Authors: Darrell Schweitzer
Tags: #fantasy, #mythology, #sword and sorcery, #wizard, #magic
Copyright © 1980, 2014 by Darrell Schweitzer.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by © breaker213 / Fotolia.
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For John Sevcik, who never had to buy the Meaning of Life from me for a quarter.
I think that all gods were men once, and, further, that they did not choose or seek out their divinity, but were swept along by events like twigs in a flood-swollen river, until at last the current became holy, and they lost sight of the shore of human mortality, and came into the light.
—Telechronos of Hesh, To Himself
A secret birth at midnight, and
all the world shook.
—Othelredon, Miraculous Songs
All truth is revealed in dreams.
—Hadel of Nagé, On Fears
His Name Shall be Mystery
It was in the time of the death of The Goddess that the thing happened, when the fragments of her godhead were beginning to assume those unstable shapes called the Dark and Bright Powers. It was in an age of prodigies, of miracles, of signs and wonders in the heavens, when the Earth rolled blindly through those same heavens with no hand to
guide it, that the old witch feigned death and caused herself to be buried. She had long since given up her name to the darkness because of her hatred for the holy city of Ai Hanlo, and for all the folk of Randelcainé. And so absolute was that hatred that she had forgotten the cause of her quarrel; malice grew in her like a living, consuming thing, until she was but an instrument in its vast and
No one mourned her passing. Priests were sent from The Guardian himself, the emperor of the country thereabout, to drive away what evil might linger over her corpse. Most citizens stayed in their houses and bolted their windows when the coffin was carried through the winding, narrow streets, down Ai Hanlo Mountain and through the Desert Gate. A very few looked out, and
fewer still spoke, and a mere handful spoke against her, rejoicing in her demise. It had long been noted that this witch must have been a kindly old lady despite her dire occupation, for she had so few enemies among the living.
She lay in the darkness, listening, remembering. She smiled.
She noted the length of her journey, the incline of the way which banged her head against the inside
of the coffin, the constant heaving and shaking as the bearers stumbled down a rocky hillside. As she expected, she was being taken to no cemetery within the city, but to a spot of unclean ground beyond its walls, away from any road, where those who drove refuse wagons through the streets at dawn were wont to dump their loads.
When her revenge was complete, they would pay for what they thought
to be their last insult.
The grave was dug. She felt herself lowered into it, and then clods of dirt fell on the coffin lid with continuous thuds. A few incantations were muttered by the priests, and a reliquary containing a splinter of a bone of The Goddess was passed back and forth overhead. She could sense a tinge of its power, like centipedes scampering across her face, but she was resolute
and did not stir.
After a time there was silence. She waited, feeling in her mind the turning of the Earth, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, until she knew that the appointed hour had come. Then she called out the name of a certain thing that dwelt somewhere beneath her. It was not even a Dark Power—no splinter of the evil aspect of The Goddess this—but merely an echo, a stirring
embodiment of some vileness which crawled underground. She spoke its name, and it came to her.
The silence gave way to a sound like running water, but then it was more like the distant roaring of a furnace. The coffin shook. The earth around her trembled and grew hot.
There followed a stifling, acrid pause, after which something was scraping against the wood on which she lay.
The coffin bottom was pulled away in a series of furious yanks, and she was falling down, down, in a funnel of absolute darkness, but not alone. The burning, lightless presence was at her side.
She came to rest in a grotto. Dimly glowing blue stones stood in a circle about an oily pool.
Something crouched at the edge of that pool. In part its form suggested a massively muscled man,
but the whole was nothing at all human. The lower half of the body was a riot of useless, misshapen limbs. The thing moved slowly, like a slug, its outline flickering all the while as if it were an illusory disguise the wearer was unsure of. Only the face was clearly outlined. Little bands of red fire glowed from every wrinkle and furrow in the creature’s flesh, and there were many.
“For the reasons mentioned when last you summoned me.” The voice was faint but clear, like a wind issuing up from the hidden depths of the Earth.
“Yes, for those reasons,” the witch said, “and for the fulfilment of our covenant, as agreed aforetime.”
“So be it then. Give me what is my due.”
Without hesitation, using her long, sharp nails, she gouged out both her
eyes. She only gasped briefly—”Ah!”—at the act, but she could not help but recoil as the payment was taken from her. Other hands touched hers in the semi-darkness, and she felt an intense pain, like fire but with less heat, as if acid had been poured over her outstretched hands.
“Now go,” said the thing, “and all will be accomplished.”
But before she could make a move the hands touched
her ears, and the burning was inside her head. She could not even hear herself scream, but by the exertion of her lungs she knew that she was indeed screaming.
In absolute darkness and silence and agony, she crawled on her knees and her ruined hands back up the long, sloping shaft down which she had been carried. At last, when she feared that even the power of her hatred would fail her,
she touched the wooden bottom of the coffin, where it had been discarded among some stones in a bend in the tunnel. She dragged it with her the rest of the way until she came to the splintery remains of the coffin, itself. She turned this on its side, so she wouldn’t tumble out of it, and crawled back in. But the added weight dislodged it from its precarious position, and the whole mass, witch, coffin,
and bottom slid downward a hundred feet or so in a shower of gravel until it came to rest in the bend in the tunnel. Satisfied, lying on her side, she edged the bottom over the opening as a kind of lid. Then she fumbled among her garments and drew out a little metal box. Within was a wafer. With delicate, desperate care, her fingers stiff with pain, she laid this wafer underneath her tongue.
At last able to relax, she shut her eyelids over the bloody sockets and exhaled one last breath.
Even as she did the change came over her. The effect sparkled brilliantly as it spread over her puckered cheeks and across her whole face, encompassing her head and racing down her body. She was turning into crystal. In scarcely a minute she was stiff and glittering inside her incongruous,
ragged clothing, like some huddled sculptural grotesque wrought out of luminescent quartz.
These things happened in the time of the death of The Goddess, when the Powers began to form, in the reign of The Guardian called Tharanodeth. They would not have been possible in a more ordered age.
* * * *
It was somewhat later in the reign of Tharanodeth the Good that a child was born
in the holy city of Ai Hanlo, in the imperial nursery, no less. Perhaps it is inaccurate to say that the child was born, for no one saw the act, and there was no mother to be had.
What actually happened was that a nurse came in one morning to feed the infant prince, whose fortuitous and much-prophesied birth had relieved much anxiety so late in The Guardian’s life, and found two babies in
the jewel-studded cradle.
offspring meant that the bones of The Goddess, which lay somewhere beneath the city, would continue to be watched over after Tharanodeth’s departure from this life.
surely portended a struggle for the honor of watching over those bones. War, wrack, and ruin. It took no profound political wisdom to see the implications.
And it was not a case of a misplaced
baby. Any fool could recognize this as a sign.
Eventually Tharanodeth was called, and he came, moving about the palace as he always did, surrounded by many retainers.
The old man looked down on the two tiny forms asleep in the cradle. He scratched his chin, as he was often seen to do when deep in thought, and at last said to one of his ministers, “Do you suppose my wife had twins,
and didn’t tell me about it?”
Flustered, astonished, the fellow tried to maintain his dignity.
“Blessed Lord, no! It cannot be!”
“I mean, she was still in pain after the first one was born. You’ll recall how the physicians bade us all, even me, to leave her alone. Perhaps the other baby was in there, and came out later.”
“Holy Guardian of the Bones of The Goddess,” said
the minister, “that is impossible. Your son is six weeks old. This other is newly born, and smaller and darker than the prince. They are not twins.”
“Well, I didn’t think so. What then?”
said Hadel of Nagé, a court magician. He was a short, wiry husk of a man with a pointed face and a huge moustache. Everyone called him The Rat.
“Dread sovereign,”—he never
called a ruler that unless squirming to depths of flattery which would stagger the imaginations of most people—”as you can doubtless see in your boundless wisdom, as you find beneath your dignity to explain because the nature of it is so obvious that even I, who am but a trickster, can perceive it, it is frightfully apparent that one of the Dark Powers visited here during the night I fear it
might have brought some contagion. But more concretely, I fear this thing which was the main object of its mission. No doubt the plan was to substitute this creature for the infant prince. But fortunately I was in my tower last night, reading aloud from the offices of my art, and this was no doubt sufficient to repel the monster before it could complete its task.”
“How fortunate that you
were watching over us,” said Tharanodeth, visibly amused at the other’s theatrics. “Pray tell, what now?”
“Please, I beg of you, take me seriously. If you kill this child, as indeed you must, you should cut off its head. Inside you will find only a stone. Let the body lie for a night and a day, and it will turn into a lump of weeds, which is all it really is.”
The Guardian reached
down and gently touched the back of his hand to the newcomer’s side, feeling its warmth.
“Yes, Lord! So it is!”
“No, this is only flesh and blood. Let the women raise this child apart from the prince, since it is not my heir. Still, it is under my protection.”
Then The Guardian clapped his hands, a trumpeter blew a blast, a priest waved a bowl of incense around
to purify the air through which Tharanodeth would walk, and in time to the ringing of silver bells held by half a dozen boys, the whole company left the nursery.
* * * *
For a few minutes the two babies were alone. Servant women were sent for, but in the short interval before their arrival, something happened which no one observed, except perhaps those to whom it happened.
stranger rolled over and began to convulse, as if something were forcing its way out of him. He opened his mouth to cry out, but the only sound was of a wind issuing up from measureless depths. A black, oily smoke poured out of the baby’s mouth and hovered in the air over the cradle. Briefly it took the form of an old, hobbled woman without any eyes. Black hands groped for the mouth of the larger,
paler baby, and, finding it, forced it open.
Instantly the prince was awake and shrieking, but the black hag leaned over and, losing all shape, poured down his throat until all sounds were smothered.
When the nursemaids arrived it was the foundling child which was crying in furious terror, now that he was able to, now that the source of that terror had left him.
The prince lay
still and stared up at them sullenly.
* * * *
Tharanodeth’s heir was, with all due ceremony, given the name of Kaemen Ai Hanlo ne Papeleothrim, that is, Kaemen (Bright Hope) of the city of Ai Hanlo of the house of Papeleothrim, for the fathers of the Good Guardian were of that clan.
The other child went without a name for many months, until Hadel the Rat chanced to be passing
by the nursery late one night. He walked along a narrow corridor. To his right was the large, brightly decorated room in which Kaemen resided. Expensive candles let perfume into the air. Many women were in constant attendance.
To his left was a barred door. He lifted the handle and looked inside. He had heard of much consternation in the nursery of late, women going mad and running away,
so the gossips said. Once he had directed a simple spell of seeing in that direction, in hopes of finding out what the fuss was about. But his spell had been repulsed by some unknown and powerful force, and he had awakened from his trance with two black eyes. This was why he had come in person, why he had opened the door.
He looked in on a dark, unfurnished room. At the far end starlight
shone through a small, barred window. In the center of the room was a rough, wooden cradle in which lay the stranger.
Hadel gasped at what he saw.
The baby was awake and blissfully juggling balls of light in the air. They were the size of plums, bright as embers, but semi-transparent. Two tiny hands would come together, then part, and a glowing sphere would float upward about a foot,
light as smoke. Then, as the magician watched, the ball would begin to sink. Those which fell outside of the cradle winked out of existence like soap bubbles. The rest were playfully swatted up for another descent. All the while more were being created. There was no end to them. Their light made the man’s stooped shadow flicker behind him.
He approached the child, leaned over the cradle,
and jumped back as a ball burst against his face.
“Teats of a desert nymph! I have never
such a thing!”
The baby was aware of him and began to cry. All the lights vanished.
The Rat scurried from the room, bolted the door behind him, and ran as fast as he could to The Guardian, who had just then emerged from the vault into which only he might go, where lay the very bones
of The Goddess. Servitors whose tongues had been cut out announced his ascent, since no voice may speak of such a thing. Blindfolded priests helped him remove his vestments, each of their movements part of a prescribed ritual.
Hadel stumbled breathlessly into the anteroom of the Holy Chamber, then remembered where he was, fell to his knees, and tapped a small gong on a stand nearby. Tharanodeth
entered and looked at him sharply.
“Well, what do you want?”
Too frightened to conduct himself gracefully, the Nagéan blurted out all that he had seen, embellishing the tale with a few malicious laughs, words muttered in an unknown tongue by a child too young for speech (“But there’s a lot of that going around,” interrupted The Guardian.) and the faintly heard sound of something scraping
its way down the wall beyond the barred window.