times the veriest coward. They knew he
would be terrified by a threat or a raised fist. So they berated him, and he
grew paler and paler and shrank back into the slender arms of the fruit tree.
He explained, stammering somewhat, that he had caught the stonework under the
parapet and thus eased himself along the side of the building, unseen, to the
tree. Here he had clambered once more to safety. He had not meant to annoy
them, only to amuse. They allowed him to go on and on, enjoying his faltering
musical voice, his eyes swimming and full of tears of anxiety. In the end, when
they had squeezed him sufficiently, and it seemed only the fragile tree kept
him on his feet, they relented, flung their arms around him, kissed him and
smoothed his golden hair, swearing they forgave him anything, he was so dear to
them. Then he tremblingly laughed. He thanked them. When they asked, he took up
a lyre of gilded wood and sang for them exquisitely. His voice was so
beautiful, in fact, that here and there round about shutters opened quietly.
Lovers and losers together leaned into the night, to catch the flavor of
“In the lyre-land, string and chord.
Bring me music in a word.
Bring me magic in a look;
For your eyes are like a sword.
And your smile is like a bird
Singing from an ancient book
. . .”
And “How you flatter me, Oloru,” someone said. “But
you always do flatter better than any other, and perfectly in key.”
Lak Hezoor the
magician-prince, clad in dark finery, and with two guards behind him, had come
up on the roof very silently. He and his minions could move most quietly, when
they wished, and such noiseless arrivals were a habit of his. In this way he
often happened on his courtiers at their various and more intimate games. All
had grown careful, even in the most frenzied acts of the flesh, to think, and
if necessary to speak, well of their lord. Shadowy as his raiment was his long
curled hair, and on the gloved hands of Lak Hezoor jewels burned dark as the
night had now become. Two great leashed hounds, by contrast blond as Oloru,
stared about them, quivering with abstract eagerness for things to chase and
The young men had
all obeised themselves. But it was Oloru the magician-prince raised in his arms
and kissed on the lips, without haste.
“We are going hunting
tonight,” said Lak Hezoor.
Those on the roof
who had had other plans for the evening quickly dismissed them from their
minds. Only Oloru was heard to say plaintively, “My lord, I hate to see
said Lak Hezoor, “at the supreme moments of the death you may hide your face in
my mantle, and not look.”
The moon was rising in the hour the hunt set out. It
was a full moon that night, and certain exhalations and smokes of the
sorcerously tempered city made her appear unusually large, so she dwarfed the
towers as she hung above them. She blushed, too, standing there over that
place, and drew a cloud around herself. But her feverish light burned through,
and laved the black horses and the black or white hounds of Lak Hezoor, and
flashed on the loudly blowing horns, the knives and jewels, and in all the host
disgorged the hunt, its gates flying wide before it without a command needing
to be given. Beyond, a long paved road opened through the plain. To either side
of the road ran lush fields and groves and vineyards, but off to the west was
hill country and a forest many centuries older. Strange stories were told of
the forest. Men wandered in there and were never seen again, or other things,
not men at all, wandered out of it, sometimes having human shape, and sometimes
not. But the magician-masters of the city found the forest tempted them from
time to time. Particularly it tempted Lak Hezoor, who was intellectually
obsessed by night and all dark things, just as his flesh was inflamed equally
by examples of exceptional paleness.
It was a time of
harvesting, and now and then the hunt, riding hard and savagely as if already
in pursuit of the quarry, passed by some firelit camp of people, or some
village set near the road. Then all the lowly folk gathered there would rush
forward to the road’s edge, calling aloud praises on the magician-princes, and
on Lak Hezoor in person if they recognized him. It would not have been sensible
to do otherwise. Seldom, however, did Lak Hezoor pay any attention. It
happened, though, when the upswept black walls of the forest were less than a
mile ahead, that the sorcerer lord did spy something that checked him. There in
a meadow a tallow lamp had been hung from a pole, with a kneeling man under it.
Close by a girl was tied to a tree. In the faint lamplight, she shone pale as a
pearl, and her long ash-brown hair, woven with white flowers, was her only
When Lak Hezoor
drew rein, his company with him, the man ran up and kneeled again on the road.
“Speak,” said Lak
“She is my
sister’s daughter, just fifteen years of age, a virgin.”
Lak Hezoor sat
his horse and looked over at the girl, while his courtiers slyly and fawningly
smiled at him and at each other.
“Once,” said the
lord Lak, “maidens were left in this way to entice dragons. Are you expecting
mighty Hezoor. It is just the wish of the
girl’s heart to give you a moment’s diversion, that is all.”
dismounted. He walked away over the meadow to the tree where the girl hung as
if half-dead of terror. For a second more the magician was visible, leaning to
his dragon’s prey. Then a fan of blackness spread there, occluding both of
them. While in the blackness a dull reddish snake of fire seemed to twist, and
sparks burst, hurting the eyes of any who still peered in that direction. Once,
twice, a sharp scream pierced the sorcerous veil, but nothing else of sight or
The man who had
brought the lord his niece waited patiently, eyes lowered. The courtiers sipped
wine from golden flasks, petted their horses, discussed fashions and gambling.
Lak was not long
over his transaction. Quite abruptly he returned through the black screen, calm
and undisheveled as if he had paused to taste some fruit from a wayside bush.
The sorcerous screen began to die at once behind him. There showed now
something pallid flung on the ground, motionless, amid torn hair and broken
“What did you hope from
me?” asked Lak Hezoor of the patiently waiting uncle. “Not anything much, I
trust, for she was very disappointing.”
Nothing but to please you, lord.”
“Well, I was not greatly pleased. But you meant for
the best. I will not chastise you. Are you content with that?”
“Mighty lord, I am your generosity’s slave.”
As they galloped away, a
backward glance revealed the man bending over the paleness in the grass, which
did not answer him even when he gave it blows.
“Now, my Oloru,” said the magician-prince as they rode
up to the tall gates of the forest, “you seem downcast.”
“I?” said Oloru. “I was only devising a poem to honor
“Ah,” said Lak Hezoor.
“That is well. Later you shall tell it me.”
The depths of the forest, then. Not its heart; it was
so old, so labyrinthine, the forest—who could enter the heart of it, save some
lost traveler in one of the sinister tales? Or else, perhaps, the forest had
many hearts, each slowly and mesmerically beating, its rhythm growing a
fraction slower and an iota more strong for every passing century.
Certainly, there were
portions of the forest where its atmosphere seemed especially and profoundly
charged. In one of these spots there was a pool of unknown deepness where the
animals of the forest, whatever they might be, would steal to drink. Although
it was said that any man who drank the waters of the forest would be changed at
once into just such an animal himself—a deer, a wolf, a sprite, or some
monstrous creature that had no name.
All about the pool was
blackness, but through the colossal roof-beams of the trees there showed the
rim of the moon. She was no longer blushing but cold now, and her snowy fire
turned the mysterious water to a solid white mirror one might think to walk on.
Thrice, Lak Hezoor’s men
had started deer. Pale as ghosts they sprang away, and the hunt madly pursued
them. Torchlight crackled through the boughs. Shouting and whooping tore the
curtains of leafy air. Sometimes the noise and tumbling speed and spilling
lights disturbed curious birds—or winged things of some sort—which rose away
into the higher tiers of the branches. On occasion disembodied eyes were lit,
and as quickly extinguished. As for the quarry, twice it vanished without
trace. But when the third deer broke from cover, Lak Hezoor cast a shining ray about
it like a net. Try as it would then, bolt and swerve and seem to fly, the deer
could not break free of his magic. Loudly it panted, and groaned like a woman
in childbirth, so the hair of the magician’s courtiers bristled on their
necks. But at length the deer stumbled and the torrent of the hounds swept over
Though a female,
it was a huge beast, this deer. So the hunting party was satisfied, for the
moment, and made their way into the clearing, to the pool like solid mirror,
and dared each other to taste of the water, but none of them did. Instead they
lolled on the rugs and bolsters the servants of Lak Hezoor put down for them,
and drank wine in glass goblets that the fires turned to golden tears.
himself oversaw the gutting of the deer, and now and then himself threw
portions of its entrails to his favorites among the shivering dogs. Nearby,
Oloru leaned on a tree, his face averted, and his gloved hand lightly over his
nose and mouth.
“Come, be my
hound, beloved, and I will throw you a piece of its liver,” said Lak Hezoor.
looked at his lord under long lashes, and away.
When Lak Hezoor
lost interest in the bloody work, he went to sit among the cushions and fires.
He beckoned Oloru to follow him.
“Now sing for me
the song you were making in my honor,” said Lak Hezoor.
“It is not finished,”
said Oloru, in an offhand way.
Lak Hezoor turned
one of the rings on his left hand. It dazzled a searing ray—it was this very
ring which had cast the net about the deer and so weakened and killed it. The
ring had done as much for men.
“I give Oloru,” said Lak
Hezoor, “three of his own heartbeats to complete the song. And since his heart
now beats very fast, I think the time is already up.”
Oloru lowered his
eyes that were like smoky amber. He sang, sweetly, swiftly, and with utmost
“Our lord found a girl in a field.
Not with cash but with malice he bought her.
He took her behind a black shield,
But one fact he has surely revealed:
He makes love as another makes water.”
For a troupe so loud, the assemblage now proved itself
capable of a vast silence. With their eyes and mouths open, men stared at
Oloru, goblets halfway to their lips and frozen. By the pavilion of sable
satin, the servitors of the magician-prince, which some said were themselves
not quite human, stood blank-visaged as ever, yet every hand now rested on the
hilt of a long knife.
Oloru looked into the face of his lord, smiling a little, and Lak Hezoor looked
back at him with the same smile exactly. Then Lak Hezoor stood up, and Oloru
also arose. Lak Hezoor snapped his fingers, and out of the air itself appeared
his sword, and slid into his grasp. Lak Hezoor extended the cruel bright blade
until the tip of it touched Oloru on the breast.
“Now I shall kill
you,” said Lak Hezoor. “It will be thorough but slow. Indeed, you shall fight
me for your death. You will have to earn it.”
And Lak Hezoor
spoke a sorcerous word and a second blazing sword fell into the hand of Oloru,
who, whiter than the moon in the pool now, dropped the weapon at once.
“Pick it up,”
said Lak Hezoor. “Pick up the sword, my child, and we will dally a while. Then
I will cut you up for chops for my dogs, an inch at a time.”
whispered Oloru, standing shaking above the fallen sword, “it was a jest, and
“And you shall
die for your jest. For it did not make me laugh, my Oloru, so something else is
needed to entertain me.
“Oh gracious lord—”