Monday, September 25, 2006

Been a while since I posted a fragment . . .

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Chapter Twenty-Seven




1.

Time is the true weight of a speck of dust, the weight of time—speck after speck—settling heavily on a room, in this room where music once was played and where dust now glitters through blades of light from the tall windows. Dust that covered and covers the room. But there were footsteps through the dust, the steps of a man walking to the windows and back again. A tall man, a black silhouette against the bright windows, stood looking outward. The music chamber was on the level of the Great Hall, but at the northern side of the Citadel, and the view from the window took in a grand arc of Adan. Here Anatheme stood, sometimes for hour upon hour, unmoving, gazing at the slow decay of Adan. The dust did not settle on him, but he bore the weight of time nonetheless.

The city was not the same. Repeated earthquakes, and yearly floods, had reduced all but two of the seven bridges to their foundations. Now, except for the King’s Bridge and the Bridge of Spring and Summer, only the piles of the remaining five could be seen on occasion, when the river was clear and calm. No building stood unchanged, none but the Citadel itself, and a great many no longer stood at all.

There was no absence of life, for the city teemed; however, the life by and large was wild and small, foxes and badgers, deer and squirrels, and gangs of raucous field birds. The Arrasti, of course, fled nearly twenty years ago, absorbed in the civil wars of the clans. The Skeldi, though, gradually withdrew in two directions: north, back to the Skeld for those who believed the city cursed, and south to cluster about the foot of the Citadel. In between the city slowly decayed.

Anatheme narrowed his eyes. Twenty years changed much of the face of Adan, but his eyes were as quick as ever. Something moved in the air above the city, moving from the northeast and toward the Citadel. A bird, he saw clearly, as it came closer, flying just above the tops of trees. It climbed as it neared the Citadel, rising swiftly as if it would fly into the palace itself. A crow, Anatheme saw clearly as it flashed upward past the window and out of his sight. He turned and followed the footsteps in the dust back out of the room.




2.

The smell dominated the tiny, square chamber at the top of the tower, the smell of dampness, of mold and wet feathers, and the acrid smell of a dying body. The room, the top of the topmost tower, lay open to the wind on all sides through wide, unglazed windows between the half-walls and the slanting roof. The wind swirled in and out, lifting black feathers in random dances. But the wind could not overcome years of decay. The smell dominated.

But now it was thunderously noisy in the cramped space. A loud, young thug of a crow hopped and danced about the chamber, squawking ceaselessly. In the eye of this feathered storm lay another crow, ancient and missing many feathers, so aged and decrepit that it barely managed to lift its head. Yet its black bead of an eye followed the young crow scattering feathers and the little bones of past meals all about the chamber.

A section of the floor flew upward and slammed back into the wall. Anatheme’s head and shoulders emerged through the trapdoor. The young crow clapped its blunt bill shut and, with a snap of its wings, shot up to perch in a window and to silently watch the man. Anatheme ignored it absolutely. Instead he climbed in to the chamber and looked down from his full, towering height upon the old, half-bald rook.

“Well?” he demanded.

The bird trembled, half-transforming to something, a creature of wrinkled, white skin and a few ragged feathers, a thing of lingering pain in its eyes and in its voice. Kept alive far beyond the span of life of a crow, the Crow King lay gasping. Its breath wheezed through the half-formed beak.

“Well?”

A little, pink tongue licked at the edges of the bill. The creature’s throat constricted and bulged, its face contorted as if it would spit out its words no matter the effort.

“News – from – ea, east,” it managed in a voice both gurgling and choked. “B-Bhar – gesst – found some, something.”

“What?”

“Does – not say,” the Crow King spat, “more, later – when – it knowsss.”

“That is all?”

“Yes, yesss.”

Anatheme turned to descend the ladder, but he paused, glancing at the young crow watching him warily from the window, and then looking down at the pathetic thing panting on the floor. The Crow King had already begun the slow agony of reverting to its natural state. ‘A pity,’ Anatheme thought to himself, stepping onto the top rung, ‘that the old bird never managed to teach another this trick, or to speak language.’

He stopped again as another presence entered the little room in the top of the tower, one that only he could perceive. Anatheme smiled, sensing his mother’s thoughts probing for an unguarded moment, hunting for an image or a word. Nearly blind, her body a ruin, Amaryl possessed still a powerful and keen mind. Perhaps she felt the odd magic in the old bird’s transformation; it hardly ever failed to attract her notice. Now she hoped for a crumb of knowledge. He smiled. Tonight, when he brought her broth to her chamber, would be interesting.



3.

She waited, propped on an elbow in the brown and grey piebald blanket of last year’s leaves. Sometimes peering through this year’s green leaves, sometimes scratching and muttering to herself in broken whispers, she waited under a low, ground sweeping limb on the edge of Aerlie.

“Twenty years, is’t? Summat like’t” She counted off on her clawed fingers. “Nineteen, twenty.” She yawned and shrugged, carefully, slowly stretching away the afternoon languor.

“Twenty years comin’ here,” she murmured, “this is’t, the last, the last time.”

A noise. In the forest behind her hiding place. Bharghest twisted her neck around scanning as best she can before settling back with a soft grunt in her hiding place. It was an acorn or some such thing, she decided, falling noisily into the flotsam.

“Last time, last time,” she whispered, suppressing a yawn. “can’t follow them into the mist. Never could. Maybe the black one can, not me. His problem.”

A fluttering in the air caught her eye. Yellow, gold-brown, twisting, gyrating, a leaf spiraling down, a brilliant, early herald of the change of season to come. The flash of the bright yellow leaf captured her as it turned and floated down to the dun. She reached forward and picked up the delicate thing and, turning it in her fingers, she composed a poem.

“I saw a golden leaf fall,” she recited, her voice barely rising above a hiss, “it took eternity and no time at all. For the leaf all the time that was and ever will be, but a breath, but a heart beat for me. I saw a golden leaf fall, it took eternity and no time at all.”

Bharghest moaned softly with pleasure at the verse, recited it again in her thoughts to commit it to memory. She would tell it to the Singers, make them add it to the story of the People, to her story.

A sound. In the forest to her right, beyond her sight, steps, steps of someone walking. Bharghest settled deeper into the crisp carpet of dead leaves, silencing her body, listening. The steps approached and turned by her hiding place, and moved beyond the fringe of the forest. Bharghest dared not stir. Some indistinct noises, and then voices sounded from some distance away, obscured but she heard clearly some fragments of a conversation.

“He is not spying us,” a female khargish said.

“You are angry with me . . .,” answered a male.

“He told me something . . . which duty do you . . .”

“I must know . . . how will we know if he has manipulated . . . he is harmless, but I know that he is more than he appears.”

A laugh, the female laughed but Bharghest did not hear what she said. The voices, lower now, said much that she did not hear. She dared not stir.

“Well? Do you sense a spell over me?”

“. . . It is hopeless . . . we have talked of too much. Come, your mother will wonder why we have not returned.” A sound, new, a change in the sounds, something heavy being lifted from the ground. Steps faded into silence.

After a time, to Bharghest it seemed such an interminable time, she stirred, emerging from her leafy hiding place. The shaman eased out of the forest shyly, cautiously looking about. She walked toward the place from which the voices had come, and she saw blood, a little pool of drying blood on the ground and a trail of drops turning from crimson to dark red to near-black around the edges. The trail led to the pillars and disappeared into the mist. Bharghest drew a deep breath and followed.

She returned from out of the mist, loping for the path through the forest, muttering again to herself. “Three days,” she calculated out loud as she ran, “to get to Hare’s hole, a day to convince the idiot and get his gokhkha-dogs ready to march, four or five days to get back here with Hare’s gang in tow.” “Hmmph, t’ch, t’ch,” she counted aloud on her fingers as she rushed under the trees, “send a Black Feather to the king, news, news, a black feather to take the news to the Black One, one, two, . . . seven days and it will all be done.” And now she wished that she had brought her own gokhkha after all, even with the whining and complaining of the dogs. Now she wished that she had her own instead of relying on that fool Hole with his clumsy axe.

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