/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy,

Viriconium

M Harrison


Viriconium

M. John Harrison

THE PASTEL CITY

PROLOGUE ON THE EMPIRE OF VIRICONIUM

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength-leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.

For five hundred years or more after the final collapse of the Middle Period, Viriconium (it had not that name, yet) was a primitive huddle of communities bounded by the sea in the West and South, by the unexplored lands in the East, and the Great Brown Waste of the North.

The wealth of its people lay entirely in salvage. They possessed no science, but scavenged the deserts of rust that had been originally the industrial complexes of the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and since the largest deposits of metal and machinery and ancient weapons lay in the Great Brown Waste, the Northern Tribes held them. Their loose empire had twin hubs, Glenluce and Drunmore, bleak sprawling townships where intricate and beautiful machines of unknown function were processed crudely into swords and tribal chieftains fought drunkenly over possession of the deadly baans unearthed from the desert.

They were fierce and jealous. Their rule of the Southerners was unkind, and, eventually, insupportable.

The destruction of this pre-Viriconium culture and the wresting of power from the Northmen was accomplished by Borring-Na-Lecht, son of a herdsman of the Monar Mountains, who gathered the Southerners, stiffened their spines with his rural but powerful rhetoric, and in a single week gutted both Drunmore and Glenluce.

He was a hero. During his lifetime, he united the tribes, drove the Northmen into the mountains and tundra beyond Glenluce, and built the city-fortress of Duirinish on the edge of the Metal-Salt Marsh where rusts and chemicals weather-washed from the Great Brown Waste collected in bogs and poisonous fens and drained into the sea. Thus, he closed the Low Leedale against the remnants of the Northern regime, protecting the growing Southern cities of Soubridge and Lendalfoot.

But his greatest feat was the renovation of Viriconium, hub of the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and he took it for his capital-building where necessary, opening the time-choked thoroughfares, adding artifacts and works of art from the rust deserts, until the city glowed almost as it had done half a millennium before. From it, the empire took its name. Borring was a hero.

No other hero came until Methven. During the centuries after Borring’s death, Viriconium consolidated, grew plump and rich, concerned itself with wealth, internal trade, and minor political hagglings. What had begun well, in fire and blood and triumph, lost its spirit.

For four hundred years the empire sat still while the Northmen licked their wounds and nourished their resentments. A slow war of attrition began, with the Southerners grown spineless again, the Northmen schooled to savagery by their harsh cold environment. Viriconium revered stability and poetry and wine merchants; its wolf-cousins, only revenge. But, after a century of slow encroachment, the wolves met one who, if not of their kind, understood their ways.. ..

Methven Nian came to the throne of Viriconium to find the supply of metals and Old Machines declining. He saw that a Dark Age approached; he wished to rule something more than a scavenger’s empire. He drew to him young men who also saw this and who respected the threat from the North. For him, they struck and struck again at the lands beyond Duirinish and became known as the Northkillers, the Order of Methven, or, simply, the Methven.

There were many of them, and many died. They fought with ruthlessness and a cold competence. They were chosen each for a special skill: thus, Norvin Trinor for his strategies, Tomb the Dwarf for his skill with mechanics and energy weapons, Labart Tane for his knowledge of Northern folk-ways, Benedict Paucemanly for his aeronautics, tegeus-Cromis because he was the finest swordsman in the land.

For his span, Methven Nian halted the decay: he taught the Northmen to fear him; he instituted the beginnings of a science independent of the Old Technologies; he conserved what remained of that technology. He made one mistake, but that one was grievous.

In an attempt to cement a passing alliance with some of the Northern Tribes, he persuaded his brother Methvel, whom he loved, to marry their Queen, Balquhider. On the failure of the treaty two years later, this wolf-woman left Methvel in their chambers, drowning in his own blood, his eyes plucked out with a costume pin. Taking their daughter, Canna Moidart, she fled. She schooled the child to see its future as the crown of a combined empire, to make pretense on Methven’s death to the throne of Viriconium.

Nurtured on the grievances of the North, the Moidart aged before her time, and fanned secret sparks of discontent in both North and South.

So it was that when Methven died-some said partly of the lasting sorrow of Methvel’s end-there were two Queens to pretend to the throne: Canna Moidart, and Methven’s sole heir, Methvet, known in her youth as Jane. And the knights of the Order of Methven, seeing a strong empire that had little need of their violent abilities, confused and saddened by the death of their King, scattered.

Canna Moidart waited a decade before the first twist of the knife.…

1

Tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand dunes that lay between his tall home and the grey line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.

He smelled burning on the offshore wind. In the distance, faintly, he could hear dull and heavy explosions: and it was not the powerful sea that shook the dunes beneath his feet.

Cromis was a tall man, thin and cadaverous. He had slept little lately, and his green eyes were tired in the dark sunken hollows above his high, prominent cheekbones.

He wore a dark green velvet cloak, spun about him like a cocoon against the wind; a tabard of antique leather set with iridium studs over a white kid shirt; tight mazarine velvet trousers and high, soft boots of pale blue suede. Beneath the heavy cloak, his slim and deceptively delicate hands were curled into fists, weighted, as was the custom of the time, with heavy rings of nonprecious metals intagliated with involved cyphers and sphenograms. The right fist rested on the pommel of his plain long sword, which, contrary to the fashion of the time, had no name. Cromis, whose lips were thin and bloodless, was more possessed by the essential qualities of things than by their names; concerned with the reality of Reality, rather than with the names men gave it.

He worried more, for instance, about the beauty of the city that had fallen during the night than he did that it was Viriconium, the Pastel City. He loved it more for its avenues paved in pale blue and for its alleys that were not paved at all than he did for what its citizens chose to call it, which was often Viricon the Old and The Place Where the Roads Meet.

He had found no rest in music, which he loved, and now he found none on the pink sand.

For a while he walked the tideline, examining the objects cast up by the sea: paying particular attention to a smooth stone here, a translucent spiny shell there, picking up a bottle the colour of his cloak, throwing down a branch whitened and peculiarly carved by the water. He watched the black gulls, but their cries depressed him. He listened to the cold wind in the rowan woods around his tower, and he shivered. Over the pounding of the high tide, he heard the dull concussions of falling Viriconium. And even when he stood in the surf, feeling its sharp acid sting on his cheek, lost in its thunder, he imagined it was possible to hear the riots in the pastel streets, the warring factions, and voices crying for Young Queen, Old Queen.

He settled his russet shovel hat more firmly; crossed the dunes, his feet slipping in the treacherous sand; and found the white stone path through the rowans to his tower, which also had no name: though it was called by some after the stretch of seaboard on which it stood, that is, Balmacara. Cromis knew where his heart and his sword lay-but he had thought that all finished with and he had looked forward to a comfortable life by the sea.

When the first of the refugees arrived, he knew who had won the city, or the shell of it that remained, but the circumstances of his learning gave him no pleasure.

It was before noon, and he had still not decided what to do.

He sat in his highest room (a circular place, small, the walls of which were lined with leather and shelves of books; musical and scientific objects, astrolabes and lutes, stood on its draped stone tables; it was here that he worked at his songs), playing softly an instrument that he had got under strange circumstances some time ago, in the East. Its strings were taut and harsh, and stung his finger ends; its tone was high and unpleasant and melancholy, but that was his mood. He played in a mode forgotten by all but himself and certain desert musicians, and his thoughts were not with the music.

From the curved window of the room he could see out over the rowans and the gnarled thorn to the road that ran from the unfortunate city to Duirinish in the Northeast. Viriconium itself was a smoke haze above the eastern horizon and an unpleasant vibration in the foundations of the tower. He saw a launch rise out of that haze, a speck like a trick of the eye.

It was well-known in the alleys of the city, and in remoter places, that, when tegeus-Cromis was nervous or debating within himself, his right hand strayed constantly to the pommel of his nameless sword: then was hardly the time to strike, and there was no other. He had never noticed it himself. He put down his instrument and went over to the window.

The launch gained height, gyring slowly, flew a short way north while Cromis strained his eyes, and then began to make directly toward Balmacara. For a little while, it appeared to be stationary, merely growing larger as it neared the tower.

When it came close enough to make out detail, Cromis saw that its faceted crystal hull had been blackened by fire, and that a great rift ran the full length of its starboard side. Its power plant (the secret of which, like many other things, had been lost a thousand years before the rise of Viriconium, so that Cromis and his contemporaries lived on the corpse of an ancient science, dependent on the enduring relics of a dead race) ran with a dreary insectile humming where it should have been silent. A pale halo of St. Elmo’s fire crackled from its bow to its stern, coruscating. Behind the shattered glass of its canopy, Cromis could see no pilot, and its flight was erratic: it yawed and pitched aimlessly, like a waterbird on a quiet current.

Cromis’s knuckles stood out white against the sweat-darkened leather of his sword hilt as the vehicle dived, spun wildly, and lost a hundred feet in less than a second. It scraped the tops of the rowans, shuddered like a dying animal, gained a few precious, hopeless feet. It ploughed into the wood, discharging enormous sparks, its motors wailing. A smell of ozone was in the air.

Before the wreckage had hit the ground, Cromis was out of the high room, and, cloak streaming about him, was descending the spiral staircase at the spine of the tower.

At first, he thought the entire wood had caught fire.

Strange, motionless pillars of flame sprang up before him, red and gold, and burnished copper. He thought, We are at the mercy of these old machines; we know so little of the forces that drive them. He threw up his arm to guard his face against the heat:

And realised that most of the flames he saw were merely autumn leaves, the wild colours of the dying year. Only two or three of the rowans were actually burning. They gave off a thick white smoke and a not-unpleasant smell. So many different kinds of fire, he thought. Then he ran on down the white stone path, berating himself for a fool.

Unknown to him, he had drawn his sword.

Having demolished a short lane through the rowans, the launch lay like an immense split fruit, the original rent in its side now a gaping black hole through which he could discern odd glimmers of light. It was as long as his tower was tall. It seemed unaffected by its own discharges, as if the webs of force that latticed the crystal shell were of a different order than that of heat; something cold, but altogether powerful. Energy drained from it, and the discharges became fewer. The lights inside its ruptured hull danced and changed position, like fireflies of an uncustomary colour.

No man could have lived through that, Cromis thought. He choked on the rowan smoke.

He had begun to turn sadly away when a figure staggered out of the wreckage toward him, swaying.

The survivor was dressed in charred rags, his face blackened by beard and grime. His eyes shone startlingly white from shadowed pits, and his right arm was a bloody, bandaged stump. He gazed about him, regarding the burning rowans with fear and bemusement: he, too, seemed to see the whole wood as a furnace. He looked directly at Cromis.

“Help!” he cried. “Help!”

He shuddered, stumbled, and fell. A bough dropped from one of the blazing trees. Fire licked at the still body.

Cromis hurled himself forward, hacking a path through the burning foliage with his sword. Cinders settled on his cloak, and the air was hot. Reaching the motionless body, he sheathed the blade, hung the man over his shoulders like a yoke, and started away from the crippled launch. There was an unpleasant, exposed sensation crawling somewhere in the back of his skull. He had made a hundred yards, his breath coming hard as the unaccustomed exertion began to tell, when the vehicle exploded. A great soundless gout of white cold fire, locked in the core of the launch by a vanished art, dissipated itself as pure light, a millennium after its confinement.

It did him no harm: or none that he could recognise.

As he reached the gates of Balmacara, something detached itself from the raggy clothing of the survivor and fell to the ground: a drawstring pouch of goat shagreen, full of coin. Possibly, in some dream, he heard the thud and ring of his portion of the fallen city. He shifted and moaned. There was at least one more bag of metal on him; it rattled dully as he moved. tegeus-Cromis curled his upper lip. He had wondered why the man was so heavy.

Once inside the tower, he recovered quickly. Cromis ministered to him in one of the lower rooms, giving him stimulants and changing the blood-stiffened bandage on the severed arm, which had been cauterised negligently and was beginning to weep a clear, unhealthy fluid. The room, which was hung with weapons and curiosities of old campaigns, began to smell of burned cloth and pungent drugs.

The survivor woke, flinched when he saw Cromis, his remaining hand clawing at the blue embroidered silks of the wall-bed on which he lay. He was a heavy-boned man of medium height, and seemed to be of the lower merchant classes, a vendor of wine, perhaps, or women. The pupils of his black eyes were dilated, their whites large and veined with red. He seemed to relax a little. Cromis took his shoulders, and, as gently as he was able, pressed him down.

“Rest yourself,” he told him. “You are in the tower of tegeus-Cromis, that some men call Balmacara. I must know your name if we are to talk.”

The black eyes flickered warily round the walls. They touched briefly on a powered battle-axe that Cromis had got from his friend Tomb the Dwarf after the sea fight at Mingulay in the Rivermouth campaign; moved to the gaudy green-and-gold standard of Thorisman Carlemaker, whom Cromis had defeated single-handed-and with regret, since he had no quarrel with the fine rogue-in the Mountains of Monadliath; came finally to rest on the hilt of the intangible-bladed baan that had accidentally killed Cromis’s sister Galen. He looked from that to Cromis.

“I am Ronoan Mor, a merchant.” There was open suspicion in his eyes and in his voice. He fumbled beneath his clothing. “You have strange tastes,” he said, nodding at the relics on the wall. Cromis, noting the fumbling hand, smiled.

“Your coin fell as I carried you from your launch, Ronoan Mor.” He pointed to where the three purses lay on an inlaid table. “You will find that all of it is present. How are things in the Pastel City?”

It could not have been the money that worried Ronoan Mor, for the wariness did not leave his face. And that was a surprising thing. He bared his teeth.

“Hard,” he muttered, gazing bitterly at his severed limb. He hawked deep in his throat, and might have spat had there been a receptacle. “The young bitch holds steady, and we were routed. But-”

There was such a look of fanaticism in his eyes that Cromis’s hand, of its own accord, began to caress the pommel of the nameless sword. He was more puzzled than angered by Mor’s insult to the Young Queen. If a man normally given to dreaming of bargain prices and a comfortable retirement (if of anything at all) could show this measure of devotion to a political cause, then things were truly out of joint in the land. Immediately, he found himself thinking: And did you need to know that, Sir Cromis? Is it not enough that the Pastel Towers shudder and fall overnight? There must be further proof?

But he smiled and interrupted Mor, saying softly, “That is not so hard, sir.”

For a moment, the survivor went on as if he had not heard:

“-But she cannot hold for long when Canna Moidart’s Northern allies join with those patriots left in the city-”

There was a feverish, canting tone in his voice, as though he repeated a creed. Sweat broke out on his brow, and spittle appeared on his lips. “Aye, we’ll have her then, for sure! And caught between two blades-”

He held his tongue and studied Cromis closely, squinting. Cromis stared levelly back, endeavouring not to show how this intelligence affected him. Mor clawed himself into a sitting position, trembling with the effort.

“Wise to reveal yourself, tegeus-Cromis!” he cried suddenly, like an orator who singles one man from a crowd of rustics. “Where does your service lie?”

“You tire yourself needlessly,” murmured Cromis. “It matters little to me,” he lied, “for, as you see, I am a recluse. But I admit myself interested in this tale of the Old Queen and her Northern cousins. She has a large following, you say?”

As if in answer, Ronoan Mor’s good hand fumbled in his clothing again. And this time, it drew forth a twelve-inch sliver of flickering green light that hissed and crackled:

A baan.

He drew back his lips, held the ancient weapon stiffly before him (all men fear them, even their users), and snarled, “Large enough for you, sir. You see”-he glanced sideways at the trophies on the wall-“others may hold forceblades. Northerners, they tell me, have many such. With whom does your service lie, tegeus-Cromis?” He twitched the baan so it sparked and spat. “ Tell me! Your evasions weary me-”

Cromis felt perspiration trickling under his armpits. He was no coward, but he had been long away from violence; and though the baan was in poor condition, the energies that formed its blade running low, it would still slice steel, make play of bone and butter of flesh.

“I would remind you, Ronoan Mor,” he said quietly, “that you are ill. Your arm. Fever makes you hasty. I have given you succour-”

“This to your succour!” shouted Mor, and spat. “Tell me, or I’ll open you from crutch to collarbone.”

The baan flickered like an electric snake.

“You are a fool, Ronoan Mor. Only a fool insults a man’s queen under that man’s hospitable roof.”

Mor flung his head back and howled like a beast.

He lunged blindly.

Cromis whirled, tangled his cloak about hand and baan. As the blade cut free, he crouched, rolled, changed direction, rolled again, so that his body became a blur of motion on the stone-flagged floor. The nameless sword slid from its sheath, and he was tegeus-Cromis the Northkiller once again, Companion of the Order of Methven and Bane of Carlemaker.

Confused, Mor backed up against the head of the bed, his slitted eyes fixed on the crouching swordsman. He was breathing heavily.

“Forget it, man!” said Cromis. “I will accept your apologies. Your illness wears you. I have no use for this foolishness. The Methven do not slaughter merchants.”

Mor threw the forceblade at him. tegeus-Cromis, who had thought never to fight again, laughed.

As the baan buried itself in the trophy wall, he sprang forward, so that his whole long body followed the line of the nameless sword.

A choked cry, and Ronoan Mor was dead. tegeus-Cromis, who fancied himself a better poet than armsman, stood over the corpse, watched sadly the blood well onto the blue silk bed, and cursed himself for lack of mercy.

“I stand for Queen Jane, merchant,” he said. “As I stood for her father. It is that simple.”

He wiped the blade of the sword with no name and went to prepare himself for a journey to the Pastel City, no longer plagued by dreams of a quiet life.

Before he left, another thing happened, a welcome thing.

He did not expect to see his tower again. In his skull, there was a premonition: Canna Moidart and her true kinsmen burned down from the voracious North with wild eyes and the old weapons, come to extract vengeance from the city and empire that had ousted them a century since. The savage blood ran true: though Canna Moidart was of Methven’s line, being the daughter of his brother Methvel, old quarrels ran in her veins from her mother Balquhider’s side, and she had expected the sovereignty on the death of her uncle. Viriconium had grown fat and mercantile while Methven grew old and Moidart fermented discontent in kingdom and city. And the wolves of the North had sharpened their teeth on their grievances.

He did not expect to see Balmacara again: so he stood in his topmost room and chose an instrument to take with him. Though the land go down into death and misrule, and tegeus-Cromis of the nameless sword with it, there should be some poetry before the end.

The fire in the rowan wood had died. Of the crystal launch, nothing remained but a charred glade an acre across. The road wound away to Viriconium. Some measure of order had prevailed there, for the smoke haze had left the horizon and the foundations of the tower no longer trembled. He hoped fervently that Queen Jane still prevailed, and that the calm was not that of a spent city, close to death.

Along the road, grey dust billowing about them, rode some thirty or forty horsemen, heading for Balmacara.

He could not see their standard, but he put down the gourd-shaped instrument from the East and went to welcome them; whether with words or with his blade, he did not much care.

He was early at the gates. Empty yet, the road ran into the rowans, to curve sharply and disappear from sight. A black bird skittered through the leaves, sounding its alarm call; sat on a branch and regarded him suspiciously from beady, old man’s eyes. The sound of hooves drew nearer.

Mounted on a pink roan mare fully nineteen hands high and caparisoned in bright yellow, the first horseman came into view.

He was a massive man, heavy in the shoulders and heavier in the hips, with thin, long blond hair that curled anarchically about a jowled and bearded face. He wore orange breeches tucked into oxblood boots, and a violet shirt, the sleeves of which were slashed and scolloped.

On his head was a floppy-brimmed rustic hat of dark brown felt, which the wind constantly threatened to take from him.

He was roaring out a Duirinish ballad which enumerated the hours of the clock as chimed inside a brothel.

Cromis’s shout of greeting drove the black bird entirely away.

He ran forward, sheathing his sword and crying, “Grif! Grif!”

Grif gathered up the reins beneath the roan mare’s bit, hauled her to a halt, and pounded one of the oxblood boots with the heel of his hand.

“Grif, I had not thought to see you again! I had not thought any of us were left!”

2

“No, Cromis, there are a few left. Had you not gone to earth after your sister Galen’s accident, and then crept secretly back to this empty place, you would have seen that Methven made due provision for the Order: he did not intend it to die with his own death. A few left, but truthfully a few, and those scattered.”

They sat in the high room, Birkin Grif sprawled with a mug of distilled wine, his boots on a priceless onyx table, while Cromis plucked halfheartedly at the eastern gourd or paced restlessly the floor. The chink of metal on metal filtered from the courtyard far beneath, where Grif’s men prepared a meal, watered their horses. It was late afternoon, the wind had dropped, and the rowans were still.

“Do you know then of Norvin Trinor, or of Tomb the Dwarf?” asked Cromis.

“Ho! Who knows of Tomb even when the times are uncomplicated? He searches for old machines in deserts of rust, no doubt. He lives, I am sure, and will appear like a bad omen in due course. As for Trinor, I had hoped you would know: Viriconium was always his city, and you live quite close.”

Cromis avoided the big man’s eyes.

“Since the deaths of Galen and Methven, I have seen no one. I have been… I have been solitary, and hoped to remain so. Have some more wine.”

He filled Grif’s cup.

“You are a brooder,” said Grif, “and someday you will hatch eggs.” He laughed. He choked on his drink. “What is your appraisal of the situation?”

Away from thoughts of Galen, Cromis felt on firmer ground.

“You know that there were riots in the city, and that the Queen held her ground against Canna Moidart’s insurgents?”

“Aye. I expect to break the heads of malcontents. We were on our way to do that when we noticed the smoke about your tower. You’ll join us, of course?”

Cromis shook his head.

“A cordial invitation to a skull-splitting, but there are other considerations,” he said. “I received intelligence this morning that the Moidart rides from the North. Having sown her seeds, she comes harvesting. She brings an army of Northmen, headed by her mother’s kin, and you know that brood have angered themselves since Borring dispossessed them and took the land for Viricon. Presumably, she gathers support on the way.”

Birkin Grif heaved himself from his chair. He stamped over to the window and looked down at his men, his breath wheezing. He turned to Cromis, and his heavy face was dark.

“Then we had better to ride, and swiftly. This is a bad thing. How far has the Moidart progressed? Has the Young Queen marshalled her forces?”

Cromis shrugged.

“You forget, my friend. I have been a recluse, preferring poetry to courts and swords. My… informant… told me nothing but what I have told you. He died a little later. He was in some part responsible for the smoke you saw.” He poured himself a mug of wine, and went on:

“What I counsel is this: that you should take your company and go north, taking the fastest route and travelling lightly. Should the Queen have prepared an army, you will doubtless overhaul it before any significant confrontation. Unless a Methven be already in charge of it, you must offer (offer only: people forget, and we have not the King to back us anymore) your generalship.

“If there is no army, or if a Methven commands, then lead your men as a raiding force: locate the Moidart and harry her flanks.”

Grif laughed. “Aye, prick her. I have the skill for that, all right. And my men, too.” He became serious. “But it will take time, weeks possibly, for me to reach her. Unless she already knocks at the door.”

“I think not. That must be your course, however long. Travelling by the canny routes, news of her coming would be a full three weeks ahead of her. An army cannot take the hill ways. With speed, we can hope to engage her well before she reaches Viriconium.”

“What of yourself, in these weeks we scatter like minutes?”

“Today, I leave for the city. There I will arrange the backing of Queen Jane for the Methven and also seek Trinor, for he would be an asset. If an army has been sent (and I cannot think the queen as ill-informed as I: there must be one), I will join you, probably at Duirinish, bringing any help I can.”

“Fair enough, Cromis. You will need a couple of men in the unquiet city. I’ll detail-”

Cromis held up his hand.

“I’ll ride alone, Grif. Am I hard-pressed, it will be useful practice. I have grown out of the way of fighting.”

“Always the brooder.” Grif returned to the window and bawled down into the courtyard, “Go to sleep, you skulkers! Three hours, and we ride north!”

Grif had not changed. However he lived, he lived it full. Cromis stood by him at the window and clapped his meaty shoulder.

“Tell me, Grif: what has been your business all these years?”

Grif bellowed with laughter, which seemed to infect his men. They milled about the courtyard, laughing too, although they could not have heard the question.

“Something as befits a Methven in peacetime, brooder. Or as you may have it, nothing as befits a Methven at any time. I have been smuggling distilled wine of low and horrible quality to peasants in the Cladich Marshes, whose religion forbids them drink it…”

Cromis watched Grif’s ragged crew disappear into the darkness at a stiff pace, their cloaks flapping out behind them. He waved once to the colourful figure of Grif himself, then turned to his horse, which was breathing mist into the cold night. He checked the girth and saddlebags, settled the Eastern instrument across his back. He shortened his stirrups for swift riding.

With the coming of darkness, the winds had returned to Balmacara: the rowans shook continuously, hissing and rustling; Cromis’s shoulder-length black hair was blown about his face. He looked back at the tower, bulking dark against the cobalt sky. The surf growled behind it. Out of some strange sentiment, he had left the light burning in the upper room.

But the baan that had killed his sister he had in an insulated sheath next to his skin, because he knew he would not come again, riding to the light out of battle, to Balmacara in the morning.

Refugees packed the Viriconium road like a torchlit procession in some lower gallery of Hell. Cromis steered his nervous beast at speed past caravans of old men pushing carts laden with clanking domestic implements and files of women carrying or leading young children. House animals scuttled between the wheels of the carts.

The faces he passed were blank and frightened, overlit and gleaming in the flaring unsteady light of the torches. Some of them turned from him, surreptitiously making religious signs (a brief writhe of the fingers for Borring, whom some regarded as a god, a complicated motion of the head for the Colpy). He was at a loss to account for this. He thought that they were the timid and uncommitted of the city, driven away by fear of the clashing factions, holding no brief for either side.

He entered the city by its twelfth gate, the Gate of Nigg, and there was no gatekeeper to issue even the customary token challenge.

His habitually morose mood shifted to the sombre as he took the great radial road Proton Circuit, paved with an ancient resilient material that absorbed the sound of his horse’s hooves.

About him rose the Pastel Towers, tall and gracefully shaped to mathematical curves, tinted pale blue or fuchsia or dove-grey. They reached up for hundreds of feet, cut with quaint and complex designs that some said were the high point of an inimitable art, thought by others to be representations of the actual geometrics of Time.

Several of them were scarred and blackened by fire. Some were gutted and broken.

Seeing so much beauty brought down in this way, he was convinced that a change had come about in the essential nature of things, and that they could never be the same again.

Proton Circuit became a spiral that wound a hundred yards into the air, supported by slim and delicate pillars of black stone. At the summit of the spiral lay the palace of the Young Queen, which had been Methven’s hall. A smaller building than most in that city, it was shaped like a filigree shell, built entirely of a pure white metal that vibrated and sang. Before its high bright arch stood guards in charcoal livery, who made stringent demands on him to reveal his identity and business.

They found it difficult to believe him a Methven (memories had indeed grown dim, for their chief objection to his claim was that he came with no ceremony or circumstance) and for some time refused him entrance: a circumspection he could only applaud.

He remembered certain pass words known only to the guards of the city.

He made his way along corridors of pale, fluctuating light, passing strange, precious objects that might have been animated sculptures or machines, excavated from ruined cities in the Rust Desert beyond Duirinish.

Queen Jane awaited him in a tall room floored with cinnabar-veined crystal and having five false windows that showed landscapes to be found nowhere in the kingdom.

Shambling slowly among the curtains of light and finely wrought furniture was one of the giant albino megatheria of the Southern forests: great sloth-like beasts, fifteen feet high when they stood upright (which was rarely) and armed with terrible cutting claws, though they were vegetarian and amiable. The Queen’s beast wore an iridium collar, and its claws were sheathed in clear thick resin. Seeing Cromis, it ambled up to him in a sleepy manner, and gazed myopically at him. Patterns of light moved across its shining pelt.

“Leave him, Usheen,” said a small, musical voice.

Cromis turned his eyes from the megatherium to the dais at the south end of the room.

Queen Jane of Viriconium, Methvet Nian, whom he had last seen as a child at Methven’s court, was seventeen years of age. She sat on a simple throne and regarded him steadily with violet eyes. She was tall and supple, clad in a gown of russet velvet, and her skin was neither painted nor jewelled. The identical Ten Rings of Neap glittered from her long fingers. Her hair, which recalled the colour of the autumn rowans of Balmacara, hung in soft waves to her waist, coiled about her breasts.

“Queen Jane,” said Cromis and bowed.

She buried her fingers in the thick fur of the megatherium, and whispered to it. The false windows flickered with strange scenes. She looked up.

“Is it really you, Lord Cromis?” she said, a strange expression crossing her pale triangular features.

“Have I changed so much, madam?”

“Not much, Lord Cromis: you were a stiff and sombre man, even when you sang, and you are that still. But I was very young when we last met-”

Suddenly, she laughed, rose from the throne, and came gracefully down to take his hands. Cromis saw that her eyes were moist.

“-And I think I preferred Tomb the Dwarf in those days,” she went on, “for he brought me the most wonderful things from his favourite ruins. Or Grif, perhaps, who told questionable tales and laughed a good deal-”

She drew him through the shifting light sculptures to the dais, and made him sit down. The megatherium came to gaze wisely at him from brown, tranquil eyes. Methvet Nian sat on her simple throne, and the laughter left her.

“Oh, Cromis, why have none of you come before? These ten years, I have had need of your support. How many live? I have seen none of you since my father’s death.”

“Grif lives, madam, for sure. Hours ago, he rode north at my request. He believes that Tomb and Trinor live also. Of the others I have heard nothing. We have come late to this, but you must not think too ill of us. I have come to discover just how late we are. What have been your moves to date?”

She shook her head musingly, so that her bright hair caught the light and moved like a fire.

“Two only, Cromis: I have held the city, though it has suffered; and I have dispatched Lord Waterbeck-who, though well-schooled, has not the strategies of one such as Norvin Trinor-with four regiments. We hope to engage my cousin before she reaches the Rust Desert.”

“How long has Waterbeck been gone?”

“A week only. The launch fliers tell me he must reach her within another week and a half, for she travels surprisingly fast. Few of them have returned of late: they report launches destroyed in flight by energy weapons, and their numbers are depleted.

“Our lines of communication grow thin, Cromis. It will be a Dark Age, should our last machines go down.”

Again, she took his hand, silently drawing strength from him, and he knew that her young frame was frail for such weight of responsibility. He blamed himself, because that was his way.

“Cromis, can you do anything?”

“I start immediately,” he said, trying to smile and finding the requisite muscles stiff from disuse. He gently disengaged her hands, for their cool touch had disturbed him.

“First I must locate Trinor, who may be somewhere in the city; although if that is so, I cannot say why he has not come to you before now. Then it will take me only a short time to come up with Grif, since I can take paths impassible to more than one rider.

“What I must have from you, my lady, is an authorisation. Trinor or Grif must command that army when it meets the Moidart, or failing one of them, myself-this Waterbeck is a peacetime general, I would guess, and has not the experience of a Methven.

“You must not fear too greatly. Can it be done, we will do it, and fall bringing a victory about. Keep order here and faith with what Methven remain, even though we have not used you well.”

She smiled, and the smile passed barriers he had not thought existed in his morose soul. She took off one of the steel Rings of Neap and slid it onto his left index finger, which was hardly of greater diameter than her own, saying:

“This will be your authorisation. It is traditional. Will you take a launch? They are swifter-”

He rose to leave, and found himself reluctant.

“No launch, my lady. Those, you must keep jealously, in case we fail. And I prefer to ride.”

At the door of the room with five windows, he looked back through the drifting shapes and curtains of light, and it seemed to him that he saw a lost, beautiful child. She brought to mind his dead sister Galen, and he was not surprised: what shook him was that those memories somehow lacked the force they had had that morning. Cromis was a man who, like most recluses, thought he understood himself, and did not.

The great white sloth watched him out with almost human eyes, rearing up to its full height, its ambered claws glinting.

He stayed in the city for that night and another day. It was quiet, the streets empty and stunned. He had snippets of rumour that the Moidart’s remaining supporters skulked the narrower alleys after dark and skirmished with groups of the city guard. He did not discount them, and kept a hand on the nameless sword. He expected to find Trinor somewhere in the old Artists’ Quarter.

He enquired at several taverns there, but had no information. He grew progressively more impatient, and would have given up had not a derelict poet he met in the Bistro Californium advised him to take his queries to an address on Bread Street in the poorer part of the quarter. It was said that blind Kristodulous had once rented a garret studio there.

He came to Bread Street at twilight. It was far removed from the palace and the Pastel Towers, a mean alley of aging, ugly houses, down which the wind funneled bitterly. Over the crazed rooftops, the sky bled. He shivered and thought of the Moidart, and the note of the wind became more urgent. He drew his cloak about him and rapped with the hilt of his sword on a weathered door.

He did not recognise the woman who opened it: perhaps the light was at fault.

She was tall, statuesque, and graceful; her narrow face had an air of calm and the self-knowledge that may or may not come with suffering. But her blue robe was faded, patched here and there with material of quite another colour, and her eyes were ringed with tired, lined flesh. He bowed out of courtesy.

“I seek Norvin Trinor,” he said, “or news of him.”

She peered into his face as if her eyes were weak, and said nothing. She stepped aside and motioned him to enter. He thought that a quiet, sad smile played about her firm mouth.

Inside, the house was dusty and dim, the furniture of rough, scrubbed deal. She offered him cheap, artificially coloured wine. They sat on opposite sides of a table and a silence. He looked from her discoloured fingernails to the cobwebs in the windows, and said:

“I do not know you, madam. If you would be-”

Her weary eyes met his and still he did not know her. She got slowly to her feet and lit a squat hanging lamp.

“I am sorry, tegeus-Cromis. I should not have embarrassed you in this fashion. Norvin is not here. I-”

In the lamplight stood Carron Ban, the wife of Norvin Trinor, whom he had married after the fight against Carlemaker’s brigands, twelve years before. Time had gone against her, and she had aged beyond her years.

Cromis upset his chair as he got to his feet, sent it clattering across the floor. It was not the change in her that horrified him, but the poverty that had caused it.

“Carron! Carron! I did not know. What has happened here?”

She smiled, bitter as the wind.

“Norvin Trinor has been gone for nearly a year,” she said. “You must not worry on my behalf. Sit down and drink the wine.”

She moved away, avoiding his gaze, and stood looking into the darkness of Bread Street. Under the faded robe, her shoulders shook. Cromis came to her and put his hand on her arm.

“You should tell me,” he said gently. “Come and tell me.”

But she shrugged off the hand.

“Nothing to tell, my lord. He left no word. He seemed to have grown weary of the city, of me-”

“But Trinor would not merely have abandoned you! It is cruel of you to suggest such-”

She turned to face him and there was anger in her eyes.

“It was cruel of him to do it, Lord Cromis. I have heard nothing from him for a year. And now-now I wish to hear nothing of him. That is all finished, like many things that have not outlasted King Methven.”

She walked to the door.

“If you would leave me, I would be pleased. Understand that I have nothing against you, Cromis; I should not have done this to you; but you bring memories I would rather not acknowledge.”

“Lady, I-”

“Please go.”

There was a terrible patience in her voice, in the set of her shoulders. She was brought down, and saw only that she would remain so. Cromis could not deny her. Her condition was painful to them both. That a Methven should cause such misery was hard to credit-that it should be Norvin Trinor was unbelievable. He halted at the door.

“If there is help you require-I have money-And the Queen-”

She shook her head brusquely.

“I shall travel to my family in the South. I want nothing from this city or its empire.” Her eyes softened. “I am sorry, tegeus-Cromis. You have meant nothing but good. I suggest you look for him in the North. That is the way he went.

“But I would have you remember this: he is not the friend you know. Something changed him after the death of Methven. He is not the man you knew.”

“Should I find him-”

“I would have you carry no message. Goodbye.”

She closed the door, and he was alone on that mean street with the wind. The night had closed in.

3

That night, haunted by three women and a grim future, Cromis of the nameless sword, who thought himself a better poet than fighter, left the Pastel City by one of its northern gates, his horse’s hooves quiet on the ancient paving. No one hindered him.

Though he went prepared, he wore no armour save a mail shirt, lacquered black as his short cloak and leather breeches. It was the way of many of the Methven, who had found armour an encumbrance and no protection against energy blades. He had no helmet, and his black hair streamed in the wind. The baan was at his belt and his curious Eastern instrument across his back.

In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull. He thought a good deal of the strange actions of Norvin Trinor, but achieved no conclusions.

He went in this fashion for three days, and one thing happened to him while he traversed the summit of the Cruachan Ridge.

He had reached the third cairn on the ridge when a mist descended. Aware of the insecurity of the path in various places ahead, and noting that his beast was already prone to stumble on the loose, lichen-stained rock, he halted. The wind had dropped, and the silence made a peculiar ringing noise in his ears. It was comfortless and alien up there, impassable when the snow came, as were the lower valleys. He understood the Moidart’s haste.

He found the cairn to be the tumbled ruins of an old four-faced tower constructed of a grey rock quite different from that beneath his feet. Three walls remained, and part of a ceiling. It had no windows. He could not guess its intended purpose, or why it was not built of native stone. It stood enigmatically among its own rubble, an eroded stub, and he wondered at the effort needed to transport its stones to such a height.

Inside, there were signs that other travellers of the Cruachan had been overtaken by the mist: several long-dead fires, the bare bones of small animals.

He tethered his horse, which had begun to shiver, fed it, and threw a light blanket over its hindquarters against the chill. He kindled a small fire and prepared a meal, then sat down to wait out the mist, taking up the Eastern gourd and composing to its eery metallic tones a chanted lament. The mist coiled around him, sent cold, probing fingers into his meagre shelter. His words fell into the silence like stones into the absolute abyss:

“Strong visions: I have strong visions of this place in the empty times… Far below there are wavering pines… I left the rowan elphin woods to fulminate on ancient headlands, dipping slowly into the glasen seas of evening… On the devastated peaks of hills we ease the barrenness into our thin bones like a foot into a tight shoe… The narrative of this place: other than the smashed arris of the ridge there are only sad winds and silences… I lay on the cairn one more rock… I am possessed by Time…”

He put the instrument away from him, disturbed by the echoes of his own voice. His horse shifted its feet uneasily. The mist wove subtle shapes, caught by a sudden faint breath of wind.

“tegeus-Cromis, tegeus-Cromis,” said a reedy voice close at hand.

He leapt to his feet, the baan spitting and flickering in his left hand, the nameless sword greasing out of its dull sheath, his stance canny and murderous.

“There is a message for you.”

He could see nothing. There was nothing but the mist. The horse skittered and plunged, snorting. The forceblade fizzed in the damp atmosphere.

“Come out!” he shouted, and the Cruachan echoed, out! out! out!

“There is a message,” repeated the voice.

He put his back against a worn wall and moved his head in a careful semicircle, on the hunt. His breath came harsh. The fire blazed up red in the grey, unquiet vapours.

Perched on the rubble before him, its wicked head and bent neck underlit by the flames, was a bearded vulture-one of the huge, predatory lammergeyers of the lower slopes. In that gloom, it resembled a hunch-backed and spiteful old man. It spread and cupped a broad wing, fanning the fire, to preen its underfeathers. There was a strange sheen to its plumage; it caught the light in a way feathers do not.

It turned a small crimson eye on him. “The message is as follows,” it said. Unlimbering both wings, it flapped noisily across the ruined room in its own wind, to perch on the wall by his head. His horse sidestepped nervously, tried to pull free from its tether, eyes white and rolling at the dark, powerful wings.

Cromis stood back warily, raised his sword. The lammergeyers were strong, and said by the herders of Monar to prefer children to lambs.

“If you will allow me:

“ tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium, which I take to be yourself, since you tally broadly with the description given, should go at once to the tower of Cellur. ” Here, it flexed its cruel claws on the cold grey stone, cocked its head, ruffled its feathers. “Which he will find on the Girvan Bay in the South, a little east of Lendalfoot. Further-”

Cromis felt unreal: the mist curled, the lammergeyer spoke, and he was fascinated. On Cruachan Ridge he might have been out of Time, lost, but was much concerned with the essential nature of things, and he kept his sword raised. He would have queried the bird, but it went on:

“-Further, he is advised to let nothing hinder that journey, however pressingit may seem: for things hang in a fine balance, and more is at stake than the fate of a minor empire.

“ This comes from Cellur of Girvan. That is the message.”

Who Cellur of Girvan might be, or what intelligence he might have that overshadowed the fall of Viriconium (or, indeed, how he had taught a vulture to recognise a man he never could have met), Cromis did not know. He waited his time, and touched the neck of his horse to calm it.

“Should you feel you must follow another course, I am instructed to emphasise the urgency of the matter, and to stay with you until such time as you decide to make the journey to Lendalfoot and Girvan. At intervals, I shall repeat the message, in case it should become obscured by circumstance.

“Meanwhile, there may be questions you wish to ask. I have been provided with an excellent vocabulary.”

With a taloned foot, it scratched the feathers behind its head, and seemed to pay no more attention to him. He sheathed his sword, seeing no threat. His beast had quietened, so he walked back to the fire. The lammergeyer followed. He looked into its glittering eyes.

“What are you?” he asked.

“I am a Messenger of Cellur.”

“Who is he?”

“I have not been instructed in the description of him.”

“What is his purpose?”

“I have not been instructed in the description of that.”

“What is the exact nature of the threat perceived by him?”

“He fears the geteit chemosit.”

The mist did not lift that day or that night. Though Cromis spent much of this time questioning the bird, he learned little; its answers were evasive and he could get nothing more from it than that unpleasant name.

The morning came grey and overcast, windy and sodden and damp. The sister ridges of the Cruachan stretched away east and west like the ribs of a gigantic animal. They left the third cairn together, the bird wheeling and gyring high above him on the termagant air currents of the mountains, or coming to perch on the arch of his saddle. He was forced to warn it against the latter, for it upset the horse.

When the sun broke through, he saw that it was a bird of metal: every feather, from the long, tapering pinions of the great wide wings to the down on its hunched shoulders, had been stamped or beaten from wafer-thin iridium. It gleamed, and a very faint humming came from it. He grew used to it, and found that it could talk on many diverse subjects.

On his fifth day out of the Pastel City, he came in sight of Duirinish and the Rust Desert.

He came down the steep Lagach Fell to the source of the River Minfolin in High Leedale, a loamy valley two thousand feet up in the hills. He drank from the small, stone-ringed spring, listening to the whisper of the wind in the tall reed grasses, then sought the crooked track from the valley down the slopes of Mam Sodhail to the city. The Minfolin chattered beside him as he went, growing stronger as it rushed over falls and rapids.

Low Leedale spread before him as he descended the last few hundred feet of Sodhail: a sweep of purple and brown and green quartered by grey stone walls and dotted with herders’ crofts in which yellow lights were beginning to show. Through it ran the matured Minfolin, dark and slow; like a river of lead it flowed past the city at the north end of the valley, to lose and diffuse itself among the Metal-Salt Marshes on the verge of the Rust Desert: from there, it drained westward into the sea.

Sombre Duirinish, set between the stark hills and the Great Brown Waste, had something of the nature of both: a bleakness.

A walled city of flint and black granite, built twenty generations before against the threat of the Northern clans, it stood in a meander of the river, its cobbled roads inclining steeply among squat buildings to the central fastness, the castle within the city, Alves. Those walls that faced the Rust Desert rose vertically for two hundred feet, then sloped outwards. No welcome in Duirinish for Northern men. As Cromis reached the Low Leedale, the great Evening Bell was tolling the seventh change of guard on the north wall. A pale mist clung to the surface of the river fingering the walls as it flowed past.

Camped about a mile south of the city, by the stone bridge over the Minfolin, were Birkin Grif’s smugglers.

Their fires flared in the twilight, winking as the men moved between them. There was laughter and the unmusical clank of cooking utensils. They had set a watch at the centre of the bridge. Before attempting to cross, Cromis called the lammergeyer to him. Flapping out of the evening, it was a black cruciform silhouette on grey.

“Perch here,” he told it, extending his forearm in the manner of a falconer, “and make no sudden movement.”

His horse clattered over the bridge, steel striking sparks from flint. The bird was heavy on his arm, and its metal plumage glinted in the eastern afterglow. The guard gazed at it with wide eyes, but brought him without question to Grif, who was lounging in the firelight, chuckling to himself over some internal joke and eating raw calf’s liver, a delicacy of his.

“That sort of bird makes poor eating,” he said. “There must be more to this than meets the eye.”

Cromis dismounted and gave his horse into the care of the guard. His limbs were stiff from the fell journey, and the cooking smells of the encampment had made him aware of his hunger.

“Much more,” he said. He hefted the lammergeyer, as if to fly it from his arm. “Repeat your message,” he commanded it. Birkin Grif raised his eyebrows.

“tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium,” began the bird reedily, “should go at once to the tower of Cellur, which he will find-”

“Enough,” said Cromis. “Well, Grif?”

“A flock of these things has shadowed us for two days, flying high and circling. We brought one down, and it seemed to be made of metal, so we threw it in a river. A strange thing, that you might be good enough to tell me about while you eat.”

Cromis nodded. “They are unlikely to trouble you again,” he said. “Their purpose, apparently, has been fulfilled.”

He allowed the lammergeyer to flap from his arm, and, massaging the place where its talons had clung to him, sat down next to Grif. He accepted a cup of distilled wine, and let it heat his throat. The camp had become quieter, and he could hear the mournful soughing of the wind about the ridges and peaks of Monar. The Minfolin murmured around the piers of the bridge. He began to feel comfortable as the warmth of fire and wine seeped through him.

“However,” he said, “I should advise your men to shoot no more of them, should any appear. This Cellur may have odd means of redress.”

From a place beside the fire, the lammergeyer cocked its head, presenting to them a blank red eye.

“You did not find Trinor, then?” said Grif. “Can I tempt you with some of this?”

“Grif, I had forgot how revolting you are. Not unless you cook it first.”

Later, he showed Grif the Ring of Neap, and related how Methvet Nian had given it to him; told him of the events in Bread Street, and of the curious desertion of Carron Ban; and narrated his encounter with the lammergeyer in the Cruachan mist.

“And you have no desire to follow this bird?” asked Grif.

“Whatever Cellur of Lendalfoot may think, if Viricon goes down, everything else follows it. The defeat of the Moidart is my priority.”

“Things have grown dark and fragmented,” mused Grif. “We do not have all the pieces of the puzzle. I worry that we shall solve it too late for the answer to be of any use.”

“Still: we must go up against the Moidart, however unprepared, and even though that would seem not to be the whole of it.”

“Unquestionably,” said Grif. “But think, Cromis: if the fall of Viriconium is but a part, then what is the shape or dimension of the whole? I have had dreams of immense ancient forces moving in darkness, and I am beginning to feel afraid.”

The lammergeyer waddled forward from the fire, its wings opened a little way, and stared at the two men.

“Fear the geteit chemosit,” it said. “tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium should go at once to the tower of Cellur, which-”

“Go away and peck your feathers, bird,” said Grif. “Maybe you’ll find steel lice there.” To Cromis, he suggested: “If you have eaten enough, we’ll go into the town. A search of the taverns may yet bring Trinor to light.”

They walked the short distance to Duirinish by the banks of the Minfolin, each occupied by his own thoughts. A low white mist, hardly chest high, covered the Leedale, but the sky was clear and hard. The Name Stars burned with a chilly emerald fire: for millennia they had hung there, spelling two words in a forgotten language; now, only night-herders puzzled over their meaning.

At the steel gates, their way was barred by guards in mail shirts and low, conical helmets, who looked suspiciously at Grif’s gaudy clothes and the huge bird that perched on Cromis’s arm. Their officer stepped forward and said:

“No one enters the city after dark.” His face was lined with responsibility, his voice curt. “We are bothered constantly by Northmen and spies. You had best wait until the morning.” He studied Grif. “ If you have legitimate business.”

Birkin Grif stared unkindly at him, and then slowly up at the great black sweep of the walls. From far above came the faint ring of footsteps on stone.

“So,” he said. “It’s either climb that lot, or break your pompous face. The latter seems to me the easier.” He flexed his hands suggestively. “Let us in, stupid.”

“Hold off, Grif,” said Cromis, restraining him. “It’s a wise precaution. They are merely doing their job.” He held his hands well away from the hilt of the nameless sword and advanced. He slid the Ring of Neap from his finger and held it out for the officer’s inspection. “That is my authority. I will take responsibility for your opening the gate, should any question arise. I am on the Queen’s business.”

He took back the ring, returned the officer’s short bow, and they passed into the Stone City.

Inside, the roads were narrow, to facilitate defence, should the gate be taken or the outer walls breached. The gloomy granite buildings-for the main part barracks and weaponaries and storehouses-huddled together, their second storeys hanging out over the streets so that fire could be poured into an invader from above. Their windows were morose slits. Even in the commercial centre, where the houses of the metal and fur trade stood, the buildings had an air of dour watchfulness. Duirinish had never been a gay city.

“The army passed through here some days ago,” said Grif. “They must have had a fairly glum time of it.”

“More important,” Cromis told him, “is that they must be well on their way to Ruined Glenluce by now, even travelling by the old coastal road.”

“We’ll catch them by going directly north. Straight through the marshes, fast and light across the Rust Desert. Not a pleasant trip, but speedy.”

“If the Moidart catches them on that road before Glenluce, the fight will be over before we find it,” Cromis muttered, brooding on that thought.

They spent an hour travelling the narrow ways that spiralled up toward Alves, stopping at two inns. There, they found no sign of Norvin Trinor, and fellow customers tended to avoid Cromis and his bird. But in the Blue Metal Discovery, a place in the commercial quarter, they came upon another Methven.

A three-storey inn built for the convenience of the fatter merchant classes, the Blue Metal Discovery took up one entire side of Replica Square, less than a mile from Alves itself. Its facade was lit by soft and expensive blue lights salvaged many years before from the Rust Desert, and its windows were less forbidding than the majority in the town, having white ornamental iron shutters reminiscent of those found on dwellings in the warmer parts of the South.

By the time they came to Replica Square, Birkin Grif seemed to be having some trouble in placing his feet squarely on the cobbles. He walked very carefully, singing loudly and continuously a verse of some maudlin Cladich lament. Even to Cromis things looked a little less sombre. No change of mood was discernible in the bird.

The doors of the inn were wide open, spilling yellow light into the blue and a great racket into the quiet square. One or two customers emerged hurriedly from the place and walked off looking furtively behind them. Shouts mingled with the sound of moving furniture. Birkin Grif stopped singing and swaying and became quite still. A little introspective smile crossed his jowly features.

“That,” he said, “is a fight.” And he hurried off, his stride abruptly sure and steady.

He was halfway across the square before Cromis came up with him. They stood in the wash of light from the open door and gazed into a long room.

At its near end, behind a cluster of overturned trestle tables, huddled two potboys and some wan-looking customers, shifting their feet nervously in a mess of sawdust and spilt food. The innkeeper, plump, red-faced, and perspiring, had poked his head into the room through a serving hatch; he was banging a heavy metal mug repeatedly on its sill and shouting abuse at a group of figures in the centre of the room by the massive stone fireplace.

There were seven of them: five heavily built men with wiry black hair and beards, dressed in the brown leather leggings and coats of metal-scavengers; a serving girl in the blue shift of the house (she was crushed into the chimneybreast, her hand to her mouth, and her grimy face was fearful); and an old man in a ribbed and padded doublet of russet velvet.

All six men had drawn swords, and the greybeard, his whiskers wine-stained about the mouth, held also the wicked stump of a broken bottle. He was snarling, and they were advancing on him.

“Theomeris Glyn!” bellowed Grif. The metal-scavengers halted their confident advance and turned to stare warily at him. The landlord ceased his swearing, and his eyes bulged.

“You silly old goat! You should be passing your remaining years in decent contemplation, not bickering over dirty girls-”

Theomeris Glyn looked a little embarrassed. “Oh, hello,” he said. His grey eyes glittered shiftily above his hooked, red-veined nose. He peered at Grif. “I’m trying to catch up with the army,” he muttered defensively. “They left me behind.” His face brightened, thick white eyebrows shooting up into his tangled hair. “Heh, heh. Come and stamp some lice, eh, Grif? Now you’re here?”

He cackled, and feinted suddenly toward his nearest opponent with the broken bottle. Breath hissed and feet shuffled in the sawdust. Old he may have been, but he was still viperishly quick: bright blood showed where his sword had made the true stroke, and the man danced back, cursing.

His companions closed in.

Grif hurled himself ungracefully across the floor to forestall them, dragging at his sword. But Cromis held back, wondering what to do with the lammergeyer. It gazed beadily at him.

“To ensure your safety,” it said, “I suggest you leave here immediately. It is unwise to risk yourself in a minor combat. Cellur has need of you.”

Whereupon it launched itself from his arm, screaming and beating its great grey wings like a visitation from Hell. Astonished, he watched it tear with three-inch talons at a white and shouting face (this was too much for the fat innkeeper; wailing with horror as the bird tore at its victim, he slammed the serving hatch shut and fled). Cromis drew his sword, marked his man. He saw Grif wade in, cutting out right and left, but had no time to watch: a dull blade with a notched edge slashed in high at his skull.

He ducked, crouched, and thrust his sword up with both hands into his assailant’s groin. With a terrible cry, the man dropped his weapon and fell over backwards, clutching at himself.

Cromis jumped over his writhing body as a second scavenger came howling at him from behind. He landed in an acrobatic crouch, rolled away. The room became a tumbling blur full of screams and the beating of giant wings.

(In the fireplace, Theomeris Glyn was shoving his enemy’s head into the flames. He was a nasty old man. The fifth scavenger had backed up against the serving hatch, blood pouring down his face, and was pushing ineffectually at the screeching lammergeyer: Grif, who had already felled his first man, seemed to be trying to haul the bird off its prey so he could get in a clear swing.)

Cromis moved easily behind a wild stroke. “Stop now, and you go unharmed,” he panted. But his opponent spat, and engaged the nameless sword.

“I’ll stick yer!” he hissed.

Cromis slid his steel down the man’s blade, so that they locked hilts. His free hand went unseen beneath his cloak; then, deliberately releasing his pressure on the locked swords, he fell forward. For a moment, their bodies touched. He slid the baan into the scavenger’s heart, and let the body fall.

His knuckles had been cut and bruised as the swords disengaged; he licked them absently, staring at the corpse. A steel medallion showed at its throat. He felt a touch on his shoulder.

“That last was a pretty filthy trick,” said Grif, smiling a queer, strained smile. “You must teach me sometime.”

“You’re too heavy on your feet. And I’d rather teach you to sing. Look at this-”

He poked with the tip of his sword at the scavenger’s medallion. It glinted in the bright light. It was a coin, but not of Viriconium; in high relief, it bore the arms of Canna Moidart: wolf’s head beneath three towers.

“Already she prepares to rule,” said Cromis. “These were Northerners. We must leave at first light. I fear we shall arrive too late.”

As he spoke, shouting and commotion broke out again behind them.

In the fireplace, Theomeris Glyn of Soubridge, the old campaigner, was struggling with the serving girl. Her blue bodice had come awry, but she had placed four neat welts on his left cheek. Her small grubby fists hammered at him.

“A man who may not survive his queen’s wars needs a little affection!” he cried petulantly. “Oh, drat!”

Behind him stood the landlord, wringing greasy hands over the wreckage and demanding payment of his bony, oblivious shoulders.

Birkin Grif wheezed and chuckled. Cromis could raise only a thin, weary smile: he had been much disturbed by his discovery.

“Go and pull the old fool off her, Grif, and we’ll take him with us. At least he’ll see action again, for what it’s worth.”

Later, as they passed the gates of Duirinish, old Glyn dawdling drunkenly behind them, Grif said:

“She prepares her way to rule, as you say. Her confidence is immense. What can half a hundred brigands, a poet, and an ancient lecher do to flex a will such as that?”

4

Next morning, in the thin light of dawn, Grif’s company wound past the dark, watchful walls of the Stony City and into the North. River mist rose, fading up toward the sun in slender spires and pillars. Duirinish was silent but for the tramping of guards on the high battlements. A heron perched on a rotting log to watch as the tiny force forded the northern meander of the Minfolin. If it found them curious, it gave no sign, but flapped heavily away as the white spray flew from cantering hooves.

They had abandoned their ragged, weather-stained finery for makeshift war gear. Here and there, mail rings winked, and some of them wore odd bits of plate armour, but for the most part, it was steel-studded leather stuff. They were a grim, rough-handed crew, with wind-burnt faces and hard, hooded eyes; their speech was harsh, their laughter dangerous, but their weapons were bright and well-kept, and the coats of their mounts gleamed with health over hard muscle.

Birkin Grif rode with wry pride at their head.

His massive frame was clad in mail lacquered cobalt blue, and he wore over that a silk tabard of the same acid yellow as his mare’s caparisons. He had relinquished his rustic hat, and his mane of blond hair blew back in the light wind. At his side was a great broadsword with a silver-bound hilt; in a scabbard hanging from his saddlebow rested his long-axe, to hand in case he should be unhorsed. The roan mare arched her powerful neck, shook her big, beautiful head. Her bridle was of soft red leather with a subtle copper filigree inlaid.

To Cromis, riding beside him hunched against the chill on a sombre black gelding, wrapped in his dark cloak like a raven in its feathers, it seemed that Grif and his horse threw back the hesitant morning light like a challenge: for a moment, they were heraldic and invincible, the doom to which they travelled something beautiful and unguessed. But the emotion was brief and passed, and his moroseness returned.

At Birkin Grif’s left, his seat insecure on a scruffy packhorse, Theomeris Glyn, his only armour a steel-stressed leather cap, grumbled at the cold and the earliness of the hour, and cursed the flint hearts of city girls. And behind the three Methven, Grif’s men had begun to chant a rhythmic Rivermouth song of forgotten meaning, “The Dead Freight Dirge”:

Burn them up and sow them deep:

Oh, Drive them down;

Heavy weather in the Fleet:

Oh, Drive them down;

Oh, Sow them deep;

Withering wind and plodding feet:

Oh, Drive them down!

Its effect on Cromis was hypnotic: as the syllables rolled, he found himself sinking into a reverie of death and spoliation, haunted by grey, translucent images of a shattered Viriconium. The face of Methvet Nian hung before him, in the grip of some deep but undefinable sorrow. He knew he could not go to her. He was aware of the metal bird of Cellur, gyring and hovering high above him as he rode, the embodiment of a threat he could not name.

He was sinking deeper, like a man in a drug dream, when Grif reined in his mare and called his men to a halt.

“Here we leave the Old North Road,” he said. “There’s our way: direct but unpleasant.”

Before them, the road turned abruptly west and was lost to sight behind the black terminal massif of Low Leedale Edge; from there, it found its way to the coast and began the long journey north.

But straight ahead among the bracken and coarse grass at the mouth of the valley ran a narrow track. Fifty yards from the road, the heather failed, and the terrain became brown, faintly iridescent bog streaked with slicks of purple and oily yellow. Beyond that rose thickets of strangely shaped trees. The river meandered through it, slow and broad, flanked by dense reedbeds of a bright ochre colour. The wind blew from the north, carrying a bitter, metallic smell.

“The Metal-Salt Marshes,” murmured Grif. He pointed to the reedbeds by the Minfolin. “Even in winter the colours are weird. In summer, they bemuse the brain. The birds and insects there are peculiar, too.”

“Some might find it beautiful,” said Cromis; and he did.

Theomeris Glyn snorted. He pinched his beaky nose. “It stinks, ” he said. “I wish I hadn’t come. I am an old man and deserve better.”

Grif smiled.

“This is just the periphery, greybeard. Wait until we reach the interior, and the water thickets.”

Where the valley bracken petered out, a dyke had been sunk to prevent the herd animals of Low Leedale from wandering into the bog. It was deep and steep-sided, full of stagnant water over which lay a multicoloured film of scum. They crossed it by a gated wooden bridge, the hooves of their horses clattering hollowly. Above them, Cellur’s lammergeyer was a black speck in the pale blue unclouded sky.

In the water thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.

Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whose webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining, ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of April blue and chevrolet cerise.

Over everything hung the heavy, oppressive stench of rotting metal. After an hour, Cromis’s mouth was coated with a bitter deposit, and he tasted acids. He found it difficult to speak. While his horse stumbled and slithered beneath him, he gazed about in wonder, and poetry moved in his skull, swift as the jewelled mosquito hawks over a dark slow current of ancient decay.

Grif drove his men hard, aiming to traverse the marsh in three days, but their beasts were reluctant, confused by Prussian blue streams and fragile, organic pink sky. Some refused to move, bracing their legs and trembling, and had to be driven. They turned rolling white eyes on their owners, who cursed and sank to their boot-tops in the mud, releasing huge bubbles of acrid gas.

When they emerged from the trees for a short while at about noon, Cromis noticed that the true sky was full of racing, wind-torn grey clouds, and despite its exotic colours, the Metal-Salt Marsh was cold.

In the evening of the third day, they reached the shallow waters of Cobaltmere in the northern reaches of the marsh. They had lost two men and a horse to the shifting sands; a third man had died painfully after drinking from a deceptively clear pool, his limbs swelling up and turning silver-grey. They were tired and filthy, but pleased with the speed of their progress.

They made camp in a fairly dry clearing halfway round the waterlogged ambit of the mere. Far out on the water lay fawn mudbanks streaked with sudden yellow, and floating islands of matted vegetation on which water-birds cackled, ruffling their electric-blue feathers. As the day decayed, the colours were numbed: but in the funereal light of sunset, the water of Cobaltmere came alive with mile-long stains of cochineal and mazarine.

Cromis was woken some time before dawn by what he assumed to be the cold. A dim, disturbing phosphorescence of fluctuating colour hung over the mere and its environs; caused by some strange quality of the water there, it gave an even but wan light. There were no shadows. The dripping trees loomed vaguely at the periphery of the clearing.

When he found it impossible to sleep again, he moved nearer to the dead embers of the fire. He lay there uneasily, wrapped in blanket and cloak, his fingers laced beneath his head, staring up at the faint Name Stars.

About him humped the grey forms of sleeping men. Horses shifted drowsily behind him. A nocturnal mosquito hawk with huge obsidian globes for eyes hunted over the shallows, humming and snapping. He watched it for a moment, fascinated. He could hear the wheeze of Theomeris Glyn’s breathing, and the low sound of water draining through the reed clumps. Grif had set a guard on the clearing: he moved slowly round its edge and out of Cromis’s field of vision, blowing warmth into his cupped hands, his feet sinking with soft noises into the dank earth.

Cromis closed his eyes and wondered morosely if they would get clear of the marsh by the end of the next day. He discussed strategies suitable for the various areas in which they might meet the Moidart’s host. He thought of Methvet Nian as he had last seen her, in the room with five windows that showed landscapes to be found nowhere in the kingdom.

He was considering the fine, firm set of her mouth when he heard a faint sigh behind him: not close, and too low-pitched to wake a sleeping man, but of quite peculiar strength and urgency.

Calmly, waiting for a moment of fear to pass, he felt for the hilt of the nameless sword. Finding it, he rolled cautiously onto his stomach, making as little unneccessary movement as possible and breathing silently through his open mouth. This manoeuvre brought into view the semicircle of clearing previously invisible to him. Stone-still, he studied the point from which the sigh had come.

He could discern little other than the vague, bent outlines of trees. A darker place marked the entrance to the glade. But there seemed to be nothing threatening there. The horses were quiet black silhouettes issuing a white mist of breath. One or two of them had cocked their ears forward alertly.

He realised that he could neither see nor hear the perimeter guard.

Carefully, he freed himself from his blankets, eased his sword a few inches from its scabbard. Reflex impelled him to crouch low as he ran across the clearing and to change direction several times in case he had been marked by archers or energy weapons. He felt exposed but had no actual fear, until he encountered the corpse of the guard.

It was lying near the gap in the trees: a huddled, ungainly form that had already sunk slightly into the wet ground. Upon closer examination, he found that the man had not even drawn his weapon. There was no blood apparent, and the limbs were uncut.

Kneeling, he grasped the cold, bearded jaw, his skin crawling with revulsion, and moved the head to ascertain whether the neck was broken. It was not. The skull, then. He probed reluctantly. Breath hissing through his clenched teeth, he leapt hurriedly to his feet.

The top of the man’s skull was missing, sliced cleanly off an inch above the ears.

He wiped the mess off his fingers on some spongy grass, swallowing bile. Anger and fear flooded through him, and he shivered a little. The night was silent but for the far-off drowsy humming of a dragonfly. The earth round the body had been poached and churned. Big, shapeless impressions led away from it and out of the glade to the south. What sort of thing had made them, he could not tell. He began to follow them.

He had no thought of alerting the rest of the camp. He wanted vengeance for this pitiful, furtive death in a filthy place. It was a personal thing with him.

Away from Cobaltmere, the phosphorescence grew progressively dimmer, but his night vision was good, and he followed the tracks swiftly. They left the path at a place where the trees were underlit by lumps of pale blue luminous crystal. Bathed in the unsteady glow, he stopped and strained his ears. Nothing but the sound of water. It occurred to him that he was alone. The ground sucked at his feet; the trees were weird, their boughs a frozen writhing motion. To his left, a branch snapped.

He whirled and threw himself into the undergrowth, hacking out with his sword. Foliage clutched at his limbs; at each step he sank into the muck; small animals scuttled away from him, invisible. He halted, breathing heavily, in a tiny clearing with a stinking pool. He could hear nothing. After a minute, he became convinced that he had been lured from the path, and in revealing himself to whatever moved so silently in the darkness he had lost his advantage. His skin crawled.

Only his peculiar defensive skills saved him. There was a baleful hissing behind him: he allowed his knees to buckle, and a cold green blade cut the air above his head; poised on his bent left leg, he spun himself round like a top, his sword slashing a half-circle at the knees of his assailant. Knowing that the stroke could not connect, he leapt back.

Before him loomed a great black shadow, some seven or eight feet high. Its limbs were thick and heavy, its head a blunted ovoid, featureless but for three glowing yellow points set in an isosceles triangle. It continued to hiss, its movements silky and powerful and controlled, leaving those strange, shapeless imprints in the mud beneath it. There was an alien coldness about it, a calm, calculating intelligence.

The great baan, that he did not dare meet with mere steel, cut a second arc toward him. He danced back, and it sliced through his mail shirt like a fingernail through cold grease; blood from a shallow wound warmed his chest. Despite its size, the thing was cruelly swift. He went behind its stroke, cutting overhand at the place where its neck met its shoulder, but it writhed away, and they faced one another again. Cromis had measured its speed, and feared he was outclassed.

There was no further sparring. In the dark place by the stinking pool, they went at it, and baan and steel performed a deadly, flickering choreography. And always Cromis must evade, hoping for a moment’s carelessness: yet the shadow was as fast as he, and fought tirelessly. It forced him slowly to the lip of the pool, and a mist was in front of his eyes. He was cut in a number of places. His mail shirt hung in ribbons.

His heel touched water, and for an instant he allowed the baan to catch his blade. In a shower of sparks, the tip of the nameless sword was severed: now he could not thrust, but must use only its edge. Fear crept and coiled in him. The giant, its cluster of eyes pale and empty, loomed above him, chopping and leaping like an automaton. Abruptly, he saw a dangerous remedy.

Beneath his clothing, his right hand found the hilt of the little baan that had killed his sister. Clutching it, he feigned an injury, delaying a counterstroke and fumbling his recovery. He felt little hope for the stratagem. But the giant saw the opening, and as its weapon moved back, then down, Cromis whipped out the energy knife and met with it the killing blow.

There was a terrifying flash as the two baans engaged and shorted out. Cromis was hurled bodily into the pool by the concussion of ancient energies, his arm paralysed. Its blade dead and useless, the giant reeled drunkenly about the clearing, hissing balefully.

Cromis dragged himself from the water, arm numb with agony. Gagging and retching on the liquid that had entered his mouth, he renewed his attack and found that in the final flurry of blades, the nameless sword had been cut clearly in two halfway down its length. Cursing bitterly, he lashed out with the stump. But the giant turned and ran awkwardly into the trees, lumbering through the pool in a fountain of spray.

Its murderous confidence had been dispelled, its grace had left it, and it was defeated: but Cromis cast himself on the poached earth and wept with pain and frustration.

Shouting broke out near him. On grey wings, Cellur’s lammergeyer crashed through the foliage, flapping evilly across the clearing, and, screaming, sped after the fleeing shadow. Cromis felt himself lifted.

“Grif,” he muttered. “My blade is broken. It was not a man. I injured it with a trick of Tomb’s. There is ancients’ work here “The Moidart has woken something we cannot handle. It almost took me.”

A new fear settled like ice in his bone marrow. He clutched desperately at the fingers of his left hand. “Grif, I could not kill it!

“And I have lost the Tenth Ring of Neap.”

Despair carried him down into darkness.

Dawn broke yellow and black like an omen over the Cobaltmere, where isolated wreaths of night mist still hung over the dark, smooth water. From the eyots and reedbeds, fowl cackled: dimly sensing the coming winter, they were gathering in great multicoloured drifts on the surface of the lake, slow migratory urges building to a climax in ten thousand small, dreary skulls.

“And there will be killing weather this year,” murmured tegeus-Cromis, as he huddled over the fire gazing at the noisy flocks, his sword in three pieces beside him, the shreds and tatters of his mail coat rattling together as he moved. They had treated his numerous cuts and bruises, but could do nothing for the state of his thoughts. He shuddered, equating the iron earths of winter with lands in the North and the bale in the eyes of hunting wolves.

He had woken from a brief sleep, his mouth tasting of failure, to find Grif’s men straggling back in despondent twos and threes from a search of the glade where he had met the dark giant; and they reported that the Tenth Ring of Neap was gone without trace, trodden deep into the churned mud, or sunk, perhaps, in the foetid pool. The metal bird, too, had returned to him, having lost its quarry among the water thickets. Now he sat with Theomeris Glyn, who had snored like a drunk through all the chaos.

“You take single setbacks too hard,” said the old man, sucking bits of food from his whiskers. He was holding a strip of meat to the flames with the tip of his knife. “You’ll learn-” He sniggered, nodding his head over the defeats of the aged. “Still, it is strange.

“It was always said south of the Pastel City that if tegeus-Cromis and the nameless sword could not kill it, then it must already be dead. Strange. Have some cooked pig?”

Cromis laughed dully. “You are small comfort. An old man mumbling over meat and homilies. What shall we do without the Queen’s authorisation? What can we do?”

Birkin Grif came up to warm his hands over the fire. He sniffed at the cooking meat like a fat bloodhound, squeezed his great bulk carefully into the space between Cromis and the old man.

“Only what we would have done had we kept the thing,” he said. “Manufacture dooms in your head and you will go mad. Reality is incontrovertible. Also, it will not be anticipated.”

“But to command an army-” began Cromis helplessly.

Grif scraped halfheartedly at the filth on his boots. “I have seen you command before, poet. It appeared to me then that you did so from the strengths of your own self, not from those of some bauble.”

“That’s true,” old Glyn said judiciously, spitting out some gristle. “That’s how we did it in the old days. Damned expensive boots, those, Grif. You ought to saddle-soap them to keep the damp out. Not that I ever commandeered anything but the arse of a wench.”

Grif clasped Cromis’s shoulder, shook it gently. “Brooder, it was not your fault.”

Cromis shrugged. It made him feel no better. “You buried the guard?” he asked, hoping to change the subject.

Grif’s smile vanished. He nodded. “Aye, and found one more piece for the puzzle. I was fascinated by the precise edge of his wound. Examining it more closely, I found-” He paused, prodded the fire with his boot, and watched the ascending sparks. “We buried only a part of that man, Cromis: the rest has gone with the creature you put to flight.

“His brain has been stolen.”

There was a silence. The colourful trees dripped. Theomeris Glyn began to chew noisily. Cromis reached out to toy with the shards of his sword, unpleasant visions of the corpse crawling through his head: the huddled limbs in the mud, the congealing broth at the edge of the wound.

He said: “She has woken something from the Old Science. I am sorry for that man, and I see each of us in him-” He slid the shards of the nameless sword one by one into his scabbard. “We are all dead men, Grif.” He stood up, his muscles aching from the long night. “I’ll make ready my horse. We had best to move on.”

Perched on an overhanging bough with pale turquoise bark, the metal lammergeyer eyed him silently.

“Sure you won’t have some pig?” offered Theomeris Glyn.

They reached the northerly bounds of the marsh without further loss of men. By afternoon on the fourth day the gaudy foliage had thinned sufficiently to reveal a sky overcast but of more acceptable colour. Their speed increased as the going firmed steadily. The bog broke up into irregular patches separated by wide, flat causeways, tending to the colour of rust as they moved north. A cold wind billowed their cloaks, plucked at Cromis’s torn mail, and fine rain dulled the hides of the horses.

Stretching east and west in a great lazy curve, the terminal barrens of the Great Brown Waste barred their way: chains of dun-coloured dunes interconnecting to form a low scarp, the face of which was cut and seamed by massive gully erosion.

“We are lucky to come here in winter,” said Birkin Grif, twisting in his saddle as he led the company in single file up the gently sloping cleft worn by a black and gelid stream. Walls of damp russet loess reared lifelessly on either side. “Although the winds are stronger, they carry more moisture to lay the soil. The waste is not a true desert.”

Cromis nodded dully. In the Low Leedale it had been autumn yet, but that was hard to believe here. He fixed his eyes on the narrow strip of sky beyond the lips of the ravine, wishing for Balmacara, where the year died more happily.

“There is slightly less danger of earth-falls, you understand, and clouds of dust. In summer, one might choke to death, even here on the edge.”

From the uncomfortable sky, Cromis shifted his gaze to the file of men behind him. They were lost in a mist of rain, dim shapes huddled and silent on tired mounts.

At the top of the gully, the entire company halted, and by common, unspoken consent, fanned out along the crest of a dune: each man held solitary and introspective by the bleak panorama before him.

The Waste rolled north-umber and ochre, dead, endless. Intersecting streams with high, vertical banks scored deep, meaningless ideographs in the earth. In the distance, distorted into deceptive, organic forms, metal girders poked accusing fingers at the empty air, as if there the Rust Desert might fix the source of its millennial pain. Grif’s smugglers muttered, and found that a narrowed eye might discern certain slow but definite movements among the baffling curves of the landscape.

But tegeus-Cromis turned his horse to face away from the spoiled land, and stared back at the mauve haze that marked the marshes. He was much preoccupied by giants.

5

“We should not strive too hard to imitate the Afternoon Cultures,” said Grif. “They killed this place with industry and left it for the big monitors. In part, if not in whole, they fell because they exhausted the land. We mine the metal they once used, for instance, because there is no ore left in the earth.

“And in using it all up, they dictated that our achievements should be of a different quality to theirs-”

“There will be no more Name Stars,” murmured Cromis, looking up from the fragments of his sword. Dusk had drawn a brown veil across the wastes, amplifying the peculiar vagueness of the dune landscape. It was cold. As yet, they had seen no lizards: merely the slow, indistinct movements among the dunes that indicated their presence.

“Or any more of this, ” said Grif, bleakly.

They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.

Two or three fires burned in the lee of a broken load wall. Grif’s men tended them silently. Infected by the bleakness of the waste, they had picketed the horses close, and the perimeter guards kept well within sight of the main body.

“There will be no more of anything soon,” said Theomeris Glyn. “The Moidart, the Afternoon Cultures-both are Time by another name. You are sentimentalists, lacking a proper sense of perspective. When you get to my age-”

“We will grow bored and boring, and make fools of ourselves with dirty girls in Duirinish. It will be a fine time, that.”

“You may not make it that far, Birkin Grif,” said the old man darkly.

Since Cromis’s fight in the Metal-Salt Marsh, Cellur’s mechanical vulture had spent most of its time in the air, wheeling in great slow circles over the waste. It would report nothing it had seen from that vantage. Now it perched just beyond the circle of firelight and said:

“Post-industrial shock effected by the so-called ‘Afternoon Cultures’ was limited in these latitudes. There is evidence, however, that to the west there exists an entire continent despoiled to the degree of the Great Brown Waste.

“In a global sense, the old man may be right: we are running out of Time.”

Its precise reedy voice lent a further chill to the night. In the silence that followed, the wind aged, the dying sun ran down like clockwork in an orrery. Birkin Grif laughed uncomfortably; a few thin echoes came from his men.

“Bird, you will end up as rust, with nothing to your credit but unproven hypotheses. If we are at the end of Time, what have you to show for it? Are you, perhaps, jealous that you cannot experience the misery of flesh, which is this: to know intimately the doom you merely parrot, and yet die in hope?”

The bird waddled forward, firelight spraying off its folded wings. “That is not given to me,” it said. “It will not be given to you, if you fail the real task implicit in this war: fear the geteit chemosit; travel at once to the tower of Cellur, which you will find -”

Filled with a horrible depression, Cromis dropped the shards of his sword and left the fire. From his saddlebag he took his curious Eastern instrument. He bit his lip and wandered past the picket line and the perimeter guards. With death in his head, he sat on a stone. Before him, huge loops of sand-polished girder dipped in and out of the dunes like metal worms. They are frozen, he thought: caught on a strange journey across an alien planet at the forgotten end of the universe.

Shivering, he composed this:

Rust in our eyes… metallic perspectives trammel us in the rare earth north… we are nothing but eroded men… wind clothing our eyes with white ice… we are the swarf-eaters… hardened by our addiction, tasting acids… Little to dream here, our fantasies are iron and icy echoes of bone… rust in our eyes, we who had once soft faces.

“Rust in our eyes-” he began again, preparing to repeat the chant in the Girvanian Mode, but a great shout from the camp drove it out of his skull. He jumped to his feet.

He saw the metal bird explode into the air, shedding light like a gun-powder rocket, its wings booming. Men were running about the encampment, casting febrile shadows on the ancient walls. He made pitiful grabbing motions at his empty scabbard, hurrying toward the uproar. Over a confusion of voices he heard Grif bellow suddenly:

“Leave it alone! Oh, you stupid pigs, leave it alone!”

Obsessed by his fantasies of an alien world, Cromis was for a moment unable to identify the dark, massive shape fidgeting and grunting in the gloom of the dead building. Drawn out of the inhospitable dunes by the warmth or the light and surrounded by men with swords, it seemed to be mesmerised and bemused by the fire-a lean, heavy body slung low between queerly articulated legs, a twenty-foot denizen of his own imagination.

He was almost disappointed to recognise it as one of the black reptiles of the waste, huge but harmless, endowed by the folklore of Viriconium with the ability to eat metal.

“Big lizard,” muttered one of Grif’s brigands, with sullen awe. “Big lizard.”

Cromis found himself fascinated by the flat, squat head with its wicked undershot lower jaw and rudimentary third eye. He could discern none of the spines and baroque crests traditional in illustrations of the beast, simply a rough hide with a matte, nonreflective quality.

“Pull back,” ordered Grif, quietly.

The men obeyed, keeping their weapons up. Left to itself, the reptile closed determinedly on the fire: finally, the flames leapt, perfectly reflected, in each of its eyes. There it stood for some minutes, quite still.

It blinked. Cromis suspected that whatever sluggish metabolic desires the fire had aroused were unfulfilled. Laboriously, it backed away. It shuffled back into the night, moving its head slowly from side to side.

As his men turned to follow, Grif said sharply, “I told you no. Just leave it be. It has harmed nothing.” He sat down.

“We don’t belong here anymore,” he said.

“What do you suppose it saw in there?” Cromis asked him.

Two days out into the barrens. It seemed longer.

“The landscape is so static,” said Grif, “that Time is drawn out, and runs at a strange, slow speed.”

“Scruffy metaphysics. You are simply dying of boredom. I think I am already dead.” Old Theomeris slapped his pony’s rump. “This is my punishment for an indiscreet life. I wish I had enjoyed it more.”

Since noon that day they had been travelling through a range of low, conical slag hills, compelled by a surface of loose slate to lower their speed to a walk. The three-hundred-foot heaps of grey stone cast back bell-like echoes from the unsteady hooves of the horses. Land-slips were frequent; limited, but unnerving.

Cromis took no part in the constant amiable bickering: it was as unproductive as the sterile shale. Further, he was concerned by the odd behaviour of the lammergeyer.

Ten or fifteen minutes before, the bird had ceased flying its customary pattern of wide circles, and now hung in the air some eight hundred feet up, a silver cruciform slipping and banking occasionally to compensate for a thermal current rising from the slag tips. As far as he could tell, it was hovering above a point about a mile ahead of their present position and directly on their route.

“The bird has seen something,” he said to Grif, when he was sure. “It is watching something. Call a halt and lend me a sword-no, not that great lump of iron; the horse will collapse beneath it-and I’ll go and find out what it is.”

It was a queer, lonely excursion. For half an hour he worked along the precarious spiral paths, accompanied only by echoes. Desolation closed oppressively round him.

Once, the terrible, bitter silence of the slag hills was broken by a distant rhythmic tapping-a light, quick, mysterious ring of metal on metal-but a brief fall of rock drowned it out. It returned later as he was urging his horse down the last slope of the range, the Great Brown Waste spread once more before him, Cellur’s metal vulture hanging like an omen five hundred feet above his head.

At the bottom of the slope, two horses were tethered.

A pile of dusty harness lay near them, and a few yards away stood a small red four-wheeled caravan of a type usually only seen south of Viriconium- traditionally used by the tinkers of Mingulay for carrying their large families and meagre equipment. Redolent of the temperate South, it brought to his mind images of affectionate gypsy slatterns and their raucous children. Its big, thick-spoked wheels were picked out in bright yellow; rococco designs in electric blue rioted over its side panels; its curved roof was painted purple. Cromis was unable to locate the source of the tapping sound (which presently stopped), but a thin, blue-grey spire of smoke was rising from behind the caravan.

He realised that it was impossible to conceal his presence from whoever was camped down there-his horse’s nervous, crabbing progress down the decline was dislodging continuous slides of rock, which bounded away like live things-so he made no effort, coming down as fast as possible, gripping his borrowed sword tightly.

On the last five yards of the slope, momentum overcame him: the horse’s rear hooves slid from beneath it; it pecked; and he rolled out of the saddle over its shoulder. He landed dazed and awkward in the gritty, sterile sand of the waste, and dropped his sword. Fine, stinging particles of dust got into his eyes. He stumbled to his feet, eyes blind and streaming, unpleasantly aware of his bad tactical position.

“Why don’t you just stand there quietly,” said a voice he thought he knew, “and make no attempt to regain that rather clumsy sword? Eh?” And then: “You caused enough fuss and furore for ten men coming down that hill.”

Cromis opened his eyes.

Standing before him, a power-axe held in his knotty, scarred hands, was a thin figure no more than four feet high, with long white hair and amused, pale grey eyes. His face was massively ugly-it had an unformed look, a childlike, disproportionate cast to its planes-and the teeth revealed by his horrible grin were brown and broken. He was dressed in the heavy leather leggings and jerkin of a metal-prospector, and standing on end the haft of his axe would have topped him by a foot.

“You,” said Cromis, “could have done no better. You are as insubordinate as ever. You are a pirate. Put up that axe, or my familiar spirit”-here, he pointed to the vulture spiralling above them-“will probably tear the eyes from your unfortunate face. I have a great deal of trouble in restraining it from such acts.”

“You will, however, concede that I’ve captured you? I’ll chop the bloody bird up for dog’s meat if you don’t-”

And with that, Tomb the Dwarf, as nasty a midget as ever hacked the hands off a priest, did a little complicated shuffle of triumph round his victim, cackling and sniggering like a parrot.

“If I had known it was you,” said Cromis, “I’d have brought an army of occupation, to keep you quiet.”

Night.

A pall, a shroud of darkness lay over the slag heaps, to cover decently their naked attitudes of geographical death. Out on the waste, the harsh white glare of Tomb’s portable furnace dominated the orange flickering of a circlet of cooking fires.

Underlit by a savage glow like a dawn in Hell, the little Rivermouth man’s unbelievable face became demoniac, bloodcurdling. His hammer fell in measured, deadly strokes onto the soft, hot steel, and, as he worked, he droned and hummed a variant of that queer “Dead Freight” dirge:

Burn them up and drive them deep;

Oh, drive them down!

It was Cromis’s nameless sword, now whole, that flared in the furnace and sparked on the anvil, and drew closer to its gloomy destiny with every accentuated syllable of the chant.

After the meeting by the caravan, Cromis had called down the vulture and sent it to fetch Grif from his position in the hills. On his arrival, he had bellowed like an ox: it was a wild reunion between him and the dwarf, the one bellowing with laughter and the other capering and crowing. Now Grif was eating raw meat and shouting at his brigands, while Tomb and Cromis worked the forge.

“You interrupted me,” shouted the dwarf over the roar and wail of the bellows. “I was repairing that.”

And he jerked his thumb at a tangle of curved, connected silver-steel rods-resembling nothing so much as the skeleton of some dead metal giant-which lay by the furnace. Small versions of the motors that powered the airboats were situated at the joints of its limbs, and a curious arrangement of flexible metal straps and stirrups was attached halfway down each of its thighbones and upper arms. It looked like the ugly, purposeful work of long-dead men, an inert but dangerous colossus.

“What is it?” asked Cromis.

“You’ll see when we get a fight. I dug it up about a month ago. They had some beautiful ideas, those Old Scientists.” The light of Tomb’s sole enthusiasm-or was it simply splashback from the furnace?-burned in his eyes, and Cromis had to be content with that.

Later, the four Methven sat round a fire with a jug of distilled wine. The reforged sword was cooling, the furnace powered-down, the brigands noisily asleep or dozing in their smelly blankets.

“No,” said Tomb, “we aren’t too far behind them.” He displayed his repugnant teeth. “I’d have been up with Waterbeck and his well-disciplined babes by now, but I wanted to get that power-armour in good order.”

“It won’t be the same as the old days,” complained old Glyn. He had passed rapidly into the sodden, querulous phase of drunkenness. “Now there was a time.”

Tomb chuckled. “Why did I saddle myself this way? A greybeard with a bad memory, a braggart, and a poet who can’t even look after his own sword. I think I might join the other side.” He leered down at his hands. “Time I killed somebody, really. I feel like killing something.”

“You’re a nasty little beast, aren’t you?” said Birkin Grif. “Have some more wine.”

Cromis, content to have found Tomb if not Norvin Trinor, smiled and said nothing. More roads than this lead to Ruined Glenluce, he thought.

But in the end they had no need to go as far as Glenluce, and Tomb’s prediction proved true: two days later, they came upon Lord Waterbeck’s expeditionary force, camped several miles southeast of that unfortunate city, in a spot where the waste had heaved itself into a series of low ridges and dead valleys filled with the phantoms of the Departed Cultures.

Time is erosion: an icy wind blew constant abrasive streams of dust over the bare rock of the ridge; it had been blowing for a thousand years.

His black cloak flapping about him, tegeus-Cromis gazed down on the ancient valley; at his side, Grif stamped his feet and blew into his cupped hands. Beneath them spread the tents and bothies of Waterbeck’s army- multicoloured, embroidered with sigils and armorial bearings, but hardly gay. Canvas whipped and cracked, the wind moaned in the guylines, and armour clattered as the message runners hurried to and fro between piles of gear that lay in apparent confusion around the encampment.

The tents radiated as a series of spokes-each one representing a division of foot or horse-from a central pavilion surrounded by a complex of ancillary bothies: Lord Waterbeck’s command centre. There, canvas was replaced by oiled scarlet silk, shot through with threads of gold wire.

“He has a fine sense of his own importance,” said Grif scathingly. “We had better go down and upset it.”

“You are too harsh. Don’t prejudge him.” Cromis felt no enthusiasm for the task ahead. He fingered the hilt of the reforged sword and tried to shrug off his reluctance. “Tell Tomb to settle your men well apart from the main body, while we do what we can.”

They rode down one of the wide avenues between the tents, Grif resplendent on his yellow-caparisoned mare, Cromis crow-black in the cold, old wind. They drew a few stares from unoccupied foot soldiers, but, in general, interest was reserved for Grif’s smugglers, who were setting up camp around Tomb’s gaudy caravan. It was an unconscious parody of Waterbeck’s deployment, with the wagon replacing his showy pavilion. They looked like a travelling road show.

Cromis caught threads and tail ends of conversation as he rode:

“The Moidart…”

“… and you can’t trust a rumour.”

“Twenty thousand Northmen…”

“… the Moidart…”

“… and bloody airboats. Bloody scores of them!”

“What can you do about it?”

“… glad to get it over and done.”

“… the Moidart.”

At barely thirty years of age, Lord Waterbeck of Faldich had imposing grey hair-cut short and smoothed impeccably back from his forehead- and an urbane manner. His features were bland and boneless, his skin unwrinkled but of a curiously dry, aged texture. He wore a neat, tight jacket of tasteful brown cord, quite unadorned, as were his well-shaped, unobtrusively manicured hands. Cromis imagined that it would be difficult for him to offend any of his peers, and that it was precisely this inability that had earned him his present position.

When they entered the pavilion (it was less opulent than its outer appearance suggested, and draughty) he was sitting behind a small, cluttered camp table, adding his signature to a sheet of white vellum covered with careful grey script. He raised his head, nodded brusquely, and gave his attention to his work again.

“There is an official recruitment booth just along the way,” he said, his voice crisp and pleasant. “But never mind, now you’re here. I’ll call an orderly and have him deal with you here.”

He looked up and smiled very briefly.

“From your appearance, I’d say you’ve come some distance to serve. Encouraging to see newcomers, although there won’t be many more. Well done, men.”

Birkin Grif stepped forward, simultaneously puzzled and antagonistic. “This is Lord tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium,” he said, “a knight of the Order of Methven. We are here on the Queen’s business. It is imperative that-”

“Just one moment, please.”

Waterbeck consulted a small ledger, nodded to himself. He folded his dispatch and began to address it.

“Perhaps Lord Cromis would prefer to speak for himself, eh?”

He offered them his brief little smile.

“You understand that I have many things to occupy my time. Battle will be joined within a week, and fifteen thousand men out there rely on me. If you could-”

He made an apologetic gesture. “I have been advised of no airboat landings recently. If you could give me the meat of your message now, perhaps we could discuss an answer later?”

“I am not a courier, Lord Waterbeck,” said Cromis. “My purposes are military, and may be embarrassing to us both.”

“I see. I’ve never run in to you in the city, my lord. Our haunts must be different. Each man to his own, hm?”

He stood up and extended his right hand across the table, palm up.

“You will have some identification provided by Her Majesty, I take it?”

“I began my journey with such proofs,” said Cromis, aware of how foolish he must sound. The man was giving him no help at all. “But due to a failure of my own, they were lost. However, the Queen will vouch for me. I suggest you dispatch an airboat to the-”

Waterbeck laughed. He sat down. He shook his head slowly.

“My dear man,” he said. “My dear man. I might be addressing a simple adventurer. Or even, though I am most reluctant to suggest it, a Northman. I cannot spare an airboat merely to check the credentials of every wanderer who comes in here with a mysterious-and unexplainedproposition.

“If you wish to fight, well then, I will sign you on; but I cannot even listen to whatever it is you propose without some concrete, immediate proof of your identity.”

Birkin Grif scowled hideously. He leaned over the desk and put his face close to Waterbeck’s. He hissed:

“You are a damned fool, or you would use different words to a Methven. At least listen to what we have to say. Lord Cromis led the sea fight at Mingulay-and won it, too-before you were able to lift a practice sword-”

Waterbeck got to his feet.

“There is an official recruitment booth a few steps away from here,” he said quietly. “I do not wish to hear any more of this.”

Later, they sat on the tailboard of Tomb’s caravan, watching the dwarf as he made final adjustments to his peculiar device.

“He knew,” said Grif. “He knew why we were there. He sensed it.”

“You cannot tell that for sure. He was within his rights, if shortsighted. I did not have the ring, and even with that to ease the way it would have been a difficult meeting. He would have resented our command.”

Grif made a chopping motion in the air, both hands locked together. He spat into a swirl of dust raised by the wind.

“He knew, all right. If he’d heard us out, he’d have been forced to dispatch that boat.”

Tomb the Dwarf chuckled obscenely. He put down his tools and wiped his hands on the back of his leggings.

“Watch this here,” he said. “When I’ve got this thing together, I’ll visit Lord Waterbeck. I’ll cut his onions off. I’ll slice them thinly with my axe.”

He had spread the immense skeleton on the ground, so that its legs stuck straight out and its arms were set close to its sides. Now, he lowered himself gently down until he lay supine on its cold bones.

He slid his feet into the stirrups on its thighs, and tightened the metal straps round his ankles. A complicated harness fastened his upper body into its rib cage.

“A cold embrace,” he said.

He positioned his hands so as to reach certain levers that projected from the bones above its elbow joint. Its jawless skull he hinged forward to fit over his head like a helmet. He lay there for a moment, strapped to the thing like a man crucified on a tree of insane design.

“I power it up now,” he explained. He worked levers. A low, distinct humming filled the air. A smell of ozone reminded Cromis of the airboat disaster at Balmacara. “Ah,” said Tomb. He manipulated studs and switches.

The skeleton twitched its huge steel bones.

Tomb sniggered.

He moved his arm, and a fleshless metal hand rose into the air. It made grasping motions. It flexed its fingers.

Tomb bent his legs, and came slowly to his feet. He was eleven feet tall.

“Where’s my chopper?” he said. And, having found that weapon, he broke into a grotesque, capering dance, swinging it round his head in ecstatic but deadly figures of eight, lifting his new legs high to display them, pointing his nimble silver-steel toes.

“I’ll shorten them!” he screamed, the wind whistling through his mechanical limbs. He ignored the helpless, delighted laughter of his friends. “I’ll cut the sods!” He didn’t say who. “Beautiful!” he crowed. And he stormed off, a gigantic paradox suspended on the thin line between comedy and horror, to test his machine by completing a full circuit of the encampment under the amazed eyes of fifteen thousand sensible fighting men.

Neither the Methven nor their tiny force of brigands ever signed up officially with Lord Waterbeck’s army. His estimation of the Moidart’s rate of progress toward Duirinish proved to be a little optimistic. An hour before dawn the next day, ten airboats bearing the sigil of the wolf’s head and three towers howled over the northern ridge, their motors in overdrive.

Cromis was to be haunted for the rest of his life by his failure to understand how a general could become so concerned with the administration of his men and the politics of his war that he neglected the reports of his own reconnaissance corps.

6

Cromis was asleep when the attack began. In the soft, black space of his head a giant insect hovered and hummed, staring gloomily at him from human eyes, brushing the walls of his skull with its swift wings and unbearable, fragile legs. He did not understand its philosophy. The ideographs engraved on its thorax expressed a message of Time and the Universe, which he learned by heart and immediately forgot. The whine of the wings deepened in pitch, and resolved itself into the monstrous wail of the Moidart’s aircraft.

Birkin Grif was punching his shoulder repeatedly and yelling in his ear. He stumbled up, shaking the dream from his head. He saw Tomb the Dwarf scuttle out of the caravan, fling himself onto his exoskeleton, and begin powering up. All around, men were shouting, pointing at the sky, their mouths like damp pits. The noise from Waterbeck’s camp was tremendous; fifteen thousand simultaneous inarticulate cries of anger and fear.

He strapped on his sword. “We’re too exposed!” They could do nothing about it. Long, fast shapes gyred above them, dim in the light of false dawn.

Evil red flares lit the valley as a section of the attacking squadron located Waterbeck’s airboat park and began to bombard it with barrels of burning pitch and large stones. The remainder of the fleet separated and shrieked low over the encampment, dropping their loads at random to panic men and horses.

A detachment of Waterbeck’s troops began firing one of the only three operative power-cannon that remained in the kingdom, its pale violet bolts flaming up like reversed bolide trails against a dark sky.

Grif harried his men. Between them, they regained control of the horses.

Despite the efforts of Waterbeck’s own airboat men, two machines were destroyed-their spines broken, their ancient energies earthing away- before the rest of his meagre wing hurled into the sky. The energy cannon ceased firing immediately once they were airborne, and the battle moved away from the ground.

Two boats, locked together and leaking strange pastel fireflies of released energy, drifted slowly over the encampment and vanished behind the southern ridge. Cromis shuddered: small dark shapes were falling from them, soundless and pathetic.

“Had I made a different choice, I might be up there now,” murmured Tomb the Dwarf, looming up out of the red glare of the pitch fires. He sounded almost wistful.

“Cromis, there’s something wrong with your vulture.”

The bird was strutting to and fro on the roof of the caravan, where it had perched during the night. It extended its neck as if to vomit, beat its great iridium wings together, and squawked insanely. It made short, hopping sallies into the air. Suddenly, it shrieked:

“Go at once! Go at once! Go at once!”

It launched itself off the roof and fastened its talons on Cromis’s arm. It bobbed its head, peered into his face.

“tegeus-Cromis, you should leave here at once and go to-”

But Cromis hardly heard. He was watching Canna Moidart’s captains as they swarmed down the face of the northern ridge and into the valley- their standards raised high, thirty thousand Northmen at their backs, and the geteit chemosit coming on in dark waves before them.

Time bucked and whipped like a broken hawser in Cromis’s head, and for a moment he existed at two separate and distinct points along its curve In a dark glade by a stinking pool, he fought a great black shadow some seven or eight feet high. Its limbs were thick and heavy, its head a blunted ovoid, featureless but for three glowing points set in an isosceles triangle. Its movements were powerful and controlled. It hissed as it wielded its enormous energy-blade, and left strange, shapeless imprints in the mud beneath it. There was an alien coldness about it; a calm, calculated intelligence Simultaneously, in the irrefutable present of the Great Brown Waste, he observed with unemotional preciseness the terrible skirmish line that advanced into the valley ahead of the Moidart’s horde. Each of its units was a great black shadow seven or eight feet high, wielding an immense energy blade. Their movements were alien and silky and controlled, and their unpleasant triplex eyes glittered yellowly from blunt, ovoid heads “Beware the geteit chemosit!” cried the vulture on his arm.

Sick and shaking, he explored an understanding that had been open to him since his fight in the Metal-Salt Marsh.

“I should have listened,” he said. “We have no chance,” he whispered.

“We have more than poor Waterbeck, perhaps,” murmured Birkin Grif. He put a hand on Cromis’s shoulder. “If we live, we will go to Lendalfoot and see the metal bird’s owner. They are golems, automatic men, some filthy thing she has dug up from a dead city. He may know-”

“Nothing like this has been seen in the world for a thousand years,” said Tomb the Dwarf. “Where did she find them?”

Unconcerned by such questions, Canna Moidart’s black mechanical butchers moved implacably toward the first engagement in the War of the Two Queens: a war that was later to be seen as the mere opening battle of a wholly different-and greatly more tragic-conflict.

Their impact on Waterbeck’s army was brutal. Already disorganised and disconcerted by the airboat raid, scattered, separated from their commanding officers, the Viriconese milled about their ruined encampment in a desperate and feeble attempt to form some sort of defensive position.

Faced by a human antagonist, they might have held their shaky line. Certainly, there burned in all of them a hatred of the Northmen which might in other circumstances have overcome their tactical weakness and stiffened their resistance. But the chemosit slaughtered their self-possession.

They sobbed and died. They were hastily conscripted, half-trained. Powered blades cut their swords like cheese. Their armour failed to armour them. They discovered that they did not belong there.

In the moment of first contact, a fine red mist sprayed up from the battleline, and the dying inhaled the substance of the dead while the living fought on in the fog, wondering why they had left their shops and their farms. Many of them simply died of shock and revulsion as the blood arced and spurted to impossible heights from the severed arteries of their fellows, and the air was filled with the stink of burst innards.

When the Moidart’s regular troops joined the battle, they found little but confusion to check them. They howled with laughter and rattled their swords against their shields. They flanked Waterbeck’s depleted force, split it into small, useless detachments, overran his pavilion, and tore him to pieces. They ringed the Viriconese and hammered them steadily against the grim anvil of the still-advancing chemosit. But there was resistance In the dead airboat park, someone managed to depress the barrel of the energy cannon enough to fire it horizontally. For some seconds, its meteoric bolts-almost invisible in the daylight-hissed and spurted into the unbroken rank of the mechanical men. For a moment, it looked like it discomfitted them; several burned like torches and then exploded, destroying others. But a small squad detached themselves from the main body, and, their power-blades chopping in unison, reached the gun with ease. It sputtered and went out, like a candle in the rain, and the gunners with it And, from a vantage point on the roof of Tomb’s caravan, Lord tegeus-Cromis of Viriconium, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, chose his moment. “They make their own underbelly soft. Their only strength lies in the chemosit.” His head was full of death. The metal bird was on his arm. “To the south there, they are completely open.” He turned to Birkin Grif. “We could kill a lot of them if your men were willing.”

Grif unsheathed his sword and smiled. He jumped to the ground. He mounted his roan mare (in the grey light, her caparisons shone bravely) and faced his ugly, dishonest crew. “We will all die,” he told them. He bared his teeth at them and they grinned back like old foxes. “Well?”

They stropped their evil knives against their leather leggings. “What are we waiting for?” asked one of them.

“You bloody fools!” yelled Grif, and roared with laughter. “Nobody asked you to do this!”

They shouted and catcalled. They leapt into their saddles and slapped their knees in enjoyment of the joke. They were a gangrel, misfit lot.

Cromis nodded. He did not want to speak, but, “Thank you,” he said to them. His voice was lost in the clangour of Waterbeck’s defeat.

“I am already halfway there,” chuckled Tomb the Dwarf. He adjusted some of his levers. He swung his axe a couple of times, just to be sure.

Theomeris Glyn sniffed. “An old man,” he said, “deserves better. Why are we wasting time?” He looked a fool, and entirely vulnerable in his battered old helmet. He should have been in bed.

“Let’s go then,” said Cromis. He leapt down from the roof. He mounted up, the iridium vulture flapping above him. He drew the nameless sword. And with no battle cries at all, forty smugglers, three Methven, and a giant dwarf hurled themselves into a lost fight. What else could they have done?

The dead and the half-dead lay in mounds, inextricably mixed. The ancient, unforgiving dust of the Great Brown Waste, recalling the crimes of the Departed Cultures, sucked greedily at these charnel heaps, and turned into mud. Some five thousand of Waterbeck’s original force were still on their feet, concentrated in three or four groups, the largest of which had made its stand out of the bloody morass, on a long, low knoll at the centre of the valley.

The momentum of the charge carried Cromis twenty yards into the press without the need to strike a blow: Northmen fell to the hooves and shoulders of his horse and were trampled. He shouted obscenities at them, and made for the knoll, the smugglers a flying wedge behind him. A pike-man tore a long strip of flesh from the neck of his mount; Cromis hung out of the saddle and swung for the carotid artery; blade bit, and, splashed with the piker’s gore, the horse reared and screamed in triumph. Cromis hung on and cut about him, laughing. The stink of horse sweat and leather and blood was as sharp as a knife.

To his left, Tomb the Dwarf towered above the Northmen in his exoskeleton, a deadly, glittering, giant insect, kicking in faces with bloodshod metal feet, striking terror and skulls with his horrible axe. On his right, Birkin Grif whirled his broadsword unscientifically about and sang, while murderous old Glyn taunted his opponents and stabbed them cunningly when they thought they had him. “We did things differently when I was your age!” he told them. And, like a visitation from Hell, Cellur’s metal vulture tore the eyes from its victims but left them living.

They had cut a path halfway to the knoll, yelling encouragement to its labouring defenders, when Cromis glimpsed among the many pennants of the Northern tribes the banner of the wolf’s head. He determined to bring it down, and with it whatever general or champion fought beneath it. He hoped-vainly-that it might be the Moidart herself. “Grif!” he shouted. “Take your lads on to the hill!”

He reined his horse around and flung it like a javelin at a wall of Northerners who, dropping their gaudy shields in panic, reeled away from the death that stared out of his wild eyes and lurked in his bloody weapon.

“Methven!” he cried.

He couched the butt of a dead man’s pike firmly underneath his arm and used it as a lance. He called for the champion under the standard and issued lunatic challenges. He lost the lance in a Northman’s belly.

He killed a score of frightened men. He was mad with the horror of his own bloodlust. He saw no faces on the ones he sent to Hell, and the face of fear on all the rest. He spoke poetry to them, unaware of what he said, or that he said it in a language of his own invention-but his sanity returned when he heard the voice of the man beneath the wolf’s head.

“You were a fool to come here, tegeus-Cromis. After I have finished, I will give you to my wolves-”

“Why have you done this?” whispered Cromis.

The turncoat’s face was long and saturnine, his mouth wide and mobile, thin-lipped under a drooping moustache. A wrinkled scar, left long ago by the knife of Thorisman Carlemaker, ran from the corner of one deep-set grey eye, ruching the skin of his cheek. His black, curling hair fell round the shoulders of a purple velvet cloak he had once worn at the Court of King Methven. He sat his heavy horse with confidence, and his mouth curled in contempt.

“Waterbeck is dead,” he said. “If you have come to sue for peace on behalf of his rabble”-here, the surrounding Northmen howled and beat their hands together-“I may be lenient. The Queen has given me wide powers of discretion.”

Shaking with reaction to his berserk fit, Cromis steadied himself against the pommel of his saddle. He was bemused. A little of him could not believe what was happening.

“I came here for single combat with Canna Moidart’s champion. Have I found him?”

“You have.”

The traitor nodded, and the Moidart’s foot soldiers drew back to form an arena. They grinned and whistled, shook their shields. Elsewhere, the battle continued, but it might have been on another planet.

“What did she offer you? Was it worth the pain you caused Carron Ban?”

The man beneath the wolf’s head smiled.

“There is a vitality in the North, Lord Cromis, that was lost to Viriconium when Methven died. She offered me an expanding culture in return for a dead one.”

Cromis shook his head, and lifted the nameless sword.

“Our old friendship means nothing to you?”

“It will make you a little harder to kill, Lord Cromis.”

“I am glad you admit to that. Perhaps it is harder for the betrayer than for the betrayed. Norvin Trinor, you are a turncoat and a fool.”

With the jeers of the encircling Northmen in his ears, he kicked his horse forward.

Trinor’s heavy blade swung at his head. He parried the stroke, but it had already shifted into a lateral motion which he was forced to evade by throwing himself half out of his saddle. Trinor chuckled, locked his foot under Cromis’s left stirrup in an effort to further unseat him. Cromis dropped his reins, took his sword in his left hand, and stuck it between the heaving ribs of the turncoat’s mount. Blood matting its coat, the animal swerved away, compelling Trinor to disengage.

“You used to be the best sword in the empire, Lord Cromis,” he panted. “What happened to you?”

“I am ill with treachery,” said Cromis, and he was. “It will pass.”

They fought for five minutes, then ten, heedless of the greater conflict. It seemed to Cromis that the entire battle was summed up here, in a meeting of champions who had once been friends, and at each brief engagement, he grew more despairing.

He saw Carron Ban’s hurt, disdainful face through the shining web of her traitor-husband’s blade, but it gave him no strength; he understood that she had felt pity for him that night in Viriconium, knowing that this confrontation must take place. He saw also that he was unable to match the hate she felt for Trinor: at each encounter, something slowed the nameless sword, and he was moved to pity rather than anger by the sneers of his opponent.

But finally, his swordsmanship told, and in a queer way: Trinor’s horse, which had been steadily losing blood from the wound in its side, fell abruptly to its knees in the disgusting mud. The turncoat kept his seat, but dropped his sword.

He sat there, absolutely still, on the foundered animal. The Northmen groaned, and moved forward: the combat circle tightened like a noose.

“You had better get on with it,” murmured Trinor. He shrugged. “The wolves will have you anyway, Lord Cromis-see how they close in!-and the Pastel City along with you. They are a hungry lot.

“You had better get it over with.” tegeus-Cromis raised the nameless sword for the fatal stroke. He spat down into the face before him: but it was still the face of a friend. He shuddered with conflicting desires.

He raised his eyes to the ring of Northmen who waited to take his blood in exchange for Trinor’s. He moaned with rage and frustration, but he could not drown out the voices of the past within him. “ Keep your bloody champion!” he cried. “Kill him yourself, for he’ll betray you, too!” And he turned his horse on its haunches, smashed into their astonished ranks like a storm from the desert, and howled away into the honest carnage of the battlefield as if the gates of Hell had opened behind him.

A long time later, at the foot of the knoll in the centre of the valley, two Northern pikemen unhorsed him, and wondered briefly why he apologised as he rolled from his wrecked animal to kill them.

“I could not kill him, Grif.”

It was the second hour after dawn. A cold, peculiar light filtered through the low cloud base, greying the dead faces on the corpse heaps, striking mysterious reflections from their eyes. The wind keened in off the waste, stirring bloody hair and fallen pennants. Four wallowing Northern airboats hung beneath the clouds like omens seen in a dream. The entire valley was a sea of Northmen, washing black and implacable against one tiny eyot of resistance.

Up on the knoll, Birkin Grif led perhaps two hundred of Waterbeck’s troops: all those who had not died or fled into the waste. A score of his own men still lived: their eyes were red-rimmed and sullen in worn, grimy faces. They stank of sweat and blood. They stared silently at one another and readied their notched and broken weapons for the last attack.

“I could not do it.”

Cromis had fought his way to the top of the hill on foot, aided by Tomb the Dwarf and a handful of the smugglers. The metal bird had led them to him, hovering above him as he fought with the men who had unhorsed him. (Now it perched on his arm, its head and talons covered with congealed blood, and said: “Fear the geteit chemosit -” It had said nothing else since he reached the knoll, and he did not care.) He was smeared with other men’s brains, suffering from a dozen minor wounds, and there was a pit of horrors in his head. He did not know how he had survived.

“At least you are alive,” said Grif. His fat cheeks were sagging with weariness, and when he moved, he favoured his right leg, laid open from knee to ankle in the death struggles of his beautiful mare. “Trinor could have killed any of the rest of us with ease. Except perhaps for Tomb.”

Of them all, the dwarf had suffered least: hung up there on his dented exoskeleton, he seemed to have taken strength from the slaughter; his energy axe flickered brightly, and his motor-assisted limbs moved as powerfully as ever. He chuckled morosely, gazing out across the valley.

“I would have done for him, all right. But to what point? Look there, Grif: that is our future-”

Out among the corpse heaps, black, huge figures moved on a strange mission, a mechanical ritual a thousand years old. The geteit chemosit had lost interest in the fight. Their triplex eyes glittering and shifting as if unanchored to their skulls, they stalked from corpse to corpse. They performed their curious surgery on the lifeless heads-and robbed each Viriconese, like the dead smuggler in the Metal-Salt Marsh, of his brain.

“They will come for us after the Northmen have finished,” said Cromis. “What are they doing, Tomb?”

“They are beginning the destruction of an empire,” answered the dwarf. “They will hack the brains out of the Stony City and eat them. They will take a power-knife and a spoon to Viriconium. Nothing will stop them.

“Indeed, I wonder who are the actual masters of this battleground-it is often unwise to meddle with the artefacts of the Afternoon Cultures.”

“tegeus-Cromis should go at once to the tower of Cellur,” said the metal bird, but no one listened to it.

Theomeris Glyn, the old campaigner, sat some distance away from the rest of the Methven, hoping to reinvigorate his sword by stropping it on a dead man’s boot.

“I think it is starting,” he called cheerfully. “They have licked their privates for the last time down there, and gathered up their courage.”

With a wild yell, the Northerners threw themselves at the knoll, and it shook beneath the onslaught. A spearcast blackened the air, and when it had cleared, pikemen advanced unimpeded up the lower slopes, gutting the survivors and treading in their wounds.

Behind the pikers came a never-ending wave of swordsmen, and axe-men, and berserk metal-prospectors from the northmost reaches of the waste, wielding queer weapons dug from pits in the ground. The shattered, pathetic remnant of Waterbeck’s expeditionary force fell back before them, and were overcome, and died. They hit the summit of the hill like some kind of earthquake, and they split the Methven, so that each one fought alone Tomb the Dwarf sniggered and swung his greedy axe. He towered above them, and they ran like rats around his silver-steel legs Birkin Grif cursed. His sword was shattered at the hilt, so he broke a Northman’s neck and stole another. He called to his smugglers, but all that brave and dirty crew were dead Old Glyn lunged. “You’ve never seen this one before,” he cackled, as he put his hidden knife in, “eh?” His opponent was astonished Cromis ducked and rolled like a fairground acrobat. The metal vulture was above him, the nameless sword was everywhere They came together, and made their stand.

“Methven!” cried Cromis, and they answered him. “Methven!”

Something in the grey air caught his eye, a movement beneath the cloud base. But a blade nicked his collarbone, and death demanded his attention. He gave it fully. When he next looked up, there were seven airboats in the sky where there had been four, and three of them bore the arms of Methvet Nian, Queen Jane of Viriconium. “Grif! Up there!”

“If they are couriers,” said Grif, “they come a little late.”

The crystal launches clashed with a sound like immense bells. As Cromis watched, the Northern squadron commander closed to ram: but the sky exploded suddenly around his ship, and burned, dripping cold fire; and, tail-first and crippled, it dropped out of the sky. Faint violet bolts chased it down.

“There’s a cannon aboard one of those ships,” said Tomb the Dwarf wonderingly. “It is the Queen’s own flight.”

Confused by this sudden renaissance in the air, the Northmen drew back from their prey and craned their necks. The dying airboat ploughed through them and blew up, scattering limbs and bits of armour. Howling with rage, they renewed their attack, and the Methven on the hill were hard put to it.

Up above, one of the Viriconese boats left its sister ships to a holding action against the remaining three Northern craft, and began to cruise up and down the valley. But the Methven were unaware of this until its huge shadow passed over them, hesitated, and returned. Tomb crowed. He tore off Cromis’s tattered black cloak with a huge steel hand and waved it about above his head. The airboat descended, yawing.

Ten feet above the top of the hill, it swung rapidly on its own axis, and fell like a stone. The energy cannon under its prow pulsed and spat. A hatch opened in its side. Its motors sang.

It was a difficult retreat. The Northmen pressed in, determined to claim what was due to them. Tomb took a blow from a mace behind the knees of his exoskeleton: a servo failed, and he staggered drunkenly, flailing about him.

Cromis found himself some yards away from the open hatch, the old campaigner at his side. They fought silently for a minute.

Then Theomeris Glyn put his back squarely against a pile of corpses and showed the Northmen his teeth. “I don’t think I’ll come, Cromis,” he said. “You’ll need some cover.” He sniffed. “I don’t like flying machines anyway.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Cromis. He touched the old man’s arm, to show his gratitude. “We’ll make it.”

But Glyn drew himself up. His age sloughed away from him. He had lost his helmet, and blood from a gash in his head had clotted in his beard; his padded doublet was in ruins, but the pride in his face shone out clear.

“tegeus-Cromis,” he said, “you forget yourself. Age has its privileges, and one of them is to die. You will do me the honour of allowing me to do that in my own way. Get into the ship and I will cover your back. Go. Goodbye.”

He met Cromis’s eyes.

“I’ll gut a few of them, eh?” he said. “Just a few more. Take care.”

And Theomeris Glyn, a lord of the Methven despite his years, turned to face his enemies. The last Cromis ever saw of him was a whirling rearguard of steel, a web such as he used to spin when the Old King ruled, and his blood was young.

Trembling violently, blinded by the old man’s courage, Cromis stumbled through the hatch. The metal bird rocketed in after him. It was still screaming its useless message of warning: he suspected that its mechanisms had been damaged somehow during the fight. He slammed the hatch shut. Outside, the Northmen were beating their weapons on the hull, searching for another entrance, grunting like frustrated animals.

The ship lurched, spun, hung five or ten feet off the ground. In the green, undersea gloaming of its command bridge, lights moved like dust motes in a ray of alien sun. Navigation instruments murmured and sang. “I’m having some trouble here,” said the pilot, conversationally. “Still, not to worry.” He was a rakish young man, his hair caught back with a pewter fillet in the fashion of the Courier Corps.

Birkin Grif lay on the vibrating crystal deck, his face white and drained. Bent over his injured leg, a woman in a hooded purple cloak was attempting to staunch the bleeding. He was saying weakly, “My lady, you were a fool to come here-”

She shook her head. Russet hair escaped her hood. Her cloak was fastened at the neck with a copper clasp formed to represent mating dragonflies. Looking at her, Cromis experienced a terrible premonition.

Sprawled in a tangle of silver spars at the base of the navigation table, Tomb the Dwarf struggled with his harness. His ugly face was frantic. “Take her up! Take her up!” he shouted. “Help me out of this, someone-”

“We can expect a bit of fuss when we get up there,” said the pilot. “Ah. Got her. Do hold tight-” He opened his throttles. The ship began to climb steeply.

Cromis, stumbling toward the dwarf, was thrown to the deck. He dropped his sword. He hit his head on the fire control of the energy cannon. As he passed out, he recognised the woman in the purple cloak: it was Methvet Nian herself, the Young Queen.

We are all insane, he thought. The Moidart has infected us all with her madness.

7

Shortly after Cromis came to his senses, the airboat was rammed.

Clinging grimly to a stanchion as the daring young courier flung his ship about the dangerous sky, he felt as if he were sitting behind the eyes of a tumbler pigeon: earth and air blurred together in a whirling mandala of brown and grey, across which flickered the deadly silhouettes of the Northern airboats. He was aware that Tomb had finally escaped the embrace of his own armour, that Grif and the Young Queen had wedged themselves against the rear bulkhead of the command bridge.

But his concern with events was abstract-since he could in no way influence the situation-and he had something else to occupy his mind: a speculation, a fear stimulated by the sudden appearance of Methvet Nian Abruptly, the portholes darkened. The ship gave a great shudder, and, with a sound like destroyed bells, its entire prow was torn off. Shards of crystal spat and whirred in the gloom. Five feet in front of the pilot, leaving his controls undamaged only by some freak of chance, an enormous hole opened in the hull: through it could be seen briefly the tumbling, receding wreck of the craft that had accomplished the ramming. An icy wind rushed in, howling.

“Oh,” murmured the courier. A twelve-inch spike of crystal had split his skull. Three fingers could have been got in the wound with ease. He swayed. “We still have power-if anybody can fly this thing-” he said, puzzledly. “I am sorry, my lady-I don’t seem to be-” He fell out of his seat.

Tomb the Dwarf scuttled on all fours across the listing deck to take his place. He fired off the energy cannon, but it tore itself away from the wreckage. “Benedict Paucemanly should see me now,” he said. He turned the ship in a wide loop, swung once over the battlefield. He flogged and cajoled it and nursed it over the waste, losing height. Beneath the cloud base, the sole uncrippled ship of the Queen’s flight fought a doomed action against the two remaining Northerners.

“Look down there,” said Tomb, as they veered over the scene of Waterbeck’s rout. “What do you think of that?”

The valley was a gaping wound filled with Northerners and dead men and thick white smoke which surged up from wrecked airboats, obscuring the dark figures of the geteit chemosit as they performed their acts of skull rape. The waste surrounding the battlefield was crawling with reptiles: hundreds of stiff, dust-coloured forms, converging slowly from south, east, and west, their motions stilted and strange.

“Every lizard in the Great Brown Waste must be down there. What are they doing?”

“They seem to be watching,” said Cromis. “Nothing else.” And, indeed, the ridges that flanked the valley were already lined with them, their stony heads unmoving as they gazed at the ruin, their limbs held rigid like those of spectators at some morbid religious observance.

“We fascinate them,” said Birkin Grif bitterly. With the boat’s return to stability, he had regained his feet. His leg was still bleeding freely. “They are amazed by our propensity for self-destruction.” He laughed hollowly. “Tomb, how far can we get in this machine?”

The ship drifted aimlessly, like a waterbird on a quiet current. The waste moved below, haunted by the gathering reptiles.

“Duirinish,” said the dwarf. “Or Drunmore. We could not make Viriconium, even if Paucemanly had postponed his flight to the Moon, and sat here at the controls in my place.”

Methvet Nian was kneeling over the dead courier, closing his eyes. Her hood was thrown back and her autumn-rowan hair cascaded about her face. Cromis turned from the strange sight of the monitor lizards, his earlier fears returning as he looked at her.

“There is nothing for us in Duirinish,” he said, addressing himself only partly to Tomb. “Shortly, it will fall. And I fear that there is little point in our going to the Pastel City.” He shook his head. “I suspect you had a reason for coming here, Your Majesty?”

Her violet eyes were wide, shocked. He had never seen anything so beautiful or so sad. He was overcome, and covered his emotion by pretending to hunt in the wreckage of the cabin for his sword.

He came upon the limp carcass of Cellur’s metal vulture: like the young courier, it had been torn open by a shard of crystal; its eyes were lifeless, and pieces of tiny, precise machinery spilled out of its breast when he picked it up. He felt an absurd sympathy for it. He wondered if so perfect an imitation of organic life might feel a perfect imitation of pain. He smoothed the huge pinions of its wings.

“Yes, Lord Cromis,” whispered the Young Queen. “This morning, the rebels rose again. Canna Moidart will find resistance only in Duirinish. Viriconium is in the hands of her supporters “My lords,” she appealed, “what will become of those people? They have embraced a viper-”

And she wept openly.

“They will be bitten,” said Birkin Grif. “They were not worthy of you, Queen Jane.”

She wiped her eyes. The Rings of Neap glittered on her thin fingers. She drew herself up straight and gazed steadily at him.

“You are too harsh, Birkin Grif. Perhaps the failure was not in them, but in their queen.”

They drifted for some hours over the waste, heading south. Tomb the Dwarf nursed his failing vehicle with a skill almost matching that of his tutor and master (no one knew if Paucemanly had actually attempted the moon trip in his legendary boat Heavy Star: certainly, he had vanished from the face of the earth after breaking single-handed Carlemaker’s air siege of Mingulay, and most fliers had a fanatical faith in the tale…) and brought them finally to Ruined Drunmore in the Pass of Methedrin, the city thrown down by Borring half a century before.

During that limping journey, they discussed treachery:

“If I had Norvin Trinor’s neck between my hands, I would break it lightheartedly,” said Birkin Grif, “even with pleasure, although I liked him once.”

He winced, binding up his leg.

“He has blackened all of us,” murmured Cromis. “As a body, the Methven have lost their credibility.”

But the Queen said, “It is Carron Ban who has my sympathy. Women are more used to betrayal than men, but take it deeper.”

It is the urgent and greedy desire of all wastes to expand and eat up more-fertile lands: this extension of their agonised peripheries lends them a semblance of the movement and life they once possessed. As if seeking protection from the slow southward march of the Rust Desert, Ruined Drunmore huddled against an outflung spur of the Monar Mountains.

In this, it failed, for drifts of bitter dust topped its outer walls, spilling and trickling into the streets below every time a wind blew.

The same winds scoured its streets, and, like an army of indifferent housekeepers, swept the sand through the open doors and shattered roofs of the inner city, choking every abandoned armoury and forge and barracks. The erosion of half a millennium had etched its cobbled roads, smoothed and blunted the outlines of its ruins, until its once-proud architecture had become vernacular, fit for its equivocal position between the mountains and the waste.

Even as a ruin, Drunmore was pitiful: Time and geography had choked it to death.

Towards the end of the flight, a wide rift had appeared suddenly in the deck of the airboat, exposing the ancient engines. Now, as they hovered over the city, flecks of coloured light, small writhing worms of energy, rose up out of the crack, clung to the metal surfaces of the command bridge, fastened on the inert carcass of the mechanical vulture, and clustered about the Queen’s rings.

Tomb grew nervous. “Corpse lights,” he muttered. He brought the machine down in Luthos Plaza, the four-acre field of Time-polished granite from which Borring had organised the destruction of Drunmore so many generations before.

Grif and Cromis dragged the dead courier from his ruined ship and buried him in a deep drift of loess on the southern side of the plaza. It was a queer and sombre business. The Queen looked on, her cowl pulled forward, her cloak fluttering. They were impelled to work slowly, for they had only their hands for shovels. As they completed the interment, great white sparks began to hiss and crackle between the shattered crystal hull and the surrounding buildings.

“We would be wiser out of this,” suggested Tomb, who had been carrying out salvage work, as was his nature, and promptly rushed back into the wreckage to steal more tools and retrieve his exoskeleton. After that, they made their way through the bone-smooth streets until Grif could walk no further, the damp wind mourning about them and Tomb’s armour clanking funereally as he dragged it along.

Under the one unbroken roof that remained (like a static stone haunting, like a five-hundred-year memory) in the city, amid piles of dust younger than the waste but older than the empire, they lit a fire and prepared a meal from the miserable stores of the wrecked machine. Shadows danced crudely, black on the black walls. The sun had gone down in a gout of blood.

At the prompting of some impulse he did not quite understand, Cromis had rescued the corpse of Cellur’s bird from the ship. While they ate, he explained its nature to the Young Queen, and Tomb probed its mechanisms with a thin steel knife.

“… We know nothing more of this man. But by sending the bird, he warned us-the fact that I did not heed the warning in no way devalues it-of the geteit chemosit. It may be that he has some way of dealing with them.”

Birkin Grif chewed a strip of dried meat. He laughed.

“That is pure conjecture,” he said.

“It is the only hope we have. Grif. There is nothing else.”

“He is very clever with his hands,” cackled Tomb the Dwarf, poking at the innards of the bird. He thought for a moment. “Or, like Canna Moidart, good at digging.”

“So, if you do not object, my lady, we will travel to Girvan Bay and solicit his aid. Should there be some secure place to which we can deliver you first-”

“Places do not guarantee security, Lord Cromis, only people”-here, she smiled at him-“a thing we have both learned recently, I think.” He reflected ruefully that it was unwise to forget the astuteness of the House of Methven. “And, besides, I have been safe for seventeen years. I think I would like to be at risk for a while.”

A huge, urgent lurching motion manifested itself on the other side of the fire like a local geological disturbance. Birkin Grif had heaved himself to his feet. He looked down at the Young Queen, mumbling subterraneanly to himself. He bowed from the waist.

“Madam,” he said, “you have the courage of your father. That is a brave attitude.” He sat down again. “Mind you,” he added in a low voice to Tomb, “it’s a bloody long trip for a man in my condition.”

Queen Jane of Viriconium laughed for the first time since she had lost her empire. Which shows at least, thought Cromis, the resilience of youth. He did not mean to condescend.

They stayed in that city for five days. A processing centre in the heyday of the Northmen, perhaps it welcomed the ring of Tomb’s hammer as he worked on his damaged armour-a loop in Time, a faint, distorted echo from a past in which other mechanics had beaten the subtle artefacts of the Afternoon Cultures into cruder, more vital forms.

Grif’s leg was slow to heal; exertion reopened it; the blood seemed slow to clot, and he found walking difficult. Like a convalescing child, he was prone to brief, silly rages. He limped and fretted about, railing at his own limitations. Finally, he forced himself to walk to the wreck in Luthos Plaza, tear a slim cobalt girder from the destroyed engine housing, and bend it into a crutch.

It was an unfortunate admission. His gait thereafter was laborious, unsteady-and Tomb, a cruel humourist, imitated it gleefully, stumbling and capering like a crippled acrobat. That parody was a horrid work of art. Grif lost his temper, and implied that the power-armour was a less respectable kind of crutch. They went for one another murderously, all hooked hands and cunning blows, and had to be separated forcibly. They took to cutting each other dead in the bleak streets.

“You are preposterous,” Cromis told them.

To Methvet Nian he said, “They are bored with inaction; we will leave here tomorrow,” but later that day two airboats bearing the Moidart’s sigil ghosted in off the waste and hung over the plaza. Northmen swarmed down rope ladders to examine the burnt-out launch, kicked noisily through the wreckage, looking for souvenirs.

Cromis took his small party to earth in the archaic suburbs of Drunmore. But it became apparent that the airborne force was the vanguard of an attempt to reoccupy the city after half a millennium’s absence, so they left the place that night, and went undetected into the cold spaces of the Pass of Methedrin.

They began their journey down the Rannoch:

It was a land of immense, barely populated glacial moors, flanked by the tall hills-of bogs and peat streams-of granite boulders split from the Mountains of Monar during slow, unimaginable catastrophes of ice, deposited to wear away in the beds of wide, fast, shallow rivers;

Of bright green moss, and coarse, olive-green grass, and delicate, washed-out winter flowers discovered suddenly in the lee of low, worn drumlins-of bent thorn and withered bullace, of damp prevailing winds that searched for voices in stands of birch and pine;

Of skylines, wrinkled with ridges;

Of heather and gorse, grey cloud and weather -of sudden open stretches of white water that would swell in spring, dwindle and vanish with the coming of summer-mysterious waterways;

It was green and brown, green and grey; it grew no crops; it constituted one quarter of the Empire of Viriconium.

At dawn each day, Cromis would leave his blankets, shivering, to inspect whatever snares he had set the night before: generally, he caught rabbits and waterlogged his boots, but he took a morose pleasure in these solitary outings. Something in the resigned, defeated landscape (or was it simply waiting to be born? Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence?) called out to his senses, demanded his attention and understanding.

He never found out what it was. Puzzling, he would return with his catch, to wake the camp and initiate another day of walking.

They were a ragged crew, a queer crew to be walking down the Rannoch like that: Tomb crucified in his leather leggings against the metal tree of his exoskeleton, never tiring, going like a machine over bog and river, leaping ravines and cutting down whole spinneys with his axe; Birkin Grif in the ruins of his splendid cobalt mail, hopping and lurching, cursing his crutch like a mad scarecrow; Cromis, his beautiful black hair lank in the damp wind, the dead metal bird dangling limply by its neck from his belt, stopping to gaze at waterworn stone by the hour And Methvet Nian in her purple cloak, discovering a portion of her lost empire, and of herself. “Towers are not everything, Lord Cromis!” she laughed, and she took his arm. “They are not!” She brought him flowers and was disappointed when he could not identify them for her. He showed her crows and mountains, and expected no identification at all. He smiled; he was not used to that. They were thrown together by small observations.

In this way, they covered twenty miles a day.

During the third week, it snowed. Ice crusted the rivers, rock cracked and broke above the thousand-foot line of the flanking hills. Cromis found his traps full of white hares and albino foxes with red, intelligent eyes. Birkin Grif killed a snow leopard with his crutch: for ferocity, it was an even match until the last blow.

For a week, they lived with a community of herders, small, dark-haired folk with strange soft accents, to whom the war in the North and West was but a rumour. They gave the Queen a sheepskin coat; they were shy and kind. As a measure of gratitude, Tomb the Dwarf cut wood from dawn to dusk, while Grif sat with his bad leg stretched in front of him and split it into enough kindling for a year (they became friends again as a result of this: neither of them loved anything better than cutting and chopping).

Everything began to seem distant: the snow was an insulator. Cromis forced himself to keep in mind the defeat in the North. It was important to his brooding nature that he remember the terrible blades of the geteit chemosit. He imagined them. He saw them lay siege to Duirinish in his head. Would the winter halt them at all?

After seven days of that, and a further fortnight of travel in the grim mountains at the southern end of the Rannoch, he was glad to see the arable lands around Lendalfoot and catch a glimpse at last of the grey sea breaking on the dark volcanic beaches of Girvan Bay.

Lendalfoot was a fishing town built of pale fawn stone, a cluster of one-roomed cottages and long drying sheds, their edges weathered, blurred by accumulations of moss and lichen. Here and there rose the tall white houses of local dignitaries. In the summer, fine pink sand blown off the shifting dunes of Girvan Bay filled its steep, winding streets; the fishwives argued bare-armed in the sun; and creaking carts carried the catch up the Great South Road into Soubridge.

But now the waves bit spitefully the shingle beach. The sea heaved, the mad black gulls fought over the deserted deep-water jetties, and the moored boats jostled one another uneasily.

Determined that news of the Young Queen should not travel north by way of the fish route, Cromis sent Tomb into Lendalfoot to pose as a solitary traveller and gather certain information (he stumped off sulkily, stripped of his power-armour so as not to alarm the fishermen, but refusing to give up his axe), then retired with Methvet Nian and Birkin Grif to a barren basalt hill behind the town.

The dwarf returned jauntily, throwing up and catching a small, wizened apple, which had been given to him (he said) by an old woman. “She was as dried up as her fruit,” he laughed. “She must have thought I was a child.” More likely, he had stolen it.

“It was a good thing I went alone: they are frightened and surly down there. News has come down the road to Soubridge.” He crunched the apple. “The Moidart has taken Low Leedale, thrown down Duirinish-with great loss of life-and now marches on Viriconium.

“Between the Pastel City and Soubridge, the geteit chemosit are abroad by night, killing with no reason.”

He ate the apple core, spat the pips impudently at Birkin Grif-who was sharpening his sword with a piece of sandstone he kept in his belt for that purpose-and lay down on his exoskeleton. “They have given me directions, more or less precise.” He strapped himself up, rose to his feet, once more a giant. He pointed out over the basalt cliffs, his motors humming.

“Our goal lies east and a little inland. The fishermen cooled further toward me when they learnt of my destination: they have little like of this Cellur. He is seen rarely, an old man. They regard him superstitiously, and call him ‘The Lord of the Birds.’ ”

8

In each of them had grown a compulsion to avoid roads and centres of population: by this, they were driven to travel the wilderness that stretches from Lendalfoot to the Cladich Marshes-a hinterland ruined and botched when the Afternoon Cultures were nothing but a dream in the germ-plasm of an ape, a stony wreckage of deep ravines and long-dormant volcanic vents.

“It is a poor empire I have,” said Methvet Nian, “win or lose. Everywhere, the death of the landscape. In miniature, the end of the world.”

No one answered her, and she drew her hood over her face.

It had not snowed in the South, but a continual rain lashed the grey and leafless vegetation, glossed the black basalt and pumice, and made its way in the form of agitated streams through the ravines to the sea. At night, electrical flares danced about the summits of the dead volcanoes, and the columnar basalt formations took on the aspect of a giant architecture.

As they went, they were shadowed and haunted by birds-ominous cruciform silhouettes high against the angry sky.

They reached the tower of Cellur in the evening of the second day. Cresting a ridge of pitted dolerite, they came upon the estuary of one of the unnamed rivers that ran from the mountains behind Cladich. Luminous in the fading light, the water spread itself before them like a sheet of metal. High black escarpments dropped sheer to its dark beaches; the cold wind made ephemeral, meaningless patterns on its surface.

Set in the shallows near the western bank was a small domed island, joined to the mainland by a causeway of crumbling stone blocks. It was barren but for a stand of white, dead pines.

Out of the pines, like a stone finger diminished by distance, rose the tower. It was five-faced, tapering: black. A tiny light shone near its summit, a glow that flickered, came and went. Birds wheeled about it, wailing mournfully, dipping to skim the water-fish eagles of a curious colour, with wings like cloaks in a gale.

“There is nothing for us here,” said Birkin Grif abruptly. “Only a lunatic would choose to live here. Those fishermen had the right of it.”

But Cromis, who understood isolation, and was reminded of his own tower among the rowans of Balmacara, shook his head. “It is what we came for, Grif. Those birds: look, they are not made of flesh.” He touched the corpse of the iridium vulture hanging from his belt. “We will go down.”

The estuary was filled with a brown, indecisive light, the island dark and ill-defined, enigmatic. The creaking of the dead pines came clearly across the intervening water on the wind. From a beach composed of fine basalt grit and littered with skull-sized lumps of volcanic glass, they mounted the causeway. Its stones were soapy and rotten; parts of it were submerged under a few inches of water.

They were forced to go in single file, Cromis bringing up the rear. As they drew nearer the island, Tomb the Dwarf unlimbered his axe, and Grif, drawing his broadsword a little way out of its scabbard, scowled about him as if he suspected a conspiracy against his person on the part of the landscape.

With damp feet, they stood before the tower.

It had been formed in some unimaginable past from a single obsidian monolith two hundred feet long by seventy or eighty in diameter; raised on its end by some lost, enormous trick of engineering; and fused smoothly at its base into the bedrock of the island. Its five facets were sheer and polished; in each was cut twenty tall, severe windows. No sound came from it; the light at its summit had vanished; a stony path led through the ghostly pines to its door.

Tomb the Dwarf chuckled gently to himself. “They built to last,” he said proudly to Cromis, as if he had personally dug the thing up from a desert. “You can’t deny that.” He strutted between the trees, his armour silver and skeletal in the dusk. He reversed his axe and thundered on the door with its haft.

“Come out!” he shouted. “Come out!” He kicked it, and his metal leg rang with the blow, but no one came. Up above their heads, the fish eagles made restless circles. Cromis felt Methvet Nian draw closer to him. “Come on out, Birdmaker!” called Tomb. “Or I’ll chop your gate to match-wood,” he added. “Oh, I’ll carve it!”

Soft but distinct in the silence that followed this threat, there came a dry, reedy laugh.

Birkin Grif cursed foully. “At your backs!” he bellowed, lugging out his heavy blade. Horrified by his own lack of foresight, Cromis turned to meet the threat from behind. Sweat was on his brow, the nameless sword was in his hand. Up above, the fish eagles gyred like ghosts, screaming. The pathway through the pines yawned-a tunnel, a trap, a darkness. He aimed a savage overhand stroke in the gloom, a cut that was never completed.

It was Cellur of Lendalfoot who stood there, the Birdmaker.

The Lord of the Birds was so old that he seemed to have outstripped the mere physical symptoms of his age and passed into a Timelessness, a state of exaltation.

His long, domed skull was fleshless, but his skin was smooth and taut and unwrinkled, so fine and tight as to be almost translucent. His bones shone through it, like thin and delicate jade. It had a faint, yellow tint, in no way unhealthy, but strange.

His eyes were green, clear, and amused; his lips were thin.

He wore a loose, unbelted black robe-quilted in grouped arrangements of lozenges-which was embroidered in gold wire patterns resembling certain geometries cut into the towers of the Pastel City: those queer and uneasy signs that might equally have been the visual art or the language or the mathematics of Time itself.

They had this property: that, when he moved, they seemed to shift and flow of their own accord, divorced entirely from the motions of the cloth of which they were a part.

“Hold your weapon, my lord,” he murmured, as the point of the nameless sword hovered indecisively at his old throat. He eyed the dead lammergeyer dangling from Cromis’s belt.

“I see by my bird that you are tegeus-Cromis. You have already left your visit too long. It would be a pity if you were to compound the error by killing the one you came to see.”

He laughed.

“Come. We will go in-” He indicated his tower. “You must introduce me to your energetic friend with the power-axe. He would like to kill me, I feel, but he must save that pleasure. No dwarf likes to be made a butt. Ah well.”

Stubborn Grif, however, would have none of it. When Cromis put up his sword, he showed no sign of following. He confronted the old man.

“You are either fool or malefactor,” he said, “to risk death, as you have just done, for such a silly trick. In coming here, we have killed more men than you have eaten hot meals, and many for less than that practical joke.

“I should like proof that you are the former, senile but well-meaning, before I enter your house.

“How, for instance, would any of us know that you are Cellur of Lendalfoot, and not some reproduction as cunningly fashioned as the bird?”

The old man nodded. He smiled.

“You would know by this, perhaps-”

He raised his arms and tipped back his head until he was gazing up into the darkening spaces where the fish eagles flew. The diagrams on his robe appeared to fluoresce and writhe. From his throat he forced a wild, loud cry, a shriek compounded of desolation and salt beaches, of wind and sea-the call of a seabird.

Immediately, the eagles halted their aimless gyring about the summit of the tower. One by one, they folded their great ragged wings, and, returning the cry, fell out of the sky, the wind humming past them.

For a moment, the air about the Birdmaster was full of sound and motion. He vanished in a storm of wings: and when he reappeared, it was with an eagle perched on each of his outspread arms and ten more on the earth before him.

“They have been constructed, you see,” he said, “to respond to a vocal code. They are very quick.”

Birkin Grif sheathed his weapon. “I apologise,” he said.

From the shadows by the door, Tomb the Dwarf sniggered quietly. He shifted his flickering axe to one shoulder, and came forward, his armour clanking dismally. He held out one huge metal hand to the old man.

“Fool or no, that is a trick I should like to learn.” He studied the perfect iridium plumage of the birds. “We will make a pact, old man. Teach me to build such things, and I will forget that I am a sensitive and evil-minded dwarf. I am sorry I threatened to mutilate your door.”

Cellur inclined his head gravely.

“I regret that it would have been impossible anyway. You shall learn, my friend. It is necessary that one of you be taught… certain operations. Come.”

He led them into the tower.

It was an ancient place, full of the same undersea gloaming that haunted the airboats of the Afternoon Cultures. There were ten floors, each one a single pentagonal room.

Three of these were given over to personal space, couched and carpeted; the remainder housed equipment of an equivocal nature, like the sculptures unearthed from the waste. Light curtains hung and drifted; there were captured electrical voices whose function was obscure “Green,” they whispered. “Ten green. Counting.”

Tomb the Dwarf walked among them, his expression benign and silly. Suddenly, he said, “I have wasted forty years. I should have been here, not picking over the detritus of deserts-”

Incomplete carcasses of metal birds lay on the workbenches: there were eagle owls, and martial eagles, and a black-shouldered kite complete but inert, awaiting some powering-up ritual that would put life into its small and savage eye.

And in the last room, at the summit of the tower, there were five false windows, most precise duplicates of those that lined the throne room at Viriconium and showed landscapes to be found nowhere in the Empire…

There, after they had refreshed themselves, Cellur the Birdmaker told them in his dry manner of the geteit chemosit, and his own strange life:

I have (he said) waited for some time for your arrival. You must understand that there is very little time left. I must have your cooperation if my intervention in this affair is to become concrete and positive. I should have had it earlier. Never mind.

Now: you are aware of the threat posed to Viriconium by Canna Moidart. You are not, however, aware of the more basic threat implicit in her use of what the Northmen-from their trough of ignorance and superstition- have called geteit chemosit, that is to say, “the brain stealers.”

This threat I must make clear: to do that-and, simultaneously, to set your minds at rest about my own position-I must tell you a little about myself and my queer abode. Please, sir, do not interrupt. It will speed things if you save your questions until I have outlined the broad picture.

Well.

Firstly, I want to make it clear that my involvement in this war is in no way political: the victory of Viriconium is as unimportant to me as the victory of the Northmen, except in one particular-please, Lord Grif, sit down and listen-with which I shall deal presently.

What concerns me is the preservation of the human race on earth, by which I mean, on this continent, for they are one and the same thing.

Certainly, you may ask who I am, my lord It is my tragedy that I do not know. I have forgotten. I do not know when I came to this tower, only that I have been here for at least a millennium.

I have no doubt that I was here during the collapse of what you would call the Afternoon Cultures-that, at that time, I had already been here for at least a century. But I cannot remember if I actually belonged to that rather mysterious race. They are lost to me, as they are to you.

I have no doubt also that I am either immortal or cursed with an extreme longevity: but the secret of that is lost in Time. Whether it was a disease that struck me, or a punishment that was conferred upon me, I do not know. My memory extends reliably for perhaps two hundred years into the past. No further.

That is the curse of the thing, you see: the memory does not last. There is little enough space in one skull for a lifetime’s memories. And no room at all for those of a millennium.

I do not even remember if I am a man.

Many races came-or were brought despite themselves-to earth in the prime of the Departed Cultures. Some stayed, marooned by the swift collapse of the environment that gave rise to the Rust Deserts, caught when the global economy could no longer support a technology and the big ships ceased to fly.

At least two of them survived that collapse, and have since successfully adapted to our conditions.

It may be that I represent a third.

However.

That is secondary to our purpose here. If you will consider the screens that face you, I will attempt to give you some idea of what we may expect from the mechanical servants of the Old Queen.

Yes, madam, the “windows,” as you call them, have been here at least as long as myself. I may have constructed them, I cannot remember. Until I discovered certain properties of light and sound, they, too, showed only fixed views of places not to be found in the kingdom. Now, each one is connected-by a principle of which I have recently gained a little understanding-to the eyes of one of my birds.

Thus, wherever they fly, I see.

Now. We will operate the first screen. As you can see, Canna Moidart had little trouble in taking Duirinish The huge metal doors are buckled: they swing to and fro in a wind that cannot be heard. Beneath the overhanging walls, a mountain of dead, Northmen and Viriconese inextricably mixed. The battlements are deserted. Moving into the city, a patrol of scavengers, dressed in looted furs. Fire has blackened the squat armouries of the city. On the edge of Replica Square, the Blue Metal Discovery lies in ruins. A dog sniffs at the still, huddled, headless figure in the centre of the square. It is a dead merchant…

There, she left the small holding force we have just seen returning to Alves after a foraging expedition, and moved on to Viriconium The Pastel City. Five thousand Northmen march the length of Proton Circuit, their faces flushed with triumph. A tavern in the Artists’ Quarter: spilt wine, sawdust, vomit. A line of refugees. The Pastel Towers, scarred in the final battle, when the last ship of the Queen’s Flight detonated the power-source of the last remaining energy cannon in the empire, in a vain attempt to repeat Benedict Paucemanly’s relief of the seige of Mingulay…

She was quick to move south. Here, we see the geteit chemosit in action against a group of guerillas, survivors of the Soubridge massacre That terrifying black skirmish line, moving up a steep hillside, energy blades swinging, in unison. The dead, sprawled about in agonised attitudes. A sudden close-up of a black, featureless face, three yellow eyes set in an isosceles triangle, unreadable, alien, deadly…

Mark that. That is the real enemy of Viriconium. I am sorry, Lord Cromis: I did not intend to cause Her Majesty so much distress. We will dispense with the fourth screen, my lady, and move on to the most important. This is taking place now, in Lendalfoot, the town you have just left Night. The unsteady flare and flicker of torches in the main street of the town. Their light outlines a group of fishermen, bending over something laid out on the cobbles. The scene jerks. An overhead view; a white, shocked face; tears; a woman in a shawl. There on the cobbles, a child, dead, the top of its head cut neatly away, its skull empty…

Finally, let us examine the history of what you know as the chemosit, and discuss my purpose in inviting you here. No, Lord Grif, I will be finished shortly. Please hear me out.

During a period of severe internal strife towards the end of the Middle Period, the last of the Afternoon Cultures developed a technique whereby a soldier, however hurt or physically damaged his corpse be, could be resurrected- as long as his brain remained intact.

Immersed in a tank of nutrient, his cortex could be used as a seed from which to “grow” a new body. How this was done, I have no idea. It seems monstrous to me.

The geteit chemosit were a result of escalation. They were built not only to kill, but also to prevent resurrection of the victim by destroying his brain tissue. As you remark, it is horrifying. But not a bad dream, those are not words I would use: it is a reality with which, a millennium later, we have to deal.

It is evident that Canna Moidart discovered a regiment of these automata in the north of the Great Brown Waste, dormant in some subterranean barracks. I became aware of this some years ago, when certain elements of my equipment detected their awakening. (At that time, I was unsure precisely what it was that the detectors were registering-a decade passed before I solved the problem; by that time, the war was inevitable.)

Now, Lord Cromis.

My tower’s records are clear on one point, and that is this: once awakened, those automata have only one in-built directive To kill.

Should Canna Moidart be unable to shut them down at the end of her campaign, they will continue to kill, regardless of the political alignment of their victims.

The Old Queen may very well find herself in full possession of the Empire of Viriconium.

But as soon as that happens, as soon as the last pocket of resistance is finished, and the geteit chemosit run out of wars to fight, they will turn on her. All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim-but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution of political problems. They hate life. That is the way they were built.

9

Silence reigned in the tower room. The five false windows continued to flicker through the green twilight, dumbly repeating their messages of distant atrocity and pain. The Birdmaker’s ancient yellow face was expressionless; his hands trembled; he seemed to be drained by his own prophecy.

“That is a black picture-” Tomb the Dwarf drank wine and smacked his lips. He was the least affected of them. “But I would guess that you have a solution. Old man, you would not have brought us here otherwise.”

Cellur smiled thinly.

“That is true,” he said.

Tomb made a chopping gesture with one hand.

“Let’s get to the meat of it then. I feel like killing something.”

Cellur winced.

“My tower has a long memory; much information is stored there. Deciphering it, I discover that the geteit chemosit are controlled by a single artificial brain, a complex the size of a small town.

“The records are ambiguous when discussing its whereabouts, but I have narrowed its location down to two points south of the Monadliath Mountains. It remains for someone to go there-”

“And?”

“And perform certain simple operations that I will teach him.”

Cellur stepped into a drifting column of magenta light, passed his palms over a convoluted mechanism. One by one, the false windows died, taking their agony with them. He turned to tegeus-Cromis.

“I am asking one or all of you to do that. My origin and queer life aside, I am an old man. I would not survive out there now that she has passed beyond the Pastel City.”

Numbed by what he had witnessed, Cromis nodded his head. He gazed at the empty windows, obsessed by the face of the dead Lendalfoot child.

“We will go,” he said. “I had expected nothing like this. Tomb will learn faster than Grif or I; you had better teach him.

“How much grace have we?”

“A week, perhaps. The South resists, but she will have no trouble. You must be ready to leave before the week is out.”

During the Birdmaker’s monologue, Methvet Nian had wept openly. Now, she rose to her feet and said:

“This horror. We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it.

“How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?”

The Birdmaker shrugged. The geometries of his robe shifted and stretched like restless alien animals.

“Are you bidding me remember, madam? I fear I cannot.”

“They were stupid,” said Birkin Grif, his fat, honest face puzzled and hurt. It was his way to feel things personally. “They were fools.”

“They were insane towards the end,” said Cellur. “That I know.”

Lord tegeus-Cromis wandered the Birdmaker’s tower alone, filled his time by staring out of upper windows at the rain and the estuary, making sad and shabby verses out of the continual wild crying of the fish eagles and the creaking of the dead white pines. His hand never left the hilt of the nameless sword, but it brought him no comfort.

Tomb the Dwarf was exclusively occupied by machinery-he and Cellur rarely left the workshop on the fifth floor. They took their meals there, if at all. Birkin Grif became sullen and silent, and experienced a resurgence of pain from his damaged leg. Methvet Nian stayed in the room set aside for her, mourning her people and attempting to forgive the monstrousness to which she was heiress.

Inaction bored the soldier; moroseness overcame the poet; a wholly misplaced sense of responsibility possessed the Queen: in their separate ways they tried to meet and overcome the feeling of impotence instilled in them by what they had learned from the Lord of the Birds, and by the enigma he represented.

To a certain extent, each one succeeded: but Cellur ended all that when he called them to the topmost room of the tower on the afternoon of the fifth day since their coming.

They arrived separately, Cromis last.

“I wanted you to see this,” Cellur was saying as he entered the room.

The old man was tired; the skin was stretched tight across the bones of his face like oiled paper over a lamp; his eyes were hooded. Abruptly, he seemed less human, and Cromis came to accept the fact that, at some time in the remote past, he might have crossed immense voids to reach the earth.

How much sympathy could he feel for purely human problems, if that were so? He might involve himself, but he would never understand. Cromis thought of the monitor lizard he had seen in the waste, and its fascination with the fire.

“We are all here then,” murmured the Birdmaker.

Birkin Grif scowled and grunted.

“Where is Tomb? I don’t see him.”

“The dwarf must work. In five days, he has absorbed the governing principles of an entire technology. He is amazing. But I would prefer him to continue working. He knows of this already.”

“Show us your moving pictures,” said Grif.

Ancient hands moved in a column of light. Cellur bent his head, and the windows flickered behind him.

“A vulture flew over Viriconium this morning,” he said. “Watch.”

A street scene in the Artists’ Quarter: Thing Alley, or Soft Lane perhaps. The tottering houses closed tight against a noiseless wind. A length of cloth looping down the gutter; a cat with an eye like a crooked pin flattens itself on the paving, slips out its tongue and devours a morsel of rancid butter. Otherwise, nothing moves.

Coming on with an unsteady rolling gait from the West End of the quarter: three Northmen. Their leather leggings are stiff and encrusted with sweat and blood and good red wine. They lean heavily against one another, passing a flask. Their mouths open and shut regularly, like the mouths of fish in a bowl. They are oblivious.

They have missed a movement in a doorway, which will kill them.

As crooked and silent as the cat, a great black shadow slips into the road behindthem. The immense energy blade swings up and down. The silly, bemused faces collapse. Hands raised helplessly before eyes. Their screams are full of teeth. And the triangle of yellow eyes regards their corpses with clinical detachment…

“It has begun, you see,” said the Birdmaker. “This is happening all over the city. The automata fight guerilla engagements with Canna Moidart’s people. They do not fully understand what is happening as yet. But she is losing control.”

Birkin Grif got to his feet, stared at the false windows with loathing, and limped out.

“I would give an arm never to have come here, Birdmaster,” he said as he left the room. “Never to have seen that. Your windows make it impossible for me to hate the enemy I have known all my life; they present me with another that turns my legs to water.”

Cellur shrugged.

“How soon can we move?” Cromis asked.

“In a day, perhaps two. The dwarf is nearly ready. I am calling in all my birds. Whatever your Lord Grif thinks, I am not some voyeur of violence. I no longer need to watch the Moidart’s fall. The birds will be more useful if I redeploy them over the route you must shortly take.

“Make sure you are watching when they return, Lord Cromis. It will be a sight not often seen.”

Cromis and Methvet Nian left the room together. Outside, she stopped and looked up into his eyes. She had aged. The girl had fallen before the woman, and hated it. Her face was set, the lips tight. She was beautiful.

“My lord,” she said, “I do not wish to live with such responsibilities for the rest of my life. Indirectly, all this is my fault. I have hardly been a strong queen.

“I will abdicate when this is over.”

He had not expected such a positive reaction.

“Madam,” he said, “your father had similar thoughts on most days of his life. He knew that course was not open to him. You know it, too.”

She put her head on his chest and wept.

For twenty-four hours, the sky about the tower was black with birds. They came hurling down the wind from the north:

Bearded vultures and kites from the lower slopes of the Monar Mountains;

Eagle owls like ghosts from the forests;

A squadron of grim long-crested hawk eagles from the farmlands of the Low Leedale;

A flight of lizard buzzards from the reaches of the Great Brown Waste;

A hundred merlins, two hundred fish hawks-a thousand wicked predatory beaks on a long blizzard of wings.

Cromis stood with the Young Queen by a window and watched them come out of night and morning: circling the tower in precise formation; belling their wings to land with a crack of trapped air; studding the rocks and dark beaches of the tiny island. They filled the pines, and he saw now why every tree was dead-Cellur had had need of his birds some long time before, and their talons had stripped every inch of bark, their steel bodies had shaken every branch.

“They are beautiful,” whispered the Queen.

But it was the birds, despite their beauty, that destroyed their maker.

… For in the stripped lands south of Soubridge, where the villagers had burned their barns before the enemy arrived, a hungry Northman fired his crossbow into a flock of speeding owls. A certain curiosity impelled him: he had never seen such a thing before. More by luck than judgement, he brought one down.

And when he found he could not eat it, he screwed his face up in puzzlement, and took it to his captain…

Dawn came dim and grimy over the basalt cliffs of the estuary. It touched the window from which Cromis had watched all night, softening his bleak features; it stroked the feathers of the birds in the pines; it silvered the beaks of the last returning flight: seventy cumbersome cinereous vultures, beating slowly over the water on their nine-foot wings.

And it touched and limned the immense shape which drifted silently after them as they flew-the long black hull that bore the mark of the wolf’s head and three towers.

Cromis was alone; the Queen had retired some hours earlier. He watched the ship for a moment as it trawled back and forth over the estuary. Its shell was scarred and pitted. After two or three minutes it vanished over the cliffs to the west, and he thought it had gone away. But it returned, hovered, spun hesitantly, hunting like a compass needle.

Thoughtfully, he made his way to the workshop on the fifth floor. He drew his sword and rapped with its pommel on the door.

“Cellur!” he called. “We are discovered!”

He looked at the nameless blade, then put it away.

“Possibly, we can hold them off. The tower has its defences. It would depend on the type of weapon they have.”

They had gathered in the upper room, Methvet Nian shivering with cold, Birkin Grif complaining at the earliness of the hour. Dry-mouthed and insensitive from lack of sleep, Cromis found the whole situation unreal.

“One such boat could carry fifty men,” he said.

It hung now, like a haunting, over the causeway that joined the tower to the mainland. It began to descend, slowed, alighted on the crumbling stone, its bow aimed at the island.

“Footmen need not concern us,” said Cellur. “The door will hold them: and there are the birds.”

Beneath the weight of the boat, the causeway shifted, groaned, settled. Chunks of stone broke away and slid into the estuary. In places, a foot of water licked the dark hull. Behind it, the hills took on a menacing gun-metal tint in the growing light. Cellur’s fish eagles began their tireless circling.

Five false windows showed the same view: the water, the silent launch.

A hatch opened in its side, like a wound.

From it poured the geteit chemosit, their blades at high port.

Birkin Grif hissed through his clenched teeth. He rubbed his injured leg. “Let us see your home defend itself, Birdmaker. Let us see it!”

“Only two humans are with them,” said the Queen. “Officers: or slaves?”

They came three abreast along the causeway; half a hundred or more energy blades, a hundred and fifty yellow, fathomless eyes.

The birds met them.

Cellur’s hands moved across his instruments, and the dawn faltered as he lifted his immense flock from the island and hurled it at the beach. Like a cloud of smoke, it stooped on the chemosit, wailing and screaming with one voice. The invader vanished.

Blades flickered through the cloud, slicing metal like butter. Talons like handfuls of nails sought triplet eyes. Hundreds of birds fell. But when the flock drew back, twenty of the automata lay in shreds half in and half out of the water, and the rest had retreated to their ship.

“Ha,” said Grif in the pause that followed. “Old man, you are not toothless, and they are not invulnerable.”

“No,” said the Birdmaster, “but I am frightened. Look down there. It seems to me that Canna Moidart dug more than golems from the desert-”

He turned to Cromis.

“You must go! Leave now. Beneath the tower are cellars. I have horses there. Tunnels lead through the basalt to a place half a mile south of here. The dwarf is as ready as he ever will be. Obey his instructions when you reach the site of the artificial brain.

“Go. Fetch him now, and go! His armour I have serviced. It is with the horses. Leave quickly!”

As he spoke, his eyes dilated with fear.

Despite repeated attacks by the birds, the chemosit had gained a little space on the causeway beside their ship. In this area, four of them were assembling heavy equipment. They worked ponderously, without haste.

“That is a portable energy cannon,” whispered Birkin Grif. “I had not thought that such things existed in the empire.”

“Many things exist under it, Lord Grif,” Cellur told him. “Now go!”

The tower shuddered.

Violet bolides issued from the mouth of the cannon. Rocks and trees vaporised. Five hundred birds flashed into a golden, ragged sphere of fire, involuntary phoenixes with no rebirth. Cellur turned to his instruments.

The tower began to hum. Above their heads, at the very summit, something crackled and spat. Ozone tainted the air.

Lightning leapt across the island, outlined the hull of the airboat with a wan flame.

“I have cannon of my own,” said the Birdmaker, and there was a smile on his ancient face. “Many of those birds were so complicated they had learned to talk. That is as good a definition of life as I have ever heard.”

The water about the causeway had begun to boil.

Cromis took the Queen’s arm.

“This is no place for us. The old weapons are awake here. Let them fight it out.”

The rock beneath the tower trembled ominously.

“Should we not bring the old man with us? They will kill him in the end-”

“I do not think he would come,” said Cromis, and he was right.

Tomb the Dwarf was dull-eyed and bemused.

“I have wasted fifty years of my life,” he said. “We must go, I suppose.”

One hundred steps led to the caverns beneath.

It was a queer journey. The horses were skittish from lack of exercise, the tunnels ill-lit. Moisture filmed the walls, and fungus made murals from the dreams of a madman. Huge, silent machines stood in alcoves melted from the living rock.

The vibrations of the battle above died away.

“We are beneath the estuary. It is the underside of the world, where the dead men lose their bones.”

They were forced to ride through a column of cold fire. They discovered these things:

The white skeletons of a horse and its rider; a sword too big for any of them to lift; an immense web; the mummified body of a beautiful princess.

Sounds that were not echoes followed them down the twisted corridors.

“I could believe we are out of Time,” said tegeus-Cromis.

Finally, they came up out of the earth and stood on the lip of the western cliffs, gazing down. The tower of Cellur was invisible, wrapped in a pall of coloured smoke, through which the lightnings flashed and coruscated. The causeway had sagged; in places its stones were melted. Steam hung over the estuary.

A cold mist drew round them as they turned their horses south and west, making for Lendalfoot, and then the Forest of Sloths. As they left Cellur to his vain battle, one fish eagle was hanging high above the smoke: circling.

Tomb the Dwarf never spoke to anyone of his sojourn on the fifth floor, or of what he had learned there. It is certain that he absorbed more than the knowledge required by his task, and that the Birdmaker found him an apt and willing pupil. Nor could he be persuaded to say anything of Cellur, the man who had forgotten his age and his origin. But in his later life, he often murmured half to himself:

“We waste our lives in half truths and nonsense. We waste them.”

10

Canna Moidart’s long thrust into the South reached Mingulay and guttered. The town fell, but in the bleak streets behind the sea front, the chemosit sensed there was nowhere further to go: they slaughtered the civilians, and then, quite without purpose or emotion, turned on their masters, who died in a smell of blood and fish…

While, in the back alleys of Soubridge and the Pastel City, death wore precise, mechanical limbs… A greater war had begun… Or perhaps it had never finished, and the automata were completing a task they had started over a thousand years before… The Northmen desperately needed enemies…

“A forbidding prospect.” tegeus-Cromis and Tomb the Dwarf stood at the summit of a rainswept ridge in the south of that narrow neck of land which separates the Monadliath Mountains from the sea.

The country around them was alkaline and barren, an elevated limestone region seamed and lined with deep gullies by the almost constant rain: in areas, rock strata that had resisted the erosion of millennia made tall, smooth, distorted columns which stood out above the surrounding land.

“An old road runs through it, according to the Birdmaster. What we seek is at the end of it-perhaps. You are sure you will recognise it?”

Above the grotesque spires and limb shapes of the terrain, grey clouds were flung out across a drab sky, and the wind was bitter. Tomb tapped enormous steel fingers impatiently against the left leg of his exoskeleton.

“How many times must you be told? Cellur taught me.”

They had been five days travelling. On the first night, the successful skirting of Lendalfoot and its uneasy garrison of Northmen, the fording of the major estuary of the Girvan Bay at low tide: but the next afternoon, crofters living in the southwestern shadow of Monadliath had warned them of chemosit advance parties operating in the area, and their movements had been cautious thereafter.

Now, the vanguard of the South Forest barred their path.

The land sloped away from them for five miles, growing steadily less tortured as the limestone faded out. Low scrub and gorse made their appearance, gave way to groves of birch: then the black line of the trees- dark, solid, stretching like a wooden wall from the thousand-foot line of the mountains to the chalk pits by the sea.

“Well,” said Cromis, “we have no choice.”

He left the dwarf staring ahead and made his way down the greasy northern slope of the ridge to where Birkin Grif and Methvet Nian huddled with the horses under a meagre overhang, rain plastering their cloaks to their bodies and their hair to their heads.

“The way is clear to the forest. Hard to tell if anything moves out there. We gain nothing by waiting here. Grif, you and I had better begin thinking of our way through the trees.”

Within half a day they were lost among the green cathedrals.

There was no undergrowth, only trunks and twisted limbs; their horses stumbled over interlaced roots; the going was slow. There was no movement or sound among the lower branches, only the slow drip of moisture percolating from the groined grey spaces above. Pines gave way to denser plots of oak and ash, and there was no path: only the aimless roads their minds made through the trees.

Mid afternoon.

In a clearing of gigantic, wan hemlock and etiolated nettle, Tomb the Dwarf left them.

“It is a bitch that I have to do your work, too,” he muttered. “Stay here.” And he strode off, chopping a straight route with his big axe, uprooting saplings out of spite.

Shaggy mosses grew on the southern faces of the trees that ringed the glade; wet fungoid growths like huge plates erupted on their cloven massive trunks, bursting putrescently when touched. The light was lichen-grey, oppressive.

“We have come too far to the west,” said Birkin Grif, glancing round uncomfortably. “The land begins to slope.” After a pause, he added in his own defense: “The Birdmaker was less than explicit.”

“The fault is also mine,” Cromis admitted.

Methven Nian shivered. “I hate this place.”

Nothing more was said: voices were heavy and dead, conversation fell like turf on a grave or the thud of hooves on endless leaf mould.

At dusk, the dwarf returned, a little less sullen. He bowed to the Queen.

“Tomb, my lady.” He explained: “An itinerant dwarf of menacing demeanour. Mechanic and pathfinder”-here, he glanced witheringly at Cromis and Grif, who had both become interested in a thicket of nightshade-“at your service.”

He sniggered.

He led them to a poorly defined path overshadowed by great rough blackthorn, the light failing around them. As the sun died without a sound somewhere off behind the trees and the clouds, they came to a broad, wasted space running to north and south in the mounting gloom.

Fireweed and thistle grew thickly there, but it could not disguise the huge, canted stone slabs, twenty yards on a side and settling into the floor of the forest, that had once made up a highway of gargantuan proportion. Nor could the damp moss completely obscure the tall megaliths, deeply inscribed with a dead language, that lined the way to the city in the forest: Thing Fifty, a capitol of the South in days beyond the memory of Cellur’s marvellous tower.

They camped on the road, in the lee of an overgrown slab, and their fire, calling across Time, perhaps, as well as space, brought out the sloths…

“Something is out there,” said Birkin Grif.

He got to his feet, stood with the flames flickering on his back, looking into the terrible silences of the forest. He drew his broadsword.

Flames and stillness.

“There,” he hissed. He ran foward into the shadows, whirling the long blade round his head.

“Stop!” cried Methvet Nian. “My lord-leave them be!”

They came shambling slowly into the light, three of them. Grif gave ground before them, his weapon reflecting the flames, his breath coming slow and heavy.

They blinked. They reared onto their great stubby hind legs, raising their forepaws, each one armed with steely cutting claws. Patterns of orange firelight shifted across their thick white pelts.

Fifteen feet high, they stared mutely down at Grif, their tranquil brown eyes fixed myopically on him. They swayed their blunt, shaggy heads from side to side. Grif retreated.

Slim and quick as a sword, her hair a challenge to the fire, Methvet Nian, Queen and Empress, placed herself between him and the megatheria.

“Hello, my Old Ones,” she whispered. “Your kindred sends you greetings from the palace.”

They did not understand. But they nodded their heads wisely, and gazed into her eyes. One by one, they dropped to their haunches and ambled to the fire, which they examined thoroughly.

“They are the Queen’s Beasts, my lord,” said Methvet Nian to Birkin Grif. “And once they may have been more than that. No harm will come to us from them.”

In two days, they came to Thing Fifty. It was a humbled city, ten square miles of broken towers, sinking into the soft earth.

Squares and plazas, submerged beneath fathoms of filthy water, had become stagnant, stinking lakes, their surfaces thickly coated with dead brown leaves. Black ivy clutched the enduring metals of the Afternoon Cultures, laid its own meandering inscriptions over bas-reliefs that echoed the geometries of the Pastel City and the diagrams that shifted across the robe of Cellur.

And everywhere, the trees, the fireweed, the pale hemlock: Thing Fifty had met a vegetable death with thick, fibrous, thousand-year roots.

Between the collapsed towers moved the megatheria, denizens of the dead metropolis. They lived in sunken rooms, moved ponderously through the choked streets by night and day, as if for millennia they had been trying to discover the purpose of their inheritance.

Tomb the Dwarf led the party through the tumbled concentric circles of the city.

“At the very centre,” he said, “a tower stands alone in an oval plaza.” He cocked his head, as if listening to a lecture in his skull. “To descend into the caverns beneath the plaza, we must enter that. Certain defences may still be operating. But I have the trick of those, I hope.”

The ground sloped steeply down as they went, as if Thing Fifty had been built in the bowl of a tremendous amphitheatre. They were forced to cross pools and unpleasant moats. Running water became common, springs bubbling from the cracked paving.

“I had not counted on this. The bunkers may be waterlogged. Runoff from the foothills of the Monadliath has done this. Help for the trees, but not us.”

He was near the mark, but how near, he could not have imagined: and when they reached the plaza, none of his new skills were of any use.

For at the hub of the city of Thing Fifty lay a perfectly oval tarn of clear water.

At its centre, like the stub of one of Tomb’s own broken teeth, rose the last few feet of a tall tower. In its depths, they could see luxuriant water plants rooted in the thick black silt that had covered and blocked the entrance to the bunkers.

Into their stunned silence, Birkin Grif murmured, “We are finished here before we begin. It is drowned.”

Methvet Nian looked at Tomb. “What shall we do?”

“Do?” He laughed bitterly. “Throw ourselves in. Do what you like. I can accomplish nothing here.”

He stalked off a little way and sat down. He threw lumps of dead wood and stone into the water that mocked him.

“We cannot get down there,” said Cromis. “We will sleep in a drier part of the city tonight, and in the morning move on.

“Cellur told us that the siting of the artificial brain was uncertain. We had warning of that. We will try our second goal, in the Lesser Rust Desert.

“If that fails, we can come back here-”

Tomb the Dwarf sniggered.

“And dive like ducks? You are a fool. We have lost the game.”

Cromis fondled the hilt of his sword. “We lost the game a long time since, in the Great Brown Waste,” he said, “but we still live. It is all we can do.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” said a soft, ironical voice from close behind him. “It is your place to lose, I think.”

Cromis turned, horror blooming in his skull, his sword sliding from its leather scabbard.

Norvin Trinor stood before him.

Twenty Northmen were at his back, forceblades spitting and hissing in their hands.

“You should have killed me when you had the chance, my lord,” he said. He shook his head theatrically and sighed. “Still, perhaps it was not meant to be that way.”

He looked from Cromis to Grif. The scar left by Thorisman Carlemaker’s knife immobilised one side of his face, so that when he smiled only one eye and half his mouth responded. He still wore the cloak and mail Cromis had last seen on the battlefield. Like the leather garments of the Northmen, they were stained with blood and wine.

“Hello, Grif,” he said.

Birkin Grif exposed his teeth.

“Arselicker,” he said, “your lads will not save you, even though they kill me after I have gutted you.” He showed Trinor a few inches of his broadsword. He spat on the floor. He took a step forward. “I will have your bowels out on the floor,” he promised.

Cromis put a hand on his shoulder.

“No, Grif, no.”

Trinor laughed. He swept back his cloak and slid his own blade back into its sheath.

“tegeus-Cromis sees it,” he said. “Heroism is useless against a strategist: Methven taught us all that many years ago.”

“You learnt quickest of all,” said Cromis dryly. “Grif, we could kill him four times over: but when we have finished, we will face twenty baans. Even Tomb could not stand against them.

“However well we fight, the Queen will die.”

Norvin Trinor made a sweeping bow in the Young Queen’s direction.

“Quite. A splendid exposition, my lord. However, there is a way out of this for you. You see, I need your dwarf.

“Let me explain. I am on the same quest as yourselves. I am able in fact to tell you that you are wasting your time here in Thing Fifty unless your interest is purely archaeological.

“For some time now, we have been a little worried about our allies. During certain researches in our good queen’s library”-he bowed again-“in the Pastel City, I discovered what an unreliable weapon the chemosit are. Quite like myself, you understand: they serve only themselves. (Hold still a moment, Lord Grif. It will not hurt you to listen.) You have learnt this, of course. I should like very much to know where, by the way.

“I came also upon part of the answer to the problem: the exact whereabouts of the machine which will… turn them off, so to speak.

“Now, I gather from your conversation here that the dwarf has been given information I was unable to obtain. In short, I need him to do the business for me. I could not take him from you without killing him. Persuade him that it is in the best interests of all of us that he work for me in this matter, and I spare you. The Queen, too.”

Throughout this monologue, Tomb had remained sitting on the edge of the tarn. Now, he unlimbered his axe and got to his feet. Norvin Trinor’s wolves stirred uneasily. Their blades flickered. The dwarf stretched to the full eleven feet his armour lent him and stood towering over the traitor.

He raised the axe.

He said: “I was born in a back alley, Trinor. If I had suspected at the battle for Mingulay that you would do this to three men who fought alongside you, I would have put a baan between your ribs while you slept. I will do your job for you because it is the job I came to do. Afterwards, I will cut off your knackers and stitch them into your mouth.

“Meanwhile, Methvet Nian remains unharmed.”

And he let the axe fall to his side.

“Very well. We declare a truce, then: precarious, but it should not stain your finer feelings too much. I will allow you to keep your weapons.” He smiled at Cromis’s start of surprise. “But a man of mine stays by the Queen at all times.

“I have an airboat parked on the southern edge of the city. We will leave immediately.”

Later, as they entered the black ship, its hatch opening directly beneath the crude, cruel sigil of the wolf’s head, Cromis asked:

“How did you discover us? You could not have followed us through the forest, or even through the barrens without being seen-”

Trinor looked puzzled. Then he gave his crippled smile.

“Had you not realised? It was pure luck: we were here before you entered the city. That’s the beauty of it. We had stopped for fresh meat. At that time, I anticipated a long sojourn in the desert.”

And he pointed to the great heap of carcasses that lay beside the launch, their white pelts stained with gore, their myopic eyes glazed in death. Crewmen were preparing to haul them into the cargo hold, with chains.

Cromis looked out at the tangled landscape of Thing Fifty.

“You are an animal,” he said.

Norvin Trinor laughed. He clapped Cromis on the shoulder. “When you forget you are an animal, my lord, you begin to lose.”

11

Brown, featureless desert slipped beneath the keel of the drifting airboat: the Lesser Waste, in all respects similar to the great dead region north of Duirinish, the spoliated remnants of an industrial hinterland once administrated from Thing Fifty. tegeus-Cromis, Birkin Grif, and Tomb the Dwarf, locked in the cargo hold with the dead megatheria, paced restlessly the throbbing crystal deck. With a power-blade at the neck of Methvet Nian, Norvin Trinor had forced the dwarf to give up his armour, although he had allowed him to keep his axe. He looked like an ancient, twisted child.

“A chance may come when I breach the defences of the organic brain,” he said. He fondled the axe. He shrugged. “Indeed, I may slip, and kill us all.”

The boat lurched in an updraught: white carcasses slid about the hold. Cromis stared from the single porthole down at the desert. Unknown to him, his fingers plucked at the hilt of the nameless sword.

“Whatever is done, it must not involve a fight. You understand that, Grif? I want no fighting unless we can be sure the Queen will remain unharmed.”

Grif nodded sulkily.

“In other words, do nothing,” he said.

As he spoke, the bulkhead door opened. Norwin Trinor stepped through, two of his wolves flanking him. He pulled at his drooping moustache.

“A commendable plan,” he said. “Most wise.” He looked at Grif for some moments, then turned to Tomb. “Dwarf, we have arrived. Look down there and tell me if this place was mentioned in your information.”

Tomb moved to the porthole.

“It is a desert. Deserts were indeed mentioned to me.” He showed his rotting teeth. “Trinor, you are displaying a traditional foolishness. I can tell nothing for sure until we land.”

The traitor nodded curtly, and left. A few moments later, the airboat began to descend, bucking a little as it entered a low level of wind.

Trinor’s pilot settled the ship on a bare shield of black rock like an island in the rolling limbo of the dunes. The engines ceased to pulse, and a soft, intermittent hissing sound commenced beyond the hull. Time is erosion: an icy wind blew streams of dust across the surface of the rock. It had been blowing for a millennium.

They stood in the lee of the vehicle, eddies of wind wrapping their cloaks about them. Dust in their eyes and mouths, Cromis looked at the thin, hunched shoulders of the Queen. We are nothing but eroded men, he thought, wind clothing our eyes with white ice. Benedict Paucemanly flew to the earth. It is we who live on the barren moon.. ..

“Well?” said Trinor.

A hundred yards away reared the curving flank of a dune. From it poked the ends of broken and melted load girders, like a grove of buckled steel trees. They were bright, polished, and eroded. Cromis, eyeing the desolation silently, became aware that beneath the muted cry of the archaic wind was a low humming: the rock beneath his feet was vibrating faintly.

Tomb the Dwarf walked about. He bent down and put his ear to the rock. He got up again and dusted his leather leggings.

“This is the place,” he said. “Begin digging at the base of the dune.” He grinned cockily at Cromis. “The wolves become moles,” he said loudly. “This would have taken us weeks without them. Perhaps we should thank Lord Traitor.” He strutted off to examine the girder forest, his long white hair knotting in the wind.

With surly grunts, the Northmen were set to work, and by noon of the following day, their labours had exposed a rectangular doorway in the flank of the dune: a long low slit sealed with a slab of the same resistant obsidian stuff as had been used to construct the Birdmaker’s tower.

The maker of the door had cut deep ideographs in it. Time and the desert had been unable to equal him in this respect: the slab was as smooth and the ciphers as precise as if they had been made the day before. It seemed a pity that no one could read them.

Trinor was jubilant.

“We have a door,” he said, pulling at his moustache. “Now let us see if our dwarf can provide a key.” He slapped Tomb jovially on the shoulder.

“You forget yourself,” murmured the dwarf.

He stood before the door, his lips moving silently. Perhaps he was recalling his apprenticeship on the fifth floor. He knelt. He passed his hands over a row of ideographs. A red glow sprang up and followed them. He murmured something, repeated it.

“NEEDS YOU,” intoned the door abruptly, in a precise, hollow voice: “NEEDS YOU. BAA, BAA. BAA. OURO-BUN-DOS-”

The gathered Northmen dropped their spades. Many of them made religious signs with their fingers. Eyes round, they clutched their weapons, breathing though their open mouths.

“DOG MOON, DOG YEARS,” moaned the door. “BAA, BAA, BAA.”

And to each ritualistic syllable, Tomb made a suitable reply. Their dialogue lasted for some minutes before silence descended and he began again the process of moving his hands across the ancient script.

“GOLEBOG!” screamed the door.

A brief, intense flare of white light obscured the dwarf. He staggered out of it, beating at his clothes. He chuckled. His hair reeked, his leggings smouldered. He blew on his fingers.

“The door mechanism has become insane over the years,” he said. “It”-here, he said a word that no one knew-“me, but I misled it. Look.”

Slowly, and with no sound, the obsidian slab had hinged downwards until it rested like the lower lip of a slack mechanical mouth on the dust, compacting it; and behind it stretched a sloping corridor lit by a pale, shifting pastel glow.

“Your door is open,” he told Trinor. “The defences are down.”

Trinor rubbed the scar on his cheek.

“One hopes that they are,” he said. “tegeus-Cromis enters first. If there should be a misunderstanding between him and the door, the Queen will follow.”

There were no accidents.

As Cromis entered the bunker, the door whispered malevolently to him, but it left him alone. The light shifted frequency several times as he stood there staring at the vanishing point of the gently sloping passage. Vague, unidentifiable musical sounds were all around him. Growing from the walls were clumps of crystal that reminded him of the Metal-Salt Marsh; they pulsed regularly.

He felt no fear.

“Remain where you are, Lord Cromis.” Trinor’s voice seemed muffled, distant, as though affected by passage through the open door. “I shall expect to find you when I come through-”

He entered with sword drawn. He grinned.

“Just in case you had planned… Well, of course, I’m sure you hadn’t.” He raised his voice. “Bring the Queen through first.”

When they had assembled, the Northmen sullen and silent, keeping their eyes fixed on the floor and mishearing their orders, he made Tomb take the lead. “Any… defences… you should disarm. Remember where the knife is held, dwarf, and who holds it.”

That corridor stretched for two miles into the earth. Shortly after they had begun to walk, they found that the incline had levelled off. The nature of the walls changed: the clumps of crystal were replaced by yard-square windows, arranged at four-foot intervals. Nothing could be clearly discerned through them, but they were filled with a milky light in which were suspended vague but menacing organic shapes.

There were no turnings. Their footfalls echoed.

There were no junctions or side passages. They did not speak.

They came eventually to a great circular chamber, in the centre of which columns of light and great rods of shadow wove patterns impossible to understand, like spectral dancers at the end of Time. Its roof and walls, all of green diamond, made a perfect half-globe. Twelve corridors, including their own, led off it from twelve vaulting arches. Otherwise, it was totally featureless.

Those columns and cylinders of light and darkness flickered, intertwined, exchanged their substance, reversed their directions of motion. Motes of brighter light appeared suddenly among them, hovered like insects, and vanished. A single musical chord filled the place, a high cathedral resonance.

Cromis saw nothing he recognised as a machine.

“You had better begin,” said Trinor to the dwarf, looking uneasily about. His voice was taken by the diamond walls and flung about. As if in response, the visual display of the brain increased its activity. “It is aware of us. I would like to leave here as soon as possible. Well?”

For a moment, the dwarf ignored him. His ugly features had softened, there was a gleam in his knowing eye. He was enraptured. He sniggered suddenly, swivelled slowly on his heel to face the traitor.

“My lord,” he said satirically, “you ask too much. It will take a century to understand this.” He shrugged. “Ah yes, you hold the knife, I remember.” He shook his head sadly. “I can shut it down in a week-perhaps a little more. It is a matter of finding the right… combination. A week: no less.”

Trinor fingered his scar.

For the next few days, Cromis saw nothing of Tomb or the Queen: they were kept in the central chamber of the complex, constantly under the eyes and swords of the reluctant Northmen, while he and Grif were limited to the cargo hold of the airboat, and lived out a dreary captivity among the dead sloths.

Each day, a Northman brought them food.

Cromis’s in-turning nature enabled him to come to terms with this-he made verses while gazing from the porthole at the unchanging waste-but it betrayed him also in the end, in that it kept him unaware of Birkin Grif’s shift of mood.

Confinement chafed the big Methven. He grew irritable and posed questions without answer. “How long do you suppose we will live after the shutdown? Tell me that.” And: “The dwarf cares only for his machines. Are we to rot here?”

He took to sharpening his broadsword twice a day.

Later, he lay morose and withdrawn on a pile of bloody pelts, humming songs of defiance. He tapped his fingers dangerously.

Each day, a Northman brought them food.

On the sixth day after the discovery of the central chamber, Birkin Grif stood behind the door of the hold, honing his sword.

The door opened; their jailor entered.

He had an energy blade in his right hand, but it did him no good.

Grif stood over the folded corpse, eyeing with satisfaction its pumping stomach wound. He wiped his broadsword on the hem of its cloak, sheathed it. He wrested the flickering power-blade from its tightening grip. A terrible light was in his eye.

“Now,” he said.

Cromis found himself dulled and slowed by horror.

“Grif,” he murmured, “you are mad.”

Birkin Grif stared levelly at him.

“Have we become cowards?” he said.

And he turned and ran from the hold, quick and silent.

Cromis bent over the ruin that meant death for the Queen. In the distance, cries of pain and surprise: Grif had come against the Northmen in the forepart of the ship, berserk.

The nameless sword in his hand, Cromis followed the trail of slaughter. On the command bridge, three dead men. They sprawled grotesquely, expressions of surprise on their faces, their blood splashed over the walls. The place stank. The open hatch yawned. Wind blew in from the desert, filling the dead eyes with fine dust.

Outside, the wind tugged at him. A fifth corpse lay at the entrance to the bunkers. The door moaned and hissed as he entered. “OUROBUNDOS,” it said. It snickered. Cromis caught up with Grif halfway down the corridor that led to the brain chamber-too late.

His ragged cobalt mail was smeared with blood, his hands were red with murder. Over the corpse of his final victim, he faced Norvin Trinor. And behind the traitor, their blades spitting, stood ten Northern wolves.

Trinor acknowledged Cromis’s arrival with an ironical nod.

“I did not expect quite such stupidity,” he said. “I will make no more contracts with you. I see they are worthless.”

Birkin Grif ground his heel into the chest of the dead Northman. His eyes sought Trinor’s, held them.

“You have killed your queen,” Trinor said. “Yourself, too.”

Grif moved a pace forward.

“Listen to me, Norvin Trinor,” he whispered. “Your mother was had by a pig. At the age of ten, she gave you a disease. You have since licked the arse of Canna Moidart.

“But I will tell you this. There is still Methven enough in you to meet me now, without your dirty henchmen-”

He turned to the Northerners. “Make a combat ring,” he said.

Trinor fingered his scar. He laughed. “I will fight you,” he said. “It will change nothing. Four men are with Methvet Nian. They have instructions to kill both her and the dwarf if I do not shortly return to them. You understand: die or live, you or I, it will change nothing.”

Birkin Grif dropped the stolen energy blade and slid his broadsword from its scabbard.

The dead Northman was dragged away. In the strange milky light from the windows of the corridor, the combatants faced each other. They were not well matched. Grif, though a head taller, and of longer reach, had expended much of his strength in the cabin of the airboat: and his slow, terrible rage made him tremble. Trinor regarded him calmly.

In the days of King Methven, both of them had learned much from tegeus-Cromis-but only one of them had ever matched his viperish speed.

They clashed.

Behind the windows, queer objects stirred and drifted, on currents of thick liquid.

Two blades made white webs in the air. The Northmen cheered, and made bets. They cut, and whirled, and leapt-Grif cumbersome, Trinor lithe and quick. Fifteen years or more before they had fought thus side by side, and killed fifty men in a morning. Against his will, Cromis drew closer, joined the combat ring, and marked the quick two-handed jab, the blade thrown up to block…

Grif stumbled.

A thin line of blood was drawn across his chest. He swore and hacked.

Trinor chuckled suddenly. He allowed the blow to nick his cheek. Then he ducked under Grif’s outstretched arms and stepped inside the circle of his sword. He chopped, short-armed, for the ribs.

Grif grunted, threw himself back, spun round, crashed unharmed into the ring of Northmen.

And Trinor, allowing his momentum to carry him crouching forward, turned the rib cut into an oblique, descending stroke that bit into the torn mail beneath his opponent’s knees, hamstringing him.

Grif staggered.

He looked down at his ruined legs. He showed his teeth. When Trinor’s sword couched itself in his lower belly, he whimpered. A quick, violent shudder went through him. Blood dribbled down his thighs. He reached slowly down and put his hands on the sword.

He sat down carefully. He coughed. He stared straight at Cromis and said clearly: “You should have killed him when you had the chance. Cromis, you should have done it-”

Blood filled his mouth and ran into his beard. tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of the Pastel City, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, clenched his long, delicate fingers until their rings of intagliated, non-precious metal cracked his knuckles and his nails made bloody half-moons on his palms.

A huge, insane cry welled up out of him. Desolation and murder bloomed like bitter flowers in his head.

“Trinor!” he bawled. “Grif! Grif!”

And before the turncoat’s hand had time to reach the energy blade his victim had discarded-long, long before he had time to form a stroke with his arm, or a word with his lips-the nameless blade was buried to its hilt in his mouth. Its point had levered apart the bones of his neck and burst with a soft noise through the back of his skull. tegeus-Cromis shuddered. He threw back his head and howled like a beast. He put his foot against the dead man’s breastbone and pulled out his blade.

“You were never good enough, Trinor,” he said, savagely. “Never.”

He turned to face his death and the death of the world, weeping.

“Come and kill me,” he pleaded. “Just come and try.”

But the Northmen had no eyes for him.

12

His face fired up with hate and madness, the nameless sword quivering before him, he watched them back away, toward the chamber of the brain. So he kicked the stiff, bleeding face of their dead captain. He crouched like a wolf, and spat: he presented them with lewd challenges, and filthy insults.

But they ignored him, and stared beyond him, their attitudes fearful; and finally he followed the direction of their gaze.

Coming on from the direction of the door, moving swiftly through the milky light, was a company of men.

They were tall and straight, clothed in cloaks of black and green, of scarlet and the misleading colour of dragonfly armour. Their dark hair fell to their shoulders about long, white faces, and their boots rang on the obsidian floor. Like walkers out of Time, they swept past him, and he saw that their weapons were grim and strange, and that their eyes held ruin for the uncertain wolves of the North.

At their head strutted Tomb the Dwarf.

His axe was slung jauntily over his thick shoulder, his hair caught back for battle. He was whistling through his horrible teeth, but he quieted when he saw the corpse of Birkin Grif.

With a great shout he sprang forward, unlimbering his weapon. He fell upon the retreating Northmen, and all his strange and beautiful crew followed him. Their curious blades hummed and sang.

Like a man displaced amid his own dreams, Cromis watched the dwarf plant himself securely on his buckled, corded legs and swing his axe in huge circles round his head; he watched the strange company as they flickered like steel flames through the Northmen. And when he was sure that they had prevailed, he threw down the nameless sword.

His madness passed. Cradling the head of his dead friend, he wept. When Methvet Nian discovered him there, he had regained a measure of his self-possession. He was shivering, but he would not take her cloak.

“I am glad to see you safe, my lady,” he said, and she led him to the brain chamber. He left his sword. He saw no use for it.

In the centre of the chamber, a curious and moving choreography was taking place.

The brain danced, its columns of light and shadow shifting, shifting; innumerable subtle graduations of shape and tint, and infinitely various rhythms.

And among those rods and pillars, thirteen slim figures moved, their garments on fire with flecks of light, their long white faces rapt.

The brain sang its single sustained chord, the feet of the dancers sped, the vaulting dome of diamond threw back images of their ballet.

Off to one side of the display sat Tomb the Dwarf, a lumpen, earthbound shape, his chin on his hand, a smile on his ugly face, his eyes following every shade of motion. His axe lay by his side.

“They are beautiful,” said tegeus-Cromis. “It seems a pity that a homicidal dwarf should discover such beauty. Why do they dance in that fashion?”

Tomb chuckled.

“To say that I appreciated that would be a lie. I suspect they have a method of communication with the brain many times more efficient than crude passes of the hand. In a sense, they are the brain at this moment-”

“Who are they, Tomb?”

“They are men of the Afternoon Cultures, my friend. They are the Resurrected Men.”

Cromis shook his head. The dancers swayed, their cloaks a whirl of emerald and black. “You cannot expect me to understand any of this.”

Tomb leapt to his feet. Suddenly, he danced away from Cromis and the Queen in a queer little parody of the ballet of the brain, an imitation full of sadness and humour. He clapped his hands and cackled.

“Cromis,” he said, “it was a master stroke. Listen-”

He sat down again.

“I lied to Trinor. Nothing was simpler than dealing with the geteit chemosit. Those golems stopped operating twenty minutes after I had entered this room. Wherever they were, they froze, their mechanisms ceased to function. For all I know, they are rusting. Cellur taught me that.

“What he did not tell me was that a dialogue could be held with the brain: that, I learnt for myself, in the next twenty minutes. Then “Cromis, Cellur was wrong. One vital flaw in his reasoning led to what you have seen today. He regarded the chemosit as simple destroyers, but the Northmen were nearer to the truth when they called them the brain-stealers. The chemosit are harvesters.

“It was their function in the days of the Afternoon Cultures not to prevent the resurrection of a warrior, but to bring the contents of his skull here, or to a similar centre, and give it into care of the artificial brain. This applied equally to a dead friend or a foe actually slain by the chemosit -I think they saw war in a different way to ourselves, perhaps as a game.

“When Canna Moidart denied the chemosit their full function by using them solely as fighters, she invited destruction.

“Now. Each of the ‘windows’ in this place is in reality a tank of sustaining fluid, in which is suspended the brain of a dead man. Upon the injection of a variety of other fluids and nutrients, that brain may be stimulated to re-form its departed owner.

“On the third day of our captivity here, the artificial brain reconstructed Fimbruthil and Lonath, those with the emerald cloaks.

“On the fourth day, Bellin, and Mader-Monad, and Sleth. See how those three dance! And yesterday, the rest. The brain then linked me to their minds. They agreed to help me. Today, we put our plan into effect.

“Twelve corridors lead from this chamber, like the spokes of a wheel miles in diameter: the Resurrected Men were born in the northwestern corridor. At a given signal, they issued from their wombs, crept here, and slew the guards Trinor had left when he went to his death. The fourteen of us stepped into the light columns. From there, by a property of the brain complex, we were… shifted… to the desert outside.

“We waited there for Trinor and his men. By then, of course, he was… otherwise involved. We eventually reentered the bunker, and arrived in time to save you from yourself.” tegeus-Cromis smiled stiffly.

“That was well done, Tomb. And what now? Will you send them back to sleep?”

The dwarf frowned.

“Cromis! We will have an army of them! Even now, they are awakening the brain fully. We will build a new Viriconium together, the Methven and the Reborn Men, side by side-”

The diamond walls of the chamber shone and glittered. The brain hummed. An arctic coldness descended on the mind of tegeus-Cromis. He looked at his hands.

“Tomb,” he said. “You are aware that this will destroy the empire just as surely as Canna Moidart destroyed it?”

The dwarf came hurriedly to his feet.

“What?”

“They are too beautiful, Tomb; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire-instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.

“No malice will be involved. Indeed, they may thank us many times over for bringing them back to the world. But, as you have said yourself, they have a view of life that is alien to us; and do not forget that it was them who made the waste around us.”

As he gazed at the perfect bodies of the Resurrected Men, a massive sadness, a brutal sense of incompleteness, came upon him. He studied the honest face of the dwarf before him, but could find no echo of his own emotion-only puzzlement, and, beneath that, a continuing elation.

“Tomb, I want no part of this.”

As he walked toward the arch from which they had issued, his head downcast so that he should not see that queer dance-so that he should not be ensnared and fascinated by its inhumanity-Methvet Nian, Queen Jane of Viriconium, barred his way. Her violet eyes pierced him.

“Cromis, you should not feel like this. It is Grif’s death that has brought you down. You blame yourself, you see things crookedly. Please-” tegeus-Cromis said: “Madam, I caused his death. I am sick of myself; I am sick of being constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time; I am sick of the endless killing that is necessary to right my mistakes. He was my friend. Even Trinor was once my friend.

“But that is not at issue.

“My lady, we regarded the Northmen as barbarians, and they were.” He laughed. “Today, we are the barbarians. Look at them!”

And when she turned to watch the choreography of the brain, the celebration of ten thousand years of death and rebirth, he fled.

He ran toward the light. When he passed the corpse of his dead friend, he began to weep again. He picked up his sword. He tried to smash a crystal window with its hilt. The corridor oppressed him. Beyond the windows, the dead brains drifted. He ran on.

“You should have done it,” whispered Birkin Grif in the soft spaces of his skull; and, “OUROBUNDOS!” giggled the insane door, as he fell through it and into the desert wind. His cloak cracking and whipping about him, so that he resembled a crow with broken wings, he stumbled toward the black airboat. His mind mocked him. His face was wet.

He threw himself into the command bridge. Green light swam about him, and the dead Northmen stared blindly at him as he turned on the power. He did not choose a direction, it chose him. Under full acceleration, he fled out into the empty sky.

And so tegeus-Cromis, Lord of the Methven, was not present at the forming of the Host of the Reborn Men, at their arming in the depths of the Lesser Waste, or their marching. He did not see the banners.

Neither was he witness to the fall of Soubridge, when, a month after the sad death of Birkin Grif, Tomb the Giant Dwarf led the singing men of the Afternoon Cultures against a great army of Northmen, and took the victory.

He was not present when the wolves burned Soubridge, and, in desperation, died.

He did not see the Storming of the Gates, when Alstath Fulthor-after leading a thousand Resurrected Men over the Monar Mountains in the depths of winter-attacked the Pastel City from the northeast;

Or the brave death of Rotgob Mungo, a captain of the North, as he tried in vain to break the long Siege of the Artists’ Quarter, and bled his life out in the Bistro Californium;

Nor was he there when Tomb met Alstath Fulthor on the Proton Circuit, coming from the opposite end of the city, and shook his hand.

He was not present at that final retaking of Methven’s hall, when five hundred men died in one hour, and Tomb got his famous wound. They looked for him there, but he did not come.

He did not break with them into the inner room of the palace, there among the drifting curtains of light; or discover beneath the dying wreck of Usheen the Sloth, the Queen’s Beast, the cold and beautiful corpse of Canna Moidart, the last twist of the knife.

It is rumoured that the Young Queen wept over the Old, her cousin. But he did not see that, either.

EPILOGUE

Methvet Nian, the Queen of Viriconium, stood at early evening on the sand dunes that lay like a lost country between the land and the sea. Swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over her downcast head.

She was a tall and supple woman, clad in a gown of heavy russet velvet, and her skin was neither painted nor jewelled, as was the custom of the time. The nine identical Rings of Neap glittered from her long fingers. Her hair, which recalled the colour of autumn rowans, hung in soft waves to her waist, coiled about her breasts.

For a while, she walked the tideline, examining the objects cast up by the sea: paying particular attention to a smooth stone here, a translucent spiny shell there, picking up a bottle the colour of dragonfly armour, throwing down a branch whitened and peculiarly carved by the water. She watched the gulls, but their cries depressed her.

She led her grey horse by its white bridle across the dunes, and found the stone path to the tower which had no name: though it was called by some after that stretch of seaboard on which it stood, that is, Balmacara.

Balmacara was broken-its walls were blackened, it was like a broken tooth-and despite the spring that had brought green back to the land after a winter of darkness and harsh contrasts, the rowan woods that surrounded it were without life.

Among them in the growing gloom of twilight, she came upon the wreck of the crystal launch that had brought down the tower. It was black, and a wolf’s head with wine-red eyes stared at her from its buckled hull- quite without menace, for the paint was already beginning to peel.

She passed it, and came to the door; she tethered her horse.

She called out, but there was no answer.

She climbed fifty stone steps, and found that night had already taken the husk of the tower. Dusk was brown in the window arches, heaped up in great drifts in the corners. Her footsteps echoed emptily, but there was a strange, quiet music in the tower, a mournful, steely mode, cadences that brought tears to her violet eyes.

He sat on a wall-bed covered with blue embroidered silks. Around him on the walls hung trophies: a powered battle-axe he had got from his friend Tomb the Dwarf after the sea fight at Mingulay in the Rivermouth Campaign; the gaudy standard of Thorisman Carlemaker, whom he had defeated single-handed in the Mountains of Monadliath; queer weapons, and astrological equipment discovered in deserts.

He did not look up as she entered.

His fingers depressed the hard strings of his instrument; its tone was low and melancholy. He recited the following verse, which he had composed on the Cruachan Ridge in Monar:

“Strong visions: I have strong visions of this place in the empty times… Far below there are wavering pines… I left the rowan elphin woods to fulminate on ancient headlands, dipping slowly into the glasen seas of evening… On the devastated peaks of hills we ease the barrenness into our thin bones like a foot into a tight shoe… The narrative of this place: other than the smashed arris of the ridge there are only sad winds and silences… I lay on the cairn one more rock… I am possessed by Time…”

When he had finished, she said, “My lord, we waited for you to come.”

In the gloom, he smiled. He still wore his torn cloak, his ragged, dented shirt of mail. The nameless sword was at his side. He had this mannerism: that when he was worried or nervous, his hand strayed out unknown to him and caressed its hilt.

He said with the grave politeness of his time, “Lady, I would have come had I felt there was any need for me.”

“Lord Cromis,” she answered, “you are absurd.” She laughed, and did not let him see her pity. “Death brought you here to sulk and bite yourself like an animal. In Viriconium, we have ceased to brood on death.”

“That is your choice, madam.”

“The Reborn Men are among us: they give us new arts, new perspectives; and from us they learn how to live in a land without despoiling it. If it brings you satisfaction, Cromis, you were correct-the empire is dead.

“But so are the Afternoon Cultures. And something wholly new has replaced them both.”

He rose, and went to the window. His tread was silent and swift. He faced her, and the sun bled to death behind him.

“Is there room in this new empire for an involuntary assassin?” he asked. “Is there?”

“Cromis, you are a fool.” And she would allow him no answer to that.

Later, he made her look at the Name Stars.

“There,” he said. “You will not deny this: no one who came after could read what is written there. All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”

She smiled up at him, and pushed her hair back from her face.

“Alstath Fulthor the Reborn Man could tell you what it means,” she said.

“It is important to my nature,” he admitted, “that it remain a mystery to me. If you will command him to keep a close mouth, I will come back.”

A STORM OF WINGS

1

THE MOON LOOKING DOWN

In the dark tidal reaches of one of those unnamed rivers which spring from the mountains behind Cladich, on a small domed island in the shallows before the sea, fallen masonry of a great age glows faintly under the eye of an uncomfortable moon. A tower once stood here in the shadow of the estuarine cliffs, made too long ago for anyone to remember, in a way no one left can understand, from a single obsidian monolith fully two hundred feet in length. For ten thousand years wind and water scoured its southern face, finding no weakness; and at night a yellow light might be discerned in its topmost window, coming and going as if someone there passed before a flame. Who brought it to this rainy country, where in winter the gales drive the white water up the Minch and fishermen from Lendalfoot shun the inshore ground, and for what purpose, is unclear. Now it lies in five pieces. The edges of the stone are neither shattered nor worn, but melted like candle wax. The causeway that once gave access here-from a beach on the west bank where lumps of volcanic glass are scattered on the sand- is drowned now, and all that comes up it from the water is a strange lax vegetation, a sprawl of giant sea hemlock which for some reason has forsaken the mild and beneficial brine of the estuary to colonise the beach, spread its pale and pulpy stems over the shattered tower, and clutch at a stand of dead, white pines.

In this time, in the Time of the Locust, when we have nothing to ourselves but the hollowness within us, in the Time of Bone, when we have nothing to do but wait, nothing human moves here. Nothing human has moved here for eighty years. Fire, were it brought here, would be pale and dim, hard to kindle. Passion would fade here on a whisper. Something in the tower’s fall has poisoned the air here, and drained the landscape of its power. White and sickly and infinitely slow, the hemlock creeps out of the water to run sad rubbery fingers over the rubbish in the fallen rooms. The collapse of the tower seems complete, the defeat of artifice accomplished.

Yet in the Time of the Locust are we not counselled to patience? Eighty years have passed since tegeus-Cromis broke the yoke of Canna Moidart, since the Chemosit fell and the Reborn Men came among us; and in the deeps of this autumn night, under the aegis of an old and bitter geology, we witness here in events astronomical and enigmatic an intersection crucial to both the earth and the precarious foothold on it of the adolescent Evening Cultures. “Wait! Things are. Things happen. Only wait!” The estuarine cliffs impend, black, expectant; the air is full of frost and anticipation…

It is the hour of our old enemy, the moon. Her fugitive reflections shiver on the water amid the cold unmeaning patterns of the wind. Above, her tense circle aches across the sky (imprisoned there within it, staring down, the pocked face of our mysterious crone, our companion of a million-million years). Somewhere between midnight and dawn, in that hour when sick men topple from the high ledges of themselves and fall into the darkness, suddenly and with no warning, something can be seen to detach itself from the edge of that charmed circle and, through the terrible spaces surrounding, speed towards the earth. It is only a tiny puff of vapour, a cloud of pollen blown across a single ray of light in some darkened, empty room-gone in the time it takes to blink, to rub the eyes and rearrange the waiting brain-but nothing like this has been seen for ten thousand years; and though all might seem unchanged, and the moon hang never so white and hard over the rim of the cliffs, like a powdered face yearning from a vacant doorway, and the memory decide the eye has played it false-nothing will ever be the same again.

Not many hours later, as the thin, uncertain light of day spreads like smoke between the soft fat stems, limning the fallen column of the tower, a figure emerges from the hemlock thickets-puzzled and reluctant as if harried from a deep sleep-to scan the southern sky where the moon is still a bone-white image, the cankered face which lingers in a dream. The old man shivers a little, and settles his cloak about his shoulders; they confront for a time, man and planet. But then in an instant, sunrise proper has splattered everything below with blood-the sea, the shore, the hemlock, and the old man’s cloak all smeared and dappled with it-and he turns urgently away to drag from cover a small crude wooden boat. Its keel grates on the shingle, oars fall whitely on the water. The day brightens, but as he rows, the old man winces from the ominous sky. Beaching his boat on the western shore, muttering and panting with the effort, he pauses at the water’s edge for a final glimpse of the tower, locked in its long struggle with decay, then shrugs and hurries up a flight of steps cut long ago into the cliff. While behind him, a single fish eagle with wings of a curious colour beats up out of the bright south and swoops over the island like a valediction.

In the Time of the Locust it is given to us to see such things.

The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning to them: taunted by amnesia of the soul.

Alstath Fulthor, the first of them to be drawn by Tomb the Iron Dwarf from millennial interment in the Lesser Rust Desert, remembered nothing of his previous life: instead, his steps were dogged by a suspicion he could not make plain even to himself. His body, his blood, his very germ cells knew (or so it seemed to him), but could find no everyday language in which to tell him what his life had been like during the frigid lunacy of the Afternoon. Dark hints reached him. But the quivering fibrils of his nervous system were adjusted to receive messages dispersed a thousand or more years before, intimations faded on the winds of time.

In the months following his revival he dreamt constantly: sometimes of a large silver insect, clicking and metallic, the life cycle of which he was able to observe in all its main aspects; at others of a woman (who sat alone in a room so tall that its ceiling was a web of shadow, spinning a golden thread which, of its own accord, rose and flickered from her hands until it filled all that mysterious, immense, whispering space above her). In the ruck and ruin of Soubridge, with its warehouses full of rotting fish and massacred children, during the long icy march through the Monar Mountains in winter, and at the storming of the Northeast Gate, these images came repeatedly between him and the battle: the insect with its expressionless faceted eyes, the woman with her jewelled spinaret. (Often he inflicted dreadful cuts on its carapace; or smeared her sleeve with blood; and once, as he fought his way through the streets of Viriconium to shake the hand of Tomb the Dwarf over a heap of Northmen’s corpses, the flames along the Proton Circuit merged for a moment with the woman’s strange writhing skein, so that his past and his present crackled in a lightning arc through his mind and he fell on his face blinded, and was taken for dead, no longer able to tell which was real-the airy whisper of the city fires or the roaring of that golden cloud…) Steadily though, as if he were leaving the haven of some second childhood, even these reference points seemed to be withdrawn from him, to be replaced by a rushing chaos, the sense of an act of memory continually performed without relief, a hidden river in the night, from which might sometimes surface unbidden some fragment of an event drifting like a dead branch amid the unidentifiable rubbish of the tides…

A face stalked him between the twilit stacks of the ancestral library, bobbing like a balloon. It came very close to his, twitching and dissolving under the impact of some deeply felt emotion, then retreated with a hiss of indrawn breath.

“What are you doing?” someone asked him. They were outside the walls but he didn’t know where…

He stumbled through the arteries of his home, his brain buzzing and vibrating with a new vigour, discovering chambers and oubliettes he had never seen before. At every turn hands beckoned him in…

Here, organic towers, tall shapeless masses of tissue cultured from the plasm of ancient mammals, trumpeted and moaned across the abandoned wastes of another continent, their huge cynical voices modulating on the wind, now immensely distant, now close at hand. Natural philosophy, they maintained (holding him to be in heresy), is a betrayal of invention. It is an edifice of clay. It was always night there…

A city spread itself before him in the wet, equivocal afternoon light like interrupted excavations in a sunken garden. It could be reached by a ladder of bone. “I will go down into that place!”

With these poor and misleading relics of a dead culture he tried to create a past for himself and so achieve, like any other human being, some experiential perspective from which to judge his own actions, crouching, as it were, on the banks of his own internal stream and scooping from the water those things which floated closest. They rarely helped him in dealing with the new reality of the Evening Cultures. And at least one of the catches he made in this manner came to haunt him, a dead thing risen from the bottom mud of one incarnation to infect his perception of the other. It was not a normal memory, rendered as an image-a sound, a scent, a vision of a face or place. Rather it came as an act he felt compelled to perform-or one which his body might perform quite of its own accord, as if his muscles remembered what he did not-and in performing, recall.

Eighty years, then, had passed since tegeus-Cromis broke the yoke of Canna Moidart, since the Chemosit fell and dragged the North down with them; and Alstath Fulthor, first among the Reborn Men, heir to a technology whose power he could not really appreciate, a lord respected among the councils of the Pastel City, was running through the foothills of the Monar as if his life depended upon it, without any knowledge of why he ran or what compelled him to do it.

He was a tall man, as are all the Reborn, and a thin one, clad in tunic and trousers of black satin, the contorted yellow crest or ideograph of his House writhing over his breast. On his feet were the curious flimsy shoes his race wore in preference to boots, and at his waist hung a short forceknife, or baan, dug up along with its ancient ceramic scabbard from some desert. His long coarse yellow hair was tangled and damp, and sweat filmed his prominent birdlike features. He came into Dyke Head Moss over the steep and dangerous ground at the head of Rossett Gill, the low rounded hills about him browned with autumn; shot the screes at Surgeon’s Gate with arms windmilling to keep his balance and grey dust exploding round him as he went; and gained the valley path in a few long, energetic strides. That the pace he set would have crippled an ordinary man he was unaware. His queer green eyes were blank and unfocused, but with a psychic rather than a physical weariness. In the more foolish and fashionable salons of Viriconium he was held to be the “most human” of the Reborn, but this was a silly expression (not to say a meaningless one), and if there was anything more or less human in his face now it was only despair.

Thirty-six hours before, black and incontrovertible, the madness had driven him from his comfortable house on the edge of Minnet-Saba, dragged him through the silent predawn streets of the city, along Proton Circuit to the Northeast Gate, and so up into the icy gullies of the Monar, where it showed him the evil landscapes of quite another country (in his ears was a prolonged metallic moan rising on a fohn wind, while against the horizon moved tall and cumbersome shapes) and drove him on with “Run! Run!” whispered in every chamber of the heart, shrieked in the skull’s deep recess and echoed in each atom of his pounding blood. The known world fled away from him. The running hours became simply the spaces between dreams. The great fault between “now” and “then” opened itself on him like a chasm and he ran along its rim-poised, taut, forever…

A hundred and forty miles he had come, or more, in a long loop through the hills, old landscapes fomenting in his brain: but the fit was leaving him as he descended Dyke Head Moss, and his senses were returned to him one by one. A stream glittered beside him. Sheep were bleating distantly as the shepherds drove them down from the upland turf to winter pasture in the valley. The air was harsh with the scent of peat and ling heather, and below him the path fell away in a series of curves and re-entrants and gentle descents to the distant city. Weariness was replacing the mixture of elation and dread which had filled him while he ran. From a state of black exultation he tumbled into one of puzzlement. He had run like this a thousand years before: but from what? Where had he run to? What fears had pullulated in his brain? What curious joy?

Under the brow of Hollin Low Moor he slowed to a walk. His feet and ankles hurt. He sat on a rock by the path to massage them, and his attention was captured by the city, waiting there in its mantle of stillness and distance. Light flared through the haze: heliographing from the riverine curves of the Proton Circuit; phosphorescing from the pleasure canal at Lowth where, under a setting sun, banks of anemones glowed like triumphal stained glass; signalling from the tiered vivid heights of Minnet-Saba, from the inconceivable pastel towers and plazas of the Atteline Quarter. All was immaculate-illuminated, transfigured, miniature. It attracted him not as a refuge (although he saw himself as a refugee), nor by its double familiarity, but by its long strangeness and obstinacy in the face of Time, celebrated here in the generation (or so it seemed) rather than the reflection of light. Viriconium, the Pastel City: a little cryptic, a little proud, a little mad. Its histories, as forgotten as his own, made of the air a sort of amber, an entrapment; the geometry of its avenues was a wry message from one survivor to another; and its present, like his own, was but an implication of its past-a dream, a prediction, a brief possibility to be endured.

Thus he fell into a reverie of dispossession, a thin man sitting on a rock in the red wash of sunset, heraldic yellow blazing across his chest, while in his face puzzlement contended with weariness and a certain awe. The light began to fail about him. The valley sounds intensified then died away. A cool wind sprang down from Rossett Gill to rustle like a small animal in the bracken. When he looked up again the city was lost, the evening grey and chilly, and an old man in a long cloak was walking up the path towards him.

He got to his feet and stretched his stiff limbs. Covertly he studied the newcomer’s apparel for the Sign of the Locust. When he could not find it he let his hand drop from the hilt of his baan.

“Hello, old man,” he said.

The old man stopped. He was barefooted and dusty, bent as if from a long journey undertaken in haste and poverty, and his face was hidden in the depths of his hood. Fulthor would have taken him for a tenant farmer, or one of the small shopkeepers of the south, called away from Soubridge or Lendalfoot to bring a dowry to the wedding of a favourite daughter (copper in the shape of a dolphin, long-hoarded; a small piece of steel equal to the profits of one fig tree), tears and unbleached cloth to the funeral of a younger son. But his cloak was of good fabric, and woven with odd mathematical designs which seemed to ebb and flow in the receding light. And, “You cannot always be running, Alstath Fulthor,” he whispered, his eyes glittering brightly from the darkness of the hood. “Why do you waste your time-and the time of your adopted city not less!-away in the brown hills like this?”

Fulthor was intrigued, and a little taken aback. It was a strange place for such a meeting. He shrugged and smiled.

“Why do you waste yours in asking, old man?” he answered.

The old man shivered, and with a quick unconscious movement of the head glanced up at the southern sky before he spoke again. The high, naked shriek of a fish eagle echoed over the fells, but there was no moon yet in the sky.

In a palace like a shell-in Methven’s hall where the Proton Circuit draws itself up into a spiral on a hundred pillars of thin black stone-Methvet Nian, Queen Jane, Queen in Viriconium, who in her youth had taken to the windy birch stands and glacial lakes of the Rannoch Moor, hunted away by the Chemosit and wild as any moss-trooper’s daughter (with the last of the Methven limping and scarred to guard her, a poet and a dead metal bird to guide her, and a giant dwarf to expedite her passage), sat before five false windows in a tall room floored with cinnabar crystal. She was surrounded by precious, complex objects of forgotten use-machines or sculptures excavated from ruined cities in the Rust Desert beyond Duirinish. Curtains of pale, fluctuating light drifted irregularly about the chamber like showers of rain, and through the dreamlike shadows thus created shambled the Queen’s Beast-one of the great white sloths of the Southern forests, who are said to be the fallen remnants of a star-faring race invited or lured to earth during the madness of the Afternoon.

Eighty years had passed since Usheen, the first of her beasts, died on Canna Moidart’s knife, and in dying sealed the final defeat of the North. tegeus-Cromis lay two decades still and dead beneath the fields of sol d’or at Lowth. Methvet Nian was no longer young, even by the standards of the Evening. Still, in her purple eyes there might yet be discerned something of the girl who in the space of one year lost and gained the Last Kingdom of the world: and in the dreaming light where those five false windows showed landscapes to be found nowhere in Viriconium, her age weighed only lightly on her-like the hand of some imaginary child. Inside, the windows flickered. Outside it was autumn, and under a cold moon processions of men with insect faces went silently through the streets.

A curious thing happened to her.

Often in that flickering room the past had come to touch her with quiet persistence, tugging at her sleeve in the effort to capture her attention: white hares in the twilight at Shining Clough Moss or Torside Naze; the long brown sweep of the Rannoch peat moors like a brush stroke in some enormous written language; desert dust piling itself noiselessly in the bleak plazas of Ruined Drunmore. But these were no more or less than the sad fingerprints of memory on her brain (she remembered the verses tegeus-Cromis made, the ancient cry of the fish eagles, and his voice out of night and morning): tonight it was something more. The windows flickered; the windows shimmered; the windows said,

“Methvet Nian.”

All five went blank and dark.

“Methvet Nian!”

Smoke and snow filled them, a pearly grey light like dawn over the tottering seracs of some marine glacier in the north beyond the North. It shivered and was wrenched away “Methvet Nian!”

Fused sand, and a sky filled with mica, the rolling dunes and dry saline wadis of the sempiternal erg. In the fierce air hung a perfect mirage of the city, pastel towers tall and mathematical, cut with strange designs. The wind stooped like a hawk “Methvet Nian!”

She approached the windows fatalistically, and with a sense of being drawn or invoked (seeing herself perhaps walk complaisantly through them and out into some other time). Now they poured out on her a green and submarine radiance, as if the palace she stood in truly were a shell, or a ship full of drowned sailors spinning forever beneath the ancient clammy sea. All other lights in the throne room were dimmed; the sloth whimpered, rearing puzzledly up on its hind legs, great ambered claws extending and retracting nervously.

“Hush,” she said. “Who wishes to speak to me?” and was still.

“Methvet Nian.”

The deep-sea gloom surged, foamed, blew away, like spindrift off a wave in the invisible wind, only to be replaced by the image of a cavernous, ruined room which seemed to be full of dusty stuffed birds. Moonlight filtered through rents in the walls. An old man stood before her, pentadic, five-imaged. His long domed skull was yellow and fleshless, his eyes green and his lips thin. His skin was so fine and tight as to be translucent, the bones shining through it like jade. His age, she thought, has outstripped mere physical symptoms, and exalted him. His robe was embroidered with subtle gold designs having this property, that in every draught of air they seemed to shift and flow, responsive to each movement of the cloth but independent of it.

She trembled. She put out a hand to touch cold glass.

The cry of gulls rang in her ears, and the sound of a cold grey sea lapping on black sand far away and long ago.

“Do the dead live in that country, then?” she whispered, twisting her fingers in the white fur of the sloth. “Beyond the windows?”

“Methvet Nian.”

East and south of Monar runs a strip of heathland whose name, when it still had one, was a handful of primitive syllables scattered like a question into the damp wind. It is a deserted and superseded country, that one, full of the monuments and inarticulate ghosts of a race older than Viriconium, younger than the Afternoon Cultures, and possibly more naive than either: a short-lived nation of tribal herdsmen who buried their dead once-yearly in tiered barrows and knew nothing more of their heritage than that it should be avoided. Of the future they knew nothing at all. Worked metal was the death knell of them, tolling from the crude and ceaseless smithies of the North. Their works, ridge path and necropolis alike, have now taken on the air of natural features and, overgrown with gorse and young beech, become one with the sombre expanse of long mounds and shallow valleys sloping away to merge imperceptibly with the Rannoch beyond.

This place avoided the poisoned hands of the Afternoon only to age and grow enfeebled instead. Curlews make free of its sad desuetude; hares play in the deep cloughs and sheltered hollows of a land which has quietly exhausted itself; it ignores the traveller, and gently seeks the night. Here on many an evening in the latter part of the year darkness visits the earth while the pale wreck of the sunset still commands the sky. The air is suffused with brightness yet somehow lacks the power to illuminate. In a moment each declivity has brimmed up with shadow and become the abode of mumbling wind and the shy thin ghosts who never dreamed of the Afternoon or knew its iron, at first or second hand. On just such an evening one autumn, eighty years after the Fall of the North, grey smoke might have been seen issuing from the chimney of a small red caravan parked on an old ridgeway deep in the heart of the heath; and from a considerable hole newly dug in the ground nearby, the chink of metal on metal It was a four-wheeled caravan of the type traditionally used by the Mingulay tinker to move his enormous family and meagre equipment along the warm summer roads of the South. Indeed, the South vibrated in it, every panel and peg, lively atrocious designs in electric blue rioting over its sides, its thick spokes picked out in canary yellow, the curved roof a racy purple to throw back the last of the light in a challenge to the sombre crawling umbers of the heath. The hilarious, slovenly children, it seemed, were not long departed, run off snot-nosed to go blackberrying among the brambles. Smoke rose, and a smell of food. Two dusty ponies tethered to the backboard with a bit of frayed rope cropped the short ridgeway turf in noisy self-absorption, lop ears cocked to catch the voice of their master, who, though rendered invisible by the embankment of fresh sandy soil surrounding his pit, could be heard from time to time punctuating with vile threats and oaths the low monotonous humming of some Rivermouth dirge. But no children returned from the bracken (we hear their voices fade and recede across the long darkness of the heath), and this impatient excavation continued unwearyingly until the light had almost left the sky. Long shadows engulfed the caravan; its chimney ceased to smoke; the ponies shuffled at the end of their tether. Fresh showers of earth added height to the ramparts. Then a peculiar thing happened.

The sound of digging ceased…

A great white light came up out of the pit and flared soundlessly into the sky like a signal to the stars…

(Simultaneously an enormous voice could be heard to shout, “OOGABOURINDRA! BORGA! OOGABOURINDRA-BA!”)

And a small figure dressed in the leather leggings of a metal-prospector was hurled out of the hole, cartwheeling like a horse-chestnut leaf in a March wind, to fall heavily in a heap of harness near the tethered ponies (who bared their old yellow teeth in brief contempt and immediately resumed their greedy pulling at the turf), its beard smouldering furiously, its long white hair alight, and all its accoutrements charred. For a moment it sat on the ground as if stunned; beat feebly at itself, muttering the foulest of marsh oaths from Cladich; then sank back, insensible, silent, smoking. All around, the light that had come up from the earth was fading from white and the invisible colours through a strange series of violets and pinks to darkness and vanishment. A small breeze searched the rowan and thorn for it; shrugged; and departed.

Tomb the Iron Dwarf, acting at the lean end of his life on an impulse he didn’t fully understand, had left the Great Brown Waste, his longtime prospecting ground, and in his one hundred and fiftieth year travelled through Methedrin in the spring, where amid the tumbling meltwater and short-lived flower meadows he recalled other times and other journeys. Surprised by his own sentimentality and suddenly aware he was seeking something special, he’d dawdled south down the Rannoch, warming his old bones. “One last discovery,” he had promised himself, one last communion with ancient metal, and then an end to arthritic nights; but this seemed a strange place to make it. What he might find in a land that hadn’t known industry for millennia, what he might return with for the last time to the Pastel City, he couldn’t imagine. He had not seen the city for twenty years, or his friend Fulthor. He had never seen the Sign of the Locust.

When he woke up, it was dark, and he was inside his caravan. A tall old man in a hooded cloak bent over him like a question mark in the orange lamplight. Strange designs worked into the weave of the garment seemed to shift and writhe as he moved.

Tomb winced away, his thick gnarled hands yearning for the axe he had not used in a decade (it lay beneath his bed; his armour was there too, packed in a trunk; so his life had gone since the Fall of the North). “Why have you come here, old ghost?” he said. “I’ll cut off your arms!” he whispered as he lost consciousness again, feeling an old cruelty sweep over him like a familiar pain; and then, waking suddenly with his wide astonished eyes staring into that aged face, skin like parchment stretched over a clear lemon-yellow flame, he remembered! Ten thousand grey wings beat down the salty wind like a storm in his head!

“We thought you were dead,” he said. “We thought you were dead!” And slept.

2

GALEN HORNWRACK AND THE SIGN OF THE LOCUST

Autumn. Midnight. The eternal city. The moon hangs over her like an attentive white-faced lover, its light reaching into dusty corners and empty lots. Like all lovers it remarks equally the blemish and the beauty spot- limning the iridium fretwork and baroque spires of the fabled Atteline Plaza even as it silvers the fishy eye of the old woman cutting fireweed and elder twigs among the ruins of the Cispontine Quarter, whose towers suffered most during the War of the Two Queens. The city is a product of her own dreams, a million years of them. Now she turns in her sleep, so quietly you can hear the far-off rumour of the newest: white bones, the Song of the Locust, dry mandibles rubbing together in desert nights… or is it only a wind out of Monar, and autumn leaves filling the air, to scrape and patter in the side streets?

In the Artists’ Quarter it is that hour of the night when all and nothing seem possible. The bistros are quiet. The entertainments and smoking parlours are all closed. Even Fat Mam Etteilla the fortune-teller has shipped her wicked pack of cards, put up for a few hours the shutters of her grubby satin booth, and waddled off with her aching ankles and her hacking cough, which is bad tonight. Canker, the Dark Man of the cards, has her by the lungs; she leans against a wall to spit in a puddle of moonlight, whispering the word that will hold him back; it falls hollowly into the vibrant, vacant street. The canker, she confides to her shadow, will take her in its own good time; at present she is less concerned about herself than her last customer of the evening. She has a wan belief in her own efficacy, and tells the silent Quarter, “I did my best, I did my best-”

She did her best “There is nothing good in the cards spread thus.

“Bogrib, NOTHINGNESS, crosses you, and here is NUMBER FOUR, called by some ‘the Name Stars’: beware a fire.

“A woman shadows you, POVERTY lies behind you, the Lessing; and before you a discussion, or it may be water.

“Nothing is clear tonight-who is that, running in the alley? I heard steps for a moment in the alley-but see the MANTIS here, praying at the moon beneath three arches. The first is for something new; the second for injustice; under the third arch all will be made different. Something taken away long ago is now returned.

“These are your thoughts on the matter, to turn this card I must have something more. Thank you. FIVE TOWERS! Do nothing, I beseech you, that you might regret. Fear death from the air, and avoid the North “Wait! We have hardly begun! Three more cards remain to be turned!”

– but he went all the same, rapidly down the street and into the Alley of Bakers: a dark self-sufficient figure whose face she never clearly saw, going with a light and dangerous tread.

Once in the alley and out of Mam Etteilla’s earshot (for fear perhaps she might pursue him, predicting, haranguing, or merely coughing up her lungs), he allowed himself to laugh a little, baring his teeth wryly to the grim city, the walls which contained him, the towers which had failed him, the night which covered him; and he quickened his pace, making for the Bistro Californium, that home of all errors and all who err. The air had stilled itself; it was sharp and cold, and his breath hung about him in a cloud. He did not enter the Californium at once but hung like a bird of prey on the edge of the lamplight to see who might await him inside. In this bright, static quadrant of the night’s existence the city seemed shattered and fragmentary, tumbled into hard meaningless patterns of light and shade, blue and grey and faded gamboge, grainy of texture and difficult of interpretation. Stray beams of smoky lemon-yellow barred his harsh worn features, his tired hooded eyes. When a dog barked down in the Cispontine Quarter-desultory, monotonous, distant-he seemed to stiffen for a moment; pass his hand over his face; and look puzzledly about him, for all the world like a man who wakes from a nightmare to an empty, buzzing dream, and wonders briefly how his life has led him here…

Fear death from the air!

His name was Galen Hornwrack. He was a lord without a domain, an eagle without wings, and he did not fear the air, he loved it. The War of the Two Queens had ended his boyhood without hope, and he had spent the slow years since hidden away in the mazy alleys of the Artists’ Quarter, the better to regret an act of fate which (so it appeared to him) had robbed his existence of any promise or purpose before it was fairly begun. Out of spite against himself or against the world, he never knew which, he had not taken up a profession, learning to use the steel knife instead to cut a living from the streets, shunning his peers and watching himself turn from a young man full of dreams into an older one stuffed with emptiness and fear. Fear death from the air! He feared it at every corner-it yawned at him from every alley’s mouth-but never from there, where he would willingly have burned or bled or hung like a corpse from the million-year gallows of his own pain!

Presently he shook himself, laughed harshly, and, certain that the Californium contained no obvious trap or enemy, abandoned the shadows like a viper. One hand hung visible by his side while the other, beneath his threadbare grey cloak, rested on the hilt of his good plain knife. In that manner he made his way through the notorious chromium portals behind which Rotgob Mungo, a captain of the North, had in the last days of Canna Moidart’s rule laid his vain and valiant plans to break the siege of the Artists’ Quarter, only to bleed out his life-albeit more honourably than many of his kin-under the strange axe of Alstath Fulthor.

Californium! The very word is like a bell, tolling all the years of the city-tolling for the mad poets of the Afternoon with all their self-inflicted wounds and desperate drugged sojourns at its rose-coloured glass tables; tolling for their skinless jewelled women who, lolling beneath the incomprehensible frescoes, took tea from porcelain as lucid as a baby’s ear; tolling for Jiro-San and Adolf Ableson, for Clane and Grishkin and the crimes which sickened their minds in the rare service of Art-their formless, quavering light extinguished now, their names forgotten, their feverish stanzas no more than a faint flush on the face of the world, a fading resonance in the ears of Time!

Californium!-a knell for the new nobles of Borring’s court, the unkempt rural harpists who only five centuries ago filled the place with sawdust and thin beer and vomit, beating out their sagas and great lying epics like swords on a Rivermouth anvil while Viriconium, the only city they had ever seen, refurbished itself around them (remembering, perhaps, its long declining dream) and, at the head of Low Leedale, the cold stronghold of Duirinish levered its way upward stone by stone to bar the way to the wolves of the North. They were here!

Here too came the young tegeus-Cromis, a lord in Methven’s halls before the death of his proud sister, morose and ascetic in a bice velvet cloak, eager to stitch the night through with the eerie self-involved notes of a curious Eastern gourd… Californium! Philosophers and tinkers; poetry, art, and revolution; princes like vagrants and migrant polemicists with voices soft as a snake’s; the absolute beat and quiver of Time, the voice of the city; millennia of verse echo from its chromium walls, drift in little dishonest flakes of sound from that peculiarly frescoed ceiling!

Tonight it was like a grave.

Tonight (with the night in the grip of the Locust, at the mercy of a poetry as icy and formal as an instinct) it was filled with the singular moonlight, bright yet leaden, arctic and elusive, that seeped in from the street. It was cold. And from its windows the city was a broad ingenuous diorama, blue-grey, lemon-yellow, textured like crude paper. Each table cast a precise dull shadow on the floor, as did each table’s occupant, caught in frozen contemplation of some crime or moral feebleness-Lord Mooncarrot, he with the receding brow and rotting Southern estates (gardens filled with perspiring leaden statuary and wild white cats), pondering the blackmail of his wife; Ansel Verdigris the derelict poet, head like an antipodean cockatoo’s, fingering his knife and two small coins; Chorica nam Vell Ban, half-daughter of the renegade Norvin Trinor, forgiven but shunned by the society she craved-the persistent moon illuminated them all, and shadows ate their puzzled faces, a handful of rogues and poseurs and failures watching midnight away in the security of their own sour fellowship.

Lord Galen Hornwrack found an empty table and settled himself among them to drink cheap wine and stare impassively into the lunar street, waiting for whatever the long empty night might bring.

It was to bring him three things: the Sign of the Locust; a personal encounter wan and oblique enough for the bleak white midnight outside; and a betrayal.

The Sign of the Locust is unlike any other religion invented in Viriconium. Its outward forms and observances-its liturgies and rituals, its theurgic or metaphysical speculations, its daily processionals-seem less an attempt by men to express an essentially human invention than the effort of some raw and independent Idea-a theophneustia, existing without recourse to brain or blood: a Muse or demiurge-to express itself. It wears its congregation like a disguise: we did not so much create the Sign of the Locust as invite it into ourselves, and now it dons us nightly like a cloak and domino to go abroad in the world.

Who knows exactly where it began, or how? For as much as a century (or as little as a decade: estimates vary) before it made its appearance on the streets, a small group or cabal somewhere in the city had propagated its fundamental tenet-that the appearance of “reality” is quite false, a counterfeit or artefact of the human senses. How hesitantly they must have crept from alley to alley to confirm one another in their grotesque beliefs! How shy to confide them! And yet: the war had left our spirits as ruinous as the Cispontine Quarter. We were tired. We were hungry. The coming of the Reborn Men was disheartening, unlooked-for, punitive. It left us with a sense of having been replaced. How eagerly in the end we clutched at this pitiless, elegant systemization of one simple nihilistic premise!

“The world is not as we perceive it,” maintained the early converts, “but infinitely more surprising. We must cultivate a diverse view.” This mild (even naive) truism, however, was to give way rapidly-via a series of secret and bloody heretical splits-to a more radical assertion. A wave of murders, mystifying to the population at large, swept the city. It was during this confused period that the Sign itself first came to light, that simple yet tortuous adaptation of the fortune-teller’s MANTIS symbol which, cut in steel or silver, swings at the neck of each adherent. Ostlers and merchant princesses, soldiers and shopkeepers, astrologers and vagabonds, were discovered sprawled stiffly in the gutters and plazas, strangled in an unknown fashion and their bodies tattooed with symbolical patterns, as the entire council of the Sign, elected by secret ballot from the members of the original cabal, tore itself apart in a grotesque metaphysical dispute. A dreadful sense of immanence beset the city. “Life is a blasphemy,” announced the Sign. “Procreation is a blasphemy, for it replicates and fosters the human view of the universe.”

Thus the Sign established itself, coming like a coded message from nowhere. Now its apologists range from wheelwright to Court ascetic; it is scrawled on every alley wall to fluoresce in the thin bluish moonlight; it rustles like a dry wind-or so it’s said-even in the corridors of Methven’s hall. Its complicated subsects, with their headless and apparently aimless structures, issue many bulletins. We counterfeit the “real,” they claim, by our very forward passage through time, and thus occlude the actual and essential. One old man feeding a dog might by the power of his spirit maintain the existence of an entire street-the dog, the shamble of houses with their big-armed women and staring children, the cobbles wet with an afternoon’s rain, the sunset seen through the top of a ruined tower-and what mysteries lie behind this imperfect shadow play? What truths? They process the streets impulsively, trying to defeat the real, and hoping to come upon a Reborn Man.

Such a procession now made its way toward the Bistro Californium, given up like a breath of malice by the night. It was quick and many-legged in the gloom. It was silent and unnerving. The faces which composed it were nacreous, curiously inexpressive as they yearned on long rubbery necks after their victim. Surprised among the Cispontine ruins not an hour before, this poor creature fled in fits and starts before them, falling in and out of doorways and sobbing in the white moonlight. A single set of running footsteps echoed in the dark. All else was a parched whisper, as if some enormous insect hovered thoughtfully above the chase on strong, chitinous wings.

Since their condition allows them no deeper relief, the merely selfish are raddled with superstition; salt, mirror, “touch wood” are ritual bribes, employed to ensure the approval of an already indulgent continuum. The true solipsist, however, has no need of such toys. His presiding superstition is himself. Galen Hornwrack, then, cared as much for the Sign of the Locust as he did for anything not directly connected with himself or his great loss: that is to say, not in the least. So the first clue to their coming confrontation went unrecognised by him-how could it be otherwise?

Glued to its own feeble destiny in the leaden blue moonlight, the clique at the Bistro Californium regarded its navel with surprised disgust. Verdigris the poet was trying to raise money against the security of a ballad he said he was writing. He bobbed and hopped fruitlessly from shadow to harsh shadow, attempting first to cheat the fat Anax Hermax, epileptic second son of an old Mingulay fish family, then a sleepy prostitute from Minnet-Saba, who only smiled maternally at him, and finally Mooncarrot, who knew him of old. Mooncarrot laughed palely, his eyes focused elsewhere, and flapped his gloves. “Oh dear, oh no, old friend,” he whispered murderously. “Oh dear, oh no!” The words fell from his soft mouth one by one like pieces of pork. Verdigris was frantic. He plucked at Mooncarrot’s sleeve. “But listen!” he said. He had nowhere to sleep; he had-it has to be admitted-debts too large to run away from; worse, he actually did feel verses crawling about somewhere in the back of his skull like maggots in a corpse, and he needed refuge from them in some woman or bottle. He nodded his head rapidly, shook that dyed fantastic crest of hair. “But listen!” he begged; and, standing on one leg in a pool of weird moonlight, he put his hands behind his back, stretched his neck and recited,

My dear when the grass rolls in tubular billows

And the face of the ewe lamb bone white in the meadows

Sickens and slithers down into the mallows

Murder will soothe us and settle our fate;

Hallowed and pillowed in the palm of tomorrow

We tremble and trouble the hearts of the hollow:

The teeth of the tigers that stalk in the shallows

Encrimson the foam at the fisherman’s feet!

No one paid him any attention. Hornwrack sat slumped at the edge of the room where he could keep an eye on both door and window (he expected nobody-it was a precaution-it was a habit), his long white hand curled round the handle of a black jug, a smile neglected on his thin lips. Though he loathed and mistrusted Verdigris he was faintly amused by this characteristic display. The poet now choked on his horrid extemporary, mid-line. He was becoming exhausted, staring about like a bullock in an abattoir, moving here and there in little indecisive runs beneath the strange Californium frescoes. Only Hornwrack and Chorica nam Vell Ban were left to importune; he hesitated then turned to the woman, with her pinched face and remote eyes. She will give him nothing, thought Hornwrack. Then we shall see how badly off he really is.

“I dined with the hertis-Padnas,” she explained confidentially, not looking at Verdigris as he bobbed uxoriously about in front of her. “They were too kind.” She seemed to see him for the first time, and her imbecile smile opened like a flower.

“Muck and filth!” screamed Verdigris. “I didn’t ask for a social calendar!”

Shivering, he forced himself to face Hornwrack.

A grey shadow materialised behind him at the door and wavered there like some old worn lethal dream.

Hornwrack flung his chair back against the wall and fumbled for his plain steel knife. (Moonlight trickled down its blade and dripped from his wrist.) Verdigris, who had not seen the shadow in the doorway, gaped at him in grotesque surprise. “No, Hornwrack,” he said. His tongue, like a little purple lizard, came out and scuttled round his lips. “Please. I only wanted-”

“Get out of my way,” Hornwrack told him. “Go on.”

Scarlet crest shaking with relief, he gave a great desperate shout of laughter and sprang away in time to give Hornwrack one good look at the figure which now tottered through the door.

A thin skin only, taut as a drumhead, separates us from the future: events leak through it reluctantly, with a faint buzzing sound, if they make any noise at all-like the wind in an empty house before rain. Much later, when an irreversible process of change had hold of them both, he was to learn her name-Fay Glass, of the House of Sleth, famous a thousand and more years ago for its unimaginably oblique acts of cruelty and compassion. But for now she was a mere faint echo of the yet-to-occur, a Reborn Woman with eyes of a fearful honesty, haphazardly cropped hair an astonishing lemon colour, and a carriage awkward to the point of ugliness and absurdity (as if she had forgotten, or somehow never learned, how a human being stands). Her knees and elbows made odd and painful angles beneath the thick velvet cloak she wore; her thin fingers clutched some object wrapped in waterproof cloth and tied up with a bit of coloured leather. Muddy and travel-stained, there she stood, in an attitude of confusion and fear, blinking at Hornwrack’s knife proffered like a sliver of midnight and true murder in the eccentric Californium shadows; at Verdigris’s disgusting red crest; at Mooncarrot and his kid gloves, smiling and whispering delightedly, “Hello, my dear. Hello, my little damp parsnip-”

“I,” she said. She fell down like a heap of sticks.

Verdigris was on her at once, slashing open the bundle even as her fingers relaxed.

“What’s this?” he muttered to himself. “No money! No money!” With a sob he threw it high into the air. It turned over once or twice, landed with a thud, and rolled into a corner.

Hornwrack went up and kicked him off. “Go home and rot, Verdigris.” He gazed down thoughtfully.

Perhaps a decade after the successful conclusion of the War of the Two Queens it had become apparent that a large proportion of the Reborn could not manage the continual effort necessary to separate their dreams, their memories, and the irrevocable present in which they now discovered themselves. Some illness or dislocation had visited them during the long burial. No more, it was decided, should be resurrected until the others had found a cure for this disability. In the interim the worst afflicted would leave the city to form communes and self-help groups dotted across the uplands and along the littorals of the depopulated North. It was a callous and unsatisfactory solution, except to those who felt most threatened by the Reborn; ramshackle and interim as it was, however, it endured-and here we find them seventy years on, in deserted estuaries full of upturned fishing boats and hungry gulls, under fretted fantastic gritstone edges and all along the verges of the Great Brown Waste-curious, flourishing, hermetic little colonies, some dedicated to music or mathematics, others to weaving and the related arts, others still to the carving of enormous mazes out of the sodden clinker and blowing sands of the waste. All practise, besides, some form of the ecstatic dancing first witnessed by Tomb the Dwarf in the Great Brain Chamber at Knarr in the Lesser Rust Desert.

The search for a cure is forgotten, the attempt to come to terms with Evening abandoned. They prefer now to drift, to surrender themselves to the currents of that peculiar shifting interface between past, present, and wholly imaginary: acting out partial memories of the Afternoon and weaving into them whatever fragments of the Evening they are able to perceive. Privately they call this twilight country of perception “the margins,” and some believe that by committing themselves wholly to it they will in the end achieve not only a complete liberation from linear Time but also some vast indescribable affinity with the very fabric of the “real.” They are mad, to all intents and purposes: but perfectly hospitable.

From one of these communities Fay Glass had come, down all the long miles to the South. The weird filaments of silver threading the grey velvet of her cloak; her inability to articulate; her palpable confusion and petit mal: all spoke eloquently of her origins. But there was nothing to explain what had brought her here, or why she had failed to contact the Reborn of the city (who without exception-full of guilt perhaps over their abandonment of their cousins-would have feted and cared for her as they did every visitor from the North); nothing to account for her present pitiable condition. Hornwrack touched her gently with the toe of his boot. “Lady?” he said absently. He did not precisely “care”-he was, after all, incapable of that-but the night had surprised him, presenting him with a face he had never seen (or wanted to see) before: his curiosity had been piqued for the first time in many years.

The city caught its breath; the blue hollow lunar glow, streetlight of some necrotic, alternate Viriconium, flickered; and when at last something prompted him to look up again, the servants of the Sign were before him, filing in dumb processional through the chromium Californium door.

Chorica nam Vell Ban left her table hurriedly and went to sit beside Lord Mooncarrot, whom she loathed. Her shoulders were as thin as a coat hanger and from the folds of her purple dress there fluttered like exotic moths old invitation cards with deckled edges and embossed silver script. Mooncarrot for his part dropped both his rancid smile and his yellow gloves- plop! -and now found himself too rigid to pick them up again. Under the table these two fumbled for one another’s shaking hands, to clasp them in a tetanus of anxiety and self-interest while their lips curled with mutual distaste and their curdled whispers trickled across the room.

“Hornwrack, take care!”

(Much later he was to realise that even this simple counsel was enmeshed in incidental entendres. Not that it matters: at the time it was already too late to follow.)

“Take care, Hornwrack!” advised a voice of wet rags and bile, a voice which had plumbed the gutters of its youth for inspiration and never clambered out again. It was Verdigris, sidling up behind him to hop and shuffle like a demented flamingo at the edge of vision. What abrupt desperate betrayal was he nerving himself up for? What unforgivable retreat? “Oh, go away,” said Hornwrack. He felt like a man at the edge of some crumbling sea cliff, his back to the drop and the unknown waves with the foam in their teeth. “What do you want here?” he asked the servants of the Sign.

By day they were drapers, dull and dishonest; by day they were bakers. Now, avid-eyed, as hollow and expectant as a vacuum, they stood in a line regarding the woman at his feet with a kind of damp, empty longing, their faces lumpen and ill-formed in the hideous light-moulded, it seemed, from some impure or desecrated white wax-weaving about on long thin necks, grunting and squinting in a manner half-apologetic, half-aggressive. Their spokesman, their priest or tormentor, was a beggar with the ravaged yellow mask of a saint. A surviving member of the original cabal, he wielded extensive financial power though he lived on the charity of certain important Houses of the city. A rich bohemian in his youth, he had refuted the ultimate reality even of the self (staggering, after nights of witty and irreproachable polemic, down the ashen streets at dawn, afraid to destroy himself lest by that he should somehow acknowledge that he had lived). He no longer interpreted but rather embodied the Sign, and when he stood forward and began to work his reluctant jaws back and forth, it spoke out of him.

“You do not exist,” it said, in a voice like a starving imbecile, articulating slowly and carefully, as if speech were a new invention, a new unlooked-for interruption of the endless reedy Song. “You are dreaming each other.” It pointed to the woman. “She is dreaming you all. Give her up.” It swallowed dryly, clicking its lips, and became still.

Before Hornwrack could reply, Verdigris-who, filled by circumstance with a bilious and lethal despair, had indeed been nerving himself up, although not for a betrayal-stepped unexpectedly out of the shadows. He had had a bad afternoon at the cards with Fat Mam Etteilla; verse was scraping away at the wards of his skull like a picklock in a rusty keyhole; he was a rag of a man, in horror of himself and everything else that lived. To the spokesman of the Sign he offered a ridiculous little bow. “Pigs are dreaming you, you tit-suckers!” he sneered, and, squawking like a drunken juggler, winked up at Hornwrack.

Hornwrack was astonished.

“Verdigris, are you mad?”

“You’re done for, at least!” was all the poet said. “It’s black murder now.” A perverted grin crossed his face. “Unless-”

Suddenly he extended a dirty avaricious claw, palm upwards, calloused and ink-stained from the pen. “If you want her you’ll have to pay for her, Hornwrack!” he hissed. “You can’t fight them on your own.” He glanced sideways at the Sign, shuddered. “Those eyes!” he whispered. “Quick,” he said, “before my guts turn to prune juice. Enough for a bed, enough for a bottle, and I’m your man! Eh?” As he watched Hornwrack’s incomprehension dissolve into disgust, he shivered and sobbed. “You can’t fight them on your own!”

Hornwrack looked at him. He looked down at Fay Glass, insensible yet invested-a mysterious engine of fate. He looked at the spokesman of the Sign. He shrugged.

“Peddle your knife somewhere else,” he told the poet. “These people have never had cause to quarrel with me. They should remember that. They have made a simple mistake in the identity of this unfortunate woman (who is a cousin of mine, I now see, from Soubridge), and they are leaving.”

He stood there feeling surprised. He had meant to say something else.

“You do not exist,” whispered the Sign.

Ansel Verdigris chuckled.

Shadows flickered on the wall. Knives were out in the eerie light.

“Oh, very well,” sighed Galen Hornwrack. “Very well.”

Possessed by the sudden instinctive cannibalism of the baboon (our unshakable mahout, seated in the skull these million centuries), the combatants throw themselves at one another: the flesh parting like lips, wounds opening like avid mouths, precious fluids of the heart spent in one quick salivation; the bloody flux…

Hornwrack watches at the celebration of his own genius, helpless and a little awed. He has done nothing during his self-imposed exile from humanity if not learn his trade. A cold, manufactured rage, counterfeit of an emotion without which he cannot do his work, laps him round. The good steel knife, conjured from its sheath like a memory, settles comfortably in his hand. He can no longer influence himself, and treads the measures of his trade-the cut, the leap, the feint. Like a juggler in the Atteline Plaza he tumbles to avoid the despairing counterstroke (the blade whickering in beneath his cheekbone, the displaced air brushing feather-like his hollowed cheek). Blood fountains in the mad Californium light, the colour of old plums. That is no new colour. (All the while the girl lay between his shuffling feet like a stone, her eyes full of pain and disbelief.) The knife goes home, and goes home again in the queasy gloom. His blood is now inextricably mixed with that of the Sign, daubed on his bare forearms, greasy underfoot, a fraternity of murder and pain… .

Somewhere behind him Verdigris was struggling, his face luminous with terror, his mouth a gargoyle’s spouting a filth of verses, some drain-pipe lyric of relaxing sphincters and glazed eyes. “Remember this, Hornwrack!” he shouted. “Remember this!”

Hornwrack never heard him. Three, perhaps four, fall before him, and then the mouthpiece of the Sign squeezes into view from the bloody melee like a face surfacing from the bottom of a dream-long, yellow, smeared with blood, triangular and expressionless as a wasp’s-the breath huffing in and out like dry inhalations of some machine, the breath of the insect whispering the deadly symbolic secrets of the cabal, the arid rustling visions of bone and desert-until Hornwrack’s knife thumps him squarely in the hollow between collarbone and trapezius with a sound like a chisel in a block of wood, to end eighty years of fear and doubt. At the point of his death, electricity flares between them, as if the whole cabal gave up its heart in the one despairing, vomited word,

“No,” which was simultaneously his warning and his triumph.

Hornwrack supported the corpse by its throat, struggling to pull out his knife. The yellow face grinned at him, laved by its own punctured carotid. He let it slip away, back down into his nightmares.

For a moment he felt quite old and hopeless. All around him shadows were slipping from the place in defeat-silently, like sapient grey baboons quitting some foggy midnight rock in a warmer latitude, fur blood-streaked, the game up. In the middle of the room Verdigris had fallen to his knees and, clutching one gory thigh to stem the bleeding, was slashing feebly at retreating hamstrings. As Hornwrack watched he fell on his face and dragged himself off into a corner. Hornwrack ran out into the street, shouting. Brought up short by the dazzle of moonlight, he could hear only the rapid patter of feet. He stood there for a long time, shaking his head puzzledly, growing cold as the clock moved from midnight to one, the knife forgotten in his hand; then he went back inside.

Verdigris had gone, through the rear entrance and out into the thousand gutters of the Quarter, the girl’s bundle with him; even now he would be trying to sell it in some derelict shambles at the dark end of an alley. Mooncarrot and Chorica nam Vell Ban were gone, to spend the rest of the night together in grey, narcissistic embrace, each seeing in the other’s unresponsive face a mirror-and to part with revulsion as the spasm of fear which had briefly united them faded in the spreading light of dawn. The Sign had gone, and its dead with it. The queer Californium frescoes looked down on an empty and echoing space, and, standing awkwardly at the hub of it, staring about her in characteristic frozen panic, the Reborn Woman Fay Glass, a harbinger, a messenger in a velvet cloak. Her cropped yellow hair was spiky with congealing blood and she was trying desperately to speak.

“I,” she said. “In my youth,” she whispered. Her eyes were blue as acid.

“Look,” he told her, “you had better leave before they come back.” A place in his left side ached unbearably. He felt dull and fatigued. “I’m sorry about the bundle,” he said. “If I see Verdigris… but I expect your people can help you.” He put his hand through the rip in his soft leather shirt. It came out warm and sticky. He bit his knuckles. “I’m hurt,” he explained, “and I can’t help you anymore.”

“In my youth I-”

She was plainly mad (and attracted madness too, focusing all the long lunacies of the city like a glass catching the rays of some ironic invisible sun). He wanted no dependents. He put out a hand to touch her shoulder.

Immediately he experienced a shocking moment of blankness, a lapse like the premature tumble into sleep of an overtired brain. It was accompanied by something which resembled an intense flash of light. He heard himself say, quite inexplicably: “There are no longer any walls.” Shadows rushed out of the Californium corners and swallowed him: the Afternoon was vibrating in him like a malign chord. Somewhere out there in the millennial dark night, tall ancient towers howled on a rising wind. He approached them over many days, fearfully, across tracts of moorland and dissected peat, scoured ridges and deep sumps. The water was corrupted and undrinkable, the paths difficult to find. Finally the hidden city composed itself before him like a dream, but by then it was too late… Simultaneously (in a vision overlaid like delicately coloured glass) he was in some other place. A settlement huddled on the verge of the Great Brown Waste. Behind it steep slopes covered with sickly dwarf oak swept up to an extensive gritstone escarpment running north and south, its black bays and buttresses looming up against the fading light. A few flakes of snow hung in the bitter air, and, silhouetted against the pale green sky, enormous insectile shapes marched in slow processions across the clifftop.

“No,” cried Galen Hornwrack. He shook himself like a dying rat and pushed the woman away. “What?” he said, staring at her. He was trembling all over. Then, with his hand clapped to his left side and his face haggard, he staggered out of the Californium, feeling the dry, febrile touch of wings or madness on his skin.

Behind him the Reborn Woman moved her lips desperately, a child making faces into a mirror.

“In my youth,” she said to his retreating back, “I made my small contribution. Venice becomes like Blackpool, leaving nothing for anybody. Rebellion is good and necessary. I-” The Californium became silent about her. There was nothing left but the doorway, a trapezium of blue and grey and faded gamboge-the reflection of the city in a deep well of moonlight on an autumn night. Nothing was left but the wind out of Monar, a little blood, the falling leaves. She began to weep with frustration.

“I-”

Viriconium. Hornwrack. Three worlds colliding in his head. As he ran aimlessly up and down the alleyways at the periphery of the Quarter, dark, viscid peat groughs yawned like traps beneath his feet. The wind hissed in his ears. Looming against an electric sky, that terrible haunted crag with its slow purposeful visitation! In the shattered moonlight of the city he stumbled into doors and walls, his limbs jerking erratically as if the vision accidentally vouchsafed him had been accompanied by some injection of poison into his nervous system. His clothes were torn and he was caked with blood; he couldn’t remember where he lived; he couldn’t imagine where he’d been. It was this fatal disorientation which camouflaged the sound of footsteps following him, and by the time he had remembered who he was-by the time those other landscapes had faded sufficiently for him to appreciate his situation-it was too late.

Out of the shadows that curtained the alley wall another shadow hurled itself; across a band of moonlight a white perverted face was launched at his own; he was carried to the floor by a tremendous blow in his damaged side, as if someone had run full-tilt into him in the bruised yellow gloom. Thin, hispid arms embraced him, and close to his ear a voice that smelt of wet rags and bile-a voice pulped by self-indulgence and curdled with vice-hissed, “Pay up, Hornwrack, or you’ll rot in the gutter! I swear it!”

The hands which now scuttled over him were lean and fearful, full of horrible vitality. They discovered his purse and emptied it. They stumbled on his knife, retreated in confusion, then snatched it up and drove it repeatedly against the flagstones until it shattered. Overcome by this ambitious tactic they abandoned him suddenly, like frightened rats. Something heavy and foul was flung down on the pavement near his head. A single exotic shriek of laughter split the night: running footsteps, the signature of the Low City, faded into echoes, stranding him sick and helpless on this barren, reeling promontory of his empty life.

Now he realised that he had been stabbed a second time, close to the original wound. He grinned painfully at the ironical shards of his own blade, winking up at him from the cracked flags, each one containing a tiny, perfect reflection of the mad retreating figure of the balladeer, coxcomb flapping in the homicidal night. “I’ll have your lights, you bloody cockatoo, you rag,” he whispered, “you bloody poet!” But now he wanted only his familiar quarters in the Rue Sepile, the dry rustle of mice among the dead geraniums, and the murmured confidences of the whores on the upper stair. After a while this hallucination of security became so magnetic that he hauled himself to his feet and began the journey, clinging to the alley wall for comfort. Almost immediately he was enveloped in a foul reek. He had stumbled over Verdigris’s abandoned rubbish: the Reborn Woman’s bundle, still wrapped in its waterproof cloth. For the life of him he couldn’t think why it should stink so of rotting cabbage.

When he unwrapped it to find out he discovered the hacked-off head of an insect, rotting and seeping and fully eighteen inches from eye to globulareye.

He dropped it with a groan and fled, through the warrens behind Delphin Square, past the grubby silent booth of Fat Mam Etteilla and the crumbling cornices of the Camine Auriale, his feet echoing down the empty colonnades, his wounds aching in the cold. Things pass behind me when my head is turned, he thought, and he knew then that the future was stalking him, that a consummation lay in ambush. He stared wildly up at the Name Stars in case they should reflect the huge unnatural change below. From Delphin all the way to the Plaza of Unrealised Time he went, straight as an arrow across the Artists’ Quarter to the narrow opening of the Rue Sepile, to those worm-eaten rooms on the lower landing with the ceilings that creaked all night. ..

… Where the dawn found him out at last and his eighty-year exile ended (although he was not to know that at the time).

All night he had lain in a painful daze broken by short violent dreams and fevers in which he received hints and rumours of the world’s end. Fire shot from the ruined observatory at Alves, and a great bell tolled where none had hung for millennia. A woman with an insect’s head stuffed his wounds with sand; later, she led him through unfamiliar colonnades scoured by a hot dry wind-the streets crackled underfoot, carpeted with dying yellow locusts! Mam Etteilla, sweating in the prophetic booth- “Fear death from the air!”-opened her hands palm upwards and placed them on the table. He was abandoned by his companions in the deep wastes and crawled about groaning while the earth flew apart like an old bronze flywheel under the wan eye of a moon which resolved itself finally into the face of his boy, impassive in the queasy light of a single candle.

“What, then?” he whispered, trying to push the lad away.

It was the last hour of the night, when the light creeps up between the shutters and spreads across the damp plaster like a stain, musty and cold. Outside, the Rue Sepile lay exhausted, prostrate, smelling of stale wine. He coughed and sat up, the sheets beneath him stiff with his own coagulating blood. Pulling himself, hand over hand, out of the hole of sleep, he found his mouth dry and rancid, his injured side a hollow pod of pain.

“There are people to see you,” said the boy. And, indeed, behind his expressionless face other faces swam, there in the corner beyond the candle-light. Hornwrack shuddered, clawing at the bloody linen.

“Do nothing,” he croaked.

The boy smiled and touched his arm, with “Better get up, my lord,” the gesture ambivalent, the smile holding compassion perhaps, perhaps contempt, affection, or embarrassment. They knew nothing about one another despite a hundred mornings like this, years of stiff and bloody sheets, delirium, hot water, and the stitching needle. How many wounds had the boy bound, with pinched face and capable undemonstrative fingers? How many days had he spent alone with the dry smell of the geraniums, the Rue Sepile buzzing beyond the shutters, waiting to hear of a death?

“Better get up.”

“Will you remember me?”

He shivered, and his hand found the boy’s thin shoulder. “Will you remember me?” he repeated, and when no answer was forthcoming swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

“I’m coming,” he said with a shrug; so they waited for him in the shadows of his room, silent and attentive as the boy bathed and dressed his wounds, as the candle faded and grey light crept in under the door. Fay Glass the madwoman with her message from the North; Alstath Fulthor, lord of the Reborn and a great power in Viriconium since the War of the Two Queens; and between them the old bent man in the hooded robe, who peered out through a chink in the mouldy shutter and said dryly, “I can connect nothing with nothing today. But look how the leaves fall!”

3

A FISH EAGLE IN VIRICONIUM

Tomb the Dwarf’s return to Viriconium, his adoptive city, was accomplished at no great pace. The passage of two or three days placed the site of his abortive excavations and near-incineration behind him to the southeast. The Monar massif was on his right hand (its peaks as yet no more than a threat of ice, a white hanging frieze hardly distinguishable from a line of cloud), while somewhere off to his left ran that ancient, paved, and-above all-crowded way which links the Pastel City with its eastern dependencies-Faldich, Cladich, and Lendalfoot by the sea. This latter route he avoided, preferring the old drove roads and greenways, out of sentimentality rather than any conscious desire to be alone. He remembered something about them from his youth. Although he was not quite sure what it might be, he sought it stubbornly in the aimless salients and gentle swells of the dissected limestone uplands which skirt the mountains proper, haunted by the liquid bubble of the curlew and the hiss of the wind in the blue moor grass.

He gave little thought to his rescuer from the past. The man had vanished again while he slept, leaving nothing but a half-dream in which the words Viriconium and Moon were repeated many times and with a certain sense of urgency. (Tomb had woken ravenous in the morning, abandoned the new pit immediately, despite its promise, and gone in search of him- full at first of a curious joy, then at least in hope, and finally, when he failed to find so much as a footprint in the newly turned earth, with a wry amusement at his own folly.) He was, as he had put it more than once, a dwarf and not a philosopher. Events involved him utterly; he encountered them with optimism and countered them with instinct; in their wake he had few opinions, only memories. He asked for no explanations.

Still, curiosity was by no means dead in him, and since he could not go to the moon he moved west across the uplands instead, toward Viriconium. In a region of winding dales a further queer event overtook him.

Fissuring the high plateau, so that from above it looked like a grey and eroded cheese, these deep little dry-bottomed valleys were dreamy and untenanted. Hanging thickets of thorn and ash made them difficult of access (except where some greenway deserted impulsively its grassy sheep run to follow an empty streambed, plunge through tumbled and overgrown intake walls, and nose like a dog among the mossy ruins of some long-abandoned village), and each was guarded by high, white, limestone bastions. Into one such came the dwarf at the end of a warmish October afternoon, the wheels of his caravan creaking on a disused track drifted with ochre leaves. Reluctant to disturb the elegant silence of the beech-woods, he descended slowly, looking for a place to pass the night. The air was warm, the valley dappled with honey-coloured light. Summer still lived here in the smell of the wild garlic, the dance of the insects in the steep glades, and the slow fall of a leaf through a slanting ray of sun.

The curves of the track revealed to him first a forgotten hamlet in the valley floor-then, swimming above that in a kind of amber glow, the enormous cliff which dominated it.

The village was long dead. Past it once had flowed a stream called the Cressbrook, but there was no one left now to call it anything, and it had retreated shyly underground leaving only a barren strip of stones to separate the relics of human architecture from the vast limestone cathedral on its far bank. There was no water for his ponies, but Tomb turned them out of their shafts anyway; he felt magnetized, drawn, on the verge of some discovery. For this they bore him no more or less ill will than usual, and he could hear them tearing at the damp grass as he pottered along the bank of the vanished brook. But he couldn’t get comfortable there, or amid the contorted and lichenous boughs of the reverted orchard with its minute sour apples-and after a while he shook his head, staring puzzledly about him. Something had attracted him, and yet the place was nothing more than a collection of bramble-filled intakes, grassy mounds, and heaps of stone colonized by nettle and elderberry, its air of desuetude and loss magnified by the existence of the cliff above That cliff! That aching expanse of stone, with its ancient jackdaw colonies, its great ragged swathes of ivy, and its long, mysterious yellow stains! It hung up there, every line of it precise in the amber glow, every scalloped overhang thick with brown darkness, every leaning ash tree, golden and exact against its own black shadow. Every buttress was luminous. The gloomy and suggestive caves worn in its face by a million years of running water seemed more likely places of habitude than the pitiful handful of relics facing it across the dry stream. The shadow of a bird, flickering for a moment across an acre of vibrant white stone, invested it with some immemorial yet transitory significance (some distillation or heirloom of a thousand twilights, a billion such shadows fossilized impalpably in the rock): it was like a vast old head-imperial, ironic, and compelling.

Eventually he cooked himself a meal and ate it squatting comfortably on the step of the caravan. Smoke from his fire became trapped in the inversion layers and drifted down the little valley. Evening came closer and yet never seemed to arrive-as if the valley and its great white guardian were removed from the ordinary passage of Time. The sun dipped forever into the greyness and yet never sank. The air cooled, but so slowly. No wind came. Tomb the Dwarf scratched his crotch, yawned. He stood up to massage the deep ache of an old back wound.

He fed the ponies. Then he went to look at the cliff.

At first, a little out of breath after the ascent of the vegetated scree beneath, he was content merely to stand at the bottom of it and crane his neck to watch the jackdaws. The rock was warm: he placed the palm of his hand against it, flat. The earth beneath his boots was filled with the smell of autumn: he breathed deeply, cocking an eye at a hanging rib, a soaring corner, an ivy-filled crack.

He stood there at the beginning of it where every line led upward, then he began to climb.

He had remembered what was haunting him.

He climbed slowly and amiably, placing his feet with care, here jamming a fist into a crack, there balancing his way across some steep slab while empty space burnt away beneath him like a fuse; and with him as he climbed went the long barren limestone scars of his youth, burning and distant under a foreign sun: the baking hinterlands of the Mingulay Peninsula in summer-the stones so bright at midday they hurt the eyes- the tinkers’ caravans string themselves out like gems across the Mogadon Littoral-the sea cliffs blaze in a fifty-mile arc from Radiopolis to Thing Ten while, high above the stone heaps and the thorny rubbish in the dry gullies, patrols a single lammergeyer, a speck on the burning bowl of the air! Each place or event he now saw miniaturised and arid, as if sealed in clear glass. He regretted none of them-but he was glad on the whole to have exchanged them for the softer airs of the North; and the memory identified, the haunting laid, he let it slip away…

Soon he was able to rest on a shaggy platform some three hundred feet from his starting point and perhaps two hundred more above the caravan on the valley floor. Here there was a cool breeze, and he could watch the jackdaws pursue their millennial evening squabble beneath him; harrying one another from roost to roost, then exploding away into the clear air in a clatter of wings and sneers-to soar and drift and drop like stones into the treetops below before returning to the bramble ledges to begin the whole tedious argument over again… . He took off his belt and with it anchored himself among the roots of the yew with which he shared his perch. The air around him cooled; the light began imperceptibly to fade; the long shoulders of the plateau receded north before him, horizon after horizon like grey pigeon feathers set against the enamelled blues and yellows of the sky. Across the valley he could no longer distinguish individual ash trees-crowned with a continuous lacy fretwork of branches, the sun red and unmoving above it, the far slope rose dark and sullen like a vast earthwork.

And as he watched, a head began to raise itself above that earthwork.

It was such a brief glimpse that later he was unable to describe it coherently-by then, of course, it no longer mattered. The thing revealed itself in total silence, and by parts. First the drooping, jointed antennae, in constant nervous motion, were lifted above the trees; then the great globular eyes followed them, dull and faceted, set in a wedge-shaped carapace like the stained and polished skull of a dead horse; finally came the mouth-parts, working like a machine. Two trembling, oddly curved forelimbs appeared, and, braced against the earth’s dark edge (although they left not the slightest mark), levered this shocking mask high above the dwarf’s stance. He never saw the rest of the creature. The valley winked out below him; the cliff lurched and spun; he shuddered, and heard a thin piping noise coming out of his own mouth Then it was gone.

He retained the impression of something fading, of a noise he had never actually heard gradually diminishing from some unimaginable crescendo- as if an invisible energy dissipating itself like water dribbling away under a stone-then he felt the rough powdery bark of the yew against his sweating hand; the cry of the jackdaws came back to him (faint at first, as though from a vast distance); the valley of the Cressbrook was once more as it had been Such a brief glimpse.

The sun sank, the dark welled in, but the small hunched figure on the cliff remained-chin on knees, singed grey hair moving in the night wind, expression quizzical. When he eventually got up to leave his ledge and begin the careful retreat, he saw suddenly that it was scattered with hundreds of little luminous insects. Leaping and glittering in an excess of life and energy, they scuttled over his feet, flickered between the roots of the yew, and tumbled in a constant rain over the edge, spilling into the depths like sparks. He could not see where they came from, and when he tried to pick some of them up they evaded him.

During his descent he had expected to see them falling past him into space, but when a few minutes later the difficulties eased and he was able to look up, they had gone, and he couldn’t even see the ledge.

In a languor of puzzlement and dried blood, then, his wounds gaping at him every time he closed his eyes, Galen Hornwrack abandoned his familiar rooms, his stale but bearable captivity. Nothing was said. Nothing was explained. The shrewd whores watched him go (moving abstractedly from window to window, fingers raised to a drooping underlip, a leaded cheek, a favourite comb). The boy, too, followed him with uncommunicative eyes. Did he understand what had happened? Would he wait for as much as a day before drifting away into some desperate, motiveless new liaison? Hornwrack could not care for him (both of them bore too obviously the signature of the city, the impassive self-indulgence, the narcissism which precludes compassion), but he had a sudden quick vision of the boy’s thin shoulders hunched against a corrosive yellow lamplight; of dripping brickwork and energetic shadows; and he found himself searching for something to say in farewell, some gift or acknowledgment. Nothing came, so he said nothing, and let the inevitable profitless curves of the Rue Sepile carry him out of sight.

Eventually, he knew, his present inertia would be replaced by a faint bitterness, a sense of betrayal which, though directed away from himself, would yet be experienced on behalf of the boy. In this way he managed his crippled emotions. For now he could only watch covertly the faces of his unwelcome companions, waiting for some indication of their purpose. Beneath his cloak he had hidden his second-best knife, a thing with a peculiar hilt and an old black stain he could not remove.

They had fetched him a horse, though he hated that method of travel, and urged him silently to get up on it. Now, the Plaza of Unrealised Time and its shabby dependencies behind them, they shepherded him through the Low City. Alves passed like a dream, its breached copper dome and sprawling rookeries lapped in the silence of desuetude. Along the Camine Auriale a drizzling rain commenced. The earthy wounds of the Cispontine Quarter opened before them like a freshly dug graveyard.

Eastward, where the Artists’ Quarter huddles up to the skirts of the High City (and Carron Ban, it’s said, deserted by her sour daughter, still waits for Norvin Trinor in the inexpressibly sad shadows beneath the heights of Minnet-Saba), dawn had filled the streets with faces Hornwrack knew. The curdled horizontal light picked out a wicked jaw, an eyebrow like a punctuation mark-here a blanched cheek, there a goitre like a pregnancy or some prodigal carious baring of the teeth. Deformed and weary, furtive or gleeful, they were the faces of usurers and wastrels, of despairing cannibals and blemished martyrs, all corroded in the moral marrow and burnt to the underlying bone with the city’s mark: Equipot, the one-eyed merchant, with his sardonic grin and rotting septum; pale Madam “L,” her haematitic eyes full of fever, hurrying to keep an appointment in the Boulevard Aussman; Paulinus Rack, the undertaker’s agent, his very large head covered with broken veins, carrying a short jade cane…

They were customers of his for the most part, though none of them seemed to know him now. It was as if the events of the night had removed him from his proper sphere.

No such sleight had operated in the case of Alstath Fulthor, however much he might have wished it otherwise. From booth and gutter the eyes of the Low City stared out, to pass incuriously over Fay Glass and her outlandishly cropped hair; dwell a little longer on the old man who rode by her side (puzzled perhaps by the strange geometries on his robe, and briefly disconcerted by his tranquil yellow features and impenetrable smile); then fasten greedily on the Reborn Man like the eyes of communicants or at least the spectators at an execution.

Fulthor, that myth!

He was the enigma of the Low City, the meat and drink of their gossip. In the streets beneath Minnet-Saba all motion ceased at his comings and goings, whatever the hour. The constant bedlam of the gutters abated as he rode by, wrapped in his queer diplomatic status and his queerer armour with its strangely elongated joints at knee and elbow and its tremulous blood-red glow. Who was he? Did he serve the city, or it him? He was like some living flaw in time, through which leaked faint poisonous memories of the Afternoon-its fantastic conspiracies and motiveless sciences, all its frigid cruelties and raging glory. Since his triumphant entry at the head of the Reborn Armies eighty years ago (the Northern wolves driven before him to be caught at last between his hammer and the anvil of Tomb the Giant Dwarf), he had gone about Viriconium like the courier of a god, the very beat of his heart a response to some lost prehistoric cue. He was a miasmal past and an ambivalent future, a foreign prince in a familiar city. He was, and always had been, the repository of more fears than hopes.

So they quietened as he passed. It was like an embarrassment in them. A few smiled up at him. Some spat. Others fingered thoughtfully the metal pendant at their necks and wished, perhaps, for the night.

If Hornwrack was disposed to a certain cynical amusement at this reception of the Queen’s favourite advisor, it was dispelled when their destination became plain. Fulthor led his little group first to Minnet-Saba by a northward traverse-the precipitous Rivelin Way being at this hour impassable for the stalls of a makeshift but flourishing fish market-then on to the Camine again, and by this indirect and ill-chosen route (like a man remembering quite another city) brought them finally to the Proton Circuit: a road which has only one ending, there in the great filigree metal shell of Methven’s hall. Dwarfed by the vast curve of that airy way, spiralling above the lesser thoroughfares on its hundred fragile stone pillars, they inched their way towards the palace under a sky like red lead, four small figures imprisoned in a monstrously beautiful geometry. Above them orbited a solitary fish eagle, raucous and lost here on the edge of the mountains, making long white arcs against the clouds.

Hunched up on his horse in the wind and the rain, Hornwrack perceived simultaneously his destination and his mistake. He nodded bitterly to himself. He looked up at the fish eagle to remind himself of old freedoms cruelly taken away. Then he reached deliberately over to his left where the old man rode by his side, hooked one arm round the ancient neck, and brought his second-best knife smoothly from its place of concealment beneath his wet woollen cloak. His own horse halted in confusion, but the old man’s continued to move in a nervous circle. This had the effect of dislodging him from its saddle, so that his weight was completely supported by Hornwrack’s stranglehold-while Hornwrack’s flawed blade, flickering in the ashy light, pricked his yellow skin, and Hornwrack’s flawed laugh died in his face like a poisoned dog.

“I’ll go no further on this bloody road,” cried Hornwrack, “until you tell me why, Alstath Fulthor! What have I ever had here but disappointments?”

Above him, closer now, it seemed, the fish eagle screamed. Its cries caused a kind of elation to spill through him, briefly anaesthetising the ache of his wounds and strengthening him if need be for another murder.

“I’ve not ridden this road for eighty years. I know you, Fulthor. Give me a reason why I should come with you now!”

But a chill went through him as he spoke, and though his words were for the Reborn Man, he found himself staring into the parchment face of his impassive hostage. The old man had spoken not once since his cryptic greeting of the dawn in Hornwrack’s rooms-not once in all that long ride across the city-but now he opened his mouth and gave vent to a sudden mewing wail, a cry with no speech in it at all, which rose inhumanly into the sky and fled away like an ancient bird. This done, he became still again, his lips dry and bluish, his rheumy eyes fixed vacantly on the empty air. The queer geometrical embroidery on his robe seemed to settle itself slowly, as if a moment before it had been in violent and independent motion.

Hornwrack clung tightly to him and shuddered, as the victim clings to his assassin. His wounds hurt him suddenly. He felt sick and he felt very old.

Alstath Fulthor, caught between one tepid nightmare and the next:

For two days a scene from his previous life had hung at the outside edge of perception, giving him the impression that he was accompanied everywhere by one or two partly visible companions. They were tall and whitish-candle-like figures resembling the drawings of the insane-and whenever he turned his head they vanished immediately. At unexpected moments the scene would submerge him completely, and he would become aware that they were walking in some sort of sunken ornamental garden planted with flowers whose names he could not remember and filled with a smell of horsehair and mint which varied in intensity with the wind from beyond the walls. Across it floated the voices of his companions, engaged in some half-serious philosophical or religious dispute. His relationship to them, whilst not precisely sexual, could be described in only the most complex and emotional of terms, and his constant attempts to see them more clearly had given his head a slight sideways tilt, and lent to his expression an even more withdrawn quality than was usual.

It was symptomatic, perhaps, of a sudden self-doubt. The old man in the embroidered robe-guarded as to his immediate origins, secretive of purpose though evidently benign-had issued from the recent history of Viriconium with all the force of a living myth. And on that high path under the brow of Hollin Low Moor, less than a week before (night coming on, the sweat drying on him, and the distant shriek of a fish eagle making alien the bleating of the autumn flocks), Alstath Fulthor had relinquished to him what he secretly saw as the stewardship of the empire. He did not quite understand how this had come about. Only that he had fought so long against the quicksand of his Afternoon memories (because after the passing of tegeus-Cromis and the vanishing of Tomb the Iron Dwarf, who else was left to advise the Queen?) and now the fight was failing and he was tired to death. Only that the old man’s charisma was immense, his frail old figure looming somehow over every foreseeable future, a warning or a threat.

So, even before the appearance at his house in the early hours of the woman Fay Glass, incoherent and alone, he had begun to act in a stupor, consumed by the feeling that there was nothing to choose between the fevers of his skull and those of the world outside it. When he closed his eyes strange waxen figures moved through a garden; when he opened them again he found that he had allowed the girl (like some demented diviner) to lead him halfway across the city in search of a cheap assassin. Somewhere along the way he had collected the old man, who now watched him sardonically and offered him no assistance-“I can connect nothing with nothing…” The tenement in the Rue Sepile filled him with disgust for the people among whom he must now make his life. Its stairways wound like a tedious argument, luring part of his brain along with them until he found himself thinking, apropos of nothing, If the dead have a city it is like this one, and it smells of rats and withered geraniums…

“But look how the leaves fall…” While his boy bled him patiently, the assassin groaned and whispered from the disordered bed. Fulthor eyed the process with distaste, noting how the boy’s face, delicate and womanish in the unsteady light, filled with a strange detached sympathy. Later, watching the assassin dress, he felt only impatience at the Low City swagger of him, and missed the hidden knife…

Now Hornwrack closed on his victim like a rat trap.

There was a sudden hiss of indrawn breath. A flurry of hooves. The knife flickered out from somewhere, a blemished steel tongue in the grey light. The old man gasped once and was silent. They remained locked together for a long moment, like lovers. Above them, somewhere up in the dark morning, a huge bird shrieked. The madwoman began to ride round them in circles, whimpering and waving her arms. Hornwrack laughed madly. “I’ll go no further, Fulthor! I’ve been this way before. It’s a road to nothing!” Suddenly he stared into the face of his hostage as if he saw his own death there. “What?” Fear stretched his thin brutalised features.

The old man opened his throat, retched, squawked inhumanly, then seemed to smile.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” cried Fay Glass, staring upward.

Alstath Fulthor, his brain an empty beach across which were scattered the bones of understanding, felt, rather than saw, something detach itself from the racing clouds above.

It fell slowly at first, toppling languidly off one great wing, giving vent to a high wailing cry (thus do the fish eagles of the Southern Marches plummet almost lazily a thousand yards into the cold salt water of their native sea lochs: but this one was fully five feet from wingtip to wingtip, and of an odd grey colour); plunged quicker and quicker until Fulthor was sure it must bury itself in the paving of the Circuit; then in the final instant shot horizontally across his field of vision in a rush of displaced air, to smash into the assassin’s rib cage with a noise like an axe going into an oak door. Shouting in rage and fright, Hornwrack fell backwards off his horse. He lost his hold on the old man, hit the wet road, and was bowled over in a mist of blood and feathers.

Relieved-if astonished-at this turn of events, Fulthor drew his powered blade and cursed his horse in close, found that he could get a clear stroke at neither assassin nor bird, and swept the old man up to safety instead. This gave him the illusion, at least, of participation.

In the immediate aftermath of its strike the hawk had the advantage of momentum: with its talons fastened in his face, Hornwrack went rolling and bellowing about the roadway, knife arm flailing while he tried with the other to protect his eyes and throat. There was little to choose between them for ferocity. The bird shrieked and croaked; the man groaned and wept; rain fell on them both. Alstath Fulthor stared, appalled. Eventually, blood streaming from his face and forearms, the man wriggled into a kneeling position. He grasped the bird by its neck and pulled it off him. Time after time he drove the knife into its body, but it was like stabbing a brick wall. The huge wings buffeted him. Their faces were inches apart, and both of them were screaming now as if they had finally recognised one another from some other country and were continuing a quarrel begun there long ago… Suddenly the man threw his knife away, transferred both hands to the bird’s neck, and twisted it once.

They raised their bloody heads and shrieked together. The man choked. The bird was still.

Fulthor rode over, dismounted, and watched Hornwrack get unsteadily to his feet. His cloak was ripped, his shoulders a mantle of blood. He looked round him like an idiot, empty-eyed. “Yours, I suppose,” he said to Fulthor, his voice thick and dull. He hardly seemed to notice the powered blade flickering and spitting at his throat. He held out the dead bird. “Some bloody thing dug up out of the ground.”

The Reborn Man stared at it in silence. It was a perfect image of a bird made all in metal: a fantasy with armoured wings, every feather beaten from wafer-thin iridium, the fierce raptorial beak and talons forged from steel and graven with strange delicate designs. It hung from Hornwrack’s hand, though, like anything newly dead-loose of limb, open-mouthed, and vulnerable (as if in the moment of death it had been surprised by some truth which made nothing of beaks and claws), one great wing hanging in a slack double curve. He shook his head stupidly and turned away.

The old man seemed little the worse for his adventure, though the strain seemed to have accentuated something not quite human in the set of his features, the way his almost-saffron skin clung to cheekbone and jaw, taut as an oiled-silk lampshade. “You had better tell him why we need him, Alstath Fulthor,” he whispered hoarsely. He massaged his scraggy neck and chuckled. “I believe he will not come except of his own accord. And I would rather he destroyed no more of my property.”

Fulthor failed to hide his surprise. “You made the bird?” he said.

“Long ago. There may be a few more left”-he looked up into the grey sky-“but they have grown shy since the war. They are less dependable, and no longer speak.” He nodded to himself, remembering something. Then: “Tell him why we need him.”

Fulthor could think of nothing to say. He looked from the old man to the ruined bird and back again, then at Hornwrack (who, far from showing any further signs of fight, had begun to shiver volcanically).

“The girl,” he began. “She was sent here with a message, we think, vital to the city, to the empire. To all of us in these peculiar times. But look at her! The rest of her party must have wandered off somewhere between here and the Great Brown Waste: they are far along the road to the Past in her village, and it is hard for them to concentrate for long on what they judge to be nine-tenths dream.” (Waxen figures were at that moment processing through his own skull, carrying something wrapped in a fantastically decorated sheet, all of them leaning at thirty degrees to the vertical; they were singing. Nine-tenths dream! He had placed her by the weave of her cloak. He could find the place, but would he ever leave it again?) “You must know what they are like out there.”

The assassin seemed preoccupied. With the hem of his cloak he was dabbing at his lips, his cheeks; the lobe had been torn off his left ear. He fought off a fresh bout of shivering (looked for a second hunted and afraid, like a man who suspects in himself a fatal disease). “She said nothing to me. Nothing but gibberish.” He touched white bone where his jawline had been laid open, winced. “Look at me! I am already bleeding for her. Three times now she has brought me to this, though that bastard Verdigris had his dirty hands in the matter.” He sneered. “ ‘The face of the ewe lamb bone white in the meadows’! Gibberish!”

Fulthor could follow little of this. He thought privately that the man was mad.

“It is not what she has said,” he explained carefully, “but what she brought with her, that is of significance. Had she anything with her? I thought as much! You are the only one who saw it. We must know. You owe us this, if only because you were the cause of its loss!”

This seemed to enrage the assassin.

“Then ask her, Reborn!” he shouted. He spat blood into the road at Fulthor’s feet. “It is I who am owed. I killed five of the Sign last night on her behalf and my palm is empty. One of them at least would have fetched twenty pounds of steel in the open market. Martin Fierro under my knife! That was a black madness. Here!” He stuck out his cupped right hand. “Black bloody madness! I am sick of doing the work of the High City and reaping only their sanctimonious stares!” He turned away disgustedly and made to pick up his knife. When Fulthor’s weapon pricked the small of his back, he froze. He looked back over his shoulder, a sneer spreading across his lacerated face. “Are you frightened of a steel knife now, up there in the High City? You could chop me like an onion with that thing if I had fifty knives like this!” He bent down quickly and snatched it up. “Look, blunted at the tip.” It had vanished under his cloak before Fulthor could protest. He had sensed now to what extent he was needed; to what extent safe.

“She cannot tell us, Hornwrack,” said Fulthor tiredly. “You can. That is why she brought us to you. It was her only means of communication. At least come to the palace to discuss it. I agree that you may have been treated unfairly.”

Hornwrack ignored him. He shook the carcass of the metal bird. He put it to his ear. “It hums still. It hummed even as I strangled it.” His hands trembled, then stilled. “I feel my death in all this.” He walked off a few paces and stared up at the palace, a mile distant and misty through the blowing rain. “Methven’s hall!” they heard him say. He seemed to be listening. “I was once one of you,” he said. “I was one of the rulers. I chose to become one of the ruled.” Then: “To hell with all of you,” he said. “I’ll come because you have the weight of that behind you”-pointing to the palace-“and because you have the baan . But I’ll tell you nothing.” He regarded Fulthor with a cold smile, drew his ragged sleeve across his red-daubed face. “You had better watch me, Reborn Man,” he threatened. “You had better watch me all the time.”

I would rather be a ghost than play such hollow games, thought Alstath Fulthor.

Hornwrack:

The horse had run off and he refused to try and catch it on foot.

“Then walk,” the Reborn Man told him.

He writhed his bruised lips and spat. (If he shut his eyes the bird came at him still, tearing long elastic strips of flesh from his chest until the ribs showed through.)

“So,” he said. He shrugged.

Lord Galen Hornwrack, scion of a respected-if relict-House, one-time officer and pilot of the Queen’s Flight, now a professional assassin of some repute in the Low City, made his way for the first time in eighty years to the palace at Viriconium. He walked. His wounds throbbed and chafed. Memories of the night gnawed him. But at his belt hung a metal bird he had ruined with his own bare hands, and he felt this to be the symbol of a continuing defiance: though he now had to admit that control of his own destiny had passed from him. Occasionally, small wheels spilled from somewhere deep within the bird to run soundlessly in diminishing circles until the wind whirled them away like chaff across the Proton Circuit. Before he went into the hall of Methven he looked up at the sky. What had begun at least in light was now dull and unpromising. Even the deadly litharge stain of dawn had faded from the cloud layer, so that, grey and solid, it capped the earth like an enormous leaden bowl, a single thin crescent of silver showing at its tilted northern extremity. And as he watched even that faded.

4

IN THE CORRIDORS

Tomb the Dwarf came in through the southeastern or Gabelline Gate of the city, just before dawn, some two weeks after his strange meeting on the edge of the Rannoch. A fine rain was falling as he led his ponies beneath the heavy seeping curve of masonry-more tunnel than arch-where the guard dozed in a wicker cubicle and old men, woken by the rattle of wheel on cobble, squatted under their dripping felt hats and stared incuriously at him as he passed. Here, in an alcove in the wall of the arch, had once hung the notorious Gabelline Oracle, sought out and yet dreaded by all who entered or left the city: the severed head of a child hanging from a hook, beneath which had been constructed an alchemical “body” composed of yew twigs bound together by certain waxes and fats. A lamp being lit beneath the oracle, or in more special circumstances an inscribed wooden spatula being forced under its tongue, it would give in a low but penetrating voice the fortune either of the consultant or of the city itself. No one who had ever heard that voice could forget it; many would take the Gate of Nigg to avoid it.

Tomb heard nothing, though he cocked his head for echoes; but a breath of the past followed him a little way beyond the gate, a cold and depressing air generated in those outer regions, overflowing into the alleyways and peeling demimonde avenues of the suburbs where geranium leaves were turning ochre and a faint smell like cat’s urine issued from the mouldy brick. Viriconium, sump of time and alchemical child, sacrificer of children and comforter of ghosts-who can but shiver and forgive in the damp theatrical airs of dawn?

A red stain grew in the sky above the Haunted Gate. Against it floated the airy towers, suspended as if in water glass, while below were conjured shabby reflections-a glitter of fish scales, olive oil, broken glass, and the west wind shivering the wide shallow puddles in the empty squares. Asleep one minute and aware the next, the Pastel City woke like a whore, to commerce and betrayal, to pleasure and misery-to rare metals and offal, velvet and sackcloth, lust and holiness, litharge, lithia salts and horse cures. The red stain spread until it had filled the sky. Worm-eaten floorboards groaned. Gummy eyes gazed forth, half-blind already with boredom and disgust, to watch the dawn drop dead among the sodden chestnut leaves in the Rue Montdampierre! Tomb the Dwarf, recognizing in this suburb the same slut who had emptied the pockets of an impressionable Mingulay tinker’s son a hundred years before, was overcome by sentiment. He took deep delighted breaths, spoke almost kindly to his ponies, and grinned about like a juggler.

Beneath Minnet-Saba the Rivelin market spilled across his path like the encampment of a besieging army, dotted with paling flares and the little warm enclaves of charcoal braziers. It was a good-natured, anarchical siege, noisy and stinking, full of laughter and mock acrimony. Fish stalls predominated, but among them were distributed the kerbside pitches of tattooist and juggler, prostitute and priest; together with the booths of those deft-fingered old women who are equally happy to play at the cards for whatever stakes you name, or with them tell your fortune to the accompaniment of a practised homily. The gutters were filled with fish heads, with sneaking cats and unconscious thieves. Fishwives rubbed elbows with boys selling anemones from neck trays (while others offered filthy marzipan, or caramelized locusts like intricate jewellery from the forgotten towns of the dusty East). Over it all hung a marine reek, a pall of hot cooking fat and reedy, disconnected music.

Into this came the dwarf’s caravan like a spirit of chaos-pushing aside tottering stalls, running over unguarded feet, impervious to abuse, drawing forth as it passed each brazier the ironic catcalls of idlers and the shrieks of fishwives (who required that the dwarf come behind a booth with them and there bash the dents out of a pot they would show him). The anemone-boys rode his tall yellow wheels, grinned into his face, lost their balance, and fell into the street. All the while he moved steadily up the hill toward Minnet-Saba, the crowds eddying in his wake, until he came to the upper limit of the market; and there, on the precise interface of High and Low Cities, chanced on the booth of Fat Mam Etteilla.

Despite the coming and going about the booth, it had attracted few onlookers. Wan torches set at its corners guttered in the growing light. Its greasy satin curtains were drawn back to reveal the Mam herself, billowing over her three-legged stool and coughing like a horse in the raw air. In her vast lap sat a small drunken man with a depraved triangular face, from the top of which stuck straight up a stiff brush of almost crimson hair. His bottle-green jerkin was not only encrusted with old filth, but was sticky besides with new foulness, and he seemed to be confessing his part in some brawl or murder the night before. Tears were running down his cheeks; great twitches racked his body; odd spasms of free verse left him now and then like vomit. (“I renounce the blessed face,” he intoned, “the silent sister veiled in white and blue,” and made a sound like a choking cat. “What else could I do? He was no friend to me!”)

Before them on a flimsy baize-covered table were arranged the cards- four Urns above him; behind him the Conjuror reversed; the MANTIS crossing him; and many others. Each strange little scene glowed up from the grubby pasteboard as if viewed in a reducing mirror-leaning columns clustered beneath a vanished constellation, extinguished suns and naked supplicants, the shadowy hierarchical figures of a symbology as old or older than Viriconium, legacy perhaps of some Afternoon parlour game. “This,” she whispered, “is your card, MALADIE; and here are three towers and a dog, the future as yet unrevealed, also disgrace. (Another account speaks of greed frustrated.) Look! Here’s a deserted beach, and in the tide a hermit crab. Above fly three swans: APPUI. Between the alternatives there is no marriage possible-on the one hand magnificence; on the other, disease. (Also a certain clouded joy.)” The man with the red hair, though, would look anywhere but at the cards. If his glance fell on them by accident he would pretend to see someone he knew in the crowd.

But the dwarf saw little of this, and of what he saw retained only fragmentary impressions: a white, bony face; the scattered cards like pieces of coloured glass. He heard a voice like the outfall of a sewer say, “A locust the size of a man; a head two feet across!”

At this Fat Mam Etteilla shook herself as if surfacing from a dream. She looked down at the little drunk in her lap and put one of her great fat hands over his. “I wish I could help you, dearie,” she said with a sigh, and set him carefully on his feet. A fit of coughing overtook her as he bobbed about in front of her trying to bow. “Piss and blood!” he screamed suddenly. “I saw it!” He ran off into the market and vanished.

“Wait!” cried Tomb, any talk of insects having recently become of interest to him. “Stop!”-more to himself than to the retreating figure. The caravan was being carried forward, despite his best efforts, by the sheer weight of humanity behind it. He stood up on his seat to get a better view: nothing but a red coxcomb and a despairing cry. “Its head twice bigger than a man’s!” And then nothing at all but heads, bobbing and eddying; the market had ejected him and he was alone in the bleak formalistic spaces of the High City. The wind ruffled the puddles, and the Proton Circuit rose like a question mark into the air before him.

No one recognised him at the palace gates. An officer made him wait while they verified a complex sequence of passwords given him twenty years ago by someone who might have been dead for ten of them. His ponies fidgeted, and furtively bit one another. Servants came and went, but none of them looked at him. “It won’t take long. Look, can you move the caravan? We really need the room.” The city’s sudden indifference hurt him, although he pretended to take it with a certain stoical amusement. “Oh, well,” he told the officer. “Oh, well.” Then he jumped out of the caravan, ducked the presented arms of the gate guard, and ran off into the palace. Old wounds had given him a dragging, unsteady gait so that he looked from behind like some escaped ape. After a shocked silence a lot of shouting began.

A little while later he stopped to get his breath back in a corridor where the light fell as if strained through muslin. He had lost himself quite quickly in the maze of passageways which riddled the outer regions of the building like the interstices in a piece of pumice-quickly enough at any rate to evade the detachment which had tried to catch him at the front door. He grinned. He could still hear them faintly, crashing about in the empty lobbies and forgotten storerooms of quite another quarter, moving away from him all the time. But he realized now that he couldn’t reach the Queen without moving into the more frequented passages and thus being sighted. An undignified homecoming. His chest hurt. He leant against the back wall of the alcove, staring at some old machine and trying to remember with half his mind whether he or someone else had dug it up and brought it back here; and when finally he decided he did indeed recognise it, he found he had forgotten which desert had given it up to him, back when he was young. Whole sections of the palace were “his” in this respect, which only galled him further…

He was upset by his own actions and could hardly explain them to himself. An ironic game with the palace guard, conceived out of impatience and hurt pride-so it had seemed at the time-but now he felt like a man who, falling down a hole in a familiar street, discovers some artful yet not quite successful mimicry of the world he has known above. In his new subterranean existence he quarrels with familiar objects or alienates his friends-he yearns for escape but quickly finds he can no longer control events; cause and effect separate like worn-out old lovers. But it was not simply that he was out of temper with himself. The temper of the palace puzzled him, too.

Its previous calm beauty, ordered and formalistic, had become icy; monstrous passions seemed about to crystallise in its interstices. Something had invaded the corridors where the whispering light sculptures drifted about (their laughter so ancient and inscrutable that it no longer recalled anything human); something was abroad in the sudden nautiloid spaces, chilly and nacreous. Stumbling along in his dusty leather gear he had experienced a sudden gauntness, the feeling that he had allowed to go unnoticed some change which, though vast, showed itself only in the subtlest of signs: the dream of an old dwarf in a high place; a red-haired man in a market; footsteps in an empty passageway. The sounds of pursuit had for a moment mutated into a strange dry rustle, the geometry of the corridor into a mathematics, pure and bony and beyond him, and he had fancied himself the last human survivor on some craft spinning slowly through infinite space, rigging full of frozen sailors and royal faces staring from the windows at its stern…

I am a dwarf, not a philosopher. He touched the cold wall behind him. He had got his breath back. Since his arrival in the alcove the old machine had been making soft, persuasive little noises at him, as if it needed his help to attain some self-fulfilment he could never imagine; now it abandoned him abruptly. Oogabourundra! it whispered. Mourunga! it laughed, and extended a curious yellow film of light like a wing. Tomb stuck his head out and peered down the passage. A figure appeared, strange at first, warped by the unsteady yellow gleam into a shape like a praying mantis; the dwarf waited until it had become that of a young guard-a boy still, self-conscious in lacquered black mail and pewter-coloured cloak, new boots ringing on the worn flagstones, and on the thin chain round his neck a peculiar silver medallion-then withdrew. His grinning and apparently disembodied head snapped back into the corridor wall to leave a tunnel of bland saffron light, a throat down which the boy strode unaware. Tomb let the footsteps come level with him. He waited for perhaps fifty heartbeats, then slipped out.

The machine clucked disappointedly after him.

From corridor to corridor went the boy, up and down narrow flights of stairs and through abandoned halls-all the while moving towards the centre of the palace. Flickering columns of light accosted him, but he ignored them; the soft pleas of old machines he ignored. And after him came Tomb the Dwarf, hands like two bunches of bones and a grin like death- alert for the sound of voices, sidling round corners and hanging back at intersections, hoping the boy would flush up any guard that might be mounted there. The corridors were as cold as an omen, haunted by an ancient grief. Here, stairs spiralled into the upper gloom of the shell; there, faint footsteps vibrated in another passage, footsteps that might have been made in another age. As his confidence increased, Tomb began to play with the boy: scuttling up until he was only a few inches behind him, making obscene faces and gestures (and once touching the hem of his cloak) before falling back again. Success only whetted his appetite. He dodged in and out of alcoves, his head poked like a gargoyle’s round each new corner. He aped the boy’s stiff walk, pointing his toes extravagantly and sticking his nose in the air. He quite forgot about using him to reach the Queen unchallenged and set about tormenting him instead.

He hid behind a sculpture. He sniggered softly. When the boy looked round: nothing.

He let his feet scrape, with a horrible purpose.

He made quiet animal noises.

He was everywhere and nowhere; it was a cruel charade. The boy knew. He hurried: stopped: listened: stared over his shoulder, his hand feverishly clutching the pommel of his brand-new sword. He said nothing, because that would have been an admission. His eyes were round, glistening in the white like a boiled egg, boiled and shelled like a fresh egg. He touched the silver insect medallion at his throat; he began to run. Tomb only let him hear another chuckle. Their merged shadows fled away beneath them as they crossed a high elegant bridge, parted at a crossroads unused for two hundred years, only to join again and vanish at the moment of joining in a silent flare of purple light vented from some ancient artefact. Tomb grew careless. Swaggering along like the tame midget of some Southern prince in cockerel-coloured doublet and yellow stockings, he came abruptly face to face with his victim, who-finding himself confronted by an old mad dwarf with a knife in his gnarled hand and a series of peculiarly childish grimaces chasing themselves across his features-stared, appalled.

“I-” said Tomb. He looked down at his hand. He wondered how long he had been carrying the knife without knowing it.

The boy meanwhile trembled despairingly. His eyes were watering. He made a painful effort to draw his sword.

“Don’t!” said Tomb. “I didn’t mean-” And it might have rested there had he not heard the sound of feet coming along the corridor toward them.

“I’m sorry,” he told the boy, kicking him beneath the left kneecap. The boy lay on the floor, motionless, looking up at him like a hurt animal. Tomb hauled the new sword from its scabbard and tried it for balance. He had some idea of using it in the absence of his axe. “Rubbish,” he said, and threw it clattering across the passage out of harm’s way. “Get something decent as soon as you can afford it.” He knelt on the floor close to the boy, who made no move to stop him, set the point of his knife against his throat, and stared into the round hopeless eyes. “What’s this round your neck?” But the boy couldn’t speak. “Don’t worry,” said Tomb, “please.” In this manner both of them awaited the arrival of the footsteps.

Not long after, a Reborn Man came striding towards them down the corridor. He had on the fantastic blood-red plate armour of an important House, its contorted yellow ideograph flaming on the black cloak that billowed out behind him. The trembling glow of the armour made his image seem mythical, transitory, as if he flickered in and out of Time as we know it; its curious blunt shoulder spikes and elongated joints gave him the look of some mutated crustacean. His head was bare, his expression beleaguered, and his companions were an ill-assorted lot, comprising a woman of his own race, bitterly thin, shaven-headed, her gait awkward and un-graceful, as if her skeleton worked in a new, untested way (her smile was empty, and she was singing softly, We are off to Vegys now, Fal di la di a); a gutter bravo from the Low City, with the walk of a frustrated predator and the spoilt features of a minor aristocrat; and a dark silent figure wrapped like a corpse in an embroidered cloak.

Tomb started up with a cry. He took a pace forward, blinking and confused.

“Cromis?” he whispered.

Pain filled him and he forgot the boy on the floor. He went up close to Galen Hornwrack (for it was him, of course, morose as a wolf, petulant as an adolescent girl at finding himself so unmoved by his ancient bugbear the palace, which after all was only a place) and touched the wrecked metal bird that hung from his belt in lieu of a sword. He looked up into the assassin’s face for a moment, then sighed: there was little similarity once you looked closely, and he could find there only an anguished savagery he had never found in the face of the dead poet-hero. He shook his head and turned to Alstath Fulthor.

“I’m sorry, old friend. I thought for a moment-”

Fulthor smiled absently down at him.

“I know,” he said. “The similarities are superficial. What were you doing on the floor with that boy?”

He tilted his head to one side as if he were listening to something no one else could hear, and seemed to forget what he had been saying. There was an awkward pause. Then he went on. “You should be more patient, Dwarf. I heard there was a maniac or an ape of some kind loose in the corridors. When I saw the little caravan, I”-Fulthor shook his head as though to clear it of some double image-“I knew it must be you. Are you going to murder this lad, or can he get back to his post?” His tone was curious, friendly but ironical: absent.

Tomb bared his rotten old teeth. He was a little disconcerted by such a reception after twenty years. “I’m too old for patience, Reborn,” he said gruffly. “Are you all right?” When no answer came he turned his attention almost gratefully to the boy (who had risen to his knees: colour was coming back into his face), thinking: the whole city is in a dream which it will not share with me; these corridors are cursed. “Get up,” he told him. “What is that thing round your neck?” When the boy wouldn’t answer he asked Fulthor, but Fulthor didn’t hear.

Light streamed suddenly down the corridor, the colour of murder. It rushed over them like smoke, to be sucked away into the outer maze and there dissipate; their shadows followed it. The old machine from which it had issued, so long denied its proper function, began to shriek in horror and frustration, flailing its corroded limbs as if waking after millennia to the truth of its position. Echoes fled like bats.

Out of this abrupt madness crept a party of ten or fifteen men. A squad of the palace guard, they wore the same black and pewter uniforms as the boy, but their faces were distorted by the unsteady glare-salient features drifting into repulsive new relationships-and they came on not with a military gait but with a curious tiptoed tread, their eyes fixed on the dwarf with a feral yet somehow inorganic intensity. Had they shadowed him even as he shadowed the boy, passage to passage, all the way from the outer halls? How had he not felt those eyes like the empty lambent eyes of animals on a dark night? (Or perhaps he had.)

“Fulthor?”

But Fulthor was gazing emptily into the air again, his lips moving silently. There was no help there.

The dwarf shuddered, ambushed by circumstances. The city’s web was now complete, and he found himself enmeshed. It wasn’t much of a homecoming. Yet it would not be the first time he had fought his way down these corridors. He stood forward a little so as not to prolong the waiting. Nothing much was in his mind.

They were almost upon him when Fulthor whispered, “Stop.” His voice seemed to come from a long way off, and he looked almost surprised to hear it. “Stop!” For a moment nothing changed. Tomb snarled; Fulthor touched the hilt of his sword, faced with the motiveless slaughter of his own men. But then the world shook itself and threw off the nightmare. The old machine wailed despairingly, sagged, and was silent (in its frenzy it had melted parts of its own spine, and now, bent double like a crone, it twitched and contracted as the hot metal cooled). The evil light faded. The approaching men looked uncertainly at one another and put up their swords.

It was little enough, and grudgingly done: their captain nodded woodenly, staring straight ahead, while behind him they shuffled into two columns, looking embarrassed and elbowing one another sullenly. Each wore a medallion like the boy’s, a curious complex twist of silver the meaning of which retreated from its seeker like a vacant perspective. “Call off the search,” Fulthor ordered them. He spoke reluctantly, like a man hard put to control some pain or intense desire. “A mistake has been made. This is the Iron Dwarf, who has returned to help the city in its hour of need.” They regarded him warily for a few seconds, then turned their heads away as one man and marched off. When they had gone some distance down the corridor the boy leapt abruptly to his feet, flung the Reborn Man a glance of bitter hatred, and was off, flying down the passage after them, his sword abandoned where Tomb had thrown it. Tomb picked it up. “What do you make of all this?” he asked Fulthor. Fulthor stared blindly after the boy, his thin hands like a layer of white wax over bone.

“I am lost,” he said, and turned his face to the corridor wall. “They no longer accept my leadership. Soon one of them will disobey and I shall have to kill him.” He made a noise that might have been a laugh or a sob.

Through all this, Fulthor’s companions had hardly moved, but looked on with fear or irony or whatever emotion seemed appropriate. Now the Reborn Woman, sensing his distress, came forward and put one hand uncertainly on his shoulder. “I-” she said, and then something in a language Tomb could not follow. “ Mein Herz hat seine Liebe. In my youth I made-” It was clear she could not help him, which distressed her in her turn. She shook him. She looked around for help. “In my youth I made my small contribution. Blackpool and Venice become as one. Above the night the stars revolve, in circuits of the shuddering bear!” This last a shout. She wept. Oddly enough it was the assassin from the Low City who moved to comfort her. He touched her hand and his bloody, spoilt features writhed briefly: after a second’s puzzlement Tomb decided this was an attempt to smile. The woman smiled back, and her face was transfigured-where the dwarf had previously seen only a chilling vacancy there now flared delight, and an intelligence like a lamp uncovered. She let go of the assassin’s hand and danced away from him, singing,

We are off to Vegys now

Fal di la di a

We are off to Vegys now

Fal di la di a

On the shores of the diamond lake

We shall watch the fishes

On the summits of the mountains

Cry “Erecthalia!”

Fal di la di a

Fal di la di a

Di rol

Hearing this, Alstath Fulthor put his hands over his ears and groaned. “I cannot forget the people in the beautiful gardens!” he exclaimed. He hit the side of his head with the heel of his fist. “Arnac san Tehn! How long is it since I saw your sweet mad face at midnight, or trod with you the pavements of the Rue Morgue Avenue?” And still groaning, he ran away down the corridor toward the outside world, stripping off his armour as he went.

A thin wind passed down the corridor, smelling of dust and hyacinth; with it came silence-a substance, not an absence-to fill the ears with empty rooms and abandoned stairs and the motionless unspeaking figures of the earth’s innocence. In this silence Tomb the Dwarf sought desperately for reassurance. But the woman had retreated into her own memories, shoulders hunched and eyes hooded secretively, a ghost of tenderness playing about the corners of her mouth; nothing she said made sense anyway. And the assassin merely smiled sardonically, shrugging as if to absolve himself of this responsibility at least (the movement appeared to hurt him somewhere in the region of his lower ribs, and his expression immediately became sour and self-involved).

“Is everybody insane, then?” Tomb asked himself irritably, turning in the end-though something made him reluctant-to the man in the shroud-like cloak, who stood a little way off examining the distraught machine as if it might help him break the universe’s last mad code. The machine was crooning to him out of its incomprehensible pain, and he, standing like a mysterious parcelled statue, was whispering back; neither of them would ever understand the other. Tomb went up and stood between them, arms akimbo, staring aggressively into the unrelieved darkness of the man’s hood.

“Leave that, sir,” he said, “although I’m sure it must be very interesting, and tell me: has the city lost its senses?”

Silence.

“Very well, then: if you are a friend of Fulthor’s, at least tell me when his illness began. I am the Iron Dwarf (of whom you may have heard), who woke him from his aeon sleep to help defeat the North (which I did by means of knowledge gained from an old man).”

He craned his neck, but no face was visible despite that he felt eyes focused on him from somewhere under the hood. At this, his temper went. He pulled out his knife.

“Say something, you cold pudding, or I’ll serve you up in slices! Are you all ignorant or loony in here?”

But the man only chuckled and said, “You knew me last time we met, Dwarf, with your beard on fire and your broken head! Have you forgotten so soon? I would have asked you then, only there was no time: how has it been with you since our other fateful parting, there beneath the sad tower eighty years ago? What a change you and I have wrought in the world by our doings then! Do you see any of my children as you go about from desert to desert, from waste to waste?”

And he threw back his hood, laughing his dry old enigmatic laugh, and became Cellur, the Lord of the Birds…

5

GALEN HORNWRACK AND METHVET NIAN

Cellur the Bird Lord: he has lived for aeons in a five-sided tower full of undersea gloaming. Instruments flickered and ticked about him all that time, while his sensors licked the unquiet air, detecting new forms and seasons. Out of the cold reaches of salt marsh and estuary, out of the long cry of the wind, out of the swell of the sea and the call of the winter tern he comes to us now: out of the War of the Two Queens, with his thousand dying metal birds; out of the long-forgotten dream of the Middle Period of the earth, shaking his head over the pain and beauty, twin demiurgi of mankind’s enduring Afternoon!

What has he witnessed, that we shall never see? Forgotten, that we could hardly imagine?

The lines and figures on his marvellous robe writhe and shiver like tortured alien animals. Geometry remembers, though he may not. “Nothing is left as it was,” they sigh, “in that final perfect world. The towers that ruled these wastes have fallen now. The world, which they halted for a millennium in its tracks, has begun to turn again. We find here no compassion as savage and sterile as theirs; no cruelty as structured or formal; no art. The vast air is stilled, where they lowed beneath five artificial planets, trumpeting verse into the frozen distance. Their libraries lie open like the pages of a book abandoned to the desert wind, their last dry whispers fade; philosophers and clowns alike, fade; that febrile clutching at the stars…”

Cellur. Ten thousand seasons once were his, years beating like hearts! These geometries could tell us. They are the spoor of Time itself, did we but know. Cellur the Bird Lord! Now he speaks All are assembled in the throne room but Alstath Fulthor.

(Rumour has him running through the filthy alleys of the Artists’ Quarter, up the hill at Alves, and through the grounds of the derelict observatory, expressions of madness eroding his proud features; rumour had him leaving Viriconium for the third time in a month-no horse, no armour, only his heaving lungs, and his past in close pursuit. The Low City is entranced.)

The Queen sits with her calm hands in her lap; at her feet kneels Tomb the Dwarf, picking his teeth with the point of his knife; Fay Glass of the vanished House of Sleth, dressed in a new cloak, whispers nonsense to the Queen’s Beast: while Galen Hornwrack stands apart, with a face like death. All wait, except perhaps the madwoman. Round them hover curtains of mercurial light, twists of mirror’d air. Before them five false windows tremble with views of a landscape to be found nowhere in the kingdom.

In the Time of the Locust it is given to us to see such things. “My lady” (began Cellur, bowing to Methvet Nian): “I had, as you know, some small part in the war against the North. But that war was almost my death-as I shall tell-and it destroyed both my refuge and my birds, which hurt me grievously. I have been many years coming to terms with this, and my life has been a curious one since then. I return to find the kingdom much changed, and I am afraid my very coming heralds further uncertainty. It is eighty years since I sent the iridium vulture to tegeus-Cromis in his tower at Balmacara among the rowan woods: I wish he were here today to answer a similar summons. Although I believe he thought of himself as a poet, he had a great gift for murder. Events again require such a captain. If I am to explain why, I must return for a moment to the War of the Two Queens…

“That I survived the onslaught of Canna Moidart’s forces was as much a surprise to me as it is to you, who last saw me beleagured and without hope. My birds were long dead, or else scattered. The Geteit Chemosit held the causeway. Their airboat, though grounded during the early part of the exchange, mounted weapons of which I could not conceive. I was trapped in my tower, whose armoury I had never had the wit to investigate. A battle began in which the sole true flesh and blood at stake was mine, yet I looked on impotently, terrified. Stone dripped and sputtered in the face of their cannon; the estuary brine boiled and threshed with the power of mine! The watching cliffs echoed and roared with it, dust trickling down their immemorial buttresses like mortar from a rotten wall. All across the water hung a pall of glowing smoke, through which I caught brief glimpses of those dreadful automata coming and going about their vessel, their yellow eyes baleful. A curious armour seemed to protect them against my beams.

“Day gave way to a long night of blue fogs and drifting corrosive lights. The tower began to show signs of strain. It hooted mournfully into the wrack. Its summit revolved erratically, threatening nonexistent enemies. Every five or six minutes its armaments blazed forth like crooked lightning, but every time a little duller. Soon its foundations began to shift. It was doomed. I knew I could not survive a night above ground, even if it should achieve some Pyrrhic victory: two hours after tegeus-Cromis had led you to safety over the estuarine cliffs, the air and water had become contaminated with some energy which poisons the fish even now, so many years on. The tower moaned, its trapped electrical voices pleading with me in strange militaristic languages, whether for advice or relief I could not tell. I could do nothing. I left it, feeling like a traitor, for the cellars beneath, reasoning that I might make my escape through the very tunnels you had used on the previous day.

“It was useless. The estuary floor had subsided. Those passages which had not collapsed were blocked with hot mud or full of boiling water. Only one would admit me, and down that I wandered for some time, the distant thud of weapons to spur me on, until I realized I had entered a part of the system unknown to me. I say little of what I found there. Much I did not understand. Much I would not even wish to remember. The sounds of conflict above grew steadily more muffled, progressively more dreamlike, until I could hear it no longer. How long it continued I do not know. Which side had the victory, I am at a loss to say. By the time I found my way back to the surface the melted stone was cold again, the tower like a snuffed candle, the Chemosit and their weapons gone. Two fish eagles patrolled the grey water; the cliffs were quiet. This was much later.

“I had known for some time of the existence of such regions beneath the tower. They had lain beneath me like a new continent, but something had kept me from exploring them. They were, I sensed, still too close to the millennial past. Echoes of the Afternoon had not yet died in them. But such echoes are not, after all, confined beneath the surface of the earth; they move above it, too: wherever one goes there is always that sense of a door closed but a moment since. And I had little choice, for only my death waited above. Therefore I went down.

“The architecture below was cold and complicated. The staircases, of which there were many, bent back on themselves, to peter out at florid, blind arches, or deliver me bemused into some hanging gallery from which I could find no exit. There was no sense of being under the earth; rather I felt that I had stumbled into some empty city or vast deserted museum. Hundreds of small cubical storerooms led off the major passageways, each one containing an eccentric object the height of a man, wrapped against the effects of time in grey sheeting. Dust covered everything. For the most part these chambers and corridors were dark, although not silent. Instruments ticked, or clattered suddenly into life as I passed. I was afraid, which seems strange now, for it was shortly made clear to me that I had built most of these things, or at least collected them, against some contingency I have now forgotten. Eventually I reached a lighted section: at first a hundred yards of corridor strung with dim green beads; then a part of one room, full of submerged blue light from an unseen source; finally a whole suite as bright as day, haunted like a summer afternoon by an insectile hum, and full of drowsy voices!

“In these nitid quarters I was to spend many years. Here I confronted myself (although this meeting was more metaphorical than literal, and ultimately barren. I remain an enigma). Here also I learned the thing which has brought me to you today. It was here that I came to curse the monstrous burden of immortality and the fatal snare of compassion. For I am sure now that I am immortal, though I have no idea of where or when my life began. I no longer believe myself to be human. But it is human beings who have kept me here for so long.

“I entered, then. I was tired and hungry. The place was full of moving lights which took the form of columns, diffuse spheres, or dancing lampyrines. My uneasiness communicated itself to them immediately. They flickered in the cold sour air, drifting agitatedly about and whispering in secret electrical voices. Each was the outward form or “personality” of a different machine. One might listen to the earth, another the air, while a third measured the stars themselves: they were possessed of an excitable, nervous curiosity, like thoroughbred horses. An endless ritual interweaving allowed them to exchange information or-should the situation demand it-compound their functions, so multiplying their great native percipience. One, however, was supreme above the rest. It was a magnificent ivory column over twenty feet tall. Out of the hubbub of voices-which by now rose like flood water or the wind at night among alders-this one addressed me. All the others ceased immediately, as though in deference.

“I was astonished, for it spoke with my own voice. It maintained its superiority over the others by virtue of being the keeper of my memory. The skull, you see, cannot contain the years. Memory fades or is destroyed in periodic bouts of madness and self-disgust. Before this happens the best must be consigned to some archive. Luck or perhaps an instinct brings me to that room every hundred years or so, to be relieved of the burden. In that column of ivory light reside the dry fragments of all my former selves, like a cache of earthenware shards in the foundations of an old house. I learned this with horror (and with what horror have I contemplated it since!): an emotion that was as nothing to the misery with which I confronted the incompleteness of the record itself… For more than ten millennia this machine has lodged beneath the estuary-gaps have now appeared in its own memory! Something in the machine is broken; many times too I have lost the material before it could be transferred, and there have been, it seems, deliberate deletions. A decade is missing here; there a century has slipped quietly away, leaving no clues. At the beginning of the record (if it can be said ever to have had one) only tantalising glimpses remain to imply a period half as long again as its entire span! What remains is like a tapestry holed and flimsy with age (torn, too, here and there, in senile rage), through which one must stare forever at the great void. In each new incarnation. I must learn afresh how to operate the machinery. That is not hard. But to understand my purpose in being here at all… I can review ten thousand years, but I have no identity beyond that which I can scrape together in any one incarnation. I am, in short, nothing but what you see before you, an old man who has wandered into the city from the past…

“The years I have spent in that cavern burn me! The machines with their strange lights and their voices like dead leaves; the sour underground air; the Past rampant. I watched it all, on windows that formed out of the empty air at a word of command! Saw myself from many angles-a hand extended, a new robe, speaking to a crowd, watching my first awkward creation as it hawked above the waters. I watched the Afternoon, of which I shall not speak, with its madness. I learned: but I have still not learned who or what I am, and from vague clues must build up a fleeting image, a memory which slips away even as it forms. Worse, my present memory is becoming unequal to the years. I become uncertain of my own name. Soon I shall find it hard to remember why I owe you an explanation of all this, or of myself. The void reaches out.

“Do not pity me, my lady. I have pity enough for myself.

“Months passed. I learned. The machines cared for me. They passed their secrets on to me, willingly. During the long hopeless nights I sought an image of myself in the foxed mirror of the past, but by day I learned to interrogate the natural world. I became an inexpert ear cupped to that silence which has overcome the earth since the end of the Afternoon. Where once the air sang, now only thin electrical noises came from my instruments, like the cries of dead children. When Tomb the Dwarf disarmed the great brain in the Lesser Rust Desert, I overheard. Lights flickered in my cavern. All over the empire clusters of signals faded abruptly-the Chemosit going out like corpse candles. Later I followed his triumphant progress across the continent, Alstath Fulthor with him. From site to secret site they went, awakening the Reborn Men. For a while the aether was full of voices. Then, as the tragedy became apparent and the rebirth complexes shut themselves down one by one, silence fell again. It lasted until ten or eleven years ago when I picked up the first of the transmissions that have brought me here.

“I could hear it only when the moon was in the sky. It came as a hollow whisper, filling the stony subestuarine chambers. It was a strange, unreliable, inhuman voice, speaking a dozen made-up languages. Had it not so obviously belonged to a man I might have taken it for the monologue of some stranded alien demiurge, leaking accidentally into the void between earth and her wan satellite. I cannot tell you how it excited me, that voice! Feverishly, I interrogated my machines. They knew nothing; they could not advise me. I answered it, on all wavelengths: nothing!

“ Septemfasciata, it whispered, over and again: Guerre! Guerre! The machines remember every syllable. Dai e quita la merez… a hundred years in the cold side of the moon… the veiny wing… ‘the heaven whose circles narrowest run’… I saw the garden that lies behind the world. There the cisternsturn against the men… nomadacris septemfasciata… colonnes fleuries (douloureux paradis!), temps plus n’adore… Oh, the filmy wing! Cold ravages me… And then, dreadfully loud: Septemfasciata! The outer planets! Methven!

“For a year I suffered this monologue, with its meaningless warnings, its references to a search for ‘the metaphysical nature of space,’ to madness and death between the stars. I tired of its chuckled obscenities and cabalistic circumlocutions, its mad prophecies. I despaired of making any sense of it, and began to believe that the moon had been infiltrated by some vast corrupt cosmic imbecile. Attempts to make contact were fruitless: there was never a break in the flow in which to admit of my existence. It ceased as suddenly as it had begun. I rushed to the machines-nothing but an empty hiss. For three days the cavern was silent and dark. The machines would not respond to me. It was as if the ending of the monologue had been a cue. I sensed that they were not so much dormant as fascinated; their attention was focused elsewhere. On the fourth day a purple mist sprang up, a pure and sourceless illumination; through this there danced excited rods and lampyrines of light, spinning, whirling, and interpenetrating in a mad quick ballet. I had never seen them so agitated. They spilled from the cavern and out into the surrounding corridors, whispering hysterically their single message.

“Something had detached itself from the moon and was now making its way toward the earth.

“I have never heard that demented lonely voice again. But every lunar month since then has seen a fresh launching, a new landing. I have watched them, my lady! They are like puffs of white smoke issuing from the moon’s bony grin; they are like clouds of pollen. They fall to earth here in the empire. I do not know exactly where. My instruments are confused, their findings incomplete and contradictory. They report interference, of a kind not encountered in ten thousand years of operation. But listen: yesterday I spoke with Alstath Fulthor the Reborn Man, in his house above the Artists’ Quarter. From him I learned that some unknown force is harrassing the Reborn communities in the Great Brown Waste. We have agreed-as he would tell you if he were here-that these events must be linked. And though my instruments cannot agree on its location or its origin, they report that a city is being built somewhere in the north and west of Viriconium.

“My lady, it is not being built by men.”

Cellur’s eye is like a bird’s, ironic and bright; his profile aquiline. It was different when we thought him human. His expression betrays so little now that we know he is not. Having delivered himself of his revelation, he drinks some wine and looks about him to gauge or enjoy its effect.

The Queen sits with her calm hands in her lap. At her feet kneels Tomb the Dwarf, his mouth open and his knife forgotten in his hand; he is actually trying to remember something, but it will not come to him until a day or two later. Fay Glass, of the vanished House of Sleth, what is she trying to remember? It is immaterial. She sits singing to an imperturbable sculpture of steel and white light dug up long ago in the ruins of Glenluce, while Galen Hornwrack stands apart-wounds griping, expression cynical and amused. (It’s clear he has forgotten the events of the Bistro Californium, and thinks the old man mad.) Round them hover curtains of mercurial light, bright primary colours flecked for a moment-like flawed but vital ores- with the reflected uncertainties of the room.

No one knows what to say.

Viriconium, remarks Ansel Verdigris in his last ironic essay “Allies,” is a world trying to remember itself. The dumb stones perform an unending act of recall. This pervasive awareness of the past, recent or distant, informed the personality of all its rulers, not least that of Methvet Nian. Cellur had pricked old memories back to life. Her mood, when Galen Hornwrack was brought to her in the side chamber or salle she used as a library and sitting room, was already a nostalgic one. This affected her opinion of him, perhaps: although events, in the end, might be said to have borne her out.

She knew little enough about him. Alstath Fulthor, returning whey-faced and muddy from some unexplained errand only an hour before, had outlined their dependence on him as a witness to the incident in the Low City. “The girl herself found him, by luck or instinct; she insisted that he come with us (though we’d have brought him anyway). It is hard to know why. He seems to have fought on her behalf-and thinks well of himself for it-but he will say nothing about the fate of the message she carried, and that is the important thing. His motives for refusing seem confused.”

Of Hornwrack’s history he had been reluctant to say anything save, “A disaffected lordling from the midlands near Soubridge. After the war he seems to have wiped the clay off his boots and tried to drink himself to death in the Low City.” Nevertheless, when pressed, he admitted, “Hornwrack was the youngest son. His brothers fell with the rest of Waterbeck’s ploughboys in the Great Brown Waste. His mother and sisters were murdered later, when the Chemosit invested Soubridge. At the outset of the war he was an apprentice airboatman with the prospect of his own command, but he saw no service as such. Initially he was too young, later- with the destruction of its vessels-the whole corps was dismantled. This he appears to regret more than the deaths of his family. After the defeat of the North he seems to have failed as a farmer, and the family estate was forfeit to the Crown when debts made it unworkable. Now he lives by his knife in the Artists’ Quarter, retaining his title perhaps as an advertisement, more likely as an insult to the empire that bestowed it on his grandfather.

“At the last count he had killed more than eighty men, in High and Low Cities. A dozen are presently trying to kill him.”

I will at least understand his bitterness, she had thought.

Now she looked up from a sheet of music as he came in. His demeanour was a sham, or so it seemed to her: he affected the braced instep of the professional dancer; his long grey hair he wore gathered in a steel clasp, in imitation of those doomed airboat captains who had flown their final sorties over the Great Brown Waste at the height of the war; his cloak was the crude meal-coloured garment of the hired bravo, tailored for swagger, its hem dyed with sardonic vulgarity to the exact shade of dried blood. How could he mean anything to her, this ageing assassin with bones as raw as a jeer? He filled the sitting room like a murder. His very existence was too much for her delicate little coralline ornaments and collection of antique musical instruments; he overpowered them at once. It cannot be said that she saw through the Low City and the failed lordling, through the trappings to the man beneath: there was, after all, hardly any of him left to see.

Yet rather than simply walking through a door, he seemed to rush out at her from the past. His hair blew back in the wind of time! She saw him for a moment silhouetted against some vanished dawn-the tall thin body held with a helpless formality, the misery in the eyes, the great ruined metal bird hanging from his belt. Only a moment, but in it she mistook self-concern for dignity; wept for the dead poet tegeus-Cromis; and wondered briefly why this tired hooligan should remind her of winter hyacinths blooming in a tower by the sea.

It passed, of course.

Alstath Fulthor followed the assassin in. Beyond the threshold they regarded one another like wary dogs; then Hornwrack shrugged and smiled slightly, and Fulthor turned away, looking disgusted. She offered them refreshment. Fulthor refused, picked up a book bound in olive leather, and stared angrily at it; while Hornwrack stood in front of her, swaying a little. He would not look at her. He smelt of death. Presently, Cellur and Tomb entered the room. Cellur took a little Mingulay wine, sighed-“These lamps somehow recall my buried life”-and sat down in the shadows. The dwarf made her a pretentious intricate bow, then leant against the wall, one leg bent to rub his calf.

“You feel your House was wronged by mine,” she began without preamble. “We confiscated your estates. Our wars robbed you of your family.”

Hornwrack favoured her with a bitter smile.

“Houses?” he said. “Madam, my family were farmers.” He fingered his jaw where, she saw, something had recently laid it open to the bone. “Every airboat in the kingdom was destroyed so that you might keep your throne.” He stared over her head. “It was my freedom you robbed me of.”

If she thought she could see the Queen’s Flight burning to ashes in his eyes (drifting down into the desert like withered leaves, spilling smoke and queer lights and little silent figures), she was wrong. He had not even seen their last defeat-only stood, sixteen years old, on the phlegmatic earth and watched them fly like greyhounds into the North: vessels, friends, captains all. None had ever returned, nor had he expected them to. The rest of the war he had passed in killing Northmen with a knife in the starving alleys of a captured city, practising unknown to himself the skills of the only trade his imagination had left to him.

“Mornings,” he whispered feverishly, “chafe me still. I wake, and look into the empty air, and wonder if throne and empire were worth it-the burning boys and crystal ships.”

He curled his lip and looked about him.

“I would not come here again for fear of finding it was not.”

His hand went quickly under his cloak.

“Fulthor, do nothing!” he hissed. “I’ll kill you here, if I have to!”

He wiped the back of his hand across his lacerated cheeks. Outside in the corridor a cold draught spoke of a change in the wind, a new weather. Inside, Alstath Fulthor let his baan drop back into its sheath. The dwarf cocked his head like a starling. The old man looked on from the shadows. Hornwrack relaxed slowly.

“Madam,” he said, “your next family quarrel will have to be fought on the ground.”

“Yet wrongs are not righted by hiding in the Low City,” Methvet Nian told him patiently.

He shrugged.

“Can you give me back the sky? If not, pay me for the service I did you last night and let me go. I believe the girl is worth something to you, and I bled for her. I do not hide in the Low City: I reject the High.”

She would not believe him. (How could she?) Instead she offered him a myth of his own: a place among the hieratic furniture and exemplary figures of a long-declining dream In a rosewood chest with copper reinforcing bands she kept three things: a gourd-shaped musical instrument from the East; a short coat of mail, lacquered black; and an unpretentious steel sword with a sweat-darkened leather grip. Now she bit her lip, and went over to the chest, and took from it the sword and mail. For a moment she stood uncertainly with them in the centre of the room, facing first the Reborn Man-who would not meet her eyes-then Tomb (the old dwarf glanced at Hornwrack and made a sudden half-amused movement of his head) and Cellur, who only stared impassively at her-and finally the assassin himself.

“Will these serve as payment?” she asked. “They are all I have.”

Hornwrack looked surprised. He accepted the sword, hefted it; the mail coat he flexed with experienced fingers. He took a little rat’s tail file from under his cloak and nicked them with it.

“They are steel,” he admitted, and shrugged. “A fair price, though I’d have preferred it as an ingot.” He stared at her, puzzled now. “If that is all, I’ll go.”

“It is not all!” exclaimed Fulthor. “Methvet Nian, the message!” He stood between Hornwrack and the door. The powered blade came out, evil sparks dripping from it in the gloom.

“Here’s a High City trick if you like!” laughed Hornwrack, who hadn’t a hope against it. He looked down at the old steel sword in his hand. “Still-”

“Stop!” cried Methvet Nian. “Alstath Fulthor, are you mad?”

His thin face white and sullen with confusion and rage, Fulthor let the baan fall to his side.

“Do not touch him. He has done us a service.” And to Hornwrack: “My lord, I see you are wounded. Visit the hospitallers before you leave here.”

Hornwrack nodded curtly. “Don’t come near the Low City after dark, Fulthor,” he said. At the door he paused, looked back. “I would prefer to owe the House of Nian nothing,” he told the Queen. He threw the mail coat on the floor and dropped the sword carefully on top of it.

“The girl carried a bundle tied up in cloth,” he said. “A poet called Verdigris stole it. When he opened it he found an insect’s head the size of a melon. He couldn’t sell it anywhere.”

Methvet Nian gazed at him in horror. He seemed unaware of it, leaning against the doorpost and staring into space. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so frightened,” he mused. He looked at her. “It’s in the gutter now, somewhere in the Low City. I left it there to rot, my lady. Goodbye.”

Out beyond Monar the wind was shifting uncertainly, picking the first sleet of the season from the frigid summits and sea-lanes of the North. Later it would invest the city with rime, freezing airs, and a faint smell of rust; now it nosed like a cold black dog among the vast dunes and endless empty rubbish heaps of the Great Brown Waste, visiting the drab stones and foundered pylons, the half-buried wreckage of ten thousand years. What else moved up there, throwing its equivocal shadow over the Reborn communes (and mimicking the jerky, hesitant gait of the votaries of the Sign as they trod at night the streets of Viriconium, the measures of the dream)? The implications of Hornwrack’s statement were colder than any wind.

“What can they have meant?” whispered Fulthor. “To send that?”

But Tomb was intrigued by the departed assassin, and stared pensively after him. He went over and closed the door. “ Does he know whose sword it was?” he asked Fulthor absently. “Did he guess?” But Fulthor only rubbed his eyes tiredly and said, “He is a liar and a jackal.”

The dwarf sniggered. “So am I.” He picked up the discarded sword and mail, smiled at Methvet Nian. “That was a valiant try, my lady. A stone would have unbent to you. Shall I put these away?”

“One of you go after him and give them to him,” she replied. “Wait. I will do it.”

When they stared at her, she laughed. “I meant him to have them.” She would let them say no more, but finished: “He saved the girl out of compassion, though he will never understand that.”

But for a peculiar interruption, Fulthor, at least, would have pursued the matter: indeed his mouth was already open to form a protest when Cellur-who had been slumped for some minutes in his chair, a variety of expressions, each more unreadable than the last, chasing themselves across his face-gave a queer high-pitched cry and struggled to his feet as if he had woken suddenly from some implacable nightmare. His skin was grey. His accipitrine eyes were fixed on the door, as though Hornwrack still stood there; they were bright with anguish. When Methvet Nian touched his shoulder he hardly seemed to notice her (beneath the odd embroidery of his robe, the bones were thin and unpredictable; brittle), but muttered desperately, “Fulthor! Tomb! No time to lose!”

“Old man, are you ill?”

“You did not hear it, Methvet Nian, the voice from the moon, with its ‘great wing against the sky.’ The insect’s head; the landings at night; the Sign of the Locust: all are one! I must go north immediately. All are one! ”

“Cellur, what is it?” begged the Queen.

“It is the end of the world if we are too late.”

We value our suffering. It is intrinsic, purgative, and it enables us to perceive the universe directly. Moreover, it is a private thing which can neither be shared nor diminished by contact. This at least was Galen Hornwrack’s view, who, by the very nature of his calling, had been much concerned with pain. It was a view enshrined in the airless room above the Rue Sepile, and in his relationship with the boy, whose function had been less that of a nurse than of hierophant at his master’s lustral agonies. As Hornwrack had grown used to the smell of self-recrimination-which in the Rue Sepile as nowhere else is compounded of dead geraniums, dry rot, and one’s own blood squeezed out of towels-he had also grown to welcome it, as he welcomed the black fevers of his deeper wounds, in which he rediscovered a symbolic reenactment of his crimes.

In Methvet Nian’s infirmary, however, he had found none of this, but instead open casements and cheerful voices and, worst of all, that good-humoured competence by which the professional nurse-who otherwise could not bear it-demeans the pain and indignity suffered by her charge. In short: they had stitched him up but refused to let him brood. Some three days after the events in the Queen’s sitting room, therefore, he had extricated himself from the place and now stalked the corridors of the palace in an uncertain temper.

His cloak had been returned to him, washed and mended. Beneath it he wore the mail of Methvet Nian, and at his side hung the unaccustomed sword. Both chafed, as did the manner in which he had come by them. He had, it is true, gone to some trouble to find for the sword a scabbard of dull moulded leather, and it looked well on him. Nevertheless, the sword is a weapon chiefly of the High City, and he felt ill-at-ease with it. He had had little training in its use. As he hurried toward the throne room for what he hoped would be the last time, he touched the knife hidden beneath his cloak, to assure himself he was not unarmed. As for the Queen’s intentions, he understood none of them. She had first tried to bribe and latterly to patronize him; he was full of resentment. It was a dangerous frame of mind in which to encounter the Queen’s dwarf, who had on his face a sardonic grin.

His short legs were clad in cracked black leather, his thick trunk in a sleeveless jerkin of some woven material, green with age; his bare forearms were brown and gnarled; and his hands resembled a bunch of hawthorn roots. Indeed he looked very like a small tree, planted up against the throne-room doors, stunted and unlovely against their serpentine metallic inlays and ornamental hinges. On his head was a curious truncated conical hat, also of leather and much worn.

“Here is our bravo, with his new sword,” he said matter-of-factly.

“So the dwarf says,” murmured Hornwrack, pleasantly enough. “Let me pass.”

The dward sniffed. He looked along the passage, first one way and then the other. He crooked a finger, and when Hornwrack bent down to listen, whispered, “The thing is, my lord assassin, that I understand none of this.”

And he jerked his horny thumb over his shoulder to indicate, presumably, the throne room.

“Pardon?”

“Voices, from above. Insects. Madmen, and madwomen too. One comes back from the dead (albeit he’s a good friend of mine), while another runs like a greyhound at the sound of a song. Both old friends of mine. What do you think of that?”

He looked around.

“The Queen, ” he said, lowering his voice, “gives away the sword of tegeus-Cromis!”

He laughed delightedly at Hornwrack’s start of surprise, revealing broken old teeth.

“Now you and I are plain men. We’re fighting men, I think you’ll agree. Do you agree?”

“This sword,” said Hornwrack. “I-”

“That being so, us being ordinary fighting men, we must have an understanding, you and I. We must treat gently with one another on this daft journey north. And we must look after the mad folk; for after all, they cannot look after themselves. Eh?”

Hornwrack made as if to pass into the throne room.

“I’ll make no journey with you or anyone else, Dwarf. As for gifts, they can be easily returned. You are all madmen to me!”

He had not gone so much as a step towards the inlaid doors when a terrific blow in the small of his back pitched him forward onto his face. Tears filled his eyes. Astonished and desperate-he thought the dwarf had stabbed him-he fumbled for his knife and scrabbled into a kneeling position: only to find his tormentor grinning ironically at him, unarmed but for those disproportionate arthritic hands. Before he could haul himself to his feet, the dwarf-whose head was now on a level with his own-had first embraced him lightly, then spat in his ear and hit him again, this time somewhere down below his ribs. His knife clattered away. His breath deserted him. Through his own heaving and choking he heard the dwarf say coldly “I like you, Galen Hornwrack. But that is the sword of my old friend, which was given you in good faith.”

Hornwrack shook his head and took his chance. He reached forward and clasped with both hands the nape of the dwarf’s neck, then pulled him forward sharply. As their heads connected, the dwarf’s nose broke like a dry stick. “Black piss,” he said surprisedly, and sat down. They went seriously at it then, and neither could get the advantage: for though the dwarf was cunning, old, and hard, the assassin was as quick as a snake; and both of them knew well the cul-de-sacs and wineshop floors where the anonymous chivalry of the Low City settles its quarrels amid the slime and the sawdust.

It was Cellur who discovered them there twenty minutes later. There was a yellow malice in their eyes as they staggered about in the bloody-mouthed gloom taunting one another in hoarse, clogged voices-but it was fading like a sunset, and as he watched, in the puzzled manner of someone who doesn’t quite know what it is he’s watching, he heard this final exchange:

“I beg my lord the sheep’s arse to change his mind.”

“My brain is as addled as a harlot’s egg. Get me out of this place, Dwarf. It stinks of kindness. North if you like. What do I care?”

6

THE SUDDEN EMBODIMENT OF BENEDICT PAUCEMANLY

Cellur could not (or would not) articulate his fears more clearly. He questioned Fay Glass, it is true: but nothing was revealed, her contribution being only a babble of archaisms and ancient songs; bits and pieces-or so Alstath Fulthor maintained-plucked from the racial memory as she pursued her lonely temporal descent. “She understands us: but speaks from a vast distance, no longer sure what language to use, or what to say.” Despite this, Cellur argued, it was clear that she knew the secret of the insect’s head-why else should she show such distress at her own failure to communicate? Since she could not tell them what had happened there, it was, he repeated, essential to follow her back to the North.

“She is in herself the message: and a call for help.”

When Fulthor protested that, as seneschal, he could not abandon the Queen while the Sign of the Locust grew so in power, harassing daily the Reborn of the city and infiltrating its prime functions, Cellur only said: “I shall need you. Your people in the Great Brown Waste will not treat with me. They are too far gone on this ‘road to the Past’ you describe. When we have discerned the meaning of the insect’s head, that will be the time; when we have understood the warning from the moon, and discovered the landing sites in the North, then we shall know what to do about the Sign of the Locust.”

And Fulthor could only stare out into Viriconium, where at night in a lunar chiaroscuro of gamboge and blue, the long processions wound silently from one street to another, to the accompaniment of a small aimless wind.

The weather deteriorated as he watched, a raw air piling up against the massif of the High City and filling the Low with damp. Beneath a thick grey sky the watery plazas took on a wan and occult look, while in the pensions of the Rue Sepile the old women coughed all day over their affairs, and the atmosphere became adhesive with the smell of cabbage. The walls seeped. It was, all agreed, no time to be living in the Artists’ Quarter, and, perhaps as an addendum to this theory, gossip remarked the sudden disappearance of Galen Hornwrack. Had he indeed quarrelled with Ansel Verdigris, his erstwhile crony (some said over a coin, though others maintained it was a woman from the North, or even the wording of a verse in a ballade of smoked fish)? Up and down the hill from Minnet-Saba, huddling closer to brazier and guttering cresset, his enemies and rivals scratched their heads-or else, distempered, fought among themselves.

The object of this attention, meanwhile, languished in the draughty corridors of Methven’s hall, where he examined his wounds from hour to hour and honed morosely his knife, gripped by the phthisis and melancholy of early winter. He had little contact with his new companions. He avoided Fulthor and thus, of necessity, the discussions in the throne room. Once or twice he heard the madwoman singing in some chamber. Of Tomb, who had in such a peculiar manner befriended him (at least he supposed it was that), he had no news. Methvet Nian having at last agreed to an expedition, therefore provision must be made of food, horses, weapons, and such safe conducts as were necessary. The dwarf had concerned himself with this, and with preparations of his own, and was not much about the palace.

Hornwrack shrugged, paced the corridors at night, gazing in a sort of savage abstraction at the old machines and whispering sculptures, and refused to answer his door. On the day of their departure he had to be fetched from his apartment (he was staring into a mirror). On the day of their departure, sleet fell, quickly soaking the striped awnings in the street markets and filling the gutters with a miserable slush. On the day of their departure a vision was vouchsafed to them; Tomb the Dwarf remembered a legend at whose birth he had presided long ago; and their ill-fated expedition acquired its tutelary or presiding spirit This apparition, which was to remain with them until the peculiar termination of their journey, manifested itself first in the throne room at Viriconium. Besides Cellur the Birdmaker, only Hornwrack was present. (Methvet Nian was to watch their departure from the city by the Gate of Nigg, and had gone there early. Alstath Fulthor fretted in an outer yard with Fay Glass and the horses. Tomb the Dwarf, having worked all night in his caravan-white heat flickering out over the tailboard to the accompaniment of a sad hammer-was dozing in some corner.) It was not yet light: the palace was chilly, echoic, nautiloid. Cellur, hoping to contact his own machines in their redoubt beneath the Lendalfoot estuary, passed a yellow hand through his beard. “Brown, green, counting,” he whispered, and in response a flock of grey images twittered like bats across the five false windows of the throne room. Clearly this was not the result he had forecast. “Do you see nothing?” he said impatiently. “I must have fresh news!”

“Be quick, old man,” said Hornwrack neutrally. He yawned and rubbed his face, feeling an obscure tension in the muscles of his neck. This he put down to being woken early. Like Fulthor, for reasons more or less complex, he was anxious to be off. Alone with wound, knife, and mirror over the last twenty-four hours, he had been surprised to find that he no longer regretted his psychic severance from the Low City. He thought now only rarely of the boy in the Rue Sepile, the bitter smell of dead geraniums, instead looked forward with a dry eagerness, curious as to the fate of his obsessions now that their confining frame had been removed. He massaged his neck. The old man muttered fractiously. In the upper air of the throne room the light was becoming stratified, bands of very pale pink and yellow leaking through the high eastern skylights. Dawn had arrived early. Fresh news! “Be quick!”

“Abrogate all rituals,” said a soft confidential voice from somewhere above him. He looked up, startled. It sniggered. “What a lovely piece of meat!”

Up near the vaulted ceiling a salmon-coloured layer of light had begun curdling into grey muculent lumps and strings which floated about like bits of fat in a lukewarm soup, bumping one another gently. After a minute or two of slow tidal effort, these in their turn merged to form a thick, lobed nucleus, from which presently evolved the crude figure of a man. Hornwrack studied this process with disgust, noting how, as they strained to become arms and legs, the lobes heaved and struggled like something trapped in an elastic bag. He caught the birdmaker staring puzzledly upwards and sniffed sarcastically.

“Have you finished tampering, old man?”

Cellur made an impatient movement with one hand.

“Hush!”

The man hanging in the air above them (if it was a man) wore clothes of some rough faded material, originally black, tailored in a fashion which had not been common in the city for over a century. Where it could be seen, his skin was pallid, greenish, covered in withered silvery patches. Over his face was clamped a kind of mask or breathing apparatus from the black snout of which sprouted many truncated tubes and proboscides; this was attached by four black straps which, cutting into the swollen flesh of his cheeks, met in the straggling yellow hair at the back of his head. He was enormously fat, as if he had passed much of his life in a sphere where human conditions of growth no longer pertained: his hypertrophied buttocks floated over their heads like shadowy moons, accompanied by a thin monologue, cabalistic and futile, of which no sense might be made whatever “Here I sit, an old man in the Neant of the wind (Prima convien che tanto il ciel), stranded for so long in the fractured white spaces, a hundred years of pearly silence in the garden behind the world: there I lay in the biting wind-ABRACADABRA-there ate in the shadow of the veinous wing manna (perch’ io indugiai al fine i buon sospiri); and what for? WAR! Now they burrow in the great borrowed abracadabra of my surviving soul. Ah! Fear death from the air! What a lovely piece of meat, my dear!”

– And so on, punctuated by roars of pain or rage as, rolling slowly from one corner of the room to another, he attempted to right his huge floundering bulk or adjust its height from the floor. At times he seemed quite solid, while at others an appalling smell filled the throne room and his outlines became vague and mucous again. In moments of solidity he would struggle and thresh; he waved his arms, perhaps for attention, perhaps to keep his balance in whatever grotesque medium he was floating. (It was plain that the air of earth could not support so gross a body-he wallowed rather in some mysterious water glass, some dimension of his own.) When he faded, his voice faded too, becoming feeble and distant and distorted, as if by passage through some inhospitable aether.

Cellur the Birdmaker was transfixed. “This is none of my doing!” he cried, full of an ancient excitement. “Hornwrack, it is the voice from the moon!”

(“It’s a voice from a sewer,” declared Hornwrack, and, sotto voce: “A voice from a pantomime.”)

Cellur addressed the floating man. “Many nights I listened to you. What have you to tell me? Speak!”

“Blork,” said the floating man.

Thereafter he disregarded Cellur, but courted Hornwrack vigorously, his eyes ingenuous and fishy behind the tinted faceplate of his mask. Sidling up to the assassin he would wink coyly and embark on some earnest incoherent suit, only to topple helplessly over on his side before he could complete it, like the corpse of some small decomposing whale. “Listen to me, my lad (black buggery!). I can see you’re a flier. Listen, the regenerated word burrows within me! We must have a talk, you and I-” Then, making a terrified pushing motion: “No more, no more of that!” And off he would go, bobbing about the throne room at the height of Hornwrack’s head, a sour fluid dribbling from the edges of his mask.

This was too much for Hornwrack, who, eyeing the apparition superstitiously, got out the sword of tegeus-Cromis and followed it about, making lethal cuts at the air. “Back to your sewer!” he shouted. “Back to your madhouse!” while Cellur in an attempt to restrain him plucked feebly at his cloack and the apparition evaded them both, chuckling and sneezing.

Nothing could be got from it. If they left it alone, it harangued them mercilessly, in fragments of infernal languages. When they pursued it, Cellur in a spirit of conciliation, Hornwrack with murderous blows, it merely hiccupped behind its mask and blundered off. For half an hour this pantomime continued, until, in the face of the growing daylight, its periods of stability became fewer, its outline grey and debatable. Its voice faded into an enormous echoing distance in which might be heard quite distinctly the sound of waves on some unimaginable shore. Eventually it vanished into the same odd brew of light as had engendered it, and they were left stranded in the empty throne room, furious and futile.

This was how Alstath Fulthor found them: staring breathlessly into the vacant air. Had he listened carefully, as they begged him, he might have heard a feeble buzzing voice exhorting him to “Fear death from the air!” The sound of waves, or something like it. Silence. But what were voices to him, who now heard them constantly in his head?

“It is long past dawn,” he said irritably, “and the Queen will be waiting for us.”

In the event they saw very little of her, for it was a brutally cold day: only a white face in a window near the top of a tower; a white hand raised; and then nothing. Alstath Fulthor, his great black horse and blood-red armour glowing heraldically beneath the overcast, drew an ironic cheer from the handful of Low City dwellers who stood in the slush to watch them through the Gate of Nigg. Viriconium foundered across the stream of Time behind them, like some immense royal barge abandoned to winter! This zone of monstrous narcissism and gigantic depressions behind him, Hornwrack sensed the beginnings of the new phase signalled by the manifestation in the throne room. We are all mad now, he thought. On an impulse he unsheathed the old steel sword and held it high. But when he looked back Methvet Nian had already left the tower.

Outside on the low brown foothills of Monar lay the first snow of the season, drifted up against the stone intake walls and sheep enclosures. The pack animals were fractious, the wind bitter. They travelled slowly, but the dwarf, who had been sleeping in some straw, did not catch up with them until much later.

When he did, he said, “This ‘bloated ghost’ you speak of: he was the finest airboatman of them all.”

And that night, huddled by a dying fire in the hills above the distant city, he continued: “At Mingulay he flew one machine against eight. Cooking rats in the sun at noon we watched, my long-dead friends and I, from the beleagured city. His boat was old, his crew haggard; the drugs he took to stay awake had made him shake and stagger; but how that boat spun and turned, how it dropped like a hawk amid the violet bolts of the power cannon! How the brassy light of the South glanced off its crystal hull! Benedict Paucemanly: seven wrecks dotted the arid plain before the siege was lifted; the eighth he rammed afterwards, in an oversight.

“But war was never enough for Paucemanly. When the world was still young (and the Methven still casting their shadows across it) he flew round it. I know, for I was with him, a dwarf of few summers who fancied himself an adventurer. We crossed the oceans, Hornwrack, and all the broken continents! Deserts drifted beneath our hull, rapt in their millennial declining dream. At the poles, aurorae cascaded and roared above us like spectral rivers. We sampled the tropics; the equatorial air burned about us. That was Paucemanly’s first flight in the Heavy Star. But if war failed to satisfy him, so did the world. He grew bored. He grew melancholy and thin.

“He began to stare each night at the wan and sovereign moon.

“Oh, he yearned after that sad planet. His plan was to go there. ‘The mysterious navigators of the Afternoon,’ he reasoned, ‘had commerce with it daily, in just such boats as these. The space outside the earth was of no consequence to them. Perhaps,’ he persuaded himself, ‘the boats remember the way.’ We watched him leave on a black night, in that famous ship. She rose into the darkness, hunting like a compass needle. Old sense revived in her. She trembled in anticipation, and strange new lights glimmered at her stern.

“We never saw her again, any of us. The Heavy Star, the Heavy Star ! That was a hundred years ago-”

The old dwarf’s eyes were red and flat in the gloom, reflecting the firelight like the eyes of an animal.

“Hornwrack,” he whispered, “she knew her way. Don’t you see? This ‘bloated ghost’ you describe is Benedict Paucemanly returned to us. He has been a hundred years in the moon!”

Hornwrack stirred the embers with his boot.

“That is all very well,” he said a little cruelly (for he envied the dwarf these memories, with which he had nothing to compare). “But what has he brought with him past the gates of earth? And why is he a gibbering idiot?”

The dwarf looked at him thoughtfully.

Later, Cellur the Bird Lord was to describe their journey north in these terms:

“Among the stone crowns and aimless salients of the empty foothills we received hints of some state of being we could not imagine. The world was bleached of its old meanings even for those of us who had previously accepted them. (I do not count myself among these. How could I?) This happened immediately after we left the city. It was as if a protection had been removed from us. Mosaic eyes seemed to observe us from behind the dry-stone walls. In the outline of a ridge or a wayfarer’s tree might be contained the suggestion of quite another object-a folded wing, for instance, or the coiled tongue of a moth.

“Alstath Fulthor led the way. Some internal process held him rapt. He had begun, perhaps, to map the paths inside himself which led to the Past. This gave him an absentminded air, and an irritable one, as if by our presence we interrupted some private conversation-although had anyone suggested this he would have rejected it angrily. Attempting to live simultaneously in two worlds, he rode moodily ahead and seemed to see nothing-head bowed into the rain, blood-red armour pulsing like a beacon. If it was madness then it was only the madness that has infected all his people since their Rebirth. They will learn in the end that the journey they long for is impossible, and accept the world as it is.

“The unmarked journeys of the soul: as we descended the foothills, we came upon old roads lined with sagging yews and blunt formless stone beasts. Here there is little left to humanize the debased earth; this is the beginning of the end, where the empire wastes away with its own geography. On the narrow strip between the mountains and the coastal flats only the giant hemlock grows now, and among it the ruins of the Afternoon are rotting, cities made of bloody glass submerged beneath cold and muddy lagoons: the ancient Fen Cities, among whose broken towers now creep the black wherries of the Evening, tacking and creaking from staithe to staithe in pursuit of a bleak diminishing trade. Of the old roads none are whole. The wide fused highways of the Afternoon peter out into shattered flags or limestone cobbles laid in Borring’s day, eventually into sheep-trod, nettle, and smallholding.

“The best of them, though, skirting warily both salt marsh and massif, makes its way to Duirinish, that grey outpost of former kings which is gateway to the Great Brown Waste and to the old cities of the North; and along this we took ourselves, under the patronage of the hallucinatory pilot Benedict Paucemanly. Exhorting, demanding, mumbling eternally in its strange self-constructed language, vanishing at intervals only to return refreshed, his ghost (if indeed it was his) had haunted us for a hundred miles or more. Now it wallowed above us like a waterlogged tree; now hid like a girl among the fleshy etiolated hemlock stems; now muttered, ‘On the moon it was like white gardens. Pork.’ It would not answer Alstath Fulthor, which put him out of temper; nor would it speak to me; Tomb the Dwarf it actively avoided, as though embarrassed by his persistence, sidling away down the hemlock glades grinning and breaking wind apologetically. And if he spoke to it of the ‘old days’ it regarded him with wide panicky eyes and flapped deprecatingly its awkward great hands.

“Galen Hornwrack, however, it courted ardently, trying to capture his attention with a wink or a whistle. ‘Land ho, lad!’ it would cry, and, bobbing in the air before him, make an elaborate mime of discovering some terra incognita: shading its eyes with one hand while with the other it pointed north and west. (Fulthor made light of this mummery, arguing that the thing was mad if it could be said to exist at all: yet after a few repetitions one felt a profound sense of urgency, as if some fading fragment of the original airboatman was struggling to act out or insinuate something he could no longer articulate.) Hornwrack’s response was characteristic. He hated to appear a fool. The more the thing wooed him the more he averted his gaze. And at night when he thought himself unobserved he stalked it patiently through the firelight, the partly healed scars on his cheeks burning like the ritual stigmata of some primitive hunter. Each failure to kill or confine it increased his anger: when the girl Fay Glass sang, ‘We are off to Vegys now,’ and smiled at him-which was some days her only human contact-he would not smile back, which made her fractious and difficult to manage in her turn.

“In this way we came to Duirinish, which we avoided to the west, having no business there. It is a great place, that, the bulk of it being built facing north. We passed it in a pale dawn, the sun striking grave and oblique on the dwarf oaks of Low Leedale. A bitter metallic smell hung in the air, making the horses delicate of temper; the grey stones of the city had a brooding look. Small dour figures could be seen staring down from among its parapets and machicolations, but they had no time for us. For five hundred years the men of Duirinish had kept the border: what they now saw from their fastness as they stared into the North, what strange alterations and diffusions of reality, I do not care to think. On our part we found the world a changeable place.

“Shrewd sea winds courted us. On our right marched a line of tall cliffs. Originally deposited as a limestone reef front some hundreds of miles long, these had been worked during earth’s long Afternoon into a chain of quarries broken here and there by little steep-sided valleys with crumbling mossy headwalls. In and out of the hidden caves and sinkholes of this region (in effect the lip of a vast plateau, stretching a mile or so back inland before being buried under the culm measures and doomed black soils of the Great Brown Waste) there flowed whitish polluted streams. The trees were grey and dry. Now we moved deeper into it, and into a kind of psychic dislocation, picking a way through the gummy, lifeless tidal pools while mirages came and went over our bowed heads.

“We had no idea of what might disclose itself from day to day. At evening we left the beach and lit fires in the tottering mazes where interleaving bituminous strata had made the rock rotten and easily eroded. But the flames were hard to kindle. They were pale and cool. Later the echo of falling rocks clattered through the dark like the sound of skittles falling in a deserted alley. From the upper ledges there drifted down an endless rain of tiny luminous beetles. All night long the wind shook the skeins of dead ivy; and in the morning, as the sea fogs cleared, vast insects would appear in the distance, their reflections perfect in the wet sand of the tidal flats; they moved ponderously away before we could identify them. All this, as I have said, was contained at first in the outlines of ordinary things, much as a shadowy architecture of colonnades and alien galleries can be made out in the walls of an empty quarry, but as we moved north the landscape itself became thin and grey, textured like mucus, with the bones of some other landscape showing more or less clearly through.

“ ‘The world is coming to bits,’ said Galen Hornwrack, and someone answered dryly, ‘The world is being exchanged for something else.’

“It comes to me that each of us suffered during this northern transit an emptying or bleaching of the identity in preparation for a future we could not describe. Viriconium was behind us. (Even those of us who returned there never saw it again, but found a changed city, one in which we were not comfortable.) In the sense that it no longer filled our day-to-day thoughts, we had forgotten our purpose. We existed simply to slip through the rain, a handful of salt-lipped figures beneath the unending cliffs, speaking in low sepulchral voices. Before went, like a banner, the raging glory of the Afternoon, with its great horse and scarlet armour; while a sniggering dwarf in a leather hat brought up the rear on a pony no bigger than a dog; and above us floated the balloon-like form of the ancient airman, chivvied like a dying whale by gangs of raucous gulls. Cyphers, we pass beneath the hungry ironic eyes of the gannets and guillemots-the assassin resentful and disfigured; the woman who believes herself lost in Time; and myself- a thing, alive beyond its rightful years, far beyond its rightful place! The landscape, though, anticipates our release: this preparation or interlude is drawing to a close…

“ ‘We should turn east soon if we are to find your village,’ Fulthor insisted patiently. Fay Glass frowned at him like a child, her hair plastered to her skull. She wore two or three purple flowers which she had previously offered to Hornwrack, and due to his refusal of them was agreeing with no one. ‘Nobody who truly cared about hygiene could read the message above,’ she declared with a mutinous dignity. ‘How can we prevent abuse in the first place?’ Fulthor could only shrug. Shortly after this exchange it became evident that we had lost the Glenluce road: the beach became narrow and steeply shelving, the cliffs undercut, and our progress dependent on the state of the tide, from which we were forced to take refuge twice a day. Eventually we led our horses up the first tottering rake which offered a way to the top of the cliffs.

“That was evening or late afternoon. The light was fading. Squalls of rain blew out of the advancing sea fog, dotted with large wet flakes of snow. A melancholy heath dipped away inland-shadowy, sheep-cropped turf, black gorse, and bent hawthorn trees. Northwards and at right angles to the coast, defile succeeded narrow defile, each one cutting through the limestone to the underlying metamorphic shales and broadening as it reached the sea. The landscape was scattered with old metal bridges. It had a discarded air. We passed the night huddled at the foot of a ruined stone wall, unaware that a mile or so ahead lay the port of Iron Chine, nexus of a strange war, with its weird banners and demented prince. Rusty iron creaked in the wind.”

Cellur does not relate how on the next morning they found that Paucemanly’s ghost had abandoned them, or how they slumped on their soaked and surly animals staring dully at the desolation which stretched away inland: that half-fertile strip of dissected peat and tough ling heather pocked with lethal seepage hollows which was the merest periphery of the Great Waste. Unpredictable soughs full of brown water threaded its endless slopes of sodden tussocky grass, and queer rocks were embedded along its rheumy skylines, eroded by the wind into vague and organic silhouettes. This was their ultimate destination (it is, in another way, the ultimate destination of everything, as the earth enters its long Evening), or so they imagined: but in the face of its winter they faltered. Instead of turning eastward Alstath Fulthor led them first along the cliffs and then down into Iron Chine. They followed him like a handful of refugees from some chronological disaster, heads bowed against the bitter blow of Time.

The cyclopean quays of Iron Chine are older than the Afternoon. No one knows who built them, or for what crude purpose. The massive untrimmed blocks which comprise them are not native to this coast but cut from granites formed much further north. Who brought them down from there to bind them with iron and pile them in the cold sea, or when, is not known. They are black, and wet with fog, like the vertical walls of the fjord which contains them, the archaean unvegetated slates of which sweep down to an ebon sea. The enormous quayside buildings are also black; their purpose is quite lost and most of them have fallen into decay. The modern port subsists on fish, gulls’ eggs, and mutton. Cowed by geography, Time, and the sea, its lime-washed cottages huddle uneasily amid a greater architecture; above them a road has been pushed through the rotting slates, and winds its way perilously up to the clifftop pastures.

Down this Galen Hornwrack now rode (the dwarf beside him croaking tunelessly), puzzled by the mist that lay in the trough of the fjord. It was ashen and particulate. Inner currents stirred it sluggishly. A gust of wind, exploding over the lip of the cliffs and roiling down past him, parted it for a moment, but revealed only black water patterned by the rain. Yet he sensed it was occupied (although he could hardly have said by what): he stopped his horse, stood up in his stirrups, and craned his neck anxiously until the rift had closed again. “What’s this then?” he asked himself. He shook his head. “Fulthor,” he called back, “this may be unwise.” Further down, where the air was calmer, he smelt smoke, urgent and powdery at the back of his nose. Now the dwarf became agitated too, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, squinting and sniffing about him like a nervous dog. Behind the smell of smoke was something sharper, less easy to identify.

Lower still, at the edge of the mist, halted before it like a swimmer at the margin of an unknown lake, he became convinced that people were moving about down there on the water in a panicky and disorientated fashion; and distant shouts came up to him, partly muffled by the mist but discernibly cries for aid. “It may be unsafe, Fulthor.” But Fulthor motioned him on, and from then on events seemed to reach him at one remove, as if he was not quite part of them. It was a familiar feeling, and one that recalled the Bistro Californium, the deadly gamboge shadows of the Low City Inside the mist was a distinct smell of lemons, and of rotting pears-a moist and chemical odour which sought out and attacked the sensitive membranes of the body. The light was sourceless, and had the effect of sharpening outlines while blurring the detail contained within them: on Hornwrack’s right, the dwarf looked as if he had been cut from grey paper a moment before-a tall queer hat, a goblin’s profile, an axe head bigger than his own. Beyond this paper silhouette the path fell away into a whitish void in which Hornwrack made out now and then a localized and fitful carmine glow. While he was trying to remember what this reminded him of, Alstath Fulthor took station on his left. Their throats raw, their eyes streaming, and their noses running, they advanced in a cautious formation until the path began to level out and they found themselves without warning on a wide stone concourse bordering the estuary.

Here the mist was infused with a thin yellow light. But for the slap of the waves on the water stair below, but for the silence and the smell of the fog, they might have been in the Low City on any cold October night. Hornwrack led them to the water’s edge, the hooves of the horses clacking and scraping nervously across an acre of worn stone slabs glistening with shallow puddles. A languor of curiosity came over them. Despite their forebodings they tilted their heads to hear the distant thud of wood on wood, the faint cries of men echoing off the estuary. Even Fay Glass was quite silent.

Hornwrack narrowed his eyes. “Fulthor, there are no longer fishermen in this place.” Distances were impossible of judgement. He wiped his eyes, coughed. “Something is on fire out there.”

The smell of smoke had thickened perceptibly, perhaps carried to them by some inshore wind. With it came a creaking of ropes and a smell of the deep sea; groans and shouts startlingly close. Now a node of carmine light appeared, expanding rapidly. A cold movement of the air set the mist bellying like a curtain. Hornwrack shook his head desperately, looking about him in panic: abruptly he sensed an enormous object moving very close to him. The mist had all along distorted his perspectives.

“Back!” he shouted. “Fulthor, get them back from the water!” Even as he spoke the mist writhed and broke apart. Out of it thrust the foreparts and figurehead of a great burning ship.

Its decks were deep with blood. Once it had been white. Now it rushed to destruction on the water stair, spouting cinders. Its strange slatted metal sails, decorated with unfamiliar symbols, were melting as they fell. Captained by despair, it emerged from the mist like a vessel from Hell, its figurehead an insect-headed woman who had pierced her own belly with a sword (her mouth, if it could be called a mouth, gaped in pain or ecstasy). “Back!” cried Galen Hornwrack, tugging at his horse’s head. “Back!” Fay Glass, though, only stared and sneezed like an animal, transfixed by the mad carven head gaping above her. Dying men tumbled over the sides of the ship, groaning “Back!” as the lean, charred hull drove blindly at the shore; “Back!” as it smashed into the water stair and with its bow torn open immediately began to sink.

Down it went, with a roar and a shudder. The deep cold water gurgled into its ravaged hull. Ratlines and halyards fell in blazing festoons about its cracked bowsprit. Hornwrack pulled the madwoman off her horse and dragged her away. She wiped her nose. Sparks flew about their heads. The hulk lurched, settled a little lower in the water. A sail fell, showing Hornwrack for a moment a curious symbol-a hexagon with eccentric sides, through which crawled orange-throated lizards-before it hissed molten into the sea. High up in the doomed forecastle a solitary figure stood mantled in blood. “Murder!” it sobbed, staring wildly down at Hornwrack. “They’ve followed us into the estuary!” It hacked with a blunt shortsword at a flaming spar. “Oh, this damned mist!” Suddenly it was catapulted from its perch and with a thin wail fell into the water.

“Hornwrack!”

The burning ship reminded him of some childhood ritual, some solstitial bonfire lit in the wet dark ploughland. He turned almost reluctantly from it, his face stiff with heat. Fulthor, Tomb, and the old man stood a little way off; toward them across the gleaming concourse men were running. “To you, Fulthor!” he cried, just as he might have done beneath the heights of Minnet-Saba, where the rival factions of the Low City clash without chivalry at night; and, encumbered by the madwoman, promptly dropped the unfamiliar sword. “Black filth, girl. Let go.” The weapon tolled like a bell on the worn flagstones. His horse trod on it. A fit of coughing racked him.

As he disentangled himself, though, he realised that the mist was dwindling round him like a dream, to reveal the giant quays and boatsheds; the little town; the slatey cliffs. Seabirds called as they skimmed the water. Even the clouds were blowing away. For all the fears of the dead sailor, nothing floated out there on the roadstead. But for the bubbling wreck on the water stair, the estuary was empty of menace, quite empty. Puzzled, he drew his knife and urged forward his horse.

7

ST. ELMO BUFFIN AND THE NAVIGATORS OF IRON CHINE

With the mist dispersed, the village smelt of smoked fish and salt. Fulthor and his party stood outnumbered and uncertain at the centre of an unarmed crowd. Hornwrack had put up his knife. Like the survivors of some forgotten colonial war (desultory, expedient, never quite resolved), the occupants of Iron Chine drew round him: thin intelligent women, a few bare-limbed children. There were no young men present, only some old ones who stamped their feet and turned up their heavy collars, faded blue eyes watering in the cold wind. They stared up at him with a defiant incuriosity and he stared back embarrassed, although he could not have said precisely why. It was a mixed community; at the periphery of the crowd a handful of the Reborn hovered like strange, long-necked animals, their delicate features coarsened a little by an unrelenting deprivation. What had they left behind them in the Afternoon, what mad sophistications exchanged for the smell of dead fish?

A few sailors who had escaped the wreck now swam ashore.

No one offered them any help, nor did they seem to expect it, but pulled themselves up on to the quay and sprawled there with the blind, open-mouthed look of the exhausted. After a moment two of them got up again and between them pulled out a third. He kept trying to thank them. They knelt by his atrociously burnt head until a trickle of clear fluid ran out of the corner of his mouth; then they left him to stare sightlessly at a flock of gulls tearing pieces off something out on the estuary. They were yellow-haired, guileless, hardly more than children, but their faces were full of despair, as if they had fought a lifetime of holding actions and unplanned retreats. Alstath Fulthor observed them gravely for a minute or two, then, finding no other authority and extricating himself with difficulty from the civilian crowd, presented them with his safe conducts.

“Our mission is one of importance,” he told them.

Eventually one of them said, “This was not the time to come here.” He turned his back and, quietly dismissing the intrusion, vomited up a quantity of seawater. His companion put a placatory hand on his shoulder and reminded him,

“Captain, they come from the capital-”

But he only wiped his mouth and laughed wildly. “Ay, and look at them! Some yellow old man, and a woman. Two city lordlings and their dwarf!”

A fit of dry retching shook him. “There will never be any help from Viriconium,” he said indistinctly. There was self-pity in his voice, and after a moment or two he acknowledged it with a disgusted twist of his mouth. “Did you see anything out there?” he asked, and when the other shook his head, whispered, “I pity those that did.”

He tried to squeeze the salt water from his hair.

“One of our own vessels rammed us, that’s certain,” he continued thoughtfully. “But by then we were already burning.”

He shrugged.

“It was as usual. Those who saw anything were struck mad immediately. Those who did not, got lost in the mist.”

Thus the defeated, locked in their dreams of defeat.

“You are bound to help us!” shouted Alstath Fulthor suddenly.

“Leave them alone, Fulthor,” advised Hornwrack. Often enough he had been among the defeated himself. His sudden compassion surprised him nevertheless, and that he should recognise it as such surprised him even further. He looked sidelong at Tomb the Dwarf to see if he had noticed anything, but the dwarf wasn’t interested-he only grinned pleasantly and unforgivingly down at the sailors and said, “There is no enemy in sight now.”

“They are bound by those signatures to help us,” said the Reborn Man less loudly.

They regarded him with puzzlement, and some scorn.

“Go up to the new hall,” was all they said, “and leave us alone.” And they wandered off along the quay to where the remaining mast of the foundered ship poked up at a strange angle from a scum of floating wreckage. There a smell of lemons clung, as if some bitter dew had condensed on that doomed hull during its confused final voyage. It was an unearthly, chemical smell. The horses hated it.

The crowd, sensing a termination, looked on emptily for a minute or two, then began to disperse-the children drawn by a kind of magnetism toward the wreck while their elders took to the cobbled road which wound up into Iron Chine proper, where they vanished in twos and threes among the little two-storey houses with the wet slate roofs, the drying nets, and lines of flaccid laundry. Dulled by the cold and continual privation, they seemed unable to react to a tragedy which, as someone in Fulthor’s party pointed out later, must have involved them all. One woman did stand for a time staring out into the estuary, a few tears drying on her cheeks in the wind. Only then did Hornwrack realise that more than one vessel had been involved. A spatter of rain blew out of the west (where like a great ancient fish there lay in wait the island continent of Fenlen) and into his face. He could see the “new hall” on a rise above the village. He felt wretched.

“This wind is prising my joints apart,” said Cellur the Birdmaker cheerfully. When no one answered him he gave an impatient shrug. “These people need more help than they could ever give us,” he told Fulthor. “When you stop sulking you will see that.”

It came on to rain in earnest as they passed through the Chine. The peeling walls had once been gaily whitewashed, the window boxes tended; now pale faces observed them from behind the streaming windows. Higher, they found they could look down into the boatyards of St. Elmo Buffin, from which rose the masts and spars of his white and fated fleet- rakish three-hulled craft fitted with those peculiar slatted metal sails over which rioted orange lizards, green beetles glowing like fresh tattoos, and subtly distorted geometrical figures. Designed by the Afternoon, built by the Evening, blessed by a new madness of both, they were arming for some invisible war. DEATH proclaimed one sail, and LIFE another, in calligraphies rich and outlandish; while on the decks beneath, shipwrights and sailors swarmed like rats.

“No hint of this war has ever come to us in the High City,” said Alstath Fulthor wonderingly. “It is no wonder they are poverty-stricken here.”

Higher still, the “new hall” hung above them like a threat. Sombre, columnar, mysterious of purpose, it had about it a most appalling air of age, an age which emptied out the cultural luggage of Alstath Fulthor’s vanished race-all the moral atrocities and philosophical absurdities and expired technologies-and found it meaningless; rendering meaningless in the end even the deserts which were their only legacy to the Evening. As he approached it, wincing from the weather, huddling into his cloak against a wind a million years old, it spoke to Galen Hornwrack from an age fully as naive but by no means as puzzled as his own. It was a survivor of the Morning.

There was a ramshackle new construction perched on its roof like a greenhouse; from this flags were flying which no one could identify, though Fulthor and the dwarf argued desultorily over their provenance. And down at its ancient front door, his big-knuckled hands clasped like a bunch of dice, stood the solitary principal of that lost maritime demesne, genius of a doomed fleet, St. Elmo Buffin.

Elmo Buffin, that sad travesty, with his limbs like peeled sticks! He was seven feet tall and a yellow cloak was draped eccentrically about his bony shoulders. Plate armour of a dull-green colour encased him, sprouting all manner of blunt horns and spurs, little nubs and bosses which seemed chitinous and organic. It pulsed and shivered in its colour, for it had come to him from his father, a Reborn Man of the defunct House of medina-Clane, one of the first to be resurrected by Tomb the Dwarf and now dead. What his mother-a dour Northwoman and fishwife of Iron Chine, whose first husband had died in the War of the Two Queens-had bequeathed him is hard to say. Neither strain had bred true, for between Afternoon and Evening there is a great genetic as well as temporal gulf. Epilepsy racked him twice a week. His eyes were yellow and queer in that slack clownish face, which seemed too large for his thin limbs. His brain heaved like the sea; across it visions came and went like the painted sails of his own fleet. Of years he had twenty-six; but his insanity made of that forty or fifty. Since the death of his father (himself an eccentric but principled man, who had consented to the miscegenation in order to cement the two halves of his biracial community) the whole weight of the Chine had rested on his shoulders.

How many of the villagers actually believed in his invisible enemy, or his experimental fleet? It seems immaterial. Those who died at sea knew the truth, as do we. Those that did not were nonetheless inspired by him. And if it did not thrive, well then, the village survived. Buffin’s success was as a symbol-queasy but enduring-which enabled past and present to collaborate. (His failure lay in underestimation-in being, if you like, not quite mad enough-but that was not to become clear until later, and who anyway could have been quite so mad as to imagine the actual state of affairs?) Now he stood in the doorway of the ancient hall, with its dreadful disregard for the passage of Time and its rooftop contraptions worn with the air of a rakish hat, watching from the corner of his eye Fulthor’s party as it approached. He was dwarfed by the dark columns. He could not keep still. He rubbed his hands to warm them in the cold air. He leant unconcernedly on the doorpost. Then he must look at his feet to admire his boots. Then, muttering to himself, jerk upright and practise a handshake with some imaginary visitor.

“ ‘News from the city!’ ” they heard him murmur. “Shall I say that? No. I must not appear so anxious. Shall I then enquire (thus, with a politic solicitude), ‘Your journey, it was comfortable?’ Manifestly though, it was not-”

He snapped his fingers impatiently.

“Oh, what shall I say!”

Suddenly he dodged back among the columns and was lost to view. (Though it had no basis, Hornwrack retained for some time an impression of him huddled up there somewhere in the gloom the way a child might huddle breathless and white-faced behind the great half-opened doors of some echoing abandoned palace into which it has wandered, that palace being the world.)

After a moment he called querulously, “Hello?”

No one answered. Except for Fay Glass they had all got down from their horses and were staring astonished into the massive fluted shadows. Out popped his head like a crumpled leather bag on a stick, and he tapped the side of it mournfully. “We’re all mad here,” he sighed, as if the village, the boatyards, and the ancient stones were all in some way contained within it: which, Hornwrack supposed, in a way they were. Now he recovered himself, smiling ironically, came forward and clasped Fulthor’s hands. “The briefest of aberrations,” he apologised (at this the madwoman pursed her lips enviously, and sniffed); “Please forgive me,” and never referred to it again. “Viriconium has sent observers then, at last!”

Under this misapprehension he led them up a monstrous flight of stairs. They could not correct it because he would not let them speak. He had, he explained, given up hope of ever getting help from the capital. He did not blame the High City for this. Messengers had been sent every six months to Duirinish, which was the regional centre, but patently the messages had not been sent on. This was understandable. In Duirinish they semed to believe that he was quarrelling with some other coastal village. This had not been at all uncommon in the years immediately following the war. What could he do but maintain a philosophical attitude?

Up the vast stairs they went behind him, listening to his monologue float down. His laughter was strained. “Still, now you have come-”

His rooms were full of bald light, strange navigational instruments, clutter. In one room the charts had peeled from the wall and lay all along its foot in odd folds. He took them to a thing like a conservatory built right out on to the roof-“From here I can see twenty miles out to sea.” He smiled proudly, a little pathetically. “I expect you have more profound instruments in the South.” There was a great maze of tubing made of brass into which he invited them to look. They bent one by one to the eyepiece. When it was Hornwrack’s turn to look, all he saw was a sad reticulated greyness, and, suspended indistinctly against it in the distance, something like a chrysalis or cocoon, spinning and writhing at the end of a thread. “Success is slow to come with this particular instrument.” Hornwrack shook his head, but Cellur seemed to be fascinated. As they moved from exhibit to exhibit like reluctant tourists in some artist’s studio, Buffin sat on a stool with his limbs tense. He was like an exhibit himself in the direct odd light filtering through the whitish panes, legs wound tensely round one another, his face like an apologetic bag. “It is not an ordinary telescope.” Out to sea nothing moved.

The rooms were draughty and seemed deserted. When he ordered refreshments they were brought by an old woman but he served them himself. “Would you like some of this dried herring?” Money and men were his most urgent requirements, he said (there was besides a shortage of timber). The fleet was fitted but under-crewed. “Pardon?” He showed them charts, designs, plans for a strategy they could not comprehend. On these maps an unconventional symbol depicted “mist.” The island continent of Fenlen was not marked. Hornwrack looked for it but he could not find it.

“The war,” Alstath Fulthor managed to say. “What is its exact nature?”

Buffin looked surprised.

“Why, it is precisely as you have seen. That is the extent of it.”

He thought for a long time. Then he said that his ships went out well-armed. They were captained by crafty men. At sea they encountered first rough water and adverse currents: then a mist. In the mist was some enemy no one had ever seen. “A madness comes over them, and they throw themselves into the water.” Those that did not drown were destroyed by fire, by unimaginable weapons. Some returned. A strange smell clung to their vessels, and they spoke of sounds so appalling as to be beyond description (though they were not loud).

Fulthor began to show signs of impatience. This sort of conjecture was not to his taste. He looked sideways at Hornwrack, who shrugged. Cellur the Birdmaker, however, had been listening to every word. “Have you ever been attacked on land?” he asked.

“For ten years now,” Buffin said absently, “we have fought a war we cannot see. Since the death of my father something has been out there.”

Fulthor stirred, drew in his breath. “I can make nothing of this,” he said brusquely to Cellur. “We cannot concern ourselves with this.”

Buffin blinked at him and went on, “When the mist rolls inshore at night we can sometimes sense them down there in the fjord, sailing stealthily inland. Where they are going we do not know.” He smiled tiredly. “I’m sorry, the fish is awful.” Momentarily sponged of its lines, his face regained a young and pliant air. “I’m glad you’ve come at last.”

Fulthor got up. He handed over his safe conducts and his letters of introduction. “Our mission is urgent,” he said. “I should like fresh horses if you have them. Otherwise nothing. I’m sorry we cannot help.”

There was a silence.

“That was badly done, Alstath Fulthor,” said Cellur.

Buffin looked at them both. Sleet tapped the milky panes of the greenhouse. Outside, the wind tossed the strings of pennants, and set to swaying the distant mast tops of the half-completed fleet. A mist was coming in off the sea.

“I dreamt last night of a fatal blunder made while asleep,” said Cellur as they made their way back up to the clifftop in the blowing sleet. “A sleep-walker murdered his own son.”

“We have done nothing decent here,” agreed Hornwrack a bit absently. Watching with horror the torment of St. Elmo Buffin, he had suddenly begun to think of his own youth, a faithless season spent in the wet plough of the midlands. He could not quite connect the two except in their antithesis. “That’s certain. Only cooperate in one more High City betrayal.” It was later in the day. They were all mounted on fresh animals. Out of his reverie he gave Alstath Fulthor a look of dislike. (He remembered when it came to it only a touch of dead chrysanthemums on the skin in some still-aired room; rooks sweeping over the heavy earth. What he had taken to be unsentimentality with regard to this had turned out to be quite the reverse. In turn, this caused him to think about the Rue Sepile, and all that implied.)

“I thought I recalled the man,” Cellur said. “Perhaps it was a story heard long ago. And yet the face was very familiar.”

“Quite.”

“I cannot shake off a sense of foreboding.”

At the top of the cliff, about to turn inland, they were accosted by the spectre of the ancient airboatman. Opening and shutting its mouth like a deformed goldfish, it approached them out of the eddying sleet, rotating slowly about its vertical axis. Although, as before, it appeared to maintain only the most precarious contact with the world, a thin grey snow seemed to be settling on its shoulders, the ghostly precipitate of some foreign continuum. It was agitated. It came very close to Hornwrack and plucked at his cloak. (He felt nothing until he tried to beat it off with the flat of his hands, when there was some slight, gelatinous resistance.)

“Few lawn!” it shouted through its cupped hands, as from a great distance. “Fog… Forn… Fenling. Oh, crikey.” It pointed desperately out to sea. It looked inland and shook its head. “FENGLIN! nuktis ’agalma… 254 da parte… ten cans for a boat load… Fengle! ”

And it took up station above his head like a fat angel, staring tragically backwards as they moved inland and signing madly whenever it caught his eye.

Still later, Tomb the Dwarf rode up to his side. He held out the weapon Hornwrack had lost on the quayside.

“You dropped your sword, soldier.”

Hornwrack said bitterly, “Listen, old Dwarf, I thought I had got rid of that. I am not him. Whatever he was to you. Don’t you understand that?”

The dwarf grinned and shrugged, still holding the sword out expectantly.

Hornwrack looked up at the thing floating above him. Seeing this, it steered itself rapidly toward him, clearing its throat. He groaned, accepted the sword. Both his spectres had returned to haunt him.

The weather now changed. Low cloud and sleet rolled away east and south to be replaced by a pale sky and good visibility. A wind like a razor blew from the north. On a succession of bright but bitterly cold days they penetrated the habitable margin of the Great Brown Waste, to find a frozen crust over deep, wet peat. Progress was slow. If a bird called, tak tak, like an echo in a stony gully, the madwoman followed it with her eyes, tilting her head, smiled. She was nervous, but now rode ahead of Alstath Fulthor. She had led them into a region of high dissected plateaux over which hummed the icy wind, and then cast about over the bleak hillsides for a while like a lost bitch. Little paths ran everywhere, contouring the salients. As far as anyone could make out she followed them randomly. They led her in the end to a stone-crowned, steep-streamed escarpment which sheltered among its boulder fields sparse woods of stunted oak. On its lower slopes might be discerned the lanes and enclosures of a settlement, the walls toppled, the sheepfolds in poor repair. Behind the village rose the eroded shapes of the Agdon Roches, from which it took its name: a string of gritstone outcrops quarried long ago for building stone so that they formed a succession of bays and shattered promontories.

“This is a vile bloody place.”

Hornwrack: Paucemanly’s ghost had left him alone for a while, vanishing with a wet pop and a feeble grin as if remembering a prior appointment. He was relieved, but found himself with nothing to think about but the cold. He was used to the city, where winter is episodic. The wind whistles across the junction of the Rue Sepile and Vientiane Avenue. The women clutch their shawls tightly and dash laughing from house to house. There is always a window to watch them from while you drink mulled wine prepared by a boy. Not so here: his fingers were welded to the reins like the fingers of a stone horseman falling apart in some provincial square. He had been miserable for days.

“I’ve seen worse,” said the dwarf speculatively, as if he wondered whether he had. He wore his leather hat at a queer angle; his arms were empurpled with the cold.

The wreckage of an ancient landscape lay across their path.

The metaphysical disputes of the late Afternoon Cultures, raging here across the floodplain of some vanished river, had turned it into a corridor of black ash strewn with rounded stones. It was zoned and undulating; in places stripped to the underlying rock, ten or twenty feet thick in others. Every summer a little more of it dried up and blew away into the waste. Some of the stones were quite large, some no bigger than a fist, and each stood on a little pediment of wind-smoothed ash. Some isolated colonies of bilberry and ling grew here and there, raised by the same erosive process until they resembled a chain of hairy islets. Outlier or prefigurement of the deeper waste to come, it was a little less than two miles wide, and across it could be seen the cracked buttresses of the Agdon Roches, brushed at their summits with rosy light. A thin white mist flowed down the gullies and stony cloughs at their feet, drifting through the hanging oakwoods and filling up the village street so that only the roofs and upper storeys of the cottages were visible. Through the still air a dog could be heard barking; sheep bleated from the intakes. In a small field stood one cow. All this one might almost have touched, so precisely enamelled did it seem on the bright surface of the air: but Fay Glass would make no move towards it.

“She is frightened of the maze.”

“And yet,” said Fulthor, returning from a brief foray, “her own people must have made it.” Damp ash was caked between the fingers of his gauntlets. The discovery of the earthwork had filled him with an obscure excitement. Her subsequent refusal to enter or even pass it seemed only to have sharpened this. “They were obsessed by patterns, those who came north in the final desperate days of the Resurrection determined to discover a way back.” He smiled whitely. “As if the fingers of the Past do not already brush our cheeks, waking or sleeping-” He stared back into the maze. “She is a child, I’m afraid.”

(“We gave them life,” the dwarf said. “How were we to know they would go mad?” No one answered him.)

“It is not just the woman,” said Cellur. “I feel it too.” And he looked out over the little strip of land. “Error is piled on error.”

“Nevertheless, we go through,” announced Fulthor, setting the madwoman on her horse.

“There. You shall sit safely. It was bravely done to guide us so far.”

She looked at him as if he were a stone.

The basic earthwork, cut into the compacted ash, was supplemented partly by piles of stones, partly by raised banks or dykes: the whole being roughly radial in character and some fifteen feet deep. Are we to guess its purpose? In the Time of the Locust sign and substance become fatally blurred together: it was not so much a maze, perhaps, as a great ideogram, a design representing some barely achievable state of mind; but this said, we have said nothing. Down in the trenches the ash showed evidence of regular traffic, and cold, damp airs moved purposelessly. Fulthor’s motives were unclear. He could equally well have crossed the plain to reach the village. He would not discuss this. He became lost but was slow to admit it. When he did, the girl would not help him, though she had plainly been in the maze before. He set Tomb to climbing one of the walls, but the stuff fell away in fibrous lumps when he was near the top and he slid down in a shower of it without having seen anything. “I seemed to be facing south.”

Thereafter, they travelled at random.

An hour passed (they came upon the hoofprints of their own animals, travelling in the opposite direction) and then another.

A bird flying overhead; the exchange of arguments at a junction; all normal events receded and became stripped of meaning. Queer contractile sensations in Hornwrack’s skull recalled to him his colourless Low City fevers with their intimations of failure and death. (At these times a desultory buzzing had filled his ears, as of a wasp trapped among the dry geraniums in some airless attic: he heard it now.) Looking uncomfortably round he saw that the others were similarly affected. The whole party had halted. Near him the dwarf was shaking his big head about and blinking desperately. Fay Glass had somehow fallen off her horse and lay on the ground glaring madly up at the sky. The walls of the maze began to mutate, and beckoned Hornwrack with limbs like the first delicately curled fronds of a fern in spring. Now the world toppled sideways with a jolt, as it sometimes does on the verge of sleep. Simultaneously he began to perceive it as if through a cluster of tiny hexagonal lenses: for a moment he looked out with horror onto a faceted universe. He could make nothing of it. He thought he was dying.

Fay Glass vomited suddenly, leapt to her feet, and ran off down the passage. Hornwrack followed more slowly, leading his horse, concentrating very carefully in case the ground should tilt further and spill him off into the mosaic void he now conceived to be surrounding him. He could hear the other three tottering along behind him, crying out like the newly blind.

The maze, he now understood, had lain in wait for him since his flight from the Bistro Californium, its centre coexistent with the hub of that affair. As he struggled down its cindery passageways he imagined himself stabbed again and again, a half-successful execution presided over by the mad laughter of the poet Ansel Verdigris. He lost his horse. Clutching the phantom wound in his side he groaned and drew his flawed steel knife (as if a gesture remembered from one maze might release him from the complexities of another). Despairing, he stumbled out into a circular space about thirty feet across, where he was relieved abruptly of the mosaic universe and saw normally again. This central stage or arena was raised a few inches above the level of the surrounding maze, and in the middle of it there waited an insect larger than a man -

The violation, if there was one, was hieratic, notional. Fay Glass lay like a corpse. The creature crouched over her. It resembled no insect Hornwrack had ever seen but was rather a composite of all insects. From its segmented thorax, which was of a curious smoky yellow colour and as shiny as lacquered bamboo, sprang the veiny wings of the ichneumon fly, the wedge-shaped mask of the common wasp, the mysterious upcurved abdomen of the mantislike a symbol from a forbidden language. Its eyes were lit from within, or seemed to be. They were pale green, and streaked with orange. A mass of palps and maxillae hung beneath its head, clattering spasmodically. He thought of the wasteland grasshopper with its serrated legs and arid stridulations. He thought of flight through vast abandoned regions, and the world he knew fell away from him so suddenly that he was sick. When he could see again, the madwoman had come back to life.

She made no attempt to get from beneath the insect, but, like something emerging painfully from a larval stage, groped and writhed about until she lay on her stomach, her neck twisted so that her white motionless face was turned to the assassin.

“I,” she said, and retched dryly. She licked her lips. “We.”

“I can’t help you,” said Hornwrack.

The insect, he saw, was damaged. The raised and elongated prothorax from which issued its frail forelimbs was covered in cuts and gouges, some of them deep enough to reveal the whitish stored fat beneath. Crusted secretions rimmed its unearthly eyes. From time to time it scraped aimlessly in the ashes at its feet or beat wildly its filmy wings.

“We see your world,” said the madwoman. “Killing is all dead world. World killed. We are all killed here.”

Her voice was flat and mournful. It seemed to come from a huge distance away. In the pauses between the words Hornwrack himself became an insect. He flew through the great derelict spaces, shaken by compulsions he did not understand. Many others were there with him. A hunger drove them, presiding and unproductive. They fell into a choking air and were consumed.

“We now press your heads. Our words are pressing your heads. Your world presses us. Oh. Gah.”

The creature flailed its forelimbs against the ground until one of them fell off.

“Gah,” said Fay Glass. “Help. Oh.”

Hornwrack rushed forward and tried to haul her from under the clattering mandibles. She would not come. He felt the huge triangular mask dip toward him. He shouted and ran away again, slashing out blindly with his knife. Tomb the Dwarf came out of the maze and touched his elbow. They both ran forward and this time pulled her out. The dwarf lost his hat. “I. We. Oh,” whined Fay Glass, while the insect’s nervous system underwent some fresh deterioration, causing it to writhe, fan the air, and curl its abdomen repeatedly over its head. These spasms were replaced by a curious immobility, which in turn affected the madwoman. She lay on the floor like a pupating grub, the ends of her fingers bleeding where she had bitten them. The insect looked like a great enamelled brooch dug up from some depraved old city. Hornwrack and the dwarf watched it warily. It stared back, its eyes enigmatic, crusted. A faint smell of lemons hung about it, and behind that, rotting cabbage.

“It sees us,” whispered Tomb. He licked his lips. “What did she say?” Then: “Can it see us?”

Hornwrack was too out of breath to speak.

The Reborn Men do not think as we do, but live-pursued by an incomprehensible past-among distempered waking dreams. Alstath Fulthor wandered into the centre of the maze from quite another entrance, his gait stilted. He stared at the insect in astonishment, flung a hand up in front of his face; a long groan came out of his mouth. He looked like some exotic mantis in his blood-red armour. Attracted perhaps by this, the insect turned with a clack clack of coxal joints to face him. (Hornwrack and the dwarf were now able to see the curious markings on its abdomen, the three black diagonal bars or fascia running across each wing.) He walked round it, groaning, his head working as if his neck contained bent clockwork. Plainly he thought he was in a dream of the Afternoon, for he murmured to himself of Arnac san Tehn and the “Yellow Gardens.” Now they faced one another again, and if Fulthor looked like an insect, then the thing before him with its hacked yellow prothorax resembled an armoured man. Fulthor glanced down at the energy blade spitting and fizzing in his hand. He hit the insect across the head with it, bursting an eye, cutting into the thorax, and shearing off one of its legs.

It fell over on its side and dragged itself round in a circle, a high whining sound coming from its wings. Fay Glass darted about, shrieking. Fulthor hit it again; watched its redoubled frenzies with his head tilted intelligently on one side; then dropped his weapon, which immediately began fusing the ash around it into glass. “Oh, the great cups!” he cried. “The thousand flowers and roses! The thought with the force of a sensation!” He stared imploringly over at Hornwrack, then picked up his sword again and ran off into the maze, his eyes wide and his body leaning at an incredible angle to the vertical.

The mutilated insect had fetched up against one of the cindery walls and was trying to climb it. Ash showered down. Fay Glass wept, “Wait, we are killed here. Vienna, Blackpool, Venice, drown in their own tears. Press our world. Oh. Oh.” Above her head there materialised suddenly the ghost of Benedict Paucemanly, flabby face full of fear. It grimaced apologetically- “Fenlen! Fenlen!”-and was carried away on some psychic current, waving its arms. Dark clouds had blown up from the west, and now a scatter of hard snow filled the grey air, pattering off the carapace of the insect, which lay motionless in a corner, a flicker of orange animating its remaining eye. The ground was ploughed up all around it. Fay Glass, exhausted, was walking round and round the central area with her hands over her face, moaning.

Hornwrack stared at the churned earth, the wreckage of the insect. He shuddered.

“Look after her,” he told Tomb the Dwarf. “Try and find Cellur. Tell him about this. He may understand what is happening here.” And with that he set off into the maze in search of the Reborn Man.

8

GALEN HORNWRACK AND THE NEW INVASION

Down ran Alstath Fulthor, last representative of his House, a scarlet figure with a stride like an ostrich’s; and down ran Hornwrack the assassin after him, the breath rattling in his lungs. The maze was behind them, the village before. In the maze, fearing the hidden junction, the sudden mad leap and mantid clutch, the bared teeth of an ambush, Hornwrack had drawn the old sword; out there on the plain it dragged down his arm. Westward the land was all as dark as the sky, long black salients reaching back beneath the cold clouds, their flanks scored by steep-sided valleys and dotted with piles of haunted stones. In the east a little of the early brightness remained to pick out the shattered towers of the Agdon Roches, to touch the escarpment and its oakwoods with a lichenous grey. Mist still choked the village beneath, thick and slow, but a new wind had stirred out in the waste and was beginning to tease its edges out in streamers, like sheep’s wool caught on a fence. The light infused these strands with a delicate yellow, and they smelt strongly of lemons.

Alstath Fulthor flung up his arms and was engulfed. Hornwrack followed, with a desperate cry.

The mist enwrapped them; it stuffed their lungs with cotton wool. They passed like two coughing ghosts along the silent village street. The cottages that loomed on either side were tenantless, dusty, and cold, their front doors lodged open and creaking in the small winds which seemed to inhabit the inside of the mist. From the empty rooms behind issued dry smells. Birdlime was spattered beneath the eaves, and the gutters were choked with old nests. Sacking lifted in the wind; lifted, dropped, and lifted again.

Alstath Fulthor drew ahead. He became a shadow, and then only a thud of footfalls. Hornwrack ran on, isolated and a little afraid. Death, he saw, had been there before them; perhaps a month, perhaps two months before. A dead man hung half in and half out of a broken window beneath the spattered eaves. Another sat like a bundle of sticks propped up in the angle of a stone wall. They observed one another dryly, as if some old joke had recently passed between them. Their weapons were orange with rust but their bodies, instead of decomposing, seemed to have shrunk, and were as intact as tight old sheaves of straw tied up in ancient sacking; as though the mist in advancing one process of decay had retarded the other. The village was full of corpses, staring out of doorways, caught in contorted attitudes on the grass round the horse trough-looking surprised or complacent or out of breath. Others had drawn their knives and had been about to throw themselves on some enemy. A few children had fallen down during a game in which they followed one another stealthily among the houses, hands held hooked above their heads.

“They sail inland all night,” thought Hornwrack, and for a moment the face of St. Elmo Buffin came into his mind, decent, puzzled, wistful. “ Where they are going we do not know- ”

They had been coming here. Wherever they had come from they had ended up here, standing at salient junctions like abandoned machines, their broken antennae and cracked wings dangling in the wind, their compound eyes as dull as stones. Patches of corruption darkened the ground beneath them like tarry shadows, as if vital fluids had bled slowly from abdomen and thorax to fertilize a crop of bluish mushrooms and unearthly moulds before drying up altogether. With this desiccation had come the slow retreat of the intelligence into the husk, the drying up of the violent insectile telepathies received by Hornwrack and the others in the maze, those incidental broadcasts from the mosaic universe which had driven Buffin’s sailors to burn their own ships or drown themselves in the fog-bound sea.

At night, its mad energy not quite spent, a disembodied head bounced down the gutters of Hornwrack’s Low City dreams, accompanied by the laughter of the crackpot poet: plainly it had originated here among these dilapidated hulks, one out of three of which had fallen under the energy blades of the Reborn villagers and, curious viscera exposed in section, now lay surrounded by a litter of amputated limbs. Someone had cut it off and sent it south as a call for help. The rest of them, though they showed a few shallow cuts and scrapes made by less-exotic weapons-like violent scribbles on a lacquered screen-had evidently succumbed to the same disease as the lone survivor in the maze. Crusted discharges had swollen their joints. Strings of hardened mucus hung from the curious appendages attached by leather straps to their facial parts. They faced one another in the mechanistic postures of their death, and a faint whisper of telepathy was draped about them like a cobweb. It touched the inside of his skull as he ran dreaming between them, afraid they would come back to life if he lingered.

He ducked beneath a complicated snout. He pushed aside a canted crackling wing. He waved the old sword about until his arm ached. Later he might recall this: now he knew nothing. The wings of the wasteland locust rustled uneasily in his head, gathering for some vast migration. He no longer cared about Alstath Fulthor, running ahead in the mist. He leapt and sang like a grasshopper, and his progress had become a flight.

Alive or dead, he managed to think, they have altered the earth; they have changed it manifestly. Something has come into it…

… And thinking this, emerged from the village. It was like a door opening and closing. When he looked back the mist was streaming away along the foot of the escarpment in the new wind, and the three small figures of Cellur, Tomb, and Fay Glass, issuing uncertainly from the maze, had begun to cross the plain.

Hornwrack and Fulthor confronted in a stony cleft among dwarf birch and oak. A chalky light, slanting down between the brittle boughs onto banks of heather and bilberry, revealed the Reborn Man sitting quietly on an unfinished millstone, his features as white and careworn as those of a praying king. A pied bird absorbed his attention: it hopped from stone to stone, tilting its small bright eye to watch him. Chill airs rattled the twigs above his head, stirred his yellow hair. The baan in his hand flickered like a firework in the hand of a child; he had forgotten it. Votive and calm in his scarlet armour, he looked like the invalid knight in the old painting; and the overhanging towers of the Agdon Roches, with their silent gullies and damp sandy courses, rose up behind him through a screen of black branches like the buttresses of an ancient chapel.

When Hornwrack pushed his way through the oaks, old leaves and lichenous dust showered down, and the little bird flew away.

“Fulthor?”

The wounded king wakes and stares about him with a new fear. He has risen from the devotions of one nightmare into the ruins of another. “Where is this place?” he’ll whisper. None will speak. “Back, then!” he’ll cry, sweeping the great baan round his head in an arc which makes the sound of panicked wings. Shadows fly like wounded doves from horizon to horizon. Precarious flowers bloom in his secret heart…

“Hornwrack! Am I mad?” A bitter laugh. “Another dream. More days lost in the absolute abyss of Time. Oh, the fiery woman, with her expressionless eyes! How long have I been away?”

And he advanced dreamily on Hornwrack, still swinging the energy blade.

“Fulthor!” screamed Hornwrack, who saw no magical king (who could blame him? He had been born three millennia too late) and who failed to hear the hum of that long-declining dream: “It’s me!” He ducked the lethal stroke, offered the old steel sword (its tip was lopped off instantly), stepped in desperately close, and hammered Fulthor’s wrist with the pommel of his trusty knife. Nerveless, the white hand opened. The baan fell. Fulthor gave a howl of despair and sat down suddenly. “Must I always choose between there and here?” He regarded Hornwrack from between his hands. “Kill me then.” He looked round. “Where are we?”

Hornwrack, however, was no longer interested.

The ghost of Benedict Paucemanly had reappeared, to float over the oakwood mouthing like a drowned sailor; and through its unsteady, half-transparent shape he had caught a sudden glimpse of the horizon. There, insectile silhouettes processed slowly against a greenish sky, full of bitter snow. They seemed to carry with them an unquiet cobalt halo; along their sides flared sphenograms of an acid green; they held their forelegs delicately raised. Over the summits of the Agdon Roches they went, southwards, with an exquisite mechanical concentration, looking neither left nor right.

The world started to melt like candle wax.

Hornwrack got Fulthor somehow to his feet. Unspeaking, they descended the hill.

Snow whirled round them. Roots caught at their feet. Paucemanly encouraged them with whistles and farts.

“I really mean it, you blokes-ten thousand nights were put in one! There I lay, listening to the winds gathering in the dry places, the abandoned places. We’re all in it now, us and them, raw-blind on the water stair at Shadwell Pier like burnt rats! Phew! The white moon makes thus ‘the stair of our descent’…” There was more of this. “Ooh, what you must think of me I don’t know,” he would exclaim fishily, and then, screwing up his eyes behind the faceplate of his abominable mask, bawl “Felneck! Fandle! FENLEN!”

– his queer epicene voice hooting across the hillside like a signal while, above, the insectile procession moved on imperturbably: south, south, south…

The new wind, rushing blindly out of the east under a cavernous overcast, had brought black obscurity to the village, whose streets were now full of flying chemical ice blown in from the Deep Waste. The dead insects at each corner creaked and shifted in the gale. Their eyes were pitted and stony. Above them splinters of chitin, sections of antennae and shattered veiny wing floated and spun in the rooftop eddies like the rubbish of the Low City rattling round the chimneys below Alves on a blustery night. Hornwrack leaned on Alstath Fulthor, his eyes rimed with urgent ice, the words blown out of his mouth and every thought out of his skull. They came down the main street like drunks in the weak glow of Fulthor’s armour. All else was shadowy, hard to interpret. Dead men leaned conversationally forward as they passed, then toppled onto empty faces, limbs breaking away like the rotten limbs of scarecrows to go bounding off down the road and lodge in a fence.

Cellur the Birdmaker awaited them at the centre of the village, where the wind was whipping spray off the horse trough and the front doors were banging on rooms inhabited only by mice and suffocated children. He had with him Tomb the Dwarf. From the debacle in the maze they had retrieved three horses and the pony, which now stood in the street shifting bad-temperedly with each fresh gust of wind: Tomb was redistributing the surviving baggage between them as if in preparation for a further journey into the deep madness of the world. This activity made an island of humanity in the rushing gloom, at the approaches of which hovered the madwoman, wrapped from head to foot in a thick whitish garment and turning aimlessly this way and that like something hanging from a privet branch.

Alstath Fulthor looked emptily at this scene as if he recognized no one in it, then sat down in the road. Hornwrack, tugging at his arm, heard the birdmaker shout, “Ride! West, for your life!” He shook his head. “Wait!” He wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. The old man had got up on his horse now and was watching them impatiently, his embroidered cloak streaming in the wind. The dwarf ran round checking saddlebags, tightening girths, and urging the inert Fay Glass into her saddle by means of pantomimic threats. The wind rose and fell cynically, tugging at the dry husks of the insects. The horses milled about, sensing an imminent departure. Hornwrack let go of Fulthor’s wrist (“Black piss! Stay there, then, if you must!”) and caught at the birdmaker’s stirrup instead. The horse dragged him off his feet, the old man’s yellow face swam above him, alive with what he took to be fear. They were in an eddy or pocket in the gale.

“In the maze,” said Cellur, “my errors were made plain. Much, if not all, is now clear to me. I cannot yet explain the ghost”-he prodded Hornwrack’s shoulder, pointed up into the wrack where Paucemanly bobbed, smirking and bowing like a butler-“but I have at last learnt what he was trying to tell us.

“You must go and rouse Iron Chine. Pray that St. Elmo Buffin, a man ill-used by circumstance, is not as mad as he seems! Tell him the time has come to launch his fleet. Tell him help is on its way.” He smiled bitterly. “Lunatics and ghosts-all along they have had the right of it!” For a second he stared slack-faced and frightened into the west, his hooded eyes human for once. (After all, he is out in the world now, thought Hornwrack-who sympathized, being newly out in it himself-like a crab out of its shell: what guarantees has he left? And again: What can he fear after ten thousand years?) He made a cutting motion with his hand. “Still, I was slow to connect these things. I have been too content to sit by and let Fulthor lead. Now Fulthor has failed me, and there it is.

“Fenlen, the island continent, is infested. They have been established there since they poured down from the moon eleven years ago. (I looked on like a fool. What else could I have done? I forget.) But they cannot bear earth’s airs: and when their scouts fly inland low over the sea, which they do night and day, they do so surrounded by an atmosphere of their own manufacture. By day they blunder into Buffin’s sailors. They are as motiveless and mad as the men they kill. They do not belong here.”

He gestured at the empty village, the creaking husks. “Can you doubt it? Yet they are trying to make the air over to suit them. This is only the beginning.” He shuddered. “They will remake the earth, if they can. Rouse Iron Chine, Hornwrack. I ride now to the capital. Delay me no longer!”

Hornwrack hung on to the stirrup. All he could think of to say was, “Something is the matter with Alstath Fulthor. Up on the escarpment he tried to kill me.”

“Oh, I am in Hell,” said Alstath Fulthor, shaking his head. He had come up behind them silently, the baan like a live thing in his hand. “I am not myself.” Tomb the Dwarf, who had tightened the final strap, tried to take the weapon away from him for his own good. “Come on, old friend.” They rolled about in the road, cursing and biting. Fulthor wriggled away and got up again. “Come down off your horse,” he ordered, “and explain all this. Why, up there, great cock-a-roaches walk along the ridge!” He pointed in the wrong direction. (The dwarf crawled away, holding his face and spitting.) “Or is it in my head?” He shrugged, smiled shyly, lurched off. Fay Glass woke up and looked at him sharply. Keeping a wary eye on the dwarf, she got off her horse.

Suddenly they both began singing, “We are off to Vegys now.” Hornwrack looked on, appalled. “Fal di la di a.”

(When he fled through the High City like a bleeding king, in a sweat of fear in the middle of the night, and hoped no one would notice; when he muttered in the palace the nine long alchemical names of his House, and hoped no one would hear: all heard, all knew but himself. Alstath Fulthor: the past was pulling him down.)

“When we first met,” said Cellur, “he spoke to me often of memory, which he conceived of as a hidden stream, himself perched on its bank looking into the water. Also of something which hovered like a dragonfly over the moment of his reawakening in the desert at Knarr.” He sighed. “What did he kill down there in the maze? Nothing you or I saw. All this has hastened the inevitable.

“Soon he will be as mad as the woman. She will help him. You must help them both. It is why I brought you.”

“I brought myself, old man.”

“Be that as it may.”

“What am I to do?”

“Earn what you were given,” said Tomb the Dwarf, and meant, perhaps, the sword. “I believe you’ll get no other pay.” He was in a bad temper. He wiped his pocked old nose on the back of his hand to show what he thought of it all, and pushed his sodden conical hat firmly down onto his head. “You were not brought but bought,” he said with a hard grin. “Goodbye, Hornwrack.” Hauling himself up into his saddle he added, “We’ll go back across the waste to Duirinish-for it’s quicker if you know the paths and don’t mind old battles or old lizards-and thence to Viriconium. Cellur fears the Sign of the Locust. He fears for the Queen. He does not quite know what he fears.” He looked about him like a man expecting rain. “I fear this. Still: one way or another I daresay we shall all have some heads to cut off before long. Do you look after the mad folk.” And he gave the pony vigorous kicks until it consented to move off into the weather. Teetering on the edge of visibility for a moment, dwarf and pony made a curious uncouth silhouette, a composite creature above which flew like a flag on its long haft the curved evil blade of the power-axe. “Never say I disliked you!” The eyes of the pony before it turned its head away were a flat and empty green.

Out there Cellur waited impatiently, staring west or south. “Rouse Iron Chine!” came a faint cry through the crack and belly of the gale. Hornwrack never saw either of them again. “On the shores of the diamond lake,” sang the madwomen in a weird voice,

“We shall watch the fishes,

On the summits of the mountains

Cry Erecthalia!

We are off to Vegys now.”

The weather closed in. He was alone. Even the ghost of Benedict Paucemanly, part at least of its purpose accomplished, had gone out like a candle. In the deserted village it might as easily have been evening as afternoon. Out of the crepuscular sky issued a thin snow which drifted up behind the dry corpses, blew into the empty rooms, and plastered itself to the windward eaves. Every so often the wind from the Deep Waste mingled with it a scatter of old ice, flinging it down the street like two handfuls of dirty glass beads. He rubbed the back of his neck. How had he come to be stranded in the cold North with two lunatics, and no option but to go and look for a third? After Iron Chine he would make his way south along the coast, since he knew no other route (that inhospitable strand, with its distant illusions and tottering cliffs, now seemed familiar and comforting); he would lose himself again in the Low City. Perhaps he would find the boy. He would kill the dwarf if he ever had the chance.

All this time, off at the edge of his awareness, faint telepathies crawled like maggots round the rim of a saucer. Up there on the Agdon scarp was a stealthy and purposeful movement, too far away to hurt him yet, too close for comfort. Suddenly he became frightened that they would come down unexpectedly and discover him among their dead. What delicate revenge might they take? In any case he could not bear their thoughts in his skull. Two horses had been left him for three people. Feverishly he urged the madwoman up onto one of them, and then with his hand on his knife approached the Reborn Man, wishing the dwarf had captured the baan during their brief scuffle beneath the horse. Eyeing him with a sad amusement, Fulthor said, “I will run beside you. It is not so far.”

The ramshackle conservatory of St. Elmo Buffin, with its invented flags and fantastic telescopes, teetered high above the fish docks of the port, full of silence, brackish air, and the smell of the food they had been served there a week or more ago. Buffin sat as if he had not moved since then, in a high-backed chair surrounded by plates of congealed herring. He had taken off his father’s armour and underneath was swathed in some dirty white stuff, linen or flannel, as if he suffered with his joints. He was staring at nothing, his long thin legs thrust out in front of him and crossed as though they belonged to someone else, his bag-like face crumpled and desperate. His instruments lay smashed. They were no more or less meaningful for it: nests of bent brass tubing, complex coloured lenses pulled apart like sugared anemones underfoot. The charts he had ripped down, to reveal the walls beneath. He had lost his patience with them, perhaps.

Hornwrack wiped the condensation from a cracked pane, looked out.

“You need not have done this to yourself,” he said.

It was such a waste. He felt hot and angry, cold and remote, all at once.

“What happened here?”

Buffin did not answer for a long time. The Afternoon had betrayed him again, and the old powered knife with which he had tried to kill himself now lay sputtering feebly in his lap, its energies spent at last. Some blood had flowed, then dried brown. He did not seem to be able to move his head. The silence drew out. Wondering if he was already dead, Hornwrack waited, breathing evenly and trying to make out what was happening in the port below.

“What does it matter?” came the eventual answer. Then, after another long pause: “Of the fleet I ordered the uncompleted part destroyed. It is of no use now. Viriconium will never help us now.” He laughed quietly. “The rest has sailed, into madness and death. The mist surrounds us (can you not hear it? It is like bells!) and all has failed.”

He bit his bottom lip. “I dare not move my head,” he said, staring forward at nothing, fingering the hilt of the useless knife. “Can you see what I have done?”

“Your throat is cut,” said Hornwrack, breathing on the glass. “But not well.”

If he wiped a circle on the glass with the palm of his hand he could see framed in it the black original buildings of the fjord squatting like toads on the lower slopes. To his right a cliff swept up, also black, and laced for five hundred feet with icy ledges. Until recently ice had locked the harbour; now churned and broken sheets of it bobbed in the black channels cut by the departed fleet. Beneath him banks of white vapour hung, drifting sluggishly down the cobbled slopes toward the shrouded quays. In places it was deep enough to cover the upper casements of the cottages as it was driven reluctantly between them by the bitter intermittent wind; in others, where it was shallower, he thought he could see heads and torsos going about above it on some cryptic dislocated errand. The suggestion of movement beneath it he tried to ignore. Above all this in the green subarctic sky, aurorae flickered, and great streaks of red and black cloud mimicked the flame and smoke beneath, where men ran despairingly among the boatyards with torches, setting fire to their labour of years.

Death was written in the scrollwork at the bows, death on the painted sterns and the ornate brass bells. DEATH, proclaimed the painted sails, while the white decks beneath bubbled and charred, generating a heat fierce enough to melt the metal masts. Ash whirled into the air, unknown incandescent alloys showered down, last fruit of that doomed collaboration between Afternoon and Evening (which now pursue their separate courses, as we know). Rolling into the flames, the mist turned them instantly green and blue, and was itself transformed with a roar into a greyish powdery smoke which, sucked up in the merciless updraughts, bellied out above the doomed craft in a choking spherical cloud. Spars flared and fell. Ratlines parted with the sound of a broken violin. Here and there a man was trapped in a tangle of ropes, or caught among the stays beneath a blazing bowsprit with no one to hear his cries. At the height of the fire a single painted sail escaped its ties, unfurled, billowed upward. For a brief moment a pair of great illusory lizards danced in the air!-only to sink with a regretful whisper and be consumed, writhing amid the smoke in a counterfeit of the pain in St. Elmo Buffin’s frigid, frightened stare.

“I had no life,” said Buffin, “even as a child.” Hornwrack bent close to the cold lips to hear. “My father bade me, ‘Watch the sea.’ ”

“I’ve had no life, either,” said Hornwrack.

He forced himself to look through the one surviving telescope. At first he could see nothing. A sailor rushed into the room behind him, shouting, “Buffin, they are among us in the fog!” Seeing Hornwrack he halted uncertainly. A pleading note entered his voice. “Buffin, only one ship remains. Let us take you aboard her!”

“He is dead,” said Hornwrack, who now discerned a sad grey ground, and against that something spinning at the end of a thread. “What’s happened here?”

“A fog followed us ashore this morning. The women and children are all dead of it.” He stared at Hornwrack’s back. “Great locusts inhabit it!”

“They are your longtime enemy. Where does this last ship sail?”

“West, after the fleet, as he would have wished.”

Spinning, spinning.

“Take me then,” said Hornwrack, “instead.”

He turned from the telescope and went out of the door. In the empty room a masked figure materialised briefly in the air above the corpse, and was gone.

During the journey from Agdon Roches, Alstath Fulthor had regained a measure of his sanity-that is to say he now remembered where and, to an extent, who he was; but the girl had chopped his hair to a ragged stubble one night while he slept, giving him something of her own hollow-eyed, perpetually surprised expression, and his skin had taken on a bleached unearthly look, like a saint’s. They were often together, reciting the rhymes that comprised her vocabulary, practising the scraps of meaningless dialogue and lists of nonexistent cities which seemed to be her “keys” to the Past. Fulthor was learning, in the way the child of an exile learns those bits and pieces of its heritage that remain (and which, after so much repetition, undergo a sea change, bearing less and less relationship to a vanished culture in a land it has never seen). Hornwrack tried to ignore their public tendernesses, their strange, almost unemotional sexual contacts, and clothed his embarrassment in a characteristic surliness.

He found them now down in the port, two tall, awkward figures wrapped in cloaks, standing uncomfortably near the burning boatyards. Despite the heat and smoke they were waiting exactly where he had left them, the flames reflected in their calm odd eyes. Later, at the rail of the last ship, watching the sailors warp her sadly from the bleak shore, Fulthor seemed disposed to talk. He was lucid, polite, aware; but each new immersion in the stream of memory had carried him further from his Evening existence and its events, and he had forgotten his earlier shoddy treatment of St. Elmo Buffin. So when he asked, “How then did the shipwright die?” it was cruel of Hornwrack to reply,

“He cut his own throat, but it was you he died of.”

Iron Chine would not survive him. Fires had now sprung up among the cottages, set by the sailors before they left, and small flames danced behind the panes of the dilapidated conservatory above the town. The strip of black water between the boat and the quay grew wider. The frigid cliffs slipped past; the curious flags and strips of coloured rag flying over the conservatory blazed up one by one; above everything burned the clouds, like the bloody auroral sunset of some other planet.

What happened to the fleet of St. Elmo Buffin? It was not provisioned well. He had given small thought to navigating it. Much of it was lost immediately amid the white water and foul ground, the atrocious currents and uncharted islands which outlie the jagged coast of Viriconium. Much of it, hampered by the ice which formed on decks and rigging, turned quietly turtle in the gelid sea. There were fogs, too, lying in hundred-mile banks across the straits which separate Fenlen from Iron Chine; and in these the greatest loss was incurred. Each ship fought alone, wrapped in a dream-like shroud of pearly light. Ice burned like alum on the ratlines and stays. There were collisions, mutinies, accidental fires, and shouts as of other men desperate and dying beyond the nacreous wall of fog. It was in all aspects a lost venture. The fog smelled of rotting fruit; and at the sound of wings men leapt overboard or cut their own throats, staring dumbly for a last few seconds at a universe faceted like an insect’s eye. One ship survived.

Imagine a low dark coastline shelving back through a series of eroded fossil beaches into a desolation which makes the deepest waste of Viriconium seem like a water meadow. Nothing lives about these beaches but limpets and kelp, a few curiously furtive terns which survive for the most part by eating one another’s eggs, and in season a handful of deformed seals. Chemical rivers make their way here from the continental marshes north and west; tars and oils from sumps a thousand years old and a thousand miles inland trickle sluggishly down the terraces of black pumice, staining them emerald green, ochre, purple. Imagine a glaucous ocean; a low swell at the freezing point, lapping at the brutal shore. Strings and bulbs of mineral pigment wave beneath the water like weed, growing from the chemical silt. There is no wind to speak of. Out to sea about a mile, a bank of mist is rolling south, parallel to the coast.

Imagine a white ship: rudderless, masts bent beneath their load of ice.

Her deck plates are up, buckled like lead foil, her wheelhouse blackened by the same fire which lately ate into her hull amidships. Her figurehead hangs loose in a wreck of stays, a partly human form difficult of exact description. She is down at the stern and listing to starboard. Silently, captured by some current invisible from the shore, she is drawn in toward the beach, quicker and quicker until she rams the stained pumice shelves with a groan and, ripped open, goes over by the bow and begins to sink. A few birds fly up from her yards. Chips of ice rattle down. A sail, partly unfurled by the shock of the collision, shows a great drunken beetle to the empty beach. Bedded in the poisonous silt, she will settle no further, but nudges the shore with every wave.

After a few minutes a grotesque shape begins to form in the cold air above her shattered deck, like a crude figure of a man projected somehow on a puff of steam.

9

THE EXPLANATIONS OF THE ANCIENT AIRBOATMAN

Midwinter clutches the Pastel City, cold as thought.

In the Cispontine Quarter the women have been to and fro all day gathering fuel. By afternoon they had stripped the empty lots to the bare hard soil, bobbing in ragged lines amid the sad induviate stems of last year’s growth, their black shawls giving them the air of rooks in a potato field. Not an elder or bramble is left now but it is a stump; and that will be grubbed up tomorrow by some enterprising mattock in a bony hand. At twilight, which-exhaled, as it were, from every shattered corner-comes early to the city’s broken parts, they filled the nearby streets for half an hour, hurrying westwards with their unwieldy bundles to where, along the Avenue Fiche and the Rue Sepile, Margery Fry Road and the peeling old “Boulevard Saint Ettiene,” the old men sat waiting for them with souls shrivelled up like walnuts in the cold. Now they sit by reeking stoves, using the ghost of a dog rose to cook cabbage!

Cabbage! The whole of the Low City has smelt of this delicacy all winter. It is on everyone’s breath and in everyone’s overcoat. It has seeped into the baize cloth of everyone’s parlour. It has insinuated itself into the brickwork of every privy, coagulated in alleys, hung in unpeopled corners, and conserved its virtues, waiting for the day when it might come at last to the High City. This evening, like an invisible army, it filtered by stages along the Boulevard Aussman, where it woke the caged rabbits in the bakers’ backyards and caused the chained dogs to whimper with excitement; flowed about the base of the hill at Alves, investing the derelict observatory with an extraordinary new significance; and passed finally to the heights of Minnet-Saba, where it gathered in waves to begin its stealthy assault on the High Noses. On the way it informed some strange crannies: inundating, for instance, a little-used arm of the pleasure canal at Lowth, where its spirit infected incidentally a curious tragedy on the ice.

The air was bitter inside the nose, the sky as black as anthracite. The Name Stars glittered cynically, commemorating some best-forgotten king. Down below on the frozen canal a grubby satin booth was pitched, its yellow shutters up, its cressets cold. From its door a long-legged brazier, kept fed with frigid horse dung, looked out like a red eye. In it, under the zodiacal representations and the testimonials to its proprietor’s efficacy, a poet and a fortune-teller sat, cheating one another feverishly at “blind Michael.”

The poet was a rag of a man, little, and hollow-cheeked from a life of squalor, with his bright red hair stuck up on his head like a wattle and greed lurking in the corners of his grin. He gave his small hands no rest- when he was not trying to palm cards or filch the bottle, he was flapping them about like a wooden puppet’s. At slow moments during the play he would stare silently into the air with his face empty and his mouth slack, then, catching himself, leap up from the three-legged stool on which he sat and go jigging round the booth until by laughing and extemporizing he had got his humour back. In mirth, or delivering doggerel, his voice had a penetrating hysterical timbre, like a knife scraped desperately on a plate. He had made a “ballade of stewed cabbage” earlier that evening, but seemed to hate and fear the smell of the stuff, grimacing with dilated nostrils and turned-down mouth when a wave of it passed through the booth. His name was Ansel Verdigris, and the fat woman across the card table was his last resort.

Fat Mam Etteilla, with her aching ankles and her fatal cough, was known to be the wisest woman in the Low City: yet she paid the poet’s debts; admired his verses without in the least understanding them; and, though he gave her nothing in return for it, forgave both his perversions and his frequent distempers. All is made possible in the shadow of the Dark Man. On his calmer days Verdigris sat on her knee and ventriloquised her customers. When his nerves were bad, and he drove them away by spewing on the cards, she slapped his head. He made her laugh. She feared death, but he feared everything: and the closer to death she came, the better she looked after him. One of her great soft hands made three of his! They were an odd pair to be keeping the night alive like that down on the deserted pleasure canal while worthier people slept. There was a cemetery behind the booth, and Verdigris could not keep his eyes off it.

At midnight he scratched his armpits and parted for the hundredth time the grubby satin curtains. The gravestones seemed to stretch back indefinitely under the moonlight. Where they ceased the Artists’ Quarter began, its piebald roofs hanging on the dark skyline like an evil conundrum. Up the slope went his eyes, through the graves and into the city; back again. “You sleep well enough out there!” he jeered, and then said a name the fortune-teller could not catch. His narrow angular shoulders shuddered convulsively. She called him back but he hardly heard. He had not slept well himself since the night he murdered Galen Hornwrack. It was a yellow night, that one, grimed into his raddled brain and smelling of that unspeakable bundle with its rotting eyes. Ever since, he had had a feeling of being followed around. “Someone walked over my grave,” he said. He laughed. “Well, I’ll not mourn!” The moonlight flooding past him into the booth was of a peculiar cast: in it, as we shall soon see, things seemed almost more solid than they did in broad daylight. “They sleep well enough out there on All Men’s Heath,” he said, and made to draw the satin closed.

Instantly the reek of stewed cabbage redoubled, rooting him to the spot. A lethal claustrophobia overcame him. “Hornwrack!” he shrieked. He spun round, blundered past the fortune-teller (who had got laboriously to her feet and spread her arms in an elephantine gesture of comfort), and tumbled out onto the ice, where his feet slipped from under him. In an attempt to keep his balance he grabbed the brazier by one of its iron legs. This only served to upset it over him. Squealing with pain and fear, he slid out of the light, plucking feverishly at the glowing embers in his clothing.

The Fat Mam was used to his convulsions. Grumbling hardly at all, she righted the table. Queer little scenes glowed up at her from the scattered cards, ancient hieratic conjunctions of tower and insect stimulating her to worn prophecies. A good marriage, she thought, and a bad one; and there a blond-haired man. (Each card was like a small bright doorway at the end of a corridor. She was perhaps too old now to step through and be enshrined in pasteboard with a hermit crab and a flight of swans.) On her way to the back of the booth to see what had upset him this time, she stopped to turn one card at random; stare at it for a moment, panting; and nod heavily to herself. Then she parted the curtains and looked out.

For a month or more, agents and emissaries of the Sign of the Locust- now grown massively in power though its outlook became daily more esoteric, and seeking revenge for (among other things) the bloody confrontation in the Bistro Californium-had sought Ansel Verdigris through the warrens of the Low City. They were oblique but patient. Every clue had pointed to the pleasure canal. Now, their gait curious in the extreme, they raced silently down the slope of All Men’s Heath toward the quivering Mam. They were wrapped in rags and bandaged about their peculiarly misshapen heads, and as they hopped high in the air over the graves, their arms flew out at odd angles and their knives were white in the moonlight.

Verdigris, with one short anticipatory gurgle, squirmed further into the shadowy undergrowth on the far bank of the canal…

Soon after they had entered it the booth began to agitate itself in a violent and eccentric fashion, lifting its skirts and tottering from side to side as if it was trying to remember how to walk-while out of it came a steady rhythmical thumping sound, like two or three axes hitting a wet log. A dreadful astonished wail rose up in accompaniment to this, modulating with each blow. Verdigris bit his lips and drew back further into the weeds. He put his hands over his ears, but this changed nothing. The knives of the Sign rose and fell regularly; and the booth, like some remarkable engine in the night, continued to propel itself with an uncertain shuffling motion this way and that across the ice. After a little while, having reached the centre of the canal (where only lately it had been all boiled chestnuts and skating anemone boys), it collapsed. Amorphous figures struggled momentarily beneath it; then it gave them up and they poured away through the cemetery in a quiet tattered wave, like the shadow of a cloud crossing a stony field. The booth gurgled and was still. It had somehow become tangled in the legs of the spilt brazier. Fire licked, reluctantly at first, at its grubby skirts. Then it was engulfed in a sudden silent rush of flames.

Ansel Verdigris stood on the ice in the unsteady yellow glow. He drew his knife and, in an access of some emotion he did not quite recognise, went off shouting up the hill and was ambushed and killed among the gravestones.

Not far away from All Men’s Heath in the sharp and cabbagey night, Tomb the Dwarf kicked at his pony. His feet were cold. He had recently entered the city through the Gate of Nigg after three or four weeks in the deep wastes with Cellur the Bird Lord. Adventures and privations had attended him there, as they always did: old lizards following his steps, blinking at night in the small light of the fire; the pony quagged perpetually to its elbows in seepage hollows; and a great bird, first hanging high up in the air above them, then settling nervously on a rock to inspect them from intelligent puzzled eyes, every feather made of metal! He had a friend buried in every acre of the North-knights of the Methven, sour old prospectors, all the thieves and princes who had traipsed with him at one time or another the useless places of the empire. They had followed him, too, as night drew in across the old battlefields of the Great Brown Waste.

The season now teetered on the cold iron pivot of the solstice, and Viriconium was asleep for once, huddled against the cold; you could hear its catarrhal snores from upper windows. The mosaic of its roofs, whited by moonlight and last week’s frozen snow, lay like the demonstration of some equivocal new geometry. The Low City had retreated from him even as he entered it (dogs shivering outside the gatehouse, no other sign of life; the tunnel smelling of pee, black ice, and that merciless vegetable), so that he seemed always to view it at a distance. He did not understand its mood. A muted expectancy, a cold glamour resistant to his dwarfish intuition, vibrated in its surfaces: he had for a moment (it was a moment only) a sense of two cities, overlapping in a sprawl of moonlit triangles and tangled thoroughfares. This conceit caused him to smile but remained with him nevertheless, quite distinctly, as if he had seen the future as a composite city uninhabited by human beings.

More beggars were abroad than a single city had a right to, moving quietly about in ones and twos, the deformities that would by day be displayed up on Chamomile Street outside the pot-house doors now half-hidden under scalloped rags and strange tight bandages-as if when left to themselves they sought a finer aesthetic of suffering, and a subtler performance of it. Tomb stood up in his stirrups to see over the parapet of a bridge. (Toc toc went the pony’s hooves, little and sharp on the cobbles.) “Someone at least is keeping the night alive,” he observed. Underneath him the Pleasure Canal diminished toward Lowth in an icy curve, its surface tricked out with dim reflections of the moon. “The ice is miraculously hard. They’ve lit a brazier down there on it.” Cellur, though, seemed preoccupied. “Now it’s split!” Faint shouts and wails, as of laughter, floated up. “Look here, Cellur-some fool’s set fire to a conjuror’s booth!”

“I see nothing.”

“You wish to see nothing. You are a dreary companion, I can tell you that. It’s all gone dark now anyway,” said the dwarf disappointedly. He craned his neck. Nothing. His pony drifted to a standstill. When he caught up again the old man was hemming and clucking nervously.

“Those alms-men are following us now. Be ready with your axe. I do not believe they are what they seem.”

“Arms-men! Bloody beggars, more like.” He shifted the axe from one shoulder to the other. “Black piss!” He had looked back and got a glimpse of the beggars hopping after him, soft-boned and rickety-kneed, their arms flying out this way and that for balance. It was a horrible sight. “There are not that many beggars in the entire world!” They were all humps and goitres. Their misshapen heads were concealed under crusty swathes of muslin and hats with ragged brims. Up in the Artists’ Quarter and all around the derelict observatory at Alves they were gathering in large groups, lurching crazily about in white-breathed circles, watching idly as Tomb and Cellur rode past, joining the quiet procession behind. An occasional soft groan came from amongst them. Cellur’s horse slithered and stumbled from rut to frozen rut; and though the pony was surer-footed they still went slowly up the Rivelin Hill between the shuttered booths and empty taverns.

Into the High City they went, but it proved to be no sanctuary. When they quickened their pace, the beggars quickened theirs, breaking into the parody of a run. Through the elegant deserted plazas of Minnet-Saba (where the road is made of something that muffles the sound of hooves and the wind has mumbled puzzledly for millennia round the upper peculiarities of the Pastel Towers) they poured, and out onto the great exposed spiral of the Proton Circuit, reeling from side to side, jumping and hopping and tripping themselves up, always out of the power-axe’s reach: maintaining a zone of quarantine about the old man and the dwarf, sweeping them along by the mere promise of contact. Tomb bit his lip and belaboured the pony’s sides. All around him was a sort of dumb rustling noise, punctuated by the gasps and quiet desperate groans of the deformed. (Above and behind that he thought he heard a parched whisper, as if some enormous insect hovered above the chase on huge thoughtful wings.)

Ahead, lights glimmered. In the gusty winds at the summit of the spiral, the overlapping filigree shells of the palace creaked as if they were part of some flimsier structure. Methven’s hall: the moon hung above it like a daubed head. “Look!” For a moment its image wavered-two palaces were superimposed; behind it another landscape showed through. Blue particles showered from its upper regions, a rain of tiny luminous insects. They galloped toward it nevertheless. Where else could they go? It trembled like a dragonfly’s wing; was refracted like something seen through running water on a sunny day; and accepted them almost reluctantly. New Palace Yard was almost deserted. Tomb’s caravan still stood there, its shafts empty and its colours dimmed by the smoke of winter. No guards were there to observe the sparks fly up from the pony’s hooves or watch the dwarf-axe in hand and white hair streaming out behind-tumble to the ground and hurl himself back through the gate they had just come through, determined to hold it at all costs.

The beggars, though, had forgotten about him the moment he entered the palace, and now idled about outside, staring blankly at one another. They were not beggars, he saw: they were bakers and greengrocers, in the remnants of striped aprons; they were dukes and moneylenders; they were butchers. The Sign of the Locust peeped through their curious rags. They stood in the bluish moonlight and they seemed to be waiting for something; he couldn’t tell what. (They no longer had any reasons for the things they did, but he wasn’t to know that. A white and single instinct had them now, like a thin song in the brain.) He watched them for five or six minutes, feeling the sweat dry on him as the seconds stretched uneventfully out and his body relaxed. Cellur came up behind him and looked over his head. “You can put up the axe,” he said with a certain morose satisfaction. “The city is theirs, High and Low.” And he strode rapidly off into the outer corridors, heading for the throne room. Tomb backed away from the gate with a halfhearted snarl and, stopping to collect the bundle of long silver rods he had carried behind his saddle to the Agdon Roches and back, followed him.

The corridors were full of rubbish, mounds of decaying vegetables and heaps of ashes. Everywhere were the discarded uniforms of the palace guard. Much of the food was spoiled, half-eaten, as if whoever had prepared it was unused to human provisions, or had forgotten what to do with them. Cellur shook his head.

“They have let us in,” he said, “but they will not let us out again so easily. I wonder what they are waiting for.”

Methvet Nian, Queen Jane, waited also, in a cold room with five false windows. It had been a long time to wait at the heart of emptiness, nothing human moving in the corridors outside.

Elsewhere, three figures cross our field of vision like the vanguard of an as-yet-distant refugee column. The deep wastes of Fenlen roll away from them in the weak, variable light of late afternoon, hollow as a fevered cheek. Their faces are haggard but human. They walk-if walk is the word for this slithering, staggering progress through the mud-heads down into the rain and some yards apart. They rarely speak to one another. Madness and pain have divided them and they will not now be brought back together. All day long they have followed a fourth figure (there!-bobbing in the saturated air above them, like some great inflated spectral frog!) through a belt of derelict factories. Often they half and stare anxiously about, in case this floating guide has abandoned them: for they are forty days out from the wreckage of Iron Chine, and they have almost forgotten who they are. The moor ahead of them is scattered with interlacing ashpits, chancred with shallow albescent tarns, and strewn as far as the eye can see with broken earthenware pipes-the detritus, it may be, of some ancient ill-fated reclamation project. From the continental marshes and sumps to the north, the wind brings a deadly metallic reek, and mixed with that more often than not comes the faint smell of lemons, to usher in another period of delirium.

The woman imagines she is the spokesman of some alien race. Her cropped hair is daubed with mud, and she makes complicated motions of the fingers to symbolize the actions of wings or antennae. She speaks of a city on the plain. “We did not wish to come here,” she says reasonably, “this is not our place!” There is a cold sore at the corner of her mouth. For the last half hour her gait had grown steadily more disconnected. “Your breath burns us!” she exclaims with a light laugh, as if stating some principle so obvious as to need no demonstration, and she collapses into the mud. Her limbs move feebly, then stop. Broken pipes are dislodged and roll down onto her. Her companions continue their ascent of the low ridge before them. At last one of them looks back.

“Fulthor,” he says dully, “she can’t go any further unaided,” and the other replies, “I see the great-breasted chimerae with their ironic eyes, but I cannot go to them! This morning early I had a vision of Arnac san Tehn-him with the head like a god-sitting in a garden.”

He strikes himself repeatedly about the face and head. “Dust and hyacinths in my father’s library; dust and hyacinths my proud inheritance!” This litany seems to give him doubtful comfort. For some time he runs in erratic circles in the mud, his neck bent and his face pulled over to one side of his skull as if he has suffered a stroke. Eventually he joins the first figure (who has sat down wearily to watch him) and with much fumbling they raise the woman by her legs and shoulders. Their farting guide, meanwhile, hectors them in a language not heard on earth before or since. He waves a fat, admonitory hand and they must follow; slower than before, up the dip of the long low ridge, sliding into peat groughs and shallow hidden pools, their eyes on their feet and the woman slung between them like a rotting hammock.

… Imagine that our field of vision is static, and that they have almost moved out of it, creeping across from left to right as the light fades. They crest the ridge. We see only their uncomprehending faces, made tiny and grey by distance, while they see only the city which spreads itself suddenly below them like excavations in a sunken garden.

A mist drifts over the scene-particulate, sullen, smelling of lemons.

The throne room at Viriconium, on a cold and desultory afternoon three or four days after the death of the Fat Mam: three o’clock, and the night was already closing in, diffusing through the draughty passages where the old machines muttered and drew about themselves their meagre shawls of light. Methvet Nian: nine steel rings glittered cold and grey on her thin stiff fingers. She wore a cloak made from white fur clasped with amber and iron, and took her chocolate from a rare grey china cup. Her eyes were purple and depthless. Cellur the Birdmaker sat with her, leaning forward a little, his face beaky and hollow in the weak light admitted by the clerestory windows high above. Their murmurs echoed in the chilly air. “We know nothing but that the world is invaded.” “Our fate in St. Elmo Buffin’s hands.” “Nothing seen from the outer wall.” “Great insects, marching south.” The Queen held out one hand, palm flat, to the small blue flames of the fire, feeling an uncertain, transitory warmth.

Around them the palace was quiet, though not unpopulated. The Queen’s guard had, it turned out, destroyed itself some weeks before in a series of bloody, motiveless purges and episodic defections to the Sign of the Locust: the day after his arrival, Tomb the Dwarf had brought his caravan in from the courtyard, established himself like a nomadic warlord somewhere in the littered outer corridors, and taken charge of the handful of disoriented survivors he found living rough in the guardrooms and abandoned mess halls. It was a situation which suited both his inclinations and his experience. At night the dull ring of his hammer penetrated the intervening walls; he was rearming his little force. During the morning he made the round of his defences-which consisted mainly in barricades constructed from old machinery-or stared from the judas-hole he had contrived in the main gates at the silent “beggars” without. In the afternoons he would knock on the throne-room door and allow Methvet Nian to serve him lukewarm chamomile which he compounded with a violent brandy from Cladich. “I expect an attack soon,” he would report, and another day would pass without event. “It can’t be long in coming.” He was happier, he explained, with something to do. Nevertheless he dreamed a lot, of the lost excitements of his youth.

Leaving the palace for the city was like entering a dark crystal (especially at night, under the “white pulpy spectre” of the moon); the shape of things became irregular, refracted; sudden astonishing mirages swallowed the Pastel Towers or engulfed the denizens of the streets beneath them. It was as if Viriconium (the physical city, that is, the millennial artefact which sums up a thousand dead cultures) had suffered some sort of psychic storm, and forgotten itself. Its very molecules seemed to be creeping apart. “As you walk,” the dwarf tried to explain after a single clandestine excursion to the Artists’ Quarter, “the streets create themselves around you. When you have passed, everything slips immediately back into chaos again.” Many of the Reborn had abandoned their houses in Minnet-Saba and were making their way north, a trickle of great horses, big-wheeled carts, and vibrantly coloured armour: they carried their strange weapons with care. Down in the Low City the alleys were empty and stuporous-no one was coming out except for coke or cabbage. Outside the palace waited the devotees of the Sign, becoming more misshapen beneath their cloaks and bandages every day…

In the room at the centre of the palace the light had almost gone. Draughts ran about like mice in the corners. White stiff fingers retreated beneath the fur cloak she clasped about her: “It is so cold this afternoon. On the Rannoch Moor when I was little more than a child, Lord Birkin Grif killed a snow leopard. It was not so cold then. He spun me round by the arms, crying, ‘Hold on, hold tight!’ (That was earlier still.) The dwarf is late this afternoon.”

“It isn’t yet four. He never comes sooner than four.”

“He seems late this afternoon.”

As the clerestory dimmed, weighting the upper air with shadows, and the chocolate cooled in its china cups, the flames in the hearth achieved a transitory, phthisic prominence; and, one by one, like the compartments of a dream, the five false windows of the throne room were filled with a grey and tremulous glow. Against this fitful illumination moved the silhouettes of Cellur and the Queen, nodding murmurous figures of a shadow play. The bird lord’s success in controlling the windows-through which it was possible to see sometimes long lines of insects moving across an unknown terrain-had been only partial. He could turn them neither on nor off. And though three out of five of them could lately be compelled to show some recognizable part of the empire, how these views were selected was not clear to him. Since coming here he had sought:

Contact with his own machines beneath the estuary at Lendalfoot;

Views of St. Elmo Buffin’s fleet;

Some intimation of the circumstances in which Hornwrack and his charges now found themselves.

Luck had not been with him. This was now to change, but not in a way he could have foreseen.

The windows were arranged in a high narrow bay which resembled the stern lights of an old ship. The glow in them grew gelid and shifty. In the third pane from the left (for two hundred years prior to Methven’s reign it had depicted the same view, becoming known as the “Pane of Jars” and giving rise to a common proverb) it condensed into three or four muculent lumps, drifting like fish in a polluted tank. After a moment this activity had spread to the four other panes, and a further refining or condensation had revealed the lumps to be the salient features of five deformed heads-or five images of the same head (two of them upside down). The head was in pain. A dark rubbery device had been forced over its nose and mouth. The straps securing this gag or mask cut deeply into the plump flesh of its cheeks, which was of a mouldy, greenish-white colour patched with silvery acne. Whether the expressions that contorted the visible features reflected hope or fatalism, anger or panic, it was impossible to tell. Its eyes, though watery, were urgent.

For some minutes this apparition struggled silent and unnoticed behind the glass as though trying to escape into the throne room. A psychic gulf of such vastness separated spectre from substance that it seemed to be maintained in focus only by its own desperation, by some debilitating and debasing act of will. It could see Cellur and the Queen and it was trying to speak. Eventually it whispered a little, a syllable like a trickle of vomit in a voice quite at odds with the amount of effort needed to produce it.

Gorb, it said.

Its eyes widened triumphantly. Gorb. Cellur and the Queen murmured on. The cups clinked, the day darkened and slipped inevitably into night; thin blue flames danced in the hearth, leaving delicate indelible images on the surface of the eye.

Gorb.

The head flung itself about, its hidden mouth gaping, until

“GORB!” fell into the room like a corpse.

The windows flickered dementedly, shuffling views of the head like Fat Mam Etteilla shuffling the trumps. Cellur jumped to his feet, his cloak knocking the china onto the floor. “It sees us! At last the windows have come to their full function!” (This was a guess: he was still in the dark.) Five panes showed the awful mutated face of the ancient airboatman-left profile, right three-quarter profile. They showed sudden random close-ups of individual features-an ear, an eye, the mask with its proliferating tubes and cilia. Pentadic, huge, it winked down into the throne room. “Is it the man from the moon? Speak!”

Speak?

All this time he has been struggling to speak!

Now at last he masters the language-Benedict Paucemanly with his message from a white and distant planet:

“Gorb,” he said. “ Fonderia di ferro in Venezia… mi god guv. .. nonarticulated constituent elements… Here lie I in the shadows of the veinous manna, burrowed into the absolute ABRACADAVER of the earth… Earth!-all things are one to the earth… mi god guv im all swole up… Fear death from the air! ”

He giggled weakly and shook his head. “It’s simpler than that.” He tried again. “In the Time of Bone, in the Time of Dreams, when, on the far side of the moon, I lay like a cheese, blue-veined and with a loop of blue wire for a brain… No. Simpler than that, too “Look, as a young man I flew to the moon. I would not do such a thing now. Something happened to me there, some transformation peculiar to the airs of that sad planet, and I fell asleep. I fell into a rigor, sank without trace into a trance in which I perceived for a hundred years the singing latticework of my own brain. It was a gift, do you see, or a punishment. (I no longer care which, though the question perplexed me then for its metaphysical implications if nothing else.) There, I was no longer a man at all but a theory; I was a thought received with the clarity of a sensation- hard, complex, resonant with proof. I was a crystal set, and I thought that I could hear the stars.

“I lay on a marble slab in a paved garden among formal perspectives, my naked body citronised by the light falling down from space. At my side a single rose grew like an alum cyst on a long stem. Sometimes it emitted a quiet but intolerably beautiful melody comprising four or five notes on a vanished musical scale. The frozen air filled my mouth. I soon forgot my ship, the Saucy Sal. I communicated with the spare, bony winds of that region, blowing in from between the stars. The moon is a strange place. Up there, shadows fall motionless and subtly awry. It is a nexus. It was changed by many races who tried to come to earth (or to leave it) during the long downfall of the Afternoon Cultures. It is a listening ear. It is an outpost.”

In the throne-room hearth the small blue flames were exchanged mysteriously for a heap of orange embers. Dark seeped in through the clerestory windows. The dwarf did not come. Outside, the evening wind had brought more snow into the numbed city, hurrying it along as a guide hurries tourists down the picturesque but dangerous streets of some revolution-torn capital. (Streets that would turn later into black and silver geometrical proofs under the sovereign influence of the moonlight.) Benedict Paucemanly whispered like the waves on a distant beach, sometimes audible, sometimes not. He suffered frequent bouts of aphasia. Obscenities, mingled with a dubious lyricism, still made up much of his vocabulary. He still confused the grammar of a dozen old languages with that of a score of invented ones. But the backbone of his monologue was comprehensible. Cellur and the Queen, hypnotised by his awful pentadic image, listened to it and later reported it:

“The moon, or some secret relic of the Afternoon which still inhabits it, had captured the aviator on his arrival and made him into a sort of ear by which to listen to the populated universe (though listen is perhaps not the word to use). This, we learnt from him, had been a common practice at one time. He was paralysed and placed on a slab. Messages poured through him like a clear fluid. Around him rows of other slabs diminished into the distance, and on them he could see the empty shells of other ‘ears’ abandoned millennia ago when their long sleep turned finally into death. Many of the bodies were broken; they were like hollow porcelain figurines. He found himself able to eavesdrop on the transmissions passing through him, but it was like eavesdropping on Babel. The material universe, it would appear, has little absolute substance. It hardly exists. It is a rag of matter, a wisp of gas, a memory of some former state. Each sentient species perceives the thin evidence of this state in a different way, generating out of this perception its physical and metaphysical Umwelt : its little bubble or envelope of ‘reality.’ These perceptual systems are hermetic and admit of no alternative. They are the product of a particular set of sense organs, evolutionary beginnings, and planetary origins. If the cat were to define the world, he would exclude the world of the housefly in his mouth. Each species has its fiction, and that fiction is to all intents and purposes real; and the actual thin substance of the universe becomes more and more debatable, oneiric, hard to achieve, like the white figures that will not focus at the edge of vision…

“Ten thousand sentient races populate the stars. All their mad jargons lace the aether. Paucemanly listened, but was unable to answer them. ‘All were distant, dreadfully distant. Their voices were a fading, incomprehensible whisper; a sickening rumour of otherness.’ Thus he lay there on his catafalque: far enough from the human Umwelt to perceive the myriad realities of the cosmos; not far enough to be able to forget his own humanity. This state persisted for a hundred years or a little less, until new, strong transmissions invaded local space.

“At first, new voices sang to him. This was the first feathery touch of their spiritual envelope or atmosphere. Latterly, he saw them, as a great filmy wing stretched across the cruel lunar meridian. Closer, they were a vast wave. He was soon inundated, sodden with their new ‘reality.’ All other transmissions ceased. The rose which had bloomed beside his slab shattered with a sound of unearthly grief. A fine tracery of cracks appeared in the slab itself. The white gardens fell to dust around him. He was free. In that moment he lost his humanity for good. (But could not as yet attain any other form. The flesh has an inertia.) His broadcasts to the earth were begun too late: by then, the tenuous wave fronts of the new consciousness had brushed the Pastel City, and in its gutters and alleyways and great Houses was conceived the ‘Sign of the Locust’-immaculate and ravishing, a philosophy like a single drop of poison at the centre of a curved mirror, an imperfect intuition of the alien Umwelt and of its implications for our own; the first infection of the human reality!

“They were insects long ago. They need no vehicles, but slip like a swarm of locusts down the faults and cleavage zones of space (which they conceive of as an extensive empty wasteland littered with the stony rubbish of planets and echoing with their own dry stridulations). Their motives are unclear: instinct-or something resembling it-compels them to search the continuum endlessly for some solution they cannot even define to themselves. Now, that cold passion is in ruins, and they are trying to live on the earth. They were never meant to come down here and build a city. It is their tragedy as much as ours.

“This was how the great aviator put it to us. Out of confusion he had offered to lead them to the earth. (Who can blame him? Woken from apparent death on the far side of the moon, he had found himself neither insect nor human nor anything he had once been! They were all he had to cling to.) Out of a greater confusion they had followed him. Now-totem or deity or mere interpreter-he was encysted at the heart of their new city, passing his immobile hours in the blue mosaic flicker of his half insectile dreams, involuntary amplifier of the swarm’s Umwelt.

“ ‘Already it is too late for human consciousness ever to fully repossess the world; the new dream pours out like mist to envelope and mutate it.’ Yet the swarm had been contaminated in its turn: ‘Where once it boasted the horny membranes of the locust, the mantis, or the wasp, now it imagines flesh, skin, hair. It regards itself with horror. It is losing the struggle to maintain its inner vision, its hermetic certainty in the face of the void.’

“In the grip of this perceptual stalemate the very substance of the planet had begun to fade, stretch, and tear, like an old net curtain at a window in the Boulevard Aussman. If it continued, the conflict between Man and Insect would become nothing more than a jumble of meaningless shadowy events pivoting round a decaying point in space and Time. In areas of major confrontation, matter, in its attempts to accommodate both ‘realities,’ was already distorting, drifting into new forms and miscegenations. New ranges of mountains had appeared in the North; coastlines had taken on new forms, plastic, curious, undependable, draped with a new vegetation which had come up out of the sea along the flight paths of the insects and now assumed a grey, etiolated, mucoid transparency; vast hallucinatory displays filled the skies at night, great shifting modular curtains like the view from a mosaic eye. All this had been added to the minor symptoms already observed-the Sign of the Locust, the rains of lights. In addition, the conflict of two dreams had woken older dreams: the factories of the Afternoon rebuilt themselves fragmentarily in the Great Wastes, producing clouds of corrosive vapour; strangely dressed figures speaking ancient languages were posturing in the streets of Lendalfoot and Duirinish.

“ ‘The world,’ whispered Benedict Paucemanly, ‘is desperately trying to remember itself… blork… nomadacris Septemfasciata!

… what a lovely bit of meat…’ ”

Embers settled in the hearth. The doors of the throne room rattled suddenly, their brass motifs of coelacanths and mermen shifting uneasily in the bluish gloom, and were still. It was the wind, perhaps; or perhaps something had fallen against them. From the passage outside was heard briefly an indistinct groaning; a dull clamour far off; silence. Something was happening out there, but those within were captivated by the wavering pentadic spectre of the old airman, his voice faint and his flesh tortured by the mask which, he explained, was now his sole means of perceiving the “real,” the human, world. Methvet Nian said nothing, but only watched in horror and compassion the nodding of that wounded, debased head, and gently shook her own, while Cellur the Birdmaker tugged his robe tighter round his thin chest and shivered. His head ached with the cold, and with the effort of following that faded cloacal whisper. He had recognized in the spectre’s antics a certain self-consciousness. There was an archness in its winks and gross nods; the narcissism of the confessional informed its breakings of wind.

“What must we do, then?” he asked, a little impatiently.

Paucemanly gave a loud belch. His image swam, retreated, and was replaced by something quite new: great dragonflies, jewelled and crippled, dragged themselves across the shivering panes while behind them the landscape heaved and humped itself into shapes nascent and organic. “They mutate and die in the new vapours of earth: but their breeding cells are full.” Wingless and melting, the insects were swallowed by the curious hills about them. These in turn folded back to reveal a face, brown and bony-looking like the stripped and varnished skull of a horse into which had been inserted two half-pomegranates for eyes. It stared into the throne room. “Oops,” it said. “Green, brown, testing. Hello?” Paucemanly reappeared in a glutinous yellow fog, looking puzzled. “Whatever emerges from them,” he went on, “will wrest the world to its own purposes… testing?. .. Septemfasciata…” A high fluting sound came out of the windows. One of them shattered. Glass fell into the room. Nothing was revealed except a dusty hole which later proved to contain only some gold filaments and a few small bones. (Cellur, though, winced away as if he expected some alien limb to reach out of it.)

In the remaining panes a tarry smoke obscured intermittently the greenish image of the airman. A clump of fat sinister fingers-his ownappeared, feeling their way over his face as if trying to remember it from some previous encounter. They rested thoughtfully on the mask, then with a quick, predatory motion clutched it by the straps and tugged it off. Vomit sprayed from the defaced features beneath. Paucemanly vanished instantly.

“Is the world ending, then?” asked Cellur.

“I want only death,” came the answer, a distant whisper clogged with self-pity and guilt. “A hundred years in the moon! Only death.”

In the windows appeared a series of faded pictures of ordinary insects, the dry husks of wasps crushed underfoot in an attic long ago, and hawk moths like flower pressings in an old book. A wind stirred them. They darkened one by one until there was nothing left at all. Cellur stood for a long time in the gloom, thinking of nothing. He could not make himself say anything to the Queen.

The dwarf came in with his axe in one hand and a bundle of thin shiny steel rods in the other. He was out of breath and there was blood in his hair. He drank his lukewarm chamomile with a grimace. When he noticed the dark windows and broken glass he nodded grimly. “They had the signal to pass the gates half an hour ago,” he said. “We’re done for in here.”

He dropped the steel rods on the floor and, with a packet of tools he took from under his jerkin, set about assembling them. It was quick work. Soon he had in front of him a half-human skeleton ten or eleven feet tall- his famous “mechanical wife,” grubbed up long ago from some frigid desert in the far North. It was quiet in the room as he coupled its metal bones. Nevertheless he paused every so often to tilt his head on one side and listen; and at one point said casually: “Someone will have to bolt the doors. I can’t reach them, and the lads out there won’t last much longer.” (Cellur did not answer. Little motes of blue light like luminous beetles had begun to spill from the shattered window. They fell faster and faster, like rain. They filled the room with a queer glow which lit the white cheek of Methvet Nian as she sat staring silently at nothing.)

A distant shout filtered through from the beleaguered outer corridors. The whole palace seemed to shudder. The dwarf scratched his head. After a long life his understanding of such situations was preternatural. Steel scraped on steel, on stone, as he hurriedly spread the mechanical wife on the floor so that its legs stuck straight out and its arms were set close to its sides. He did something to it until it hummed and sent up motes of its own. Then he lowered himself down so that he lay limb for limb on its cold bones. A harness fastened his upper body into its flaring rib cage; its jawless skull he hinged forward to fit over his head like a helmet. “It is my cold companion, that I thought I would never embrace again,” he murmured. Certain levers enabled him to control it, but for the moment he lay still in the curious blue light, performing some act of memory. Ozone, and a low buzzing, filled the air. The skeleton snapped its fingers inadroitly. It shivered and stretched, and of its own accord made grasping motions; but when he moved the levers at last, it failed to respond.

Something threw itself with a crash against the throne room doors.

The dwarf was stuck in the harness. He writhed about. “Bolt the doors, one of you, or it’s the end of us!” He got free and addressed himself feverishly to the machine. Sparks came up from it; it gave up slow yellow fireflies to join the flow of blue light from the broken window. A smell like burnt horsehair filled the air. As for Cellur and the Queen: neither of them seemed to be able to move. Their faces were waxy with despair, their eyes like lemurs’. For Tomb it was only a physical disaster, it was only another war; for them it was a disaster of meaning. They murmured in low, slurred voices to one another, like old intelligent animals-“Saint Elmo Buffin”; “a fatal chance.” Tomb broke his nails on the ancient machinery. He was a dwarf, not a philosopher; it was just another war: and he thought he still had time to win it…

He strapped himself back into the harness. The mechanical wife lifted itself from the flagstones with a groan and an ungainly lurch, like an overloaded camel. It was worn out, like all the other machinery in Viriconium. No one knew what it had been used for all those centuries ago in the doomed Afternoon Kingdoms. It flailed clumsily about, smashing pieces of furniture in its efforts to stay upright. It fumbled on the floor until it came up with the dwarf’s power-axe, which it proceeded to swing in dangerous, humming arcs. “Ha ha,” laughed the dwarf. He pulled the skull piece down over his head. His old eyes blinked redly. He felt alive. He only had to stamp his feet and the walls shook. He moved his levers. Trailing creamy white motes like cabbage moths, the mechanical wife shambled over to the doors, one enormous hand reaching triumphantly for the upper bolts.. ..

Outside in a victorious gloom, the remnants of the palace guard bubbling to death at their feet, were gathered the devotees of the Sign. Since the murder on the Pleasure Canal they had lost touch with their ruling echelon in the fluorescing windy mazes of the Artists’ Quarter; their ideological priorities had become unfathomable, even to themselves; and their very flesh had suffered violent and useless evolutions. In their endless quartering of the Low City they had uprooted railings, constructed wooden clubs studded with bits of broken glass, helped themselves to butchers’ cleavers and old kitchen knives black with corrosion, gathering an army fit for the mutated, the motivationally bankrupt, and the burst. The pain of their transformation had caused them to loosen or unwind the bandages which had previously disguised their humps and tumours, and these now flapped about them in crusty strips as they hopped and sprang erratically along the palace corridors on their strong, bent legs.

Their eyes were puzzled and full of agony. They could not become insects. The flesh, ultimately, resists: there is a conservatism of cell and marrow. But they would never again be human From wounds like women’s lips had bloomed a fantastic, irrelevant anatomy: drooping feathery antennae, trembling multi-jointed legs, a thousand mosaic eyes, vibrating palps, and purposeless plates of chitin. Where these new deformed organs merged into the original flesh was a transitional substance, pinkish grey, weeping like an unsuccessful graft. None of them were in the right place. From a mutilated torso sprang six thin legs, rattling like dry sticks in a wind. (They seemed to be beckoning. The man from whom they had grown screamed involuntarily whenever he caught sight of himself.) Here rubbery, saw-edged mandibles had burst from flower-like lesions at knee or nape and were now speaking unknown languages in reedy, creaking voices; there a gristly membrane flapped like a mantle, dotted with the abortive stumps of wings. For the genitals of a magistrate from Alves had been substituted a coiled moth-like tongue which poked out uncontrollably at intervals. Some of them leapt and sprang about unpredictably, like grasshoppers on a sunny day; others had lost completely the power of upright locomotion and dragged themselves round in circles like crippled blowflies. This degradation was not wholly their own: behind the desperate murmurs that escaped them could be sensed the rustling whisper of some crippled demiurge, the pain of the Idea striving to clothe itself.

Propelled by a black horror of their own state, dimly but bitterly aware of the humanity they had willingly discarded, they broke down the doors and bore the mechanical wife of Tomb the Dwarf back across the throne room, beating at it with their old shovels and broken swords. Hung up there among its gleaming limbs he swung his axe; tottered; retreated. While behind him Cellur the Birdmaker woke from a dream of dissolution and found it to be real.

10

ALL THE WOUNDS OF THE EARTH

Galen Hornwrack came down into the mysterious city like some legendary failed conquistador. (Fever and magic have defeated his skills. The waste-lands he set out to cross in his youth have shown him no enemy but his own ambition. All wells were poisoned; sand has swallowed his troops and his hopes. He lurches back alone into the country of his birth only to find that it too had become shifting, unreliable, changed forever…) The scars left by his fight with the metal bird, an encounter which he recalled only dimly, had diverted and hardened the characteristic lines of his face, so that a strange asceticism now modified his habitual expression of petulance and self-involvement. His nose was running. The sword of tegeus-Cromis he carried in his left hand, having lost its scabbard somewhere in the rotting landscapes behind him. His torn cloak revealed the mail the Queen had given him, now rusty. His eyes were empty and his gaze appallingly direct, as if, tiring of the attempt to winnow the real from the unreal, he now assigned exactly the same value to every object entering his visual field: as if he had suspended judgement on events, and now merely lived through them.

His desire to see the city had kept him from sleep.

Alstath Fulthor followed him, supporting the woman and her endless prophecies. A radiance, colourless in itself, issuing no doubt from his horned and lobed crustaceal armour, appeared to fill both their bodies, illuminating from beneath the things they wore, crimson and blue, as in some old painting. The alien presence of the city, its equivocal contract with “reality,” had lent new energy to their madness. “In my youth,” sang the woman, “I made my small contribution. Blackpool and Chicago become as nothing; their receding colonnades echo to the sound of vanished orchestras.” At this they stopped to regard one another half in delight, half in horror, their cropped spiky hair and long restless hands giving them the air of children caught in some game of conspiracy. (It was only that they hoped to manipulate Time, as we know: believing that by combination and recombination of a few common images-which are themselves only the symbols rather than the actual memories of acts peculiar to the Afternoon Cultures-they might obtain the “code” which would liberate them from the Evening. Thus Mam Etteilla, shuffling her pasteboard cards…)

They dawdled, and Hornwrack sat tiredly in the mud to wait for them.

“That’s enough of that!” he said sharply. He treated them for the most part with a gruff indulgence, but tried to prevent their odd and embarrassing sexual encounters, chasing the woman away with the flat of his sword while being careful to keep his eye on Fulthor’s own great weapon.

“That’s enough!” they mimicked. “That’s enough!”

He did not know why he was here, heading into the world’s deep wound. Bankrupt of purpose when they had fetched him that morning from the rooms in the Rue Sepile, he had maintained himself on the energy of old betrayals and resentments, none of which had survived the journey through the Deep Wastes. He shrugged. He was a husk. Above him hung the torpid and corrupt manifestation of Benedict Paucemanly, which was his only hope. Since dawn it had been undergoing a crisis of will, dissolving sporadically into a mass of greyish curds and losing the power of speech. It would reassemble itself slowly after such a bout, beckon Hornwrack on toward the city, belch tragically. “I want only death,” it would explain. And Hornwrack with a sigh would lead his mad proteges a little closer.

This city had appeared on the plain with the descent of the insects a decade before, growing from the worn stone nubs, tilted columns, and submerged pavements of an ancient Afternoon site. They had not so much built it as expected it. It was not so much a city as a response of ordinary matter to their instinctive metaphysical demands, the warping pressures of their “new reality.” Originally it had consisted of a number of large but flimsy structures arranged without apparent thought on and around a low mound. The biggest of these were perhaps a hundred feet tall. They were like dry wasps’ nests, and of the same papery, cellular construction. They rustled in the wind. The insects went leaping among them on curiously aimless pathways, along the sides of which had been built up over the years peculiar crystalline accretions, hanging reefs and tottering spires, galleries composed of crumbling metallic oxides veined with serpentines and alien glasses. Smaller structures had eventually grown up in the shadows of this development: partly roofed eccentric hexagons formed of impacted sand mixed with certain bodily secretions of their inhabitants, who forced themselves in and out of small openings in the walls.

But if the insects had first begun to change the earth at this spot, so it had begun to change them; and matter’s accommodating plasticity had turned suddenly into a trap.

Gravity had imprisoned them: here they had first felt its pull, and lost the power of extra-atmospheric flight. It had suddenly become necessary for them to breathe, yet they could not breathe air, and must invent some substitute: here they had built the chugging machinery to disseminate it. (It never worked very well.) Fluids had been unknown to them during their frigid millennial migration through the barren spaces: here they had first filled their tissues with them as a buffer against the poisons of earth. Here they had put on their breathing masks and built their weapons, seeing themselves as beleaguered, unwilling colonists, victims of a cosmic accident: which they were. Here the human Umwelt had first penetrated their strange nervous systems, working a madness on them so that they could not understand what they saw or felt, and began to die of a new disease.

At the time Galen Hornwrack met his end here, all order and sense of purpose had vanished from the place. The buildings, alien to begin with, had begun to subside like hot glass, as if searching for a new centre of gravity. A partly transparent architecture of nightmarish balconies and overhanging walls that had formed as matter, struggling to find a compromise between human and insect demands, began to teeter and grope toward verticals and horizontals that satisfied neither. Streets laid down under no wholesome plan ended in pits, or in staircases which themselves petered out after a turn or two up the sides of some enormous windowless cylinder. The towers shuddered and quaked, vibrating between human and alien states, then slumped and dissolved like jelly. A languorous buzzing sound accompanied this process, and beneath that the clangour of enormous bells, as if matter were trying to toll itself apart. Appalling winds howled down the changing thoroughfares. Streams of tiny blue motes tumbled from the higher cornices; out in the open squares (through which, as in a dream, could be discerned the equivalent plazas of Viriconium-opposite pole, node of nightmares, sister city) struggled the changed individuals of the swarm; while among the alleys of this disintegrating province proliferated the thick, yellow stems of some mutated plant.

Above, vast clouds of the insects hung in the throbbing purple sky, making adventive, meaningless patterns as they attempted to replicate or restart the endless spatial pilgrimage. They hurled themselves into huge pits dug in the desert. They invented useless vehicles which rolled like mouldy grapefruit between the dunes, rising a few feet above the ground to emit foul gases. (“Regretfully,” whispered the madwoman, “it is part of a scheme you cannot understand.”) Into this chaos Galen Hornwrack was persuaded to lead his party, unaware that circumstances were about to return to him a fragment or two of his distant-indeed by now almost imaginary-adolescence.

Under a sky like a glass mantle, at an intersection in the disintegrating ground plan of the city, two insects performed a dance in the suicidal light. Disease had maimed them, their eyes were like rotting melons yet vivid heraldic insignia flared along their blue and green flanks like the lights of deep-sea fishes. Stiff and quivering, with curled abdomens and spread wings, moving one damaged limb at a time, they had the air of being painted on one of Elmo Buffin’s sails, or tattoed in glowing inks on an upper arm. Clouds of coloured vapour streamed through the galleries which curled over them in a flaking mineral wave. Balancing on their rear legs they curled themselves backwards into the annular symbols of some organic alphabet; they dragged themselves between the bone-like pillars of the colonnades, following the veins of serpentine and obsidian as if they were cooling streams; they tore with their forelimbs at the masks they wore-perhaps to obtain relief, for part of the function of these was to enable them to perceive the world they found themselves marooned in.

“Let me kill them,” advised Alstath Fulthor.

His periods of sanity, rare since the departure from Iron Chine, were now characterised by a dreamy, idle cruelty, an echo, Hornwrack believed, of the unimaginable and stylized sadisms of the Afternoon Cultures.

“No.”

Galen Hornwrack, living in two worlds: he was hopping and whirling despite himself down the million fractured perspectives of the mosaic universe, the thin stridulous hymn of the swarm filling the waste spaces about him. Suns baked him. The void froze him. Infinity drew him on like a promise. Sad stony planets spun beneath him, their cisterns barren. He understood none of it… Simultaneously he was aware of Fulthor coughing and choking at his side, hollow face underlit by the eerie, transfiguring flicker of the powered sword. They stood in the shadow of a huge dead locust, or perhaps it was a mantis. Its forelimbs were folded hieratically above them, clutching something they couldn’t see. Leathery curtains of dried mucus hung down from its ventral joints and openings. Its fading telepathies trickled through Hornwrack’s skull in a reedy counterpoint to the perceptual disorganisation that swelled over him like triumphant organ music from the city’s living inhabitants. His eyes were watering in the lemon fog from the exploding atmospheric distilleries; his nose was running. A tarry fungus flourishing in the shade of the great corpse had begun to corrode the soles of his boots.

“Let me kill them,” said Fulthor.

“They may not remain here for long.”

He was right. After a while they left their barren exercises and crawled away deeper into the gloom of the reefs, following the glittering veins of mineral.

“They were trying to remember how to fly.”

The spectre of Benedict Paucemanly seemed cowed by the city. A corrupt whitish colour when it was visible at all, it wallowed through the upper galleries, losing definition like a piece of wet soap. There seemed to be taking place a dissolution not only of its image but of its personality. This grew more marked the deeper it penetrated the city’s confusion. Index finger raised to its lips (or where they would have been), it peered furtively over the sagging balustrades, edging shyly away if an insect appeared in a distant plaza or stood vibrating like a delicate engine at the end of some dark alley. It feared an inevitable meeting.

Nevertheless it would allow them no respite. Fulthor trembled on the edge of his old madness, his armour changing colour eerily, taking on the ribbed greys and greens of the wasteland grasshopper. Hornwrack reeled along beside him, dizzy and vomiting. (His flesh was itching on the bone. He could feel it yearning to grow into new and extravagant shapes.) Soon they were dragging the madwoman along by her armpits. Waves of distortion emanating from the chaos ahead had flung her into a rigor from which she woke only to bite her tongue or make meaningless noises with her slack lips. Her heels furrowed the ground behind, which was now compacted sand, now the sodden peat of the continental sumps. Brown water leaked slowly into the furrows. Was the city there at all? At the peak of each wave the earth tolled and boomed; the buildings deliquesced, revealing for an instant the disfigured waiting towers of Viriconium (which, a thousand miles away, was trying to become a city of dried wasps’ nests); and blue particles swirled out of air like luminous rain. The world was being rhythmically eroded; underneath could be discerned the bony grin of nothingness, the Neant of Fat Mam Etteilla’s grubby pack.

Paucemanly’s ghost slipped like a tadpole between the collapsing columns, a blob of mucus propelling itself through this architecture of melting wax by small energetic movements of its finny hands.

Evening came, and with it a purple gloom through which darted curious flames.

Out of this, wreathed in a glutinous yellow fog, some clumsy insects dragged themselves. There were three or four of them. Alstath Fulthor put his hands to his head and fell down. “Oh oh oh,” he cried. “Oh, oh,” whispered the insects. They approached with a peculiar reluctance, dipping their great masks. Their grey wing cases and armoured yellow underparts were crosshatched with self-inflicted wounds. From these wounds were growing like buds a variety of pink new half-human limbs, joined to the pricked and rotting carapaces by a transitional substance, membranous, neither flesh nor chitin. There were clumps of little hands with mobile, perfect fingers, each one having a tiny fingernail like mother-of-pearl. There were the faces of very young children with closed eyes. There were eyes alone (as indeed there were legs and torsos and internal organs), gummy with postnatal sleep, and of a very distinct blue like enamelling on an old brooch. Some of the faces murmured drowsily.

Whether these insects were ambassadors or soldiers was not clear. They had recognised Hornwrack’s party as human, and been attracted by the magistral lustre of the Reborn Man’s scarlet armour. (When they approached him their own insignia flared up along their sides, orange and emerald.) They could not speak, though, and he could not help them. They remained immobile, at once heraldic and debased. It was the madwoman who sat up suddenly to speak on their behalf.

“We did not ask to come here,” she said. She watched Hornwrack, who in his turn licked his lips and stared at the travesty of a baby’s head.

“What?” he said.

“Go away and wait,” she begged. “Leave us to be finished here. We cannot live here much.” She opened her mouth and blood trickled from her lacerated tongue. “Give us in peace,” she whispered, holding her head on one side in a listening attitude, her mouth full of crushed flowers. “Oh!”

At the end of this speech she was standing with her back to the insects, her eyes bright with a horrifying intelligence. Their own great faceted orbs observed Hornwrack calmly over her shoulders. They were motionless. Hornwrack began to back away, laughing. “No more of this!” he heard himself exclaim. He held up his hands. “I don’t want to hear any more.” He looked round for guidance, but Fulthor was grunting on the floor, and the spectre of the ancient airman had inconveniently vanished. Suddenly a kind of fake anger overcame his fright. He dragged the sword of tegeus-Cromis from his belt, shoved the woman aside, and waded into them with it. But it was only steel, and quickly broke in half. The ambassadors fell back without resisting him, rustling, bearing their dreadful human buds. (One of the heads woke up. “Leave us alone,” it whispered, looking directly at him.) Then another wave of disintegration surged out of the core of the city, which was now very close. Hornwrack staggered. The ambassadors writhed and thrashed, their joints gouting fluid. Fay Glass screamed.

“Leave us alone! We will soon die here!”

Hornwrack could bear no more of it. He was used to a less equivocal violence. Retching, he stumbled over to Fulthor’s inert body and got the powered broadsword from its ceramic sheath. He had never used one before. He went back and cut inexpertly at the flailing forelimbs and compound eyes of the ambassadors. This time they made a halfhearted fight of it as they backed into the purple gloom. But their odd, gnarled weapons only sputtered feebly in the damp air, gave up strings of pale light, and failed utterly. They tumbled onto their sides as he chopped off their legs. They whirred round in circles, pushing the earth up into irregular mounds. Soon they were all dead. He stared at them in astonishment; at the artefact fizzing in his hand; at Fay Glass. At the last moment they had tried to direct his attention away from the hulk of Benedict Paucemanly’s airboat, the Heavy Star.

The hull of this ship loomed over him, crawling with the enigmatic corrosions of its hundred-year sojourn in the moon. It was embedded in a tall bulwark of compacted sand, which curved away right and left like the shell of some huge stadium. Hornwrack walked round it, awed, exultant. That famous machine! Lights were dimly visible through its fissured outer skin; pulpy vines enwrapped it; a few flakes of black and silver paint adhered to its stern-the colours of the House of Methven, set there at the height of the air siege of Mingulay.

“ ‘Fear death from the air!’ ” shouted Hornwrack. He laughed. He took hold of the madwoman’s wrist in his enthusiasm and pulled her along after him. “ ‘Fear death from the air!’ ” He thought of Fat Mam Etteilla, and the Bistro Californium with its clientele of perverts and poseurs. He thought of the dwarf who had beaten him up in the palace and then abandoned him in the shadow of the Agdon Roches. He thought of the High City, which had wooed him merely to betray him. He thought of the Low City, of the boy in the Rue Sepile, the drifts of sodden chestnut leaves in the late-afternoon light of November, the women laughing in the upstairs rooms. He thought of the candle at night, a cat sneaking into the room, the smell of geraniums-one dawn following another until they made eighty years of wounds and fevers. None of it meant anything. It was as if he had been relieved of these things, only to have them changed somehow and given back to him merely as memories. “If I can rip her loose we’ll fight our way out of this madhouse!” he said. He would fly down to the Pastel City in the last airboat left in the kingdom. There he would speak with the dwarf, perhaps even the Queen. There he’d state his terms. “She’ll never take to space again,” he said, rubbing his thumb over the thin, whitish, lichen-like growths, the network of tiny cracks that dulled the crystal skin. Even this slight contact made him shiver with excitement. He kicked at a door in the stern to see if it would open, and was rewarded by a hollow boom. “But her motors still work. Look!”

He dropped the High City sword suddenly, grasped the girl by her upper arms. She stared blankly at him. “Once I flew such vessels!” he cried. “Don’t you believe me?” And then: “That ghost has given me back the sky. It has given me back the sky!”

Alstath Fulthor came up behind him on all fours and picked up the discarded baan. Some nightmare of the past had him by the head. He sniggered.

“I’ll suffer nothing at the hands of those beautiful philosophers,” he said. “I’ll promenade no more in their metallic gardens!”

He jumped to his feet, whirling the blade in sputtering arcs round his head. Sparks showered from it into the dead wet air. Discovering no other enemy he advanced on Hornwrack, who produced defensively his steel knife, shouting, “Fulthor, no more grudges! Stop!”

Fulthor could not stop. Hornwrack allowed him to get in close; ducked the baan as it swung in towards his collarbone; and slashed out at Fulthor’s hand, taking off two fingers and severing all the major tendons. Fulthor dropped the power-blade. He studied his hand in wonder.

“That hand will never annoy me again,” he said.

Before they could stop him he had run off into the gloom, singing.

Hornwrack said, “I did not mean to do that. This knife has betrayed me.” He threw it down and stepped on it, but the blade would not break despite its flaw, and after a moment he forgot it. He retrieved the baan and set about chopping his way into the Heavy Star through the stern door. His blows set up a resonant groaning in the crystal hull. He pulled the madwoman in after him. She stared back over her shoulder.

The boat was abandoned and empty. Its motors sent up slow violet motes through a rift in the deck: small worms of light that clung to the metal surfaces, fastened on Hornwrack’s mail shirt, and clustered round the steel fillet which bound back his hair. Further in, navigation instruments ticked and sang; he could hear them. It was thick with dust in there. He moved about quietly, touching the things with which he was familiar. He shivered a little. In the command bridge was a light like sunshine filtered through bottle-green glass. “Go and sit down,” he told Fay Glass. (An insect had entered through the damaged hatch; he could hear it moving about in the hold.) The bow of the boat projected right through the wall of the “stadium” he had seen outside, but nothing was visible through the portholes, which seemed to be covered by some gelatinous medium like agar. Aft, the insect scratched its way across the hold; paused. Its wings whirred faintly. It departed. Hornwrack let out his breath.

He swallowed.

“Sit still,” he told the woman.

He tried to remember what to do.

Under his clumsy hands the vessel groaned and shook. (It was old. In the moon something vital had gone out of it; some millennial reservoir had been emptied.) Down below, its motors pulsed, leaking light and generating a rapid percussive shudder. This continued for some minutes and, transmitted to the outer hull, split it open with a high ringing sound. Splinters of dark glass flew about the bridge; a fissure twenty inches wide appeared in the wall beside Hornwrack’s shoulder, admitting foetid gases; Fay Glass was picked up and flung against a bulkhead, and thereafter lay on the deck like a discarded towel, her thin bruised legs drawn up under her chin. The boat lifted an inch or two and was stationary again. Gelatinous fluids streamed off the forward portholes and slopped into the bridge, where, mixed with the sand from the wall outside, they formed a foul and slimy secretion. Hornwrack clung to his seat.

“You bitch,” he said. “You old bitch.”

Outside, sand could be seen fountaining up against a purple sky. With a despairing groan Heavy Star pulled free of the retaining wall and hurled itself into the mad airs above. Hornwrack sobbed with relief. Around him, instruments were demanding his attention in hysterical whispers, but he had forgotten what most of them were for. The smell of the stuff in the cabin was making him feel sick. He leaned forward to look out of the portholes. The boat was wallowing above an elliptical walled pit about a hundred yards long. This was filled with a grey, viscous, partly organic substance which was now leaking from the breached wall like the white of an egg. As the level of this putrid stuff fell, it revealed by stages a colossal human figure stretched out in the pit.

Benedict Paucemanly!

A monstrous and corrupt flowering of his flesh had taken place in all those white years on the moon. Constrained by a thick rubber suit in case he burst, studded with new sensory organs, whorls and ropes of flesh which reported only mutation and pain, he lay there prostrate. He had tried to become something else and failed. His arms were by his sides and his vast corpulent legs apart. It was from here that he had broadcast his despairing spectre, to Viriconium and beyond. “I want only death.” Teetering between two realities, he could perceive neither of them except as an agonizing dream-and yet here he was half a god, a demiurge or source, out from which spread like the ripples on a stagnant pond all the new nightmares of earth: he had become, unwillingly enough, the amplifier of the swarm’s Umwelt, as he had once been an ear that listened to the stars. He had lain like this for ten years, groaning and whimpering and vomiting into the mask which had long ago been forced over his bloated head so that he could see something of the world surrounding him. Worse: through his great corroded bulk burrowed the parasitic larvae of the swarm, deposited there when gravity first sucked them down and mortalized them. A thousand miles away, in the false windows of the throne room at Viriconium, his other image was telling Cellur: “The breeding cells are full. Whatever emerges will wrest the earth to its own purposes.”

He was the breeding cell. It was a strange end for a legendary man.

A gust of wind caught the airboat, causing it to spin slowly through a few degrees of arc. A smell came up. Hornwrack shuddered. The enormous half-corpse swung beneath him, displaying its fermented sores, the cratered flesh that bulged between the straps. The larvae forced themselves in and out. How long had it sought him, before it came upon him in Methven’s hall? What psychic bond now linked them? As he stared down, the spectre formed again behind him, attempting to attract his attention by snapping its fingers and coughing softly. He knew it was there. He didn’t dare look back.

“Bugger me, lad,” it said, “but we’ve seen some queer berths, you and I.”

He turned against his will to face it. It was bobbing about under the ceiling, making embarrassed washing motions with its fat hands.

“Now you’ve seen me as I am, lad, would you do me a favour?”

“Go away. Why have you brought me here?”

“Pork!” it choked. “ Porcit me te bonan… Death!… There’s only the jungle out there, son. The water barrel’s contaminated and the captain’s got the clap…”

“What are you saying? Leave me alone!”

“… hung up there raw-blind in the ratlines like the corpse of a dog.” The spectre quivered suddenly, sniffed, as if scenting something new in the air. “The lee shore!” it screamed. “The lee shore!” Then, quieter: “And only we two left aboard, matey.”

It put its head intelligently to one side.

“Christ, listen to those parrots!” it said in a hoarse whisper.

(While down in the pit, trapped among these metaphors and invented languages, Paucemanly strove to overcome his madness and communicate. His colossal limbs, partly submerged in milky grey slime, kicked and waved. Behind the eyepieces of his mask-which, like the panes of an aquarium abandoned in some dusty room, were occluded by a green deposit-his weak blue eyes rolled and bulged. The wind stank of delirium, gangrene, and false compass bearings. A tear of self-pity trickled down his cheek. He was adrift between universes.)

“Kill me,” the spectre implored at last. “Kill me, lad. You can do it.”

Hornwrack advanced on it with flailing arms. It shied away from him, belching morosely.

“Is that why you led me here?” he asked it.

It faded abruptly and he never saw it again. He bit his lip and went back to the controls.

“I’m commandeering this boat,” he said.

He sent the Heavy Star lumbering away from that city and out into the calm emptiness beyond. He could not bear the ancient airman’s degradation. He could not bear his own despair (which he conceived of as compassion). Behind him in the pit a great hand came up, fumbled, ripped away the tormenting mask: and with a terrible lowing sound that echoed across the shallow poisoned tarns and endless peat hags of the continental waste, Benedict Paucemanly plunged into the full nightmare of his own decay.

A single erratic line of footprints crossed the waste. Along it at intervals were strewn items of plate armour which lay like shards of scarlet porcelain amid the blowing dust, glowing faintly as if by their own light. It was night now, or the end of the world. The sky, drained of its aching purples except where the enigmatic city festered on the horizon, was of a green so dark as to be almost black; it had the shine of a newly cracked flint. Beneath this pall, files of insects entered the city from all directions, accompanied by occasional enormous mirages and flashes of rose-coloured light. The silence of the caesura was over everything; judgement in abeyance. Hornwrack, remote and unimpassioned, allowed the vessel to drift along at walking pace above the footprints while the madwoman, recovered from her latest malaise, pressed her face to the portholes and sang in a small bruised voice,

On the shores of the diamond lake

We shall watch the fishes

Fal di la di a

All decisions were postponed. After half an hour of this they came upon the Reborn Man.

He was running north among the deep peat groughs which here wind their way back to a flat and boggy watershed dotted with foundering cairns and rotten wooden posts. His limbs were shadowy, but on the loose black stuff he had worn beneath his armour there flared like a beacon the ideograph of his House. For some minutes he seemed unaware of the arrival of the Heavy Star, and ran on ignoring it, his arms windmilling for balance as he picked his way among the steep-sided channels and fibrous mounds. Then he looked up, staggered, and shook his fist. His mouth opened and shut angrily. He swayed, cupping his ears with his hands, and fell into the bed of a narrow stream, where he lay with his head in the peaty water for a moment or two, looking confused. By the time Hornwrack, having landed the machine a little way off, had found him again, he was back on his feet.

“Where have I been?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Hornwrack. “Look, I am sorry to have cut off your fingers. I no longer bear you any grudge.” (He examined this statement with surprise. It was true.)

Fulthor looked down at his maimed hand.

“My mind feels very clear,” he said. “Where is the dwarf?”

He had forgotten everything, and could not take in Hornwrack’s explanations. Causality meant nothing to him. “Have we been to Iron Chine already, then?” he would ask. “Or have we yet to see those burning sails?” Or, holding his head tenderly as if he could feel Time coiled and knotted there in it like purple braid, “We’ve to meet Arnac san Tehn. Tonight, in the Garden of Empty Wounds!” Smiling secretively, the madwoman took his hand and affected to count the fingers. He bore this calmly. The two of them stood there against black waste and obsidian sky; and in Hornwrack’s imagination a light surrounded them. It was as though they had already separated themselves from the world in preparation for their descent into the past. He was filled with a deep resentment of their beauty (in response to which images of the Rue Sepile passed through his brain like fatal playing cards, or the lines extemporised by some bad poet in the purgatorial night-“Here is the smell of fog; I see dead geraniums on your windowsill, and women whisper in the lighted rooms”), but this was suppressed immediately by a corresponding urge to protect them, both from the world and his own envy.

“You will have to look after each other now,” he told Fulthor. He stared at the city fulminating like a spot of phosphorus on the horizon. “I don’t know how you’ll get back to Viriconium, even if you want to go there.”

He tried to think of something else to say.

“Good luck.”

They watched puzzledly as he trudged back to the Heavy Star, which was sinking a little under its own weight in the mud. For a moment it looked as if the madwoman might run after him. An expression of ordinary human intelligence crossed her face. Then she laughed. The old machine rose gracelessly into the air and turned towards the city.

The city! Its end is near. It expands and contracts, like a lung. Regular spasms of dissolution shake it like the vomits and distempers of a dying king. It is full of fires, not all of them real; memories of a history never achieved, a future unrealised. Sketchy and counterfeit, the towers of its sister city Viriconium advance and recede through a roseate smoke. Up from the buildings come fountains of earth! They pour into the sky as if gravity had been reversed, and where they fall on the surrounding plain a litter of insects is deposited, bits of dead insects which lie like ruined machinery amid the crude stones. At the height of each spasm the ground tolls like a bell; deep in the streets inexplicable phantoms stalk (headless women, their jewelled sandals sinking into a carpet of dusty grasshopper husks; rains of stinking skulls and luminous beetles; a sail moving down some nonexistent Pleasure Canal: failed dreams of a compromise with the bony skeleton of earth); and a great mad hooting goes up from the heart of the city, a groan of pain and horror in which may be distinguished the voice of the mutated airboatman calling to the assassin he has lured across a thousand miles to serve him Kill me.

The insects ignored this lowing call-as of some large but delicately organised animal being disembowelled-and forced themselves in and out like wasps round a rotting apple. They buzzed erratically across the plain; hurled themselves into the pits they had dug; and gathered in the dark air in diffuse humming clouds. Meanwhile, the Heavy Star, stern down, fabric wounded by the curious stresses of space, floundered toward them with blue lights leaking from its engine rooms. They were aware of it. It fascinated them. They made sudden abortive darts and forays in its direction. Did they link it with their flight down from the moon? Did they perceive Galen Hornwrack encysted at the heart of its simple nervous system? Some of the more daring individuals threw themselves against its hull, only to topple away into the convection currents and streams of floating debris, which consumed them. This agitation grew as Hornwrack approached the erupting city. Their forays became more purposeful, and more prolonged. The city pulsed and heaved, generating a savage mauve glare, and they came up from it like smoke.

Up on the watershed Fulthor and the madwoman, interrupted in some partial rite of the Afternoon, some fragment of an old sin, shaded their eyes against the novel light. (Their iconic calm now representing a wiser- or at least more ordered-station of the world, a culture which would surely have taken such fireworks in its stride.. ..) The plain was alive with crippled insects, tiny as aphids and bathed in the magnetic radiations of the city. A cold wind sprang up, lashed the boggy waste, and-rolling their wingless corpses before it like the discarded regalia of a mystery play- rushed away into the North; while above, the Heavy Star, a wobbling black mote in the hectic air, rose to meet the spreading swarm, and was engulfed.

They fastened themselves on to its outer hull like locusts on a branch. It strained forward as if the air had solidified around it, and was brought to a standstill above the perimeter of the city, where the hulk of Benedict Paucemanly greeted it with booms and roars of self-pity, waving his infested limbs. (From up on the watershed this activity seemed like the movements of some tiny damaged mechanical toy.) He had replaced his mask but was unable to secure it, so that it hung awry on his blubbering tub-like head like the woollen cap on the head of a retarded child. His new organs pulsed, engorging themselves in time to the rhythms of the city. “In the moon,” he said, “it was like white gardens.” He begged for freedom in an abandoned language. He blinked up, watching the insects as they continued to alight on his old ship. When they could find no further space to settle, they attached themselves to one another in a parody of copulation. Beneath this rustling layer the Heavy Star struggled to gain height. Suddenly, violet bolides arced from its bows! Caught up in the discharge of the ancient cannon, many of the insects dropped away, crackling and roasting and setting fire to their neighbours, so that they fell about the ears of the decaying airboatman like burning leaves.

Fear death from the air! Up there, we can see, Hornwrack fears nothing. He makes the boat his own. Power plants enfeebled by its unimaginable journeys, substructure creaking like an old door, it nevertheless wriggles ecstatically under his hands, light flaring off its stern. We see it even now, long after the fact, rolling and spinning against the southern quadrant of the sky. The patterns it is making are gay, adventive, dangerous. It tumbles off the top of a loop and falls like a stone. It soars eighteen hundred feet vertically upwards, spraying violet fire almost at random into the dark green varnished sky. Persistence of vision makes of it a paintbrush, violet strokes on an obsidian ground, while the insects fall like comets all around it, trailing a foul black smoke, to shatter and burst pulpily on the plain beneath! Even the watchers on the watershed have abandoned their cruel calm. He may yet escape! something whispers inside them. He might yet escape!… But now the energy cannon has stopped working, and he seems to have undergone a fatal faltering or change of heart. They bite their lips and urge him on. Some listlessness, though, prevents him: something inhaled from the cabbagey air of the Low City long ago. Now the Heavy Star drifts immediately above Paucemanly’s carcass like an exhausted pilot fish. The insects descend. All Hornwrack’s efforts have made no impression on their numbers. One by one they approach the wallowing vehicle. One by one they settle on its creaking, riven old hull and commence to bear it down…

Fay Glass, shading her eyes, looked out across the plain.

The city was a throbbing sepulchre of light. At the height of every spasm, light vomited from it into the world, bringing a chaotic new reality and causing vast attenuated shadows to flicker across the stony plain; while above it hovered the swarm like an antithetical twin, a giant shadowy planet composed of interlocking wings, curled abdomens, and entangled insectile legs, from which glittered thousands of mosaic eyes. Deep inside it was buried the Heavy Star, the whine and groan of its engines overlaid by an unearthly stridulation-a dry, triumphant song like the song of the wasteland locust as it rushes over the bony spaces of the South. Lulled by its own barren psalm, the swarm basked in the light of its coming transformation, anticipating the day when its larvae, made over entirely, should leave the refuge of the mutated airman and come forth into a reality neither human nor insect, and themselves bask in the warmth of a totally unknown sun.

“Such a long way,” she said dreamily (and apropos, perhaps, of something else: for what could she know?). “Such a long way, and so many wings.”

But now the Heavy Star tapped some final resource. The swarm, caught unawares, shook itself out into the density of a cloud of winter smoke. From this burst Galen Hornwrack and his legendary craft-which, devouring its own substance, was spilling a lemon-yellow light from every rift and porthole!

There was a thoughtful pause, as if he were surveying his chances.

Then, before the swarm could act again, he switched off the motors, and the boat began to fall straight down toward the city; slowly at first, then faster and faster.

What of Viriconium-Pastel City and erstwhile centre of the world-at this desperate conjunction, amid the mass abdication of real things and the triumph of metaphysics? Twin sister of the city on the distant plain, she nevertheless approaches her dissolution with a kind of fatalistic calm (stemming perhaps from a sense of history-“an irony in the very stones”-and the feeling that it may all have happened before. Who has lived here for long, Ansel Verdigris asks us, in the fragmentary polemic Answers, without experiencing some such sensation?). Her cold plazas and antique alleys reeking of cabbage accept their fate. Her geometries accept their fate. Her people accept their fate: they are so superstitious that they believe almost everything, and so vulgar they have noticed hardly anything.

In the Artists’ Quarter, in the Bistro Californium, they stare at one another and the door; sitting in the blue and gamboge shadows like wax figures waiting for a murder, for their own long-sensed termination which at once fascinates and frightens them. “I dined with the hertis-Padnas.” “Oh, shut up.” Unearthly structures have insinuated themselves between the towers on the hill at Minnet-Saba: hanging galleries under the fat white moon, like veins of quartz; sandy domes and papery things like wasps’ nests. All have an immaterial feel, the air of an intrusion from some other imagination, but the Low City streets are generally so cold that there is nobody in them to notice. And the Reborn have gone. (All night long on the high paths of the Monar their columns move uneasily north. Many will die of cold. Out among the tottering seracs of the glaciers, their advance parties report mirages.) So there is no one abroad in the High City to see the palace of Methvet Nian pulsing like a great alchemical rose up there at the summit of the Proton Circuit, its filigree outer shell warping with light. No stars are visible above that hall; only there is a feeling of some heavy weight, some great uncommon cloud balanced above it. Its corridors are deserted but for the crawling survivors of the Sign trying to become insects The palace awaited its end, breathing like an old woman: and with every shallow inspiration a yellow cabbagey air was drawn in from the city outside, to trickle down the passageways, chill the devotees of the Sign where they crouched in corners over their dragging abdominal sacs or quivering elytra, and come eventually through a region of old machines in niches, to the throne room of the Queen-that room which Tomb the Dwarf had barricaded with corpses, and in which he now lay unable to get up.

In the end it hadn’t been much of a fight; better than some he’d had, worse than many. The usual shouts and stinks; some hot work with the axe in a corner; the room frozen at sudden odd angles as the mechanical wife bore him to conclusions in the bluish gloom; shadows teetering on the walls. When it came down to it the servants of the Sign had behaved more like its victims-curiously lethargic and self-involved, as if trying to recover their human state. Those lucky enough to be unimpeded by their deformities had been preoccupied with them nevertheless, and had found it difficult to defend themselves against the axe; the rest had welcomed it quite openly. That axe! He remembered it now. How it hissed and sputtered in the dark, dripping with St. Elmo’s fire! He recalled its evil light in the dim depopulated Soubridge streets at the conclusion of the War of the Two Queens. It had been with him on the Proton Circuit, when he stood on a heap of corpses to shake the hand of Alstath Fulthor; it had been with him at Waterbeck’s rout, when with tegeus-Cromis the legendary swordsman he had watched a thousand farmboys slaughtered in ten minutes: and both these friends now lost to him through death or madness. He remembered distinctly how he had first dug it up, but he could not think where… At any rate it had been a terrible thing to unleash on a handful of deformed shopkeepers, who could meet it only with kitchen knives and nightmares, in a shadowy room at the “smoky candle end of time.” He could not understand how they had brought him down.

There was a strong smell of death in the room, and his view of it was obscured by the dead themselves. They surrounded him like an earthwork topped with a fringe of stiffened limbs which framed part of a tapestry here, there a broken high-backed chair; and the blue light lay on their waxy skin like a bruise. The mechanical wife embraced him. Her delicate spars had snapped like icicles when she fell; her spine was cracked; and up from her mysterious centres of power came a thin stream of whitish motes, interrupted every so often by a sluice of yellow radiation and a momentary lifelike twitching of her limbs. Cellur and the Queen had tried and failed to free him, passing to and fro in front of him, their distracted expressions like those of illuminated figures on a grubby pasteboard playing card.

Now they were waiting calmly for the end, staring into the invisible North as if they might by force of will understand what was happening there; as if they sensed Galen Hornwrack perched there on the edge of his long fall. Their voices were desultory in the gloom.

“Birds no longer come to see me out of the high air,” whispered one; while the other smiled regretfully and said, “A dead bird swung at his belt during all that journey down the Rannoch. I did not hate my cousin, but it was a hard winter.”

Tomb licked his lips. He was dying. The excitement of murder, which had come back to him like a familiar old pain, was now ebbing. He was stranded on the shore of himself, hollowed out yet filled with enigmas which he recognised dimly as the evidence of his own unwounded psyche. He had made few judgements, before or after the fact: thus the events of his life, and the figures in it, retained their wholeness, remaining-he was surprised to find-like icons in the brain, sharp and brightly lit. Now they presented themselves to him as a series of unexpected gifts-a spring shower making paste out of the pink dust of the Mogadon Littoral, where the enamelled hermit crabs run up sideways out of the sea; the smell of whitebait frying in some cafe on the Rue Montdampierre; someone saying, “Here the anemone boy spilt wine on her cloak”-shy, unbidden, peripheral little memories. He was captivated. While he waited, he reviewed them. He attended them with a shyness of his own, a pure and unironic affection for his own past.

(Tomb the Dwarf! Much later, Methvet Nian discovered his caravan undamaged in Old Palace Yard. Its vulgar colours were still bright beneath the winter’s grime. The inside of it was very clean. She could find in none of its cleverly designed cupboards and hiding places anything personal to him, anything he might have kept out of sentiment. His old spade was there, but it was simply a spade. His belongings were utilitarian, or else had myths-and thus existences-of their own: the little furnace, for instance, which had reforged the Nameless Sword all those years ago. There was nothing here to remember him by-this was how she put it to herself. Nevertheless, rather than leave she turned over the cold bed linen, or touched a small pewter cup. Out in the courtyard there was clinging rain; yellow light and footsteps on the cobbles; night drawing in. Sitting alone in the dark she wondered what had become of his ponies.)

City, dwarf, Queen: all waited.

Cellur the old man, alien millennia fading in his brain, waited.

Up in the North, Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor waited on the quaking plain. Demented, pained, tortured by the persistence of the universe, Benedict Paucemanly could only wait.

Hornwrack himself waited, falling eternally toward the mysterious city.

He had pulled his hair ruthlessly back and fastened it with a steel clasp in imitation of the doomed captains of a now-forgotten war. About him he had drawn the meal-coloured cloak of the Low City bravo (which with its grotesquely dyed hem signifies that he has wallowed in the blood of fifty men). His hands, he discovered, had betrayed him over the breaking of the knife. They had hidden it in his cloak. Now it lay in his lap, flawed blade black and enigmatic. In all, he was as the Queen had seen him last, in her drawing room at Viriconium. He had rejected the myth she had offered him and adhered to his own. These symbols of the pose which had sustained him through eighty years of wet dawns in the Rue Sepile now served, perhaps, to reassure him of that.

The ship fell. He would not touch the controls. He held the knife tightly to keep his hands occupied. One moment his thin face was in eclipse. The next it had been thrown into prominence by a flash of rose-red light from the decaying node beneath.

We are not talking of his motives. All his life he had looked not for life itself but for some revelation to unify it and give it meaning: some-any- significant occurrence. Whether he was able or willing to recognise it now it had come, we cannot say. It is immaterial anyway. In the event he sacrificed himself to release the old airboatman from an undeserved nightmare. It was a rescue.

At the instant of impact the boat split open around him like an empty gourd, but he did not feel it.

Instead, as the crystal splinters entered his brain, he experienced two curious dreams of the Low City, coming so quickly one after the other that they seemed simultaneous. In the first, long shadows moved across the ceiling frescoes of the Bistro Californium, beneath which Lord Mooncarrot’s clique awaited his return to make a fourth at dice. Footsteps sounded on the threshold. The women hooded their eyes and smiled, or else stifled a yawn, raising dove-grey gloves to their blue, phthisic lips. Viriconium, with all her narcissistic intimacies and equivocal invitations, welcomed him again. He had hated that city, yet now it was his past and it was all he had to regret… The second of these visions was of the Rue Sepile. It was dawn, in summer. Horse-chestnut flowers bobbed like white wax candles above the deserted pavements. An oblique light struck into the street-so that its long and normally profitless perspectives seemed to lead straight into the heart of a younger, more ingenuous city-and fell across the fronts of the houses where he had once lived, warming the rotten brick and imparting to it a not unpleasant pinkish colour. Up at the second-floor casement window a boy was busy with the bright red geraniums arranged along the outer sill in lumpen terra-cotta pots. He looked down at Hornwrack and smiled. Before Hornwrack could speak he drew down the lower casement and turned away. The glass which now separated them reflected the morning sunlight in a silent explosion; and Hornwrack, dazzled, mistaking the light for the smile, suddenly imagined an incandescence which would melt all those old streets!

Rue Sepile; the Avenue of Children; Margery Fry Court: all melted down! All the shabby dependencies of the Plaza of Unrealised Time! All slumped, sank into themselves, eroded away until nothing was left in his field of vision but an unbearable white sky above and the bright clustered points of the chestnut leaves below-and then only a depthless opacity, behind which he could detect the beat of his own blood, the vitreous humour of the eye. He imagined the old encrusted brick flowing, the glass cracking and melting from its frames even as they shrivelled away, the shreds of paint flaring green and gold, the geraniums toppling in flames to drop like comets through the fiery air; he imagined the chestnuts fading to nothing, not even white ash, under this weight of light! All had winked away like reflections in a jar of water glass, and only the medium remained, bright, viscid, vacant. He had a sense of the intolerable briefness of matter, its desperate signalling and touching, its fall; and simultaneously one of its unendurable durability.

He thought, Something lies behind all the realities of the universe and is replacing them here, something less solid and more permanent. Then the world stopped haunting him forever.

It is so hard to convey simultaneity:

As Hornwrack dreamed, so did Tomb the Iron Dwarf, dying a thousand miles away in his one hundred and fiftieth year, old friend of kings and princes; as Cellur and the Queen stood in the chilly throne room, staring into the North and whispering in the dry voices of the old, so Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor stood in the distant waste and watched Benedict Paucemanly open his arms as if to embrace the falling airboat. His voice hooted morosely across to them on the wind. “You’ve come home,” he tried to say: to whom or what is unclear, unless it was himself. It was too late anyway. The Heavy Star buried itself in the bloated arch of his chest and broke apart with a muffled thud. He rolled like a stricken whale with this enormous blow, making a soft, almost female noise of grief or pleasure; and a white light issued suddenly from him, a nimbus which filled the pit and spread so rapidly that within a minute the whole of the city had been transfigured, its alien arcades and papery constructions appearing to glow from within.

This light rippled out over the earth, thinning as it went. By the time it had crossed the bitter coasts of Fenlen it was nothing more than a faint disturbance of matter which, speeding through the very stones of the world, liberated everything in its path from the “new reality.” It cleansed the ruins of Iron Chine, where for a month great green beetles had fumbled through the whitish remains of Elmo Buffin’s ill-starred fleet. Spilling over the battlements of the cold city of Duirinish, it relieved the proctors there of their visions-crane flies stalking distant fantastic littorals, trees into men, men into geometrical figures. It swept between the shattered buttresses of the Agdon scarp, and when it had passed the stunted oakwoods on the slopes below were untenanted again. It flickered among the high passes of the Monar, scouring them with a glacial light, and finally crossed the walls of the Pastel City to empty those ancient streets of all illusions but their proper human ones.

(Out there on the alien plain, Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor felt it pulse through them, and were pulled away into the past. “Arnac san Tehn!” he called triumphantly. “We meet in the Garden of Women! Midnight!” But she whispered, “So many wings,” a little sad, perhaps, to leave. “So many wings,” seeing the cruelty of it all. They lingered for a while as grey phantoms amid the sinking cairns of the watershed, the Afternoon Cultures reclaiming them by degrees. Now they are lost to us for good.)

Benedict Paucemanly writhed silently as if determined to vomit something up. All was done but this one thing: his death. He groaned and strained. Abruptly the larvae of the swarm burst out of his distended pores, fell off him into the pit, and dried up like dead leeches. He hooted in triumph. The light fountained up from him for some minutes more, all the light he had absorbed during his long imprisonment in the moon, all his pain. He was beatified, dissolving in his own light. Repository and symbol, he released all the energies of the two realities colliding within him: and in releasing them released the earth.

The plain darkens. We see it from a long way off. The old airboatman is dead. There is a slow fading of the sky, a cold wind springing up; a deeper night arrives. The mysterious city winks like an ember on the edge of the plain, fading from white to purple to a dim red and then nothing. For a moment the swarm hangs above this, its first and last stronghold, forming itself into a complex grid-like pattern in the obsidian air-some last attempt to communicate with the human world, a glowing symbol, meaningless yet full of import against the darkness. Down floats its stridulant hymn, bony celebration of the waste spaces of the universe. Then, its ontological momentum lost, its position in the material continuum untenable, the life goes out of it. Those individuals which survive will become mere insects and wander about the plain forever with folded wings, as lost as all the other races that ever came down to the earth, and whose descendants now inhabit the Deep Wastes. When they meet they will stare lengthily at one another as if trying to remember something; or, copulating hopelessly beneath a black rain, become suddenly immobile, so that they resemble tangled silver brooches mislaid on the desert by the hetaerae of some vanished civilisation…

EPILOGUE

Viriconium.

Its achingly formal gardens and curious geometries; its streets that reek of squashed fruit and fish; its flowers like purple wounds on the lawns of the “Hermitage” at Trois-Vertes; its palace like a shell: how can one deal with it in words?

Viriconium.

If you go and stand up in the foothills of Monar you can see it hanging below you wrapped in a mantle of millennial calm. From the brow of Hollin Low Moor you may watch it fade into another night. Its histories make of the very air about it an amber, an entrapment. Light flares from the vivid tiered heights of Minnet-Saba, from the riverine curve of the Proton Circuit, the improbable towers and plazas of the Atteline Quarter; under a setting sun banks of anemones and sol d’or planted about the graves of tegeus-Cromis and Tomb the Dwarf glow like triumphal stained glass; and someone far off in the still twilight is reading aloud a verse of Ansel Verdigris, the poet of the city.

Viriconium.

Spring. Down in the Cispontine Quarter the vegetation has begun to flourish again. The fuel-gathering women are no longer seen. Ragwort clothes all the fallen walls and earthy scars, its stems already infested with black and yellow caterpillars (later in the year these become an attractive crimson moth which was once the symbol of the city). Up at Alves, jackdaws are squabbling all day over nesting sites in the cracked dome of the observatory. And in that demimonde which has its centre at the Plaza of Unrealised Time, the women smile down from their casement windows, lifting a hand to pat newly washed hair. Humanity has recolonized the inconceivable avenues of the High City-gaping up open-mouthed at the inexplicable architecture of the Afternoon Cultures while it empties its bladder in their millennial gutters-and hung out its washing again in the Low. The “Winter of the Locust” is over. Only a sudden increase in the number of beggars (some of whom have the most novel deformities) along the Rivelin Way persuades us that it ever took place, that we ever listened to that white thin song.

We hear that Lord Mooncarrot is seen about with Chorica nam Vell Ban, that cold fish. He has received her mother at his house in Minnet-Saba: rumour is rife. We hear that the feverish Madam “L” has ceased her visits to the Boulevard Aussman, is cured of all but her bad taste, and this week reopens her salon. We hear that Paulinus Rack, the fat poetaster and undertaker’s agent, has come by a packet of manuscript in not-unquestionable circumstances, and plans soon to edit a volume of the cockatoo’s work. He can be seen any day, with his fat hands and jade cane, drinking lemon gin at the Bistro Californium. (He has a theory of the Locust Winter and its madness. Who does not? Invite him to dinner and he will spill it on his waistcoat with the custard.) As for the rest of the Low City: the younger poets favour a Bistro gnosticism-the world, they say, has already ended, and we are living out hours for which no chronology allows. They cut atrocious figures as they swagger about the Artists’ Quarter practising their polemic. And these days so many poseurs are wearing the meal-coloured cloak that the bravos have taken in defence to yellow velvet.

In short, the Eternal City stands as it once did, infuriating, beautiful, vulgar by turns. Only the Reborn are missing. You do not see them now in the Atteline Quarter, or on the Proton Circuit hurrying from the palace on an errand of Alstath Fulthor’s. (He has never returned. The Low City always knew something like this would happen. It taps the side of its nose; sniffs.) After the persecutions they endured at the hands of the Sign, the majority of them will never come here again. They will live now in the deserts for many generations, their germ-plasm becoming as alien as that of the big lizards of the Great Brown Waste, refining their theory of Time, redefining their heritage, growing mad and strange.

In the evenings Queen Jane, Methvet Nian of Viriconium, sits in the side chamber or salle she uses as a library and drawing room, sometimes meditating this loss, which is one of many in her life. “A world trying to remember itself”: surrounded by her sheets of music and delicate little corals, she has the wry but supple calm of an ageing danseuse; keeps in a rosewood chest with copper reinforcing bands a gourd-shaped musical instrument from the deep East; hears the past in every passing footstep; and wonders often what became of the sword and the mail and the assassin she gave them to.

“I had hoped for so much from the Reborn,” she confides to her new advisor, the old man who is so very rarely seen in public. “We might have rebuilt our culture. Yet they were perhaps too concerned with their own salvation to teach us… and we always too uncomplicated for their delicate nerves…”

She closes her eyes.

“They enriched us even so. Can you still see them, Cellur, when Tomb woke them first? What a pageant they made, there in the brain chamber at Knarr, with all their strange weapons!”

He can see nothing. He was not there. But he has forgotten even that (or perhaps he realizes that she has) and with a small diffident movement of his hands says, “I am sure I do, my lady,” then, remembering something else, smiles suddenly. “Did I not live then in a tower by the sea?”

Ten thousand grey wings beat down the salty wind, like a storm in his head!

IN VIRICONIUM

THE FIRST CARD DEPOUILLEMENT

This card indicates an illness of uncertain severity. Apprehension, fear, and indefinite delay. Expect difficulties in your business. “There is correspondence everywhere; but some correspondences are clearer than others.”

CHARLES WILLIAMS, The Greater Trumps

Ashlyme the portrait painter, of whom it had once been said that he “first put his sitter’s soul in the killing bottle, then pinned it out on the canvas for everyone to look at like a broken moth,” kept a diary. One night he wrote in it.

The plague zone has undergone one of its periodic internal upheavals and extendedits boundaries another mile. I would care as little as anyone else up here in the High City if it were not for Audsley King. Her rooms above the Rue Serpolet now fall within its influence. She is already ill. I am not sure what to do.

He was a strange little man to have got the sort of reputation he had. At first sight his clients, who often described themselves later as victims, thought little of him. His wedge-shaped head was topped by a coxcomb of red hair which gave him a permanently shocked expression. His face accentuated this, being pale and bland of feature, except the eyes, which were very large and wide. He wore the ordinary clothes of the time, and one steel ring he had been told was valuable. He had few close friends in the city. He came from a family of rural landlords somewhere in the midlands; no one knew them. (This accident of birth had left him a small income, and entitled him to wear a sword, although he never bothered. He had one somewhere in a cupboard.)

She must be got out of there, he continued, writing a little more quickly. I have thought of nothing else since this evening’s meeting with Paulinus Rack. Rack, with his fat lips and intimate asides! How did he ever come to be her agent? In his oily hands he had some proof sketches of her designs for his productionof Die Traumunden Knaben-The Dreaming Boys. I stared at them and knew that she must be preserved. They are inexplicable, these figures in their trance-like yet painful attitudes. They suggest a line and form quite foreign to us warmer, more human beings. Could she have understood somethingabout the nature of the crisis that we have not?

He bit his pen.

But how to persuade her to leave? And how to persuade anyone to help me?

This was rhetoric. He had already persuaded Emmet Buffo the astronomer to help him. But what is a diary for, if not effect? The world has already seen too much history dutifully recorded: that was the unconsciously held belief of Ashlyme’s age.

When the ink was dry he locked the book, then picked up the light easel he used for preliminary studies and went downstairs. “Come sometimes at night,” she had said when he accepted the commission, and laughed. “A lamp can be as unflattering as daylight.” (Touching his sleeve with one mannish hand.) At the bottom of the stairs he stood still for a second or two, then let himself out into the empty street and echoing night. From here he had a view of the Low City, some odd quality of the moonlight giving its back and foreground planes equal value, so that it had no perspective but was just a clutter of blue and gamboge roofs filling the space between his eyes and the hills outside the city.

He made his way down the thousand steps which in those days gave access to the heights of Mynned, hidden behind the facade of the Margarethestrasse and its triumphal arches, winding among the fish markets and pie shops where the Artists’ Quarter rubs up against the High City like someone’s old unwanted animal. There were people who did not want to be seen coming and going between High City and Low. They could be heard ascending and descending this stairway all night, among them those curious twin princes of the city, the Barley brothers. (How are we to explain them? They weren’t human, that’s a fact. Had Ashlyme known his fate was mixed up with theirs, would he have been more careful in the plague zone?) At the bottom they would let themselves through a small iron gate. It was constructed so as to permit only one person through at a time, and its name commemorated in the Low City some atrocity long since forgotten in the High. Ashlyme had his own reasons for keeping off the Margarethestrasse. Perhaps his nightly visits to the plague zone embarrassed him.

He was inclined to hurry through the Artists’ Quarter. Blue light leaked from the chromium doors of the brasseries and estaminets as he passed. In the Bistro Californium, beneath Kristodulos’s notorious frescoes, some desperate celebration was in progress. Out came the high-pitched voice of a poet, auctioning the dull things he had found in the back of his brain. There was a peculiar laugh; a scatter of applause; silence. Further on, in the Plaza of Unrealised Time, beggars were lounging outside the rooms of the women, curious bandages accentuating rather than covering their deformities as they relaxed after the efforts of the day. One or two of them winked and smiled at him. Ashlyme clutched his easel and quickened his pace until they had fallen behind. In this way, quite soon, he entered the infected zone.

The plague is difficult to describe. It had begun some months before. It was not a plague in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a kind of thinness, a transparency. Within it people aged quickly, or succumbed to debilitating illnesses-phthisis, influenza, galloping consumption. The very buildings fell apart and began to look unkempt, ill-kept. Businesses failed. All projects dragged out indefinitely and in the end came to nothing.

If you went up into the foothills outside, claimed Emmet Buffo, and looked down into the city through a telescope, you could see the affected zone spreading like a thin fog. “The instrument reveals something quite new!” The Low City streets, and the people you could see in them (and he had an instrument which enabled them to be seen quite clearly) were a little faded or blurred, as if the light was bad or the lenses grimy. But if you turned the identical telescope on the pastel towers and great plazas of the High City, they stood out as bright and sharp as a bank of flowers in the sun. “It is not the light at fault after all, or the instrument!” Whether you believed him or not, few areas south of the Boulevard Aussman remained safe; and to the east the periphery of the infection now threatened the High City itself along the line of the Margarethestrasse, bulging a little to accommodate the warren of defeated avenues, small rentier apartments, and vegetable markets which lay beneath the hill at Alves. Buffo’s observations might or might not be reliable. In any case they only told part of the story. The rest lay in the Low City, and to appreciate it you had to go there.

Ashlyme, who was there and didn’t appreciate it, put down his easel and massaged his elbow. With the onset of the plague all the streets in this corner of the city had begun to seem the same, lined with identical dusty chestnut trees and broken metal railings. He had walked down the Rue Serpolet ten minutes ago, he discovered, without recognising it. The houses on either side of Audsley King’s were empty. Piles of plaster and lath and hardened mortar lay everywhere, evidence of grandiose and complicated repairs which, like the schemes of the rentiers who had instituted them, would never be completed. Speculation of this kind was feverish in the plague zone: a story was told in the High City in which a whole street changed hands three times in one week, its occupants remaining lethargic and uninterested.

Audsley King had a confusing suite of rooms on an upper floor. The stairs smelt faintly of geraniums and dried orange flowers. Ashlyme stood uncertainly on the landing with a cat sniffing round his feet. “Hello?” he called. He never knew what to expect from her. Once she had sprung out on him from a closet, laughing helplessly. He could hear low voices coming from one of the rooms but he couldn’t tell which. He set his easel down loudly on the bare boards. The cat ran off. “It’s Ashlyme,” he said. He went from room to room looking for her. They were full of paintings propped up against the neutral cream walls. He found himself staring down into a square garden like a cistern, full of darkness and trailing plants. “I’m here,” he called-but was he? She made him feel like a ghost, swimming idly around waiting to be noticed. He opened what he thought was a cupboard but it turned out to be a short hall with a green velvet curtain at the end of it, which gave on to her studio.

She was sitting there on the floor with Fat Mam Etteilla, the fortune-teller and cardsharp. One lamp gave out a yellow light which was reflected from the upturned cards: threw the women themselves into prominence but failed to light the rest of the room, which was quite large. Consequently they seemed to be posed, in their strained and graceless attitudes, against a yellow emptiness in which hung only the faintest suggestions of objects- a pot of anemones, the corner of an easel, or a window frame. This lent a bewildering ambiguity to the scene he was later to paint from memory as “Visiting the women in their upper room.” In the picture we see the Fat Mam sitting with her skirts pulled up to her thighs and her legs spread out, facing the cards (these are without symbols and, though arranged for divination, predict nothing). Crouched between her thighs and also facing the cards is a much thinner woman with hair cropped like an adolescent boy’s and a body all elbows and knees. Ashlyme’s treatment of these figures is extraordinary. Their arms are locked together and they seem to be rocking to and fro-in grief, perhaps, or in the excesses of some strange and joyless sexual spasm. A few brutal lines contain them; all else is void. There is some humanity in the way he has coloured the skirts of the Fat Mam. But Audsley King is looking defiantly out of the canvas, her eyes sly.

They remained in this position for thirty seconds or so after he had pulled back the curtain. The studio was quiet but for the hoarse breathing of the fortune-teller. Audsley King smiled sleepily at Ashlyme; then, when he said nothing, reached out deliberately and disarranged the cards. Suddenly she began coughing. She put her hand hurriedly over her mouth and turned her head away, writhing her thin shoulders in the attempt to expel something. “Oh, go away you old fool,” she said indistinctly to the fortune-teller. “You can see it hasn’t worked.” When Ashlyme took her hand it was full of blood. He helped her to a chair and made her comfortable while the Fat Mam put away the cards, brought water, lit the other lamps.

“How tired I am,” said Audsley King, smiling up at him, “of hearing my lungs creak all day like new boots.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “It makes me so impatient.”

The haemorrhage had left her disoriented but demanding, like a child waking up in the middle of a long journey. She forgot his name, or pretended to. But she would not let him leave: she would not hear of it. He would set up his easel like a proper painter and work on the portrait. Meanwhile she would entertain him with anecdotes, and the Fat Mam would read his fortune in the cards. They would make him tea or chocolate, whichever he preferred.

Ashlyme, though, had never seen her so pale. Should she not go to bed? She would not go to bed. She would have her portrait painted. In the face of such determination, what could he do but admire her harsh, mannish profile and white cheeks, and comply? After he had been drawing for about an hour he put down the black chalk and said carefully,

“If you would just come to the High City. Rack is a charlatan, but he would have you well cared for, if only to safeguard his investment.”

“Ashlyme, you promised me.”

“It will soon be too late. The quarantine police-”

“It’s already too late, you stupid man.” She moved her shoulders fretfully. “The plague is here”-indicating herself and then the room at large, with its morosely draped furniture and empty picture frames-“and in here. It hangs in the street down there like a fog. They will make no exceptions, we have already learned that.” For a moment a terrible hunger lit up her eyes. But it turned slowly into indifference. “Besides,” she said, “I would not go if they did. Why should I go? The High City is an elaborate catafalque. Art is dead up there, and Paulinus Rack is burying it. Nothing is safe from him-or from those old women who finance him-painting, theatre, poetry, music. I no longer wish to go there.” Her voice rose. “I no longer wish them to buy my work. I belong here.”

Ashlyme would have argued further. She said she would cough herself to death if he did. He went miserably back to his work.

A curious listlessness now came over the studio-the dull, companionable silence of the plague zone, which stretched time out like a thread of mucus. Mam Etteilla shuffled the cards. (What was she doing here, this fat patient woman, away from her grubby satin booth in the Plaza of Unrealised Time? What arrangement had been made between them?) She set the cards out; read them; gathered them up without a word. She did this sitting on the floor, while Audsley King looked on expressionlessly, for the present indifferent to her condition, as if she were dreaming it. The feverish energy of the haemorrhage seemed to have left her; she had sunk into her chair, eyes half closed. Only once did the symbols on the cards attract her attention. She leaned forward and said,

“As a young girl I lived on a farm. It was somewhere in the damp, endless ploughland near Soubridge. Every week my father killed and plucked three chickens. They hung on the back of a door until they were eaten. I hated to pass them, with their small mad heads hanging down, but it was the only way to get to the dairy.” One day, opening the door, she had seen an eyelid fall suddenly closed over an eye like a glass bead. “Now I dream that it is dead women who hang behind the door: and I imagine one of them winks at me.” Catching Ashlyme’s astonished glance she laughed and ran her hand along the arm of her chair. “Perhaps it never happened. Or not to me. Was I born in Soubridge, or have I been here all the time, in the plague zone? Here we are prone to a fevered imagination.” She watched her hand a moment longer, moving on the arm of the chair, then seemed to fall asleep.

Ashlyme, relieved, immediately packed his chalks and folded his easel.

“I must go while it is still dark,” he told the Fat Mam. She put her finger to her lips. She held up one of the cards (he could not see what was on it, only the yellow reflection of the lamp), but did not answer otherwise. I will return, he pantomimed, tomorrow evening. As he passed her chair the dying woman whispered disconcertingly, “Yearning has its ghosts, Ashlyme. I painted such ghosts, as you well know. Not for pleasure! It was an obligation. But all they want in the High City is trivia.” She clutched his hand, her eyes still closed. “I don’t want to go back there, Ashlyme, and they wouldn’t want me if I did: they would want some pale, neutered shadow of me. I belong to the plague zone now.”

The fortune-teller let him out into the street. The cat rubbed his legs. As he made off in the direction of the High City he heard something heavy falling in an upper room, and a confused, ravaged voice called out, “Help me! Help me!”

He continued to visit the Rue Serpolet once or twice a week. He would have gone more frequently but he had other commissions. An inexplicable lethargy gripped him: while he still had access to the dying woman he found it hard to finalise his plans for her rescue. Still, the portrait was progressing. In exchange for his preliminary sketches and caricatures, which had delighted her with their cruelty, she gave him some small canvases of her own. He was embarrassed. He could not accept them; compared to her he was, he protested, only a talented journeyman. She coughed warningly. “I would be honoured to take them,” he said. He came no closer to understanding her relationship with the fortune-teller, who was now seen only rarely at her yellow booth in the Artists’ Quarter, and spent her time instead laundering bloody handkerchiefs, preparing meals which Audsley King allowed to cool uneaten, and endlessly turning over the cards.

The cards!

The pictures on them glowed like crude stained glass, like a window on some other world, some escape. That the fortune-teller saw them so was plain. But Audsley King looked on expressionlessly, as before. She was using them, he thought, for something else: some more complex self-deception.

All his visits were made via the Gabelline Stairs. There was a considerable volume of traffic there during the plague months. Ashlyme made an oddly proper little figure among the poets and poseurs, the princelings, politicians and popularists who might be found ascending or descending them at dawn and dusk. But his peculiar red coxcomb gave him away as one of them. One morning just before dawn he encountered two drunken youths on the stairs where they went round behind Agden Fincher’s famous pie shop. They were a rough-looking pair, with scabby hands and hair of a dirty yellow colour chopped to stubble on their big round heads. They wore outlandish clothes, which were covered with food stains and worse.

When he first saw them they were sitting on each side of the stair, throwing a bruised melon back and forth between them. They were singing tunelessly,

“We are the Barley brothers.

Ousted out of Birmingham and Wolverhampton,

Lords of the Left Hand Brain,

The shadows of odd doings follows us through the night,” but they soon stopped that.

“Give us yer blessing, vicar!” they called. They staggered up to Ashlyme and fell at his feet, bowing their heads. He had no idea who they had mistaken him for. Perhaps they would have done it to anybody. One of them gripped his ankles with both hands, stared up at him, and vomited copiously on his shoes.

“Oops!”

Ashlyme was disgusted. He ignored them and walked on, but they followed him, trying out of curiosity to prise his easel from under his arm.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he told them fiercely, avoiding their great sheepish blue eyes; they groaned and nodded. They accompanied him in his fashion about a hundred steps toward Mynned, winking conspiratorially when they thought he wasn’t looking. Then they seemed to remember something else.

“Fincher’s!” they shouted.

They began to pelt each other furiously with fruit and meat.

“Fincher, make us a pie!”

They tottered off, falling down and knocking on doors at random.

Ashlyme quickened his pace. The reek of squashed fruit followed him all the way up to the High City, where his shoes attracted some comment.

Who were these drunken brothers? It is not certain. They owned the city, or so they claimed. They had come upon it, they said, during the course of a mysterious journey. (Sometimes they claimed to have created it, in one day, from nothing but the dust which blows through the low hills of Monar. Millennia had passed since then, they explained.) At first they appeared in a quite different form: two figures materialising once or twice a decade in the sky above the Atteline Plaza of the city, huge and unrealistic like lobsters in their scarlet armour, staring down in an interested fashion. Mounted on vast white horses, they had moved through the air like a constellation, fading away over a period of hours.

Now they lived somewhere in the High City with a Mingulay dwarf. They were trying to become human.

This is a game to them, or seems to be, wrote Ashlyme in his diary: a curiousand violent one. Not a night passes without some drunken imbroglio. They hang about all day in the pissoir of some wineshop, carving their initials in the plaster on the walls, and after dark race along the Margarethestrasse stuffing themselves with noodles and pies which they vomit up all over the steps of the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metalla at midnight.

Were they responsible for the city’s present affliction? Ashlyme had always blamed them. If they really are the lords of the city, he wrote, they are unreliable ones, with their “Chinese take-away” and their atrocious argot.

While the Barley brothers wrestled with their new humanity, the plague was lapping at the foot of the High City like a lake. An air of inexplicable dereliction spread across the entire Artists’ Quarter. The churchyards were full of rank marguerites, the streets plastered with torn political posters. Dull ironic laughter issued from the Bistro Californium and the