Shadowmarch Prelude: The Lengthening Shadow

Come away, now. Climb onto the wind. It is a swift and frightening steed, but there are leagues and leagues before us.

Flying higher than the birds, we can pass swiftly over the dry lands of the southern continent of Xand, above the Autarch’s startlingly huge temple-palace where it stretches mile upon mile along the stone canals of his great city of Xis, but we will not pause — we have no interest today in mortal kings, even the most powerful. To the northern continent of Eion we fly, over timeless Hierosol which was once the center of the world but is now the plaything of bandits and warlords. We hurry on, ever northward, riding the wind’s broad back passing over principalities who already owe their fealty to the Autarch’s conquring legions and others who as yet do not, but soon will.

In the green fields of the Free Kingdoms we stoop low over field and fell as we speed through the thriving heartlands of powerful Syan (which was once more powerful still), across broad farmlands and well-traveled roads, past ancient family seats of crumbling stone, and on to the marches that border the gray country beyond the Shadowline.

On the very doorstep of those lost and inhuman northern lands, in the country of Southmarch, a tall old castle stands gazing out over a wide bay, a fortress dignified and secretive as a queen who has outlived her royal husband. She is crowned with towers, and her skirt is a patchwork city that sprawls like a bridal train down the peninusula that joins the castle to the mainland, and in hilly folds all along the edge of the water. This stronghold is a place of mortal men, but it has an air of something else, of something that knows these mortals and even deigns to shelter them, but does not entirely love them. Still, there is more than a little beauty in this stark place that many call Shadowmarch, in its proud, wind-tattered flags, its streets splashed by downstabbing sunlight. But although this hilly fortress is the last bright and welcoming thing we see before we enter the land of silence and fog, we will not stop here — not yet. Today we are needed elsewhere.

We seek this castle’s mirror-twin.

And now, as suddenly as stepping across a threshold, we cross into the twilight lands. Although only a short ride back across the Shadowline the afternoon sun shines on the castle, all here is perpetual quiet evening. The meadows are deep and dark, the grass shiny with dew. From the air, we see that the roads gleam pale as eel’s flesh and seem to form subtle patterns, as though some god had written a secret journal upon the face of the misty land. We fly on over high, storm-haloed mountains and across forests vast as nations. Bright eyes gleam from the dark places beneath the trees, and voices seem to whisper in the empty dells.

And now we see it, standing high and pure and proud beside a wild dark inland sea. If there was something otherworldly in the first castle, there is almost nothing worldly at all about this one. A million, million stones in a thousand shades of darkness have been piled high, onyx on jasper, obsidian on slate, and although there is a fine symmetry to these towers, it is a symmetry that would make a mortal sick at the stomach.

We descend now, dismounting from the wind at last so that we may hurry through the mazy and often narrow halls. It is not good to wander carelessly in Qul-na-Qar, this most ancient of buildings (whose stones some say were quarried so many eons ago that the oceans of the young earth were still warm.) But more importantly, we have little time to waste.

The Qar have a saying which signifies, in rough translation: “Even the Book of Regret starts with one word.”

They mean that even the most important matters have a single, simple beginning, although sometimes it cannot be descried until long afterward — a first stroke, a seed, an almost silent intake of breath before a song is sung. That is why we are hurrying. The sequence of events that in days ahead will shake the entire world to its roots is commencing here and now, and we shall be witness.

In the deeps of Qul-na-Qar there is a hall. In truth there are many halls in Qul-na-Qar, as many as there are twigs on an ancient, leafless tree — even on an entire bone-dead orchard of such trees — but this is the hall, and even those who have only seen Qul-na-Qar during the unsettled sleep of a bad night would know what hall it is. That is where we are going. Come along. The time is growing short.

The hall is an hour’s walk from end to end, or at least it appears that way. It is lit by many torches, as well as by other less familiar lights that shimmer like fireflies beneath the dark rafters carved in the likeness of holly bough and blackthorn branch. Mirrors line both long walls, each mirror powdered so thick with dust that it seems odd the sparkling lights and the torches can be seen in dull reflection, odder still that other shapes can also be glimpsed moving in the murky glass. Those shapes are present even when the hall is empty.

The hall is not empty now, but full of figures both beautiful and terrible. Even if we sped back across the Shadowline in this very instant to one of the great markets of the southern harbor kingdoms, and there saw humanity in all its shapes and sizes and colors drawn together from all over the wide world, we would marvel at their sameness after seeing the Qar, the Twilight People, gathered in their high, dark hall. Some are as stunningly fair as angels, tall and shapely as the most graceful kings and queens of men. Some are small as mice. Others are figures from mortal nightmares, claw-fingered, serpent-eyed, covered with feathers or scales or oily fur. They fill the hall from one end to the other, ranked according to intricate primordial hierarchies, a thousand different forms sharing only a keen dislike of humankind and, for this moment, a vast silence.

At the head of the long, mirror-hung room two figures sit on tall stone chairs. Both have the semblance of humanity, but with an unearthly twist that means not even a drunken blind man could actually mistake them for mortals. Both are still, but one is so still that it is hard to believe she is not a statue carved from pale marble, stony as the chair on which she sits. Her eyes are open but they are dead eyes, her stare as empty as though her spirit has flown far from her seemingly youthful, white-robed figure and cannot find its way back. Her hands lie in her lap like dead birds. She has not moved in years. Only the tiniest stirring, her breast rising and falling at achingly separated intervals beneath her spidersilk robe, tells that she breathes.

The one who sits beside her is taller by a two hands’ breadth than most mortals, and that is the most human thing about him. His pale face, which was once startlingly fair, has aged over the centuries into something hard and sharp as the peak of a windswept crag. He has about him still a kind of terrible beauty, as dangerously beguiling as the grandeur of a storm rushing across the sea. His eyes, you feel sure, would be clear and deep as night sky, would seem infinitely, coldly wise, but they are hidden behind a rag which is tied at the back of his head, hidden in his long moonsilver hair.

He is Ynnir the Blind King, and the blindness is not all his own. Few mortal eyes have seen him, and perhaps none living have gazed on him outside of dreams.

The lord of the Twilight People raises his hand. The hall was already silent, but now the stillness becomes something deeper. He whispers, but every thing in that room hears him.

“Bring the child.”

Four hooded, manlike shapes carry a litter out of the shadows behind the twin thrones and place it at the king’s feet. On it lies curled what seems to be a mortal manchild, his fine, straw-colored hair pressed into damp ringlets around his sleeping face. The blind king leans over, for all the world as though he is looking at the child, memorizing his features. He reaches into his own gray garments, sumptuous once, but now weirdly threadbare and almost as dusty as the hall’s mirrors, and lifts out a small bag on a length of black cord, the sort of simple object in which a mortal might carry a charm or healing simple. His long fingers carefully lower the cord over the boy’s head, then tuck the bag under the coarse shirt and against the child’s narrow chest. The king is singing all the while, his voice a drowsy murmur. Only the last words are loud enough to hear.

“. . . By star and stone, the act is done,
Not stone nor star the act shall mar.”

Ynnir pauses for some moments, thinking, before he speaks again. “Take him,” he commands. The four figures raise the litter. “Let no one see you in the sunlight lands. Ride swiftly, there and back.”

The hooded leader bows his head once, then they are gone with their sleeping burden. The king looks for a moment to the pale woman beside him, almost as if he expected her to break her long silence, but she does not move and she most certainly does not speak. He turns to the rest of those watching, to the avid eyes and the thousand restless shapes — and to us, too.

“Now it begins,” he says. The stillness of the hall is broken. A rising murmur fills the mirrored room, a riverine wash of voices that grows until it echoes in the dark, thorn-carved rafters. As the din of singing and shouting spills out into the endless halls of Qul-na-Qar, it is hard to say whether the terrible noise is a chant of triumph or mourning.

The blind king nods slowly. “Now, at last, it begins.”

© 2004 by Tad Williams. All Rights Reserved

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The Shadowmarch Series

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