Copyright © Ian Irvine, 1999.
- THE ARROW
The construct, a menace that warped even light around it, slowly revolved above the decapitated tower of Carcharon. Rulke stood tall on top, holding his levers in one negligent hand. The other was thrust out at the rising moon, whose dark face, mottled red and purple-black, had just heaved its swollen mass over the horizon. That was a hideous omen. The moon had not been full on hythe, mid-winter’s day, for 1830 years. Rulke’s foretelling was already coming to pass.
When the dark moon is full on mid-winter’s day, I will be back. I will crack the Forbidding and open the Way between the Worlds. No one has the power to stay me. The Three Worlds will be Charon evermore.
Karan, chest high beside Rulke, was a stark white, staring shadow surrounded by a corona of flaming hair. Llian ached for her, but even if he could step the air between them there was no way to wrest her free. No one would help him now. He was a pariah, accused of betraying Karan to Rulke, accused of being Rulke’s spy. Nothing would convince the company otherwise. Wherever he looked he received dark looks in return, especially from Basitor the Aachim, who blamed him for the destruction of Shazmak. Basitor would kill him given the least opportunity.
Llian had only one friend left, little Lilis, but what could she do? The most powerful people of Santhenar were here but not one of them — not Mendark, not Yggur or the crippled Tensor, not Tallia or Shand or Malien — had the courage to strike at Rulke.
The construct rumbled. The tower wobbled. Wavering discharges rose up from the spiny protrusions embedded in the walls. The Ghâshâd guards, stick-men and stick-women, resumed their posts, pacing with stiff-limbed gait. The red glare from inside faded and flared, faded and flared.
Llian eyed the construct. It was an impossible thing, made of metal so black that it stood out against the night sky. There was nothing on Santhenar to compare it with. It required no beast to pull it; it had no wheels; and yet it slipped through the sky like silk. It hung in the air like a balloon, though Llian knew it was heavier than a boulder. Its sides bulged in complex shapes that were alien, then curved away into corrugations underneath. The long front soared up to a flaring binnacle crammed with knobs and wheels, behind which was a thicket of levers, a place to stand and a high seat of carven serpentine.
Llian knew that the inside was just as strange, equally packed with controls and glowing plates, for he had seen it in the Nightland. Evidently Rulke preferred to ride on top where he could display, and dominate.
‘Karan!’ Llian sang out in anguish. His voice echoed back across the amphitheatre to mock him.
Karan must have seen him standing there on the rim, for she went quite rigid. At the same instant the construct lurched beneath her. Her arms thrashed. Llian thought she was going to go over, but Rulke jerked her back. She looked up at him, looming head and shoulders above her, and spoke. Her words were not even a sigh on the wind.
Yggur adjusted glasses as thick as bottle ends. When Rulke first appeared Yggur had resolved to face his fears and die, rather than be overcome by them yet again. Already that resolve was weakening. ‘Look at them together,’ he said, grinding his teeth. ‘He has possessed her mind. I can feel it, the way he possessed me for so long.’
‘I hope so,’ replied Mendark in an even more chilly voice. ‘Otherwise Karan has betrayed us and must suffer for it.’ He looked more haggard, wasted and bitter than ever.
The way they talked was horrible. Llian was stabbed all over by pain pricks, as if his blood had crystallised to needles. He sucked at the air but could not fill his lungs. Everything wavered; he felt faint.
Yggur’s cheek began to twitch, then locked rigid in a spasm that twisted up one side of his face. Remembering that Yggur had once been mad, Llian wondered if he was now cracking under the weight of his terror.
Yggur clutched at Malien’s arm. ‘Who is your best archer?’ he gasped.
‘Basitor has the strongest pull by far. But I should say Xarah is the most accurate at this distance. Xarah!’
Xarah came forward. She was small for an Aachim, not much bigger than Karan, with limp hair the colour of mustard and a scatter of freckles on her cheeks. She looked much younger than the others.
‘You are the best among you?’ Yggur asked, his fists clenched and knuckles white.
Xarah looked down at the snow, fingering a bracelet on her wrist. She knew what was going to be asked of her. Then she gazed up at the construct, gauging the distance. Only Karan’s head could be seen now.
‘The best that is able,’ she said. ‘I can hit any target in Carcharon from here.’
‘And on the construct?’
‘An uphill shot, but I can do it.’
Yggur followed her gaze, spasmed, tried to take control but failed. ‘Then put an arrow in Karan’s eye, for pity’s sake! For her and for us.’
She did not move. ‘Do it this minute!’ he shouted, and there were flecks of foam at the corners of his mouth. He looked as if he had just fought a monumental battle with himself, and lost. He would do anything to avoid Rulke possessing him again.
Xarah shivered. She looked up at Malien, her midnight-dark eyes expressionless in the red light.
Malien put out her hand. ‘Stay, Xarah!’
Mendark looked thoughtful. ‘Rulke has made an error of judgement. If we were to neutralise her, it might cripple him.’
Llian staggered between them, the ice-crusted manacles tearing his legs until the blood flowed. He took no heed of that pain; it was nothing beside what he was feeling inside.
‘No!’ he screamed, crashing into Mendark, who pushed him aside.
‘Don’t interfere, chronicler!’
‘But Karan– ’ Llian wept.
‘It’s a choice between her life and our world, Llian!’ But still Mendark stared at the construct and did not give the order.
Nadiril the Librarian was bent right over on his walking staff, looking frailer than ever. Shand, a head shorter beside him, held his arm. Lilis stood by Nadiril, hopping from one foot to another, crying, ‘Stop them, Nadiril!’
‘This deed will come back to haunt you, Yggur,’ said Nadiril. ‘She—’
‘Just do it!’ Yggur screamed.
‘No more will I do evil,’ said Malien softly, ‘even if the greatest good comes out of it. Xarah, put down your bow.’
Tensor slid his legs over the side of the litter and with a convulsive wrench forced himself to his feet. He was as gaunt as a skeleton now, the once huge frame nothing but bone and sinew that was all twisted from Rulke’s blow in Katazza last summer. Llian tried to claw his way over the snow but Basitor’s huge foot slammed into the middle of his back, pinning him down.
‘A chance,’ Tensor rasped. ‘A chance sent for my torment! What evil did my forefathers do that I should suffer so? Do you give the order, Malien?’
‘No!’ she whispered, and a tear froze to crystal from each eye.
‘You have always been true,’ he said, clinging to her for a moment.
Tensor took a lurching step toward Xarah, and another. He wavered toward her like the grim reaper, an animated skeleton covered in skin. She watched him come, the long bow hanging from one hand, the red-feathered arrow in the other. At the last moment she tried to put them behind her, but the look in his eyes paralysed her.
Tensor plucked the bow from one hand, the arrow from the other. The arrow went to the bowstring. The string was drawn back. Llian’s arms and legs thrashed as if swimming in the snow, but Basitor’s boot held him in place.
‘I’m sorry, Karan,’ said Tensor ever so gently.
‘Shoot, damn you!’ cried Yggur, shaking so hard that his head nodded like a child’s toy.
Karan’s red hair looked to be on fire in the boiling glare from the tower. Her face was a white blotch, but Llian had no doubt that Tensor could hit her eye from here. Before he even released the arrow, Llian could see it flying straight and true toward her lovely face, to spear straight through her skull with a shock that would carry her backwards off the construct and down, down dead onto the rocks at the bottom of the gorge.
‘No!’ Llian shrieked with every fibre and atom of himself, broadcasting his love and terror across ridge and valley and mountain, trying to speak back across the link Karan had closed down only a few days ago.
The company stopped their ears against the curdled shriek. Twisting around, Llian sank his teeth into Basitor’s calf. Basitor yelped and sprang backwards. Tensor did not even shiver. He stood up straight, sighted along the arrow and let it fly. It disappeared into the night.
At the same time the construct lurched sideways like a puppet whose strings had broken. It shuddered in the air and fell like a rock. Rulke was suspended above it for a moment then stood up straight and tall, his hands dancing. The machine slammed into solid air, bounced, drifted around in a circle and veered back toward Carcharon, listing like a sinking yacht. Karan was nowhere to be seen.
Rulke almost had it under control, but it shuddered again, the front tilted and it began to glide downwards, accelerating and plunging straight towards the rocky ridge side. Llian held his breath. Rulke struggled desperately, mastered it a moment before impact and began to inch it back up again.
‘We’ve done it!’ Yggur shouted. ‘He’s weak! Do you dare use power against him now?’ he challenged Mendark.
Mendark hesitated, then, ‘Yes, yes! Together!’ They shot out their arms. Red and blue fire flared out, writhing like coloured cables across the night. The Aachim fired as one. A dozen arrows arched in formation toward their target, but immediately an opaline spheroid sprang into life around the construct. The fiery blasts reflected dangerously back at them, melting the snow into glassy patches as they ducked for shelter. The arrows sighed harmlessly into a dough-like barrier, then one by one fell free, quite spent.
‘That showed him!’ Tensor crowed. ‘He won’t be so bold next time.’
Mendark’s wit was quicker. ‘You’re a fool, Tensor,’ he said in a dead voice. ‘He uses our power against us. The construct is proof against any force we can direct at it, and I was a bigger fool to think any different.’
The construct regained its even keel, lifted smoothly and hung on the ruined brass lip of the tower. Rulke reached down with one hand, hauled up Karan and shook her at his enemies. She was still alive! He roared defiance then the machine slipped back into the tower like a black egg into its nest. As it went down, the walls bulged outwards around it like a snake swallowing a chicken. The eerie red glow reappeared.
‘What was that all about?’ asked Tallia.
‘Intimidation,’ said Yggur. ‘Maybe he’s not ready.’
‘He’s ready!’ said Shand.
The moon rose higher, its blotched face illuminating the scene raggedly. They stood together on a bowl-shaped rim of the ridge top. In front of them the living rock had been carved away to form a small amphitheatre that looked back to Carcharon. Its shallow lower lip dropped in a series of steep steps that narrowed downwards to a winding track running along the knife-edged crest of the ridge. The track was barely wide enough for two abreast, and deadly on account of ice and gale. On either side the rock fell steep, sometimes sheer, into a mighty chasm. The track wound down and then back up, broadening at the other end before a long, steep and outwards-flaring stair which terminated at a landing outside the brass gates and iron-plated doors of Carcharon itself.
Carcharon had once been an ugly tower of nine uneven sides, squatting on the sheerest part of the ridge. A high wall ran from the back of the tower, steeply up one side of the ridge and down the other, enclosing a large yard. The tower was built of glassy-smooth gabbro, violet grey in colour. Its walls were covered in clusters of rods, hooks, vitreous spheres and opaline spines like those of a sea urchin. The roof had been a spiky helmet of brass and green slate, but the slate was scattered and the brass remnants now hung down like metal petals. The place had never had grace, harmony or proportion, but with the roof torn open and the walls deformed as if they had begun to melt, it was hideous.
Behind the company the high back of the amphitheatre descended by a steeper stair onto a winding, soaring ridge-top track, down and down and down for hours, eventually to reach a strip of plateau cut by ravines, encircled on the lower side by granite cliffs and covered in Karan’s magnificent but inaccessible Forest of Gothryme. Below the cliffs lay Gothryme, her impoverished estate in the valley of the Ryme, and further on, Tolryme town and the road to Thurkad.
The red light sank to an uncanny glare. A freezing wind sprang up, so they moved into the shelter of the arena. Llian lay on the snow. If his rage had been a weapon, Yggur and Tensor would now lie dead among the rocks. His legs hurt, a torment that gave him no rest, but at least Karan was alive. He had to get her out. He knew she would do the same for him.
‘Lilis!’ he whispered.
Lilis came scuttling across. Her thin face was pinched. Her cold nose touched his even colder cheek. She was shivering.
‘What you warn’t?’ she said, reverting for a moment to her street-brat argot.
‘I’ve got to get inside. Will you help me?’
Lilis visibly took herself in hand. A street brat no longer, she was an apprentice librarian now and the great Nadiril was her tutor. She schooled her voice to calmness. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘See if you can get these shackles off.’
Lilis bent down, her hair caressing his boots. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Your leg is all bloody. And your other leg too.’
Llian couldn’t have cared less. ‘The ice scratches the skin. It’s not serious.’
Her fingers worked at the irons. ‘They’re locked,’ she said. ‘Do you know who has the key?’
‘Mendark! I don’t suppose— No, it’s too much to ask.’
She moaned under her breath and stood up. ‘Poor Llian,’ she said, looking into his eyes. In the light from Carcharon hers were the size of apricots. ‘Of course I’ll go. For you I will even rob Mendark himself; though I’m very frightened.’
‘I’m ashamed to ask you, dear Lilis.’ He hugged her thin frame. ‘But I’ve got to get in.’
She crept across the snow and ice. Llian was more ashamed than Lilis realised, for she was just a diversion. She would be discovered as soon as she tried to rob Mendark, but it might just give him time enough. He did not wait to see what happened.
Everyone else was huddled at the back of the amphitheatre out of the worst of the wind. No one seemed to be watching him. Llian rolled over twice, then slipped down between the snow-covered stone benches to the edge. He was just above the steps and the path to Carcharon.
There came an outcry from the other side of the platform. Lilis must have been caught! Llian slid over the edge and crashed down the steps feet first, bumping hard on his bottom. Landing right at the edge of the ravine, he staggered as fast as his hobbles would allow him along the treacherous path.
‘What are you doing, you little thief?’ he heard Mendark roar. Lilis’s frightened squeak of an answer was inaudible. A minute later Mendark roared again, ‘He’s gone! After him!’
Llian redoubled his efforts, his terror of being caught before he found Karan more powerful than his fear of Rulke, or the hideous pain in his legs.
He reached the bottom of the steps that led in an up-curving arch to the front gate. He dragged himself up fifty or sixty steps, but near the top had to rest, no matter what. Llian slumped over the stone rail. At least there was one here, though each of the balusters was covered with gargoyle faces of profound hideousness, all grinning and jeering at him. In his fevered mind the railing seemed to move beneath his hand, as if they reached out for him. Llian snatched his hand away and looked up to be confronted by a sight even more palpitating.
At the top of the stairs was a landing, on the far side of which the stairs curved away from the gate to meet the side of Carcharon tower. In the open space between the left-hand rail and the wall loomed a vast menace out of legend, a creature half-human and half-beast, with short though massive legs and a barrel chest, long hanging arms and overarching bat-wings that cast the crested head and fanged mouth into shadow. Its hands were the size of Llian’s head, with retractable claws. The joints of its wings and the bony crest of its head were tipped with spikes. In one hand it clutched a flail, each whip of the flail being tipped with a spiked ball like a tiny morningstar, while the other hand gripped a rod like a wizard’s baton.
Llian fell back against the railing before realising that it was just a statue, though a brilliantly lifelike one. It was made of brass, impervious to time and the elements. On the other side of the landing crouched another of the creatures, equipped with a spear in one hand and a set of pincers in the other. This one had wings that soared out on either side and the chest armour was curved to accommodate a pair of breasts as large as melons.
Between the statues was a great gate of wrought-iron, clustered with heads and faces and squatting gargoyle figures. The gate was ajar but beyond was a solid door set with decorated metal plates. Even knowing that the statues were mere metal, Llian could not move, they so embodied the mythical terrors his childhood had been steeped in. Then, looking back, he saw his pursuers emerge out of shadow below the arena. They were only a minute away. Basitor was well ahead, his impossibly long legs flashing toward him.
Squawking in terror, Llian clawed his way up the remaining steps like a lame crab. One, two, three, four, five. Five to go. He could see the fury on Basitor’s face; the snarl; the bared teeth. No mercy there! Basitor would dash out his brains against the steps, or heave him over the side without a thought.
Llian hurled himself up the last high step, stuck for a moment as his hobbles caught on the broken stone, then with a tremendous heave freed himself, skidded across the landing, flung the gate open and crashed head first into one of the decorated plates on the door. It clanked and something inside gave forth a hollow boom that echoed on and on. He bashed at the door until his knuckles bled. It was too late. Basitor was already at the bottom of the steps. He leapt up, four steps at each stride.
‘Got you, you treacherous swine,’ he gasped, striking Llian a blow in the belly that doubled him over helpless. ‘I should have done this a year ago.’
He picked Llian up by the collar and the seat of the pants, shaking him until his brains felt like jelly. Llian tried to kick him but Basitor was too big and strong. The rest of the company was still too far away to do anything, even supposing that they cared to.
‘You’re dead!’ raged Basitor, holding Llian out over the precipice and punctuating every phrase with another shake. ‘Do you remember Hintis? Dead because of you! Do you remember Selial, Shalah, Thel, Trule?’ He went on with a litany of names, most unknown to Llian, as if he blamed him for every death in Shazmak and since, and planned to list each one too. ‘Do you remember the kindness my brethren in Shazmak showed you, treacherous Zain? Do you remember Rael? All dead because of you. Because of you beloved Shazmak lies in ruins! This is the least I can do for them.’
Llian looked down. The gorge was bathed in the baleful glare from the dark moon. The beckoning rocks were as clear as daylight. Basitor shook him until it all became a blur again, then drew back his arm.
As he did, Llian’s hand struck one of the many metal projections that stuck out from the walls of the tower. He gripped it like a drowning man, heaved and his knee struck Basitor in the eye. Basitor fell against the wall, relaxing his grip for a second. Llian kicked free and went hand over hand up the wall, using the rods and hooks like a ladder. His fear of heights was nothing to his terror of Basitor. One of his hobbles snagged on a hook and he almost fell. He freed himself, his upstretched hand caught the lip of an embrasure and without looking he threw himself in head first.
Eventually his brains stopped whirling, his eyes uncrossed. He was in the upper chamber where the great telling had been held a week ago. There was a mound of wreckage on the floor — beams, tiles and metal, the remains of the roof — but the space around the construct was swept clear as if the rubble had been repelled from it. Snowflakes drifted down through the broken roof and covered every surface, though the construct was as black and clean as ever.
Llian lay on the floor in a daze, literally unable to get up. His body had suffered too many injuries, too many insults in the past two weeks. He lifted his head. Rulke was sitting on the high seat of the construct concentrating hard on something. Llian felt constrained, held down, and as his eyes adjusted to the different light he saw that the room was hung with a ghostly web of light, like a barely visible fishing net curving from one wall to another. As he stared, the fibres of the net began to glow more brightly, the light spreading and smearing out until the net became a shimmering wall, a barrier across which iridescent lights danced. Ripples passed gently across its surface.
It was the Wall of the Forbidding made visible, curving through the ten dimensions of space and time. It touched all parts of Santhenar, the Three Worlds and even the Nightland equally, while separating these inhabited spaces from the Darwinian nightmare of the void. Rulke’s tale of a week ago had told Llian all that he cared to know about the violent creatures that dwelt in the void, and what they would do to Santh if they ever got out.
Where was Karan? He picked her out across the other side, sitting cross-legged on a window ledge with a brazier glowing in front of her. Her eyes were closed but she looked alert, concentrating intensely on something.
‘Karan!’ he screamed.
Her eyes sprang open. The net of light vanished. ‘Llian!’ she whispered in anguish and shame. ‘What are you doing here? Go back!’
‘Not without you.’ He tried to get to his feet but only managed his knees.
Rulke snapped back to reality with a shock that almost tumbled him off his seat. For a moment he looked dazed, as if the switch from one dimension to the other was like trying to think in a foreign tongue.
‘Take what you want and pay the price!’ she said. ‘I am paying for my choices.’
‘The price is too high,’ Llian said, hungering for her. He was helpless. His shredded legs were too painful to move. ‘Come with me.’ He felt ashamed that Karan had bought his freedom with her own.
‘It’s too late,’ she said softly. ‘It’s gone too far now and can’t be undone. Please go, or all I’ve done will be in vain.’
‘She’s right, chronicler,’ said Rulke, recovering rapidly. ‘I don’t know what fool let you in, but it’s no use. If she refuses me I’ll take you back.’
‘I won’t go! Karan, don’t do this.’
‘I have no choice,’ she said in her own agony. ‘Go away, Llian!’
Llian was desperate to take her in his arms, and knew that despite her words she felt the same. She was weakening.
Rulke shook his fist at the watching guards. ‘How can I work?’ he roared. ‘Get rid of him!’
Two came forward — Idlis, he of the scarred face, who had hunted Karan for so long, and the woman Yetchah. They had been banished to the lowest duties, in disgrace at having voted for Llian’s tale instead of Rulke’s a week ago. Taking Llian under the arms, they dragged him down the coiled stairway, past statues every bit as alarming as those outside the gates. Before he reached the bottom of the stairs, the room was lit up by the wall of the Forbidding again.
The front door of Carcharon was flung open. The wind whistled in. Idlis put his foot in Llian’s back and sent him flying through. He skidded halfway across the landing.
Llian wished he was dead. He wiped the snow out of his eyes, turned over and looked up into the grim faces of the company. No one said a word. Basitor gripped him by the collar then marched down the steps, dragging him behind. The others followed in his wake.
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