Guthwulf, Earl of Utanyeat, ran his fingers back and forth across the scarred wood of Prester John’s Great Table, disturbed by the unnatural stillness. Other than the noisy breathing of King Elias’ cupbearer and the clank of spoons against bowls, the great hall was quiet–far quieter than it should be while almost a dozen people ate their evening meal. The silence seemed doubly oppressive to blind Guthwulf, although it was not exactly surprising: in these days only a few still dined at the king’s table, and those who spent time in Elias’ presence seemed more and more anxious to get away again without tempting fate by anything so risky as supper-table conversation.
A few weeks before, a mercenary captain named Utgart from the Meadow Thrithing had made the mistake of joking about the easy virtue of Nabbanai women. This was a common view among Thrithings-men, who could not understand women who painted their faces and wore dresses that displayed what the wagon-dwellers thought of as a shameless amount of bare flesh. Utgart’s coarse joke would generally have gone unremarked in the company of other men, and since there were few women still living in the Hayholt, only men sat around Elias’ table. But the mercenary had forgotten–if he had ever known–that the High King’s wife, killed by a Thrithings arrow, had been a Nabbanai noblewoman. By the time the after-supper custard arrived, Utgart’s head was already dangling from an Erkynguardsman’s saddle horn, on its way to the spikes atop the Nearulagh Gate for the delectation of the resident ravens.
It was a long time since the Hayholt’s tabletalk had sparkled, Guthwulf reflected, but these days meals were eaten in almost funereal silence, interrupted only by the grunts of sweating servitors–each working hard to take up the slack of several vanished fellows–and the occasional nervous compliments offered by the few nobles and castle functionaries unable to escape the king’s invitation.
Now Guthwulf heard a murmur of quiet speech and recognized Sir Fluiren’s voice, whispering something to the king. The ancient knight had just returned from his native Nabban, where he had been acting as Elias’ emissary to Duke Benigaris; tonight he held the place of honor at the High King’s right hand. The old man had told Guthwulf that his conference with the king earlier that day had been quite ordinary, but still Elias had seemed troubled all through the meal. Guthwulf could not judge this by sight, but decades of time spent in his presence let him put images to each straining inflection, each of the High King’s strange remarks. Also, Guthwulf’s hearing, smell, and touch, which seemed far more acute since he had lost the use of his eyes, were sharper still in the presence of Elias’ terrible sword Sorrow.
Ever since the king had forced Guthwulf to touch it, the gray blade seemed to him almost a living thing, something that knew him, that waited quietly but with terrible awareness, like a stalking animal that had caught his scent. Its mere presence lifted his hackles and made all his nerves and sinews feel tight-strung. Sometimes in the middle of the night, when the Earl of Utanyeat lay blackly awake, he thought he could feel the blade right through the hundreds of cubits of stone that separated his chambers from the king’s, a gray heart whose beating he alone could hear.
Elias pushed back his chair suddenly, the squeak of wood on stone startling everyone into silence. Guthwulf pictured spoons and goblets halted in midair, dripping.
“Damn you, old man,” the king snarled, “do you serve me or that pup Benigaris?”
“I only tell you what the duke says, Highness,” quavered Sir Fluiren. “But I think he means no disrespect. He is having troubles along his borders from the Thrithings-clans, and the Wran-folk have been balky….”
“Should I care?!” Guthwulf could almost see Elias narrowing his eyes, so many times had he watched the changes that anger worked on the king’s features. His pale face would be sallow and slightly moist. Lately, Guthwulf had heard the servants whispering that the king was becoming very thin.
“I helped Benigaris to his throne, Aedon curse him! And I gave him a lector who would not interfere!”
This said, Elias paused. Guthwulf, alone of all the company, heard a sharp intake of breath from Pryrates, who was seated across from the blind earl. As though sensing he might have gone too far, the king apologized with a shaky jest and returned to quieter conversation with Fluiren.
Guthwulf sat dumbstruck for a moment, then hurriedly lifted his spoon, eating to cover his sudden fright. What must he look like? Was everyone staring at him–could they all see his treacherous flush? The king’s words about the lectorship and Pryrates’ gasp of alarm echoed over and over in his mind. The others would no doubt assume that Elias referred to influencing the selection of the pliable Escritor Velligis to succeed Ranessin as lector–but Guthwulf knew better. Pryrates’ discomfiture when it seemed the king might say too much confirmed what Guthwulf had already half-suspected: Pryrates had arranged Ranessin’s death. And now Guthwulf felt sure that Elias knew it, too–perhaps had even ordered the killing. The king and his counselor had made bargains with demons and had murdered God’s highest priest.
At that moment, sitting with a great company around the table, Guthwulf felt himself as alone as a man upon a windswept peak. He could not bear up under the burdens of deception and fear any longer. It was time to flee. Better to be a blind beggar in the worst cesspits of Nabban than stay a moment longer in this cursed and haunted keep.
Guthwulf pushed open the door of his chamber and paused in the frame to let the chill hallway air wash over him. It was midnight. Even had he not heard the procession of sorrowful notes ring from Green Angel Tower, he would have recognized the deeper touch of cold against his cheeks and eyes, the sharp edge that the night had when the sun was at its farthest retreat.
It was strange to use eyes to feel with, but now that Pryrates had blasted away his sight, they had proved to be the most sensitive part of him, registering every change in wind and weather with a subtlety of perception finer even than that of his fingertips. Still, useful as his blinded orbs were, there was something horrible about using them so. Several nights he had wakened sweating and breathless from dreams of himself as a shapeless crawling thing with fleshy stalks that pushed out from its face, sightless bulbs that wavered like snail’s horns. In his dreams he could still see; the knowledge that it was himself that he looked at dragged him gasping up from sleep, time and again, back into the real darkness that was now his permanent home.
Guthwulf moved out into the castle hallway, surprised as always to find himself still in blackness as he stepped from one room to another. As he closed the door on the chamber, and thus on his brazier of smoldering coals, the chill grew worse. He heard the muffled chinking of the armored sentries on the walls beyond the open window, then listened to the wind rise and smother the rattle of their surcoats beneath its own moaning song. A dog yipped in the town below, and somewhere, past several turns of the hallway, a door softly opened and closed.
Guthwulf rocked back and forth uncertainly for a moment, then took a few more steps away from his door. If he were to leave, he must leave now–it was useless to stand maundering in the hallway. He should hurry and take advantage of the hour: with all the world blinded by night, he was almost on equal terms again. What other choice was left? He had no stomach for what his king had become. But he must go in secret. Although Elias now had little use for Guthwulf, a High King’s Hand who could not ride to battle, still Guthwulf doubted that his once-friend would simply let him go. For a blind man to leave the castle where he was fed and housed, and also to flee his old comrade Elias, who had protected him from Pryrates’ righteous anger, smacked too much of treachery–or at least it would to the man on the Dragonbone Chair.
Guthwulf had considered this for some time, had even rehearsed his route. He would make his way down into Erchester and spend the night at St. Sutrin’s–the cathedral was all but deserted, and the monks there were charitable to any mendicants brave enough to spend nights inside the city walls. When morning came, he would mix with the straggle of outgoing folk on the Old Forest Road, traveling eastward into Hasu Vale. From there, who knew? Perhaps on toward the grasslands, where rumor whispered that Josua was building a rebel force. Perhaps to an abbey in Stanshire or elsewhere, some place that would be a refuge at least until Elias’ unimaginable game finally threw down everything.
Now it was time to stop thinking. Night would hide him from curious eyes; daylight would find him sheltered in St. Sutrin’s. It was time to go.
But even as he started down the hallway he felt a feather-light presence at his side–a breath, a sigh, the indefinable sense of someone there. He turned, hand flailing out. Had someone come to stop him after all?
There was no one. Or, if someone was indeed near, that one now stood silent, mocking his sightlessness. Guthwulf felt a curious, abrupt unsteadiness, as though the floor tilted beneath his feet. He took another step and suddenly felt the presence of the gray sword very strongly, its peculiar force all around. For a moment he thought the walls had fallen away. A harsh wind passed over and through him, then was gone.
What madness was this?
Blinded and unmanned. He almost wept. Cursed. Guthwulf steeled himself and walked away from the security of his chamber door, but the curious sense of dislocation accompanied him as he made his way through the Hayholt’s acres of corridors. Unusual objects passed beneath his questing fingers, delicate furnishings and smooth-polished but intricately figured balusters unlike anything he remembered from these halls. The door to the quarters once occupied by the castle chambermaids swung unbolted, yet though he knew the rooms to be empty–their mistress had smuggled all of her charges out of the castle before her attack on Pryrates–he heard dim voices whispering in the depths. Guthwulf shuddered, but kept walking. The earl already knew the shifting and untrustworthy nature of the Hayholt in these days; even before he lost his sight it had become a weirdly inconstant place.
Guthwulf continued to count his paces. He had practiced the journey several times in recent weeks: it was thirty-five steps to the turning of the corridor, two dozen more to the main landing, then out into the narrow, wind-chilled Vine Garden. Half a hundred paces more and he was back beneath a roof once again, making his way down the chaplain’s walking hall.
The wall became warm beneath his fingers, then abruptly turned blazingly hot. The earl snatched his hand away, gasping in shock and pain. A thin cry wafted down the corridor.
“… T’si e-isi’ha as-irigu…!”
He reached a trembling hand out to the wall again and felt only stone, damp and night-cold. The wind fluttered his clothing–the wind, or a murmuring, insubstantial crowd. The feeling of the gray sword was very strong.
Guthwulf hurried through the castle corridors, trailing his fingers as lightly as he could over the frighteningly changeable walls. As far as he could tell, he was the only real living thing in these halls. The strange sounds and the touches light as smoke and moths’ wings were only phantasms, he assured himself–they could not hinder him. They were the shadows of Pryrates’ sorcerous meddling.
He would not let them obstruct his flight. He would not stay prisoned in this corrupted place.
The earl touched the rough wood of a door and found to his fierce joy that he had counted truly. He fought to restrain a cry of triumph and overwhelming relief. He had reached the small portal beside the Greater Southern Door. Beyond would be open air and the commons that served the Inner Bailey.
But when he pushed it open and stepped through, instead of the bitter night air the earl had expected, he felt a hot wind blowing and the heat of many fires upon his skin. Voices murmured, pained, fretful.
Mother of God! Has the Hayholt caught fire?
Guthwulf stepped back but could not find the doorway again. His fingers instead scrabbled at stone which grew hotter beneath his touch. The murmurs slowly rose into a drone of many agitated voices, soft and yet piercing as the hum of a beehive. Madness, he told himself, illusion. He must not give in. He staggered ahead, still counting his steps. Soon his feet were slipping in the mud of the commons, yet somehow at the same moment his heels clicked on smooth tiles. The invisible castle was in some terrible flux, burning and trembling one moment, cold and substantial the next, and all in total silence as its tenants slept on, unaware.
Dream and reality seemed almost completely interwoven, his personal blackness awash in whispering ghosts that confused his counting, but still Guthwulf struggled on with the grim resolve that had carried him through many dreadful campaigns as Elias’ captain. He trudged on toward the Middle Bailey, stopping at last to rest for a moment near–according to his faltering calculations–the spot where the castle doctor’s chambers had once stood. He smelled the sour tang of the charred timbers, reached out and felt them crumble into rotted powder beneath his touch, and distractedly remembered the conflagration that had killed Morgenes and several others. Suddenly, as though summoned up by his thoughts, crackling flames leaped all around him, surrounding him with fire. This could be no illusion–he could feel the deadly blaze! The heat enclosed him like a crushing fist, balking him no matter which way he turned. Guthwulf gave a choked cry of despair. He was trapped, trapped! He must burn to death!
“Ruakha, ruakha Asu’a!” Ghostly voices were crying from beyond the flames. The presence of the gray sword was inside him now, in everything. He thought he could hear its unearthly music, and fainter, the songs of its unnatural brothers. Three swords. Three unholy swords. They knew him now.
There was a rustle like the beating of many wings, then the Earl of Utanyeat suddenly felt an opening appear before him, an empty spot in the otherwise unbroken wall of flame–a doorway that breathed cool air. With nowhere else to turn, he threw his cloak over his head and stumbled down into a hall of quieter, colder shadows.
© 1993 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.
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