The wind sawed across the empty battlements, howling like a thousand condemned souls crying for mercy. Brother Hengfisk, despite the bitter cold that had sucked the air from his once-strong lungs and withered and peeled the skin of his face and hands, took a certain grim pleasure in the sound.
Yes, that is what they will all sound like, all the sinful multitude who scoffed at the message of Mother Church–including, unfortunately, the less rigorous of his Hoderundian brothers. How they will cry out before God’s just wrath, begging for mercy, when it is far, far too late. . . .
He caught his knee a wicked blow on a stone lying tumbled from a wall, and pitched forward into the snow with a crack-lipped squeal. The monk sat whimpering for a moment, but the painful bite of tears freezing on his cheek forced him back onto his feet. He hobbled forward once more.
The main road that climbed through Naglimund-town toward the castle was full of drifting snow. The houses and shops on either side had nearly disappeared beneath a smothering blanket of deadly white, but even those buildings not yet covered were as deserted as the shells of long-dead animals. There was nothing on the road but Hengfisk and the snow.
As the wind changed direction, the whistling of the fluted battlements at the top of the hill rose in pitch. The monk squinted his bulging eyes up at the walls, then lowered his head. He trudged on through the gray afternoon, the crunch of his footsteps a near-silent drumbeat accompanying the skirling wind.
It’s no wonder the townspeople have fled to the keep, he thought, shivering. All around him gaped the black idiot-mouths of roofs and walls staved in by the weight of snow. But inside the castle, under the protection of stone and great timbers, there they must be safe. Fires would be burning, and red, cheerful faces–sinners’ faces, he reminded himself scornfully: damned, heedless sinners’ faces–would gather around him and marvel that he had walked all this way through the freakish storm.
It is Yuven-month, is it not? Had his memory suffered so, that he could not remember the month?
But of course it was. Two full moons ago it had been spring–a little cold, perhaps, but that was nothing to a Rimmersman like Hengfisk, reared in the chill of the north. No, that was the freakish thing, of course, that it should be so deadly cold, the ice and snow flying, in Yuven–the first month of summer.
Hadn’t Brother Langrian refused to leave the abbey, and after all Hengfisk had done to nurse him back to health? “It’s more than foul weather, Brother,” Langrian had said. “It’s a curse on God’s entire creation. It’s the Day of Weighing-Out come in our lifetimes.”
Ah, that was well enough for Langrian. If he wanted to stay in the burned wrack of Saint Hoderund’s abbey, eating berries and such from the forest–and how much fruit would there be anyway, in such unseasonable cold?–then he could do as he pleased. Brother Hengfisk was no fool. Naglimund was the place to go. Old Bishop Anodis would welcome Hengfisk. The bishop would admire the monk’s clever eye for what he had seen, the stories that Hengfisk could tell of what had happened at the abbey, the unseasonable weather. The Naglimunders would welcome him in, feed him, ask him questions, let him sit before their warm fire….
But they must know about the cold, mustn’t they? Hengfisk thought dully as he pulled his ice-crackling robe closer about him. He was in the very shadow of the wall now. The white world he had known for so many days and weeks seemed to have come to an ending, a precipice that vanished into stony nothingness. That is, they must know about the snow and all. That’s why they’ve all left the town and moved into the keep. It’s the damnable, demon-cursed weather that’s keeping the sentries off the walls, isn’t it?
He stood and surveyed with mad interest the pile of snow-mantled rubbish that had been Naglimund’s greater gate. The huge pillars and massive stones were charred black beneath the drifts. The hole in the sagging wall stood large enough to hold twenty Hengfisks standing abreast, shoulder to bony, trembling shoulder.
Look how they’ve let things go. Oh, they’ll shriek when their judgment comes, shriek and shriek with never a chance to make amends. Everything has been let go–the gate, the town, the weather.
Somebody must be scourged for such negligence. Doubtless Bishop Anodis had his hands full trying to keep such an unruly flock in line. Hengfisk would be only too happy to help that fine old man minister to such slackers. First, a fire and some warm food. Then, a little monasterial discipline. Things would soon be brought to rights….
Hengfisk stepped carefully through the splintered posts and white-covered stones.
The thing of it was, the monk slowly realized, in a way it was quite…beautiful. Beyond the gate, all things were covered in a delicate tracery of ice, like lacy veils of spiderweb. The sinking sun embellished the frosted towers and ice-crusted walls and courtyards with rivulets of pale fire.
The cry of the wind was somewhat less here within the battlements. Hengfisk stood for a long while, abashed by the unexpected quiet. As the weak sun slid behind the walls, the ice darkened. Deep violet shadows welled up in the corners of the courtyard, stretching laterally across the faces of the ruined towers. The wind softened to a feline hiss, and the pop-eyed monk lowered his head in numb recognition.
Deserted. Naglimund was empty, with not a single soul left behind to greet a snow-bewildered wanderer. He had walked leagues through the storm-ridden white waste to reach a place that was as dead and dumb as stone.
But, he wondered suddenly, if that is so…then what are those blue lights that flicker in the windows of the towers?
And what were these figures who approached him across the shambles of the courtyard, moving as gracefully over the icy stones as blowing thistledown?
His heart raced. At first, as he saw their beautiful, cold faces and pale hair, Hengfisk thought them angels. Then, as he saw the fell light in their black eyes, and their smiles, he turned, stumbling, and tried to run.
The Norns caught him effortlessly, then carried him back with them into the depths of the desolated castle, beneath the shadowed, ice-mantled towers and the ceaselessly flickering lights. And when Naglimund’s new masters whispered to him in their secretive, musical voices, his screams for a while overtopped even the howling wind.
© 1990 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.
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