March 30, 2014

KES, 124


They had forgotten why they were there, if they had ever known.  But the Lady of the Keep wanted this grey, flat, foggy stretch of nowhere patrolled, and so the duty rota for certain of her companies included a tour at the Black Tower.  There were jokes about the turning of the year at the Black Tower, that in spring it was grey, flat and foggy, in summer it was grey, flat and foggy;  and then in autumn it was . . . grey, flat and foggy.  In winter there was usually a little snow for variety, but even the snow was grey.  The companies came, they patrolled, they were bored out of their minds, they went away again.

It was an unpleasant sort of boredom however.  You were never quite at your ease at the Black Tower billet;  if the roster hadn’t stipulated a twenty-four hour watch they’d have set one up or no one would have ever got any sleep.  You still tended to wake up at odd hours and lie there listening to the silence—or straining to hear a cough or a clink from whoever was officially awake and watching the flat grey nothingness for . . .

No one knew for what.  And they didn’t talk about it much, but everyone from the oldest seen-it-all to the youngest eager recruit knew that the flat grey wasn’t quite nothing.  Wasn’t quite empty.  You tried to tell yourself well, of course not, or why would the Lady want it watched?  But it wasn’t a reassuring answer.  And it didn’t help you sleep.

There were stories.  Of a Gate.  Of a Defender.  The peculiar—and disturbing—thing was that no one ever said those particular stories had anything to do with the Black Tower watch, but it was on that watch that those stories were told.   Maybe it was because of the huge ominous black figure that loomed in the background of these stories, a man-shaped creature, but as tall as a tree, as tall as the Lady’s castle, as tall as the sky, with a black sword as long as it was.  Maybe it was because the Gate was a wavering, grey, uncertain, nothingness sort of Gate and no one knew where it was or, perhaps, where it might appear.  Maybe it was the inconsistency, or the transience, of the Defender, who was sometimes a bent old wizard, sometimes a heroic young archer—the stories usually included that to cross swords with the black giant meant death—sometimes a proud stalwart leader like their Lady.  Sometimes the Defender was a great bird of prey, for even the strongest human archer could not send an arrow high enough to pierce the black giant in the throat or the eye, which, it was said, were its only vulnerable places.

But there were no stories of its destruction, of its defeat.

There were other watches, like theirs.  There was a river where the weeds at its margins were so thick and entangling, and the current at its centre so savage, that even a black thing as tall as the sky might hesitate to attempt passage.  There were islands in that river where there were watchers like themselves at the Black Tower—although the stories did not say how, or if, they got on or off their islands.

There was a forest where the trees watched—you lay awake sometimes hoping that the trees took turns, watching.  Trees, even guardian trees, didn’t get up and walk around—so far as you knew—didn’t go back to regimental headquarters when their tour of duty was over and get sent somewhere else where there were only werethings or rogue magicians or marching armies seeking conquest and empire to worry about.  But even trees (you hoped) had time off.  If they watched like you had to watch you hoped they had time off.

And there was a desert.  There weren’t any stories about the desert;  when a story about the Gate and the Defender stumbled into the desert whoever was telling it might stutter on for a few words, but would then fall silent, and a heavy gloom would fall on the audience until someone roused enough to suggest a song, or declared wasn’t it nearly dinnertime?  The desert was maybe a little like the foggy grey not-quite-void around the Black Tower, but as ‘like’ as the black giant was ‘like’ an ordinary human soldier.

The Falcon company had only arrived two days ago, and the handover from the Eagles had gone as usual but every member of the Falcons felt more than usually on edge by the first nightfall.  When Durmain dropped his tankard on the stone floor of the mess there were two swords and three daggers out and ready before the tankard banged up against a table leg and stopped.  Everyone sighed—Durmain got clumsy when he was nervous;  fortunately he had no nerves at all in battle—and the rest of the evening, and the next day, were uneventful.  Except for the buzzing in your ears and the way even the oldest soldiers tossed the dice oddly, as if their hands were shaking.

That second night very few people bothered to go to bed, to pretend to sleep.  Usually their colonel made them bank all the fires and blow out all the lamps after supper, to preserve fuel, except for the small grate and a lantern or two in the duty room.  Tonight she just shook her head, and the dice games, the whittling, the mending of gear went on.  It was a muggy almost-warm night so they built a fire outdoors, and brought benches and lamps outside.

The sense of oppression grew worse and worse.  The third time Durmain stabbed himself with his needle, shuddered and cursed, he laid his mending down;  and he was not the only one.  It was hard even pumping your chest in and out to keep breathing.  While there wasn’t much wind, and what there was was damp and sullen, the clouds were boiling overhead, and everyone kept glancing uneasily skyward.

The clouds slowed and settled.  The sky seemed to clear, but it was still a louring grey, not night-black, and there were no stars.  As you stared upward the clouds began to look like a landscape, bleak and barren, pitted and treacherous.  Eventually your eyes made out that there were people—people on horseback—in that landscape.  The horses were standing still, stiff and prick-eared, they and their riders all facing as if staring somewhere over your left shoulder.  At their head stood a horse made even bigger, you thought, by the slightness of its rider:  a pale slender woman, with long tangled hair, riding bare-legged and barefoot.

You didn’t know who shouted, only that it sounded like it came from someone standing with you, some Falcon, and that the voice was rough with both joy and terror.




Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.