Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Midnight


The crowd shuddered and swayed. As the horn blast fell to echoes in the wintry air, four serpentine creatures floated through the gates of the City, hissing and flicking their long purple tails. Beneath them four massive figures made entirely of gleaming metal marched to the pulsing of huge hide drums, their silver faces expressionless. Each bore a jewelled spear whose tip was sheathed in gold where it pierced the woven purple tube undulating high above it in the wind.

Then came four men carrying a litter, and with it a statue of a reclining figure, bearded and draped in purple cloth. Larger than life, carved from black onyx shot through with veins of lightning, it towered over the heads of the crowd. Its stone eyes seemed to stare in all directions at once. For a long moment there was no sound, and then the drums rolled, the pipers burst into wild music, and the crowd erupted. The procession had begun.

Behind the litter came another piled high with caskets, gem-studded amphorae, and exotic weapons inlaid with gold. Then four great white bulls were led through the gates, snorting and tossing their horns, and after them came the prisoners. Yoked and chained, they entered through the high stone arch stumbling as the shock of the crowd’s scorn washed over them. Those that had eyes peered bloodshot into the throng, straining perhaps to distinguish faces and voices amid the torrent of colour and sound. Behind them marched a troop of horn players, the instruments twisting upward like bronze serpents ready to strike. Then more prisoners, white barbarians of the north, broken men bound on a litter with their backs against a bristling sheaf of axes, spears, and shields mounted on pikes. Finally the keepers of the peace marched in a body, each with an axe and a bundle of slender clubs leaning high over his shoulder.

Now a tremor ran through the crowd, and the drums reached a wilder pitch. Four war horses bridled with gold drew a golden chariot, flanked with more dragon banners and faceless men in gleaming armour. In the chariot rode two figures cloaked in purple and crowned with heavy bands of gold. Each held to the chariot with one arm, and with the other gripped his companion’s shoulder in an embrace that held both steady as the chariot jolted and swayed. Their faces were majestic and harsh, their expressions serene.

Tension rippled through the multitude, a yearning that surged toward release. “Lords!” cried a voice, and “Divine Lords!” another. The murmur deepened and grew as more voices rang out. “Seniors of the Four!” “Restorers of the world!” “Founders of eternal peace!” Some were swaying; others lifted their open hands and shouted out the words being tossed like flotsam on a human sea. The wild music swelled and swept through the streets of the City as the chariot rumbled past.

One old man standing at the edge of the crowd turned away. In his deep green eyes was the look of one who had seen more than enough of mirth and sadness and strange fortune. As he raised the hood of his cloak against the cold, a woman caught his eye. She was half his age, lean and sharp-eyed; not beautiful, but possessed of a hard self-assurance that commanded respect. Through the masses of men and women she was looking right at him.

They came together a little distance apart from the crowd, in the mouth of a narrow side street that twisted away from the main thoroughfare. “You couldn’t stay away, could you!” shouted the man, scarce to be heard above the roar. The woman said nothing, but took his arm as they started down the street. Between shops and houses the wall of the City loomed on their right. Gradually the noise died away behind them, and the old man spoke again.

“Did you see the Lord Commanders with their crowns? And the image, and the way the people moved at the summons? Everything so tremendous and strange. It has all changed… I am lost here.”

“You are cold, Father.” She stopped, loosened her shawl from her shoulders, and reached it around his. As she watched him smooth the fine saffron weave against the tattered grey of his cloak she did not smile, but in the steadiness of her gaze there was love and deep regard.

“Your work?” he asked, glancing up from the beautiful garment. She gave a barely perceptible nod as she took his arm again. They continued on their way, moving slowly now.

“This is good,” he said presently, warmed by the movement. “It’s like the old days, when your brother and I would wander the countryside together like beggars. We should celebrate! Let’s get ourselves some of that sweet wine they bring up from the harbour.” He snapped his gnarled fingers gleefully. “Have you tried it before? Delicious and strong.”

“When did you last see my brother?” she asked, giving no sign that she had heard his question.

“Ages past, it seems. He won’t come in from the fields any more. Have you come across him in your travels?”

Again her almost-nod. “He spends the nights with his shepherd friends, or alone under the stars.”

The old man smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. Then his face clouded over suddenly. “No one comes to the City any more. Even that Lord Commander in his chariot, the one they name first among the Four Lords. Twenty years he’s ruled over the whole world, and never once set foot in the Holy City until today. Where is the centre of things now? Do people remember the old ways at all? Do they still go up the mountain to the serpent’s cave?”

“They do.” Her stride was measured, even. “Never have the Four been gathered together in one place, nor will they ever, it is said. They struggle at the ends of the earth to keep its circle unbroken. In such times they do not look to a centre.”

“In such times they have all the more need of one. Fools.” They walked onward as the long light of evening began to lean across the rooftops of the City.

“It’s late,” said the woman after a while. “Let’s find a place to stay before the chill settles in. We could go up to one of the temples and sleep under the entranceway. There will be fires there.”

He waved his hand as if brushing away something unpleasant. “Not there. I feel so small crowded between the columns. Give me the wild groves, and the fields under starlight!”

“Indoors,” she said firmly. “Or somewhere sheltered, with fire to warm our bones.”

“Let’s ask for lodging and a good hearth fire, then. One of my countrymen will take us in.”

They stopped at the next house they came to and knocked. A slave answered, an older, balding man. “We seek the hospitality of your master,” said the aged one. “Is he at home?” The slave bowed and left, and presently a man of middle age came to the door, a minor official or manager of some small business, by the tired, practical look about him.

“Health to you, man of my soil,” said the traveller. “Is there a hearth and a meal in your household for my daughter and I?”

“We have none to spare,” said the master of the house. “There are so many of you coming in from the countryside these days- we cannot give to everyone who asks.”

The stranger was taken aback. “Not even to a woman and an old man, defenceless in the streets?”

“Do you know where the dole office is?” asked the other man patiently. “It’s past time for distribution, but they’ll be able to direct you to someplace warm and safe. One of the temples, maybe.”

“The dole office!” The old man was at a loss for words. He felt his daughter’s hand on his arm, gentle but firm.

“We’ll ask onward then,” she said to the man in the doorway. “A safe night to you and your family.”

“Health and strength to you both,” he responded. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything more.” The door shut quietly behind them as they turned away.

“Did you hear him?” sputtered the old man. “Flouting the most ancient of laws and all the gods! Have you ever seen such crassness, such impiety? Great thunders, if he knew who he has turned away...”

“Father,” said his companion softly. “How long has the harbour wine been working its spell on you?”

“Let’s forget this one,” said the man, ignoring her. “I am empty of curses tonight. We’ll ask onward, as you say.”

From house to house they went, knocking at doors and windows, and at each house the answer was the same: no room, no food. Night had fallen, a night without moon or stars. Each lighted doorway they passed seethed with the noise and heat of dark passions; each figure that passed them loomed huge and menacing in the shadows cast by torches. The sound of marching feet grew loud and near, and as the two shrank into an alley, the keepers of the peace rounded the corner. The long shadows of their clubs and axes glided across the blank faces of the buildings opposite.

“There burns…” whispered the old man, palm against his chest. She touched his shoulders, his pale forehead, his hand. He drew a sharp breath. “‘There burns a raging greed, which hastens to its own growth and increase without respect for human kind.’ Whose words are these, that come so easily to my lips? What sage foretold this hour of darkness?”

“The First of the Four Lords pronounced them in an edict not three years ago. You must have been half-sober to remember them so well.”

“And now I wish that I was drunk again,” he said bitterly. “Even he, the master of the whole world, cannot quell this evil. He has no command over the souls of men.”

“Surely this place will offer us some room,” said the woman, stopping. “The poor of the City will take in their own.”

It was a tall building, some four stories high, its boxy bulk cut by dozens of windows that flickered with dim and smoky light. Beside the door a torch leaned outward in a copper bracket, and the smear of black that reached up the wall behind it blurred into scrawled graffiti in the flickering glare.

Some minutes after they knocked, a young woman came to the door. Her long, dark hair hung unbound, flowing down her back. Her dress, too, was long and ungirdled, and stirred faintly in the cold air as she greeted them.

“Girl, where is your father?” said the old man sharply. “What will you bring upon your family, coming to the door like a whore? And dressed like that?”

“Do you have business with the master?” she asked placidly. “He won’t be back till morning.”

“We’re looking for a place to stay the night,” the female stranger cut in. “A hearth, a crust of bread, that’s all.”

“Both of you?” replied the girl doubtfully, looking slowly from one to the other. She was younger than she’d seemed at first, they now saw. The torch light gleamed in her black hair. “You’ll have to ask the master. We can’t let anyone in who isn’t here on business.”

“Business be damned,” growled the man. “Don’t you know your master has a sacred duty to travellers and wayfarers?” A chill breeze caught at the edges of her garment again. He noticed her feet, bare and white and perfectly formed. “What has your mother taught you about the ways of our people? Anything?”

She tossed her hair slightly; it might have been a shrug, or maybe it was just a shiver. “You could try the flesh-eaters,” she said, and giggled. “There’s a house of them down the street. They’re strange, but nice.”

Just then an infant ran up from somewhere inside the house and grabbed at her dress. Bending, she lifted the child onto her hip, where it stared wide-eyed at the ragged strangers.

“We’ll do that, thank you,” said the woman. She glanced at her companion, but he was silent, his eyes fixed on the girl with the long dark hair.

“Health and strength,” said the girl softly, and kissed the child as she drew the door shut.

“The flesh-eaters,” said the old man abruptly, turning away from the doorway. “It’s barbarians like them that are the cause of all this degeneration. They swarm into the City from all over, destroying the old ways, leaving no room for the rest of us.”

“Wherever the first ones came from, most of them now are our own people, Father,” said the woman. “And if these ones aren’t, they’ll know a thing or two about a wayfarer’s want.”

The house of the flesh-eaters was a simple place, run-down from want of better fortune, but not shabby. The young man who answered the door seemed civilized enough, and he led them immediately to an inner room where five or six others were eating by the light of a single candle: bread, olives, a bit of cheese, nothing barbaric or strange. “We always set a place for the master of the house, whether he comes to eat with us or not,” explained their host. “Tonight one of you may sit in his place and the other may take my own.” He spread his arm to indicate two empty stools at the long, low table.

“We couldn’t possibly…” began the old man, but the host held up his hand firmly. “It is the custom of this house,” he said. “You are welcome here.” The two sank gratefully into the empty seats and ate silently, while the people of the household conversed together in low voices, taking no more notice of the strangers.

When the meal was finished the young man returned with a small stub of a candle, which he lit from the one burning on the table. Then he led his guests into a low, slant-roofed room at the side of the house. “This used to be our stable,” he said as they entered. “I’m sorry there isn’t anywhere better, but there’s straw, and here by the door are clean blankets. We keep them ready in case anyone should need them.” They thanked him, and he left.

“Well, Father, what do you think of the flesh-eaters now?” They had arranged their simple bedding with the little candle between them, and were sitting with their backs against opposite walls of the narrow stable.

He frowned and thought a moment before answering. “They know who they are,” he said at last. “They have virtue in a land that has reduced everything to a value.” He gazed around them slowly. “Look at this room. Bare, penniless, but it doesn’t hold them back from giving what they are. Where are the animals, I wonder?”

“The First Lord issued an edict against these people only a few months past. Many of the leaders are being killed, and across the whole world there is not a judge that will defend them. It’s likely the animals were stolen. Didn’t you know?”

He blinked. “I did not. My, how I’ve dwindled.” He drew his blanket closer around him.

Just then there was a knock at the stable door. “Come in,” the woman called out, and a young man entered whom they had not seen before.

Young, but not youthful, they saw in the candle’s soft light. His dark hair and beard were thickly curled, and in his dark eyes there was both gentleness and sadness. In his hands he carried a bowl of something sweetly fragrant.

“I hope I’m not waking you,” he said quietly. “They told me you were here, and I wanted to greet you myself.”

“Greetings and well met,” said the old one, straightening up. “Is that wine you’ve brought with you?”

“It is,” replied the host gravely, and offered it to him with a smile. “My friends were amiss in their hospitality not to offer it sooner. I’m afraid it’s not as sweet as what you can get down by the harbour- just something I make myself here at home.”

“It’s wonderful,” said the old man, taking a long sip and then another. He offered the bowl to his daughter, who declined, before passing it back to the master of the house, seated now on the dirt floor beside his guests. The younger man took a long, deep drink before he spoke again.

“I hope you’re comfortable, both of you. My heart aches to see you wandering the streets of your own city like this. And your beautiful family, dispersed… Yes, the old law of your people allows me, once I’ve eaten and drunk with my guests, to ask your names and business. But now that I see you I don’t need to ask who you are. I recognized you the moment I came into the room. Among our kind we don’t need introductions, do we?” He passed the wine bowl back across the candle flame, and in the light they saw clearly the deep scar in his wrist.

“So you’re the carpenter’s son?” said the old man, raising an eyebrow as he lifted the bowl to his lips. He swallowed once and lowered the bowl. “I thought you’d be taller.”

At this the host laughed, a bright, clear sound in the dim stable. “You know, I was never much good at the work. I’m a fisherman at heart, always have been. And the journey that led me to these shores has been long. Long and difficult.” His gaze was steady, but as he spoke a shadow passed across his face.

Now the old one set the bowl down on the ground. His frailness had vanished, and in the set of his shoulders there was strength, august and fierce. The stable seemed to shrink around him and his own frame to grow, until in the flickering shadows he loomed like a colossus.

“The way grows steeper as it climbs. Do you not know? Though you recognize us, foolhardy is he that thinks to know us.” The voice that spoke from his mouth was deep and terrible as rolling thunder.

“For we are older and stronger than the seven hills, watchers of the wheeling stars, guardians of the pits of night, wherein lie sleepless the ancient powers of the earth. Beware!” Lightning flashed in the close darkness of the stable. His eyes were blazing globes of light in his storm-dark face. “What comfort for you when the wheel has turned again? When the cities founded in your name teem with the wretched, and your image is borne skyward by tyrants and kings? Who will recognize you then, wandering the streets so worn and weary you hardly know yourself? Try not the patience of those who go before you on the road, for there is strength in us yet.”

“Strength and health,” said the host quietly, forcefully. In the dark wind sweeping outward from the aged one, his whole body shone with a steady white light. “I know what wisdom and life have coursed in the veins of your people. I have felt it too. And I have come to bring them what you could not- the peace and unity they long for.”

“There is no peace in unity!” boomed the voice of thunder. The candle flame lay flat. “Ours was the way of harmony. In our time gods and men flourished, with room for all who did not threaten the whole. But your father’s jealousy knows no bounds, nor his people, who deny the guardians, who would cast us if they could into the pit. What will they do when they learn who they are sheltering tonight? They will throw us into the street again, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Suddenly the room changed. It was a simple stable once more, its bare walls lit by the guttering flame of a single candle. Three people huddled around its feeble light: an old man, a young man, and a woman, who smiled as she flicked her finger through the candle flame a second time.

The host drew a deep breath. “As long as I am master of this house, no one who knocks will be turned away,” he said softly.

The old man nodded once. “It is well said.” His shoulders loosened, and he turned to his daughter with a smile. “We’ve walked a long way today, and the bowl is empty. Shall we sleep?”

“I think I’ll watch a while longer, Father. But rest if you must.”

“Well, midnight is your hour, my child. And my bones have never felt straw so soft. If I don’t see you in the morning, my friend, health and strength to you.”

The host bowed his head. “And also to you. But I think we’ll meet again.”

Together they waited while the old one’s breathing deepened and smoothed into sleep. After a while the woman spoke again.

“Is it true you were born in a place like this?”

“Yes.” He reached his hand up one of the rough beams, smiling softly. “Is it true you burst out of his skull fully formed?”

“Yes.” The candlelight sparkled in her deep eyes.

“I always loved that story. Will you tell it to me?”

“I’ll tell you a better one,” she said, shifting her weight so as to draw nearer to the candle’s glow. From an inner fold of her garment she drew out a spool of golden thread, bit off a length, and wove it deftly between her fingers. As she pulled and teased the gleaming web, fantastic shapes appeared between her palms, shifting and transforming almost as fast as the eye could make them out. When she spoke, her voice seemed to come from far away, somewhere ancient and deep beyond thought.

“The harrowing of your people will last eight years. As the last of the Four lies dying he will call an end to the persecution, in the knowledge that it could not break their resolve. In the ninth year, a soldier on the eve of battle will be told in a dream to paint your sign on the shields of his men, and when he is Lord Commander he will return to your people all that was taken from them. Then their leaders will be given the power of judges, and the dole offices and flophouses will be given over into their charge. After that there will be no more need for little stables like this one, or a seat kept ready at the table, with a candle and a bit of bread. Your people will begin the long road to a place for which they have as yet no name, a place whose horrors are all around us now. You have ten years.”

She leaned away from the candle’s light and wound the thread back around its spool. She looked steadily at her host. “You know it as well as I do. Why are you doing this?”

In his dark eyes there was sorrow and, she thought, a woundedness too deep for words. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “I don’t understand it either. I trust. That’s all.”

Her expression did not flicker as her gaze bore into him. “Look at us. Learn from us. You will have to trust those who take you in, those who will honour you in the weakness of your old age. But will they remember us, on the future’s far shores? Will they remember harmony? Or will the godless make fools of us all?”

He made no movement for a time. “Help me to understand,” he said at last. “Show me-”

She lifted her hand, silencing him. “It cannot be given,” she said. “It must come unlooked-for. Wait with me now. Trust me.”

They sat there together a long time, silent, as the light dimmed and the shadows deepened into midnight.

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