Excerpt: Under Strange Skies

Simon squinted up at the stars swimming in the black night. He was finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake. His weary eyes turned to the brightest constellation, a rough circle of lights hovering what seemed a handsbreadth above the gaping, broken-eggshell edge of the dome.

There. That was the Spinning Wheel, wasn’t it? It did seem oddly elliptical–as though the very sky in which the stars hung had been stretched into an unfamiliar shape–but if that wasn’t the Spinning Wheel, what else could be so high in the sky in mid-autumn? The Hare? But the Hare had a little nubbly star close beside it–the Tail. And the Hare wasn’t ever that big, was it?

A claw of wind reached down into the half-ruined building. Geloe called this hall “the Observatory”–one of her dry jokes, Simon had decided. Only the passing of long centuries had opened the white stone dome to the night skies, so Simon knew it couldn’t really have been an observatory. Surely even the mysterious Sithi couldn’t watch stars through a ceiling of solid rock.

The wind came again, sharper this time, bearing a flurry of snowflakes. Though it wracked him with shivers, Simon was thankful: the chill scraped some of his drowsiness away. It wouldn’t do to fall asleep–not this night of all nights.

So, now I am a man, he thought. Well. almost. Almost a man.

Simon drew back the sleeve of his shirt and looked at his arm. He tried to make the muscles stand up, then frowned at the less than satisfactory results. He ran his fingers through the hair on his forearm, feeling the places where cuts had become ridged scars: here, where a Hune’s blackened nails had left their mark; there, where he had slipped and dashed himself against a stone on Sikkihoq’s slope. Was that what being grown meant? Having a lot of scars? He supposed it also meant learning from the wounds, as well–but what could he learn from the sort of things that had happened to him during the last year?

Don’t let your friends get killed, he thought sourly.

That’s one. Don’t go out in the world and get chased by monsters and madmen. Don’t make enemies.

So much for the words of wisdom that people were always so eager to share with him. No decisions were ever as easy as they had seemed in Father Dreosan’s sermons, where people always got to make a clean choice between Evil’s Way and the Aedon’s Way. In Simon’s recent experience of the world, all the choices seemed between one unpleasant possibility and another, with only the faintest reference to good and evil.

The wind skirling through the Observatory dome grew more shrill. It put Simon’s teeth on edge. Despite the beauty of the intricately sculpted pearlescent walls, this was still a place that did not seem to welcome him. The angles were strange, the proportions designed to please an alien sensibility. Like other products of its immortal architects, the Observatory belonged completely to the Sithi; it would never feel quite comfortable to mortals.

Unsettled, Simon got up and began to pace, the faint echo of his footsteps lost in the noise of the wind. One of the interesting things about this large circular hall, he decided, was that it had stone floors, something the Sithi no longer seemed to utilize. He flexed his toes inside his boots as a memory of Jao e-Tinukai’i’s warm, grassy meadows tugged at him. He had walked barefoot there, and every day had been a summer day. Remembering, Simon curled his arms across his chest for warmth and comfort.

The Observatory’s floor was made up of exquisitely cut and fitted tiles, but the cylindrical wall seemed to be one piece, perhaps the very stuff of the Stone of Farewell itself. Simon pondered. The other buildings here were also without visible joint or seam. If the Sithi had carved all the buildings on the surface directly from the hill’s rocky bones, and had cut down into Sesuad’ra as well–the Stone seemed shot through with tunnels–how did they know when to stop? Hadn’t they been afraid that if they made one hole too many the whole rock would collapse in on itself? That seemed almost as amazing as any other Sithi magic he had heard of or seen, and just as unavailable to mortals–knowing when to stop.

Simon yawned. Usires Aedon, but this night was long! He stared at the sky, at the wheeling, smoldering stars.

I want to climb up. I want to look at the moon.

Simon made his way across the smooth stone floor to one of the long staircases that spiraled gradually up around the circumference of the rooms, counting the steps as he went. He had already done this several times during the long night. When he got to the hundredth step, he sat down. The diamond gleam of a certain star, which had been midway along a shallow notch in the decayed dome when he made his last trip, now stood near the notch’s edge. Soon it would disappear from sight behind the remaining shell of the dome.

Good. So at least some time had passed. The night was long and the stars were strange, but at least time’s journey continued.

He clambered to his feet and continued up, walking the narrow stairway easily despite a certain light-headedness mat he had no doubt would be cured by a long sleep. He climbed until he reached the highest landing, a pillar-propped collar of stone that at one time had circled the entire building. It had crumbled long ago, and most of it had fallen; now it extended only a few short ells beyond its joining with the staircase. The top of the high outer wall was just above Simon’s head. A few careful paces took him along the landing to a spot where the breach in the dome dipped down to only a short distance above him. He reached up, feeling carefully for good fingerholds, then pulled himself upward. He swung one of his legs over the wall and let it dangle over nothingness.

The moon, wound in a wind-tattered veil of clouds, was nevertheless bright enough to make the pale ruins below gleam like ivory. Simon’s perch was a good one. The Observatory was the only building within Sesuad’ra’s outwall that stood even as high as the wall itself, which gave the settlement the appearance of one vast, low building. Unlike the other abandoned Sithi dwelling places he had seen, no towers had loomed here, no high spires. It was as though the spirit of Sesuad’ra’s builders had been subdued, or as though they built for some utilitarian reason and not pure pride of craft. Not that the remains were unappealing: the white stone had a peculiar lambent glow all its own, and the buildings inside the curtain wall were laid out in a design of wild but somehow supremely logical geometry. Although it was built on a much smaller scale than what Simon had seen of Da’ai Chikiza and Enki-e-Shao’saye, the very modesty of its scope and uniformity of its design gave it a simple beauty different from those other, grander places.

All around the Observatory, as well as around the other major structures like the Leavetaking House and the House of Waters–names that Geloe had given them; Simon did not know if they were anything to do with their original purpose–snaked a system of paths and smaller buildings, or their remnants, whose interlocking loops and whorls were as cunningly designed yet naturalistic as the petals of a flower. Much of the area was overgrown by encroaching trees, but even the trees themselves revealed traces of some vestigial order, as the green space in the middle of a fairy-ring would show where the ancestral line of mushrooms had begun.

In the center of of what obviously had once been a settlement of rare and subtle beauty lay a strange tiled plateau. It was now largely covered with impertinent grass, but even by moonlight it still showed some trace of its original lustily intricate design. Geloe called this central place the Fire Garden. Simon, comfortably familiar only with the workings of human habitations, would have guessed it to be a marketplace.

Beyond the Fire Garden, on the other side of the Leavetaking House, stood a motionless wavefront of pale conical shapes–the tents of Josua’s company, grown now to a sizable swell by the newcomers who had been trickling in for weeks. There was precious little room left, even on me broad tabletop summit of the Stone of Farewell; many of the most recent arrivals had made themselves homes in the warren of tunnels that ran beneath the hill’s stony skin.

Simon sat staring at the flicker of the distant campfires until he began to feel lonely. The moon seemed very far away, her face cold and unconcerned.

He did not know how long he had been staring into empty blackness. For a moment he thought he had fallen asleep and was now dreaming, but surely this queer feeling of suspension was something real–real and frightening. He struggled, but his limbs were remote and nerveless. Nothing of Simon’s body seemed to remain but his two eyes. His thoughts seemed to burn as brightly as the stars he had seen in the sky–when there had been a sky, and stars; when there had been something besides this unending blackness. Terror coursed through him.

Usires save me, has the Storm King come? Will it be black forever? God, please bring back the light!

And as if in answer to his prayer, lights began to kindle in the great dark. They were not stars, as they first seemed, but torches–tiny pinpoints of light that grew ever so slowly larger, as though approaching from a great distance away. The cloud of firefly glimmers became a stream, the stream became a line, looping and looping in slow spirals. It was a procession, scores of torches climbing uphill the way Simon himself had climbed up Sesuad’ra’s curving path when he had first come here from Jao e-Tinukai’i.

Simon could now see the cloaked and hooded figures who made up the column, a silent host moving with ritual precision.

I’m on the Dream Road, he realized suddenly. Amerasu said that I was closer to it than other folk.

But what was he watching?

The line of torchbearers reached a level place and spread out in a sparkling fan, so that their lights were carried far out on either side of the hilltop. It was Sesuad’ra they had climbed, but a Sesuad’ra that even by torchlight was plainly different than the place Simon knew. The ruins that had surrounded him were ruins no longer. Every pillar and wall stood unbroken. Was this the past, the Stone of Farewell as it once had been, or was it some strange future version that would someday be rebuilt–perhaps when the Storm King had subjugated all Osten Ard?

The great company surged forward onto a flat place Simon recognized as the Fire Garden. There the cloaked figures set their torches down into niches between the tiles, or placed them atop stone pedestals, so that a garden of fire indeed bloomed there, a field of flickering, rippling light. Fanned by the wind, the flames danced; sparks seemed to outnumber the very stars.

Now Simon found himself suddenly pulled forward with the surging crowd and down toward the Leavetaking House. He plummeted through the glittering night, passing swiftly through the stone walls and into the bright-lit hall as though he were without substance. There was no sound but a continuous rushing in his ears. Seen closely, the images before him seemed to shift and blur along their edges, as though the world had been twisted ever so slightly out of its natural shape. Unsettled, he tried to close his eyes, but found that his dream-self could not shut out these visions; he could only watch, a helpless phantom.

Many figures stood at the great table. Globes of cold fire had been placed in alcoves on every wall, their blue, fire-orange, and yellow glows casting long shadows across the carved walls. More and deeper shadows were cast by the thing atop the table, a construct of concentric spheres like the great astrolabe Simon had often polished for Doctor Morgenes–but instead of brass and oak, this was made entirely from lines of smoldering light, as though someone had painted the fanciful shapes upon the air in liquid fire. The moving figures that surrounded it were hazy, but still Simon knew beyond doubt that they were Sithi. No one could ever mistake those birdlike postures, that silken grace.

A Sitha-woman in a sky-blue robe leaned toward the table and deftly scribed in trails of finger-flame her own additions to the glowing thing. Her hair was blacker than shadow, blacker even than the night sky above Sesuad’ra, a great cloud of darkness about her head and shoulders. For a moment Simon thought she might be a younger Amerasu; but though there was much in this one that was like his memories of First Grandmother, there was also much that was not.

Beside her stood a white-bearded man in a billowing crimson robe. Shapes that might have been pale antlers sprouted from his brow, bringing Simon a pang of unease–he had seen something like that in other, more unpleasant dreams. The bearded man leaned forward and spoke to her; she turned and added a new swirl of fire to the design.

Although Simon could not see the dark woman’s face clearly, the one who stood across from her was all too plain. That face was hidden behind a mask of silver, the rest of her form beneath ice-white robes. As if in answer to the black-haired woman, the Norn Queen raised her arm and slashed a line of dull fire all the way across the construct, then waved her hand once more to lay a net of delicately smoking scarlet light over the outermost globe. A man stood beside her, calmly watching her every move. He was tall and seemed powerfully built, dressed all in spiky armor of obsidian-black. He was not masked in silver or otherwise, but still Simon could see little of his features.

What were they doing? Was this the Pact of Parting that Simon had heard of–for certainly he was watching both Sithi and Norn gathered together upon Sesuad’ra.

The blurred figures began to talk more animatedly. Looping and crisscrossing lines of flame were thrown into the air around the spheres where they hung in nothingness, bright as the afterimage of a hurtling fire-arrow. Their speech seemed to turn to harsh words: many of the shadowy observers, gesticulating with more anger than Simon had seen in the immortals he knew, stepped forward to the table and surrounded the principal foursome, but still he could hear nothing but a dull roaring like wind or rushing water. The flame globes at the center of the dispute flared up, undulating like a wind-licked bonfire.

Simon wished he could move forward somehow to get a better view. Was this the past he was watching? Had it seeped up from the haunted stone? Or was it only a dream, an imagining brought on by his long night and the songs he had heard in Jao e-Tinukai’i? Somehow, he felt sure that it was no illusion. It seemed so real, he felt almost as though he could reach out…he could reach out…and touch….

The sound in his ears began to fade. The lights of torches and spheres dimmed.

Simon shivered back into awareness. He was sitting atop the crumbling stone of the Observatory, dangerously close to the edge. The Sithi were gone. There were no torches in the Fire Garden, and no living things visible atop Sesuad’ra except a pair of sentries sitting near the watchfire down beside the tent city. Bemused, Simon sat for a little while staring at the distant flames and tried to understand what he had seen. Did it mean something? Or was it just a meaningless remnant, a name scratched upon a wall by a traveler which remained long after that person was gone?

Simon trudged back down the stairway from the Observatory roof and returned to his blanket. Trying to understand his vision made his head hurt. It was becoming more difficult to think with every hour that passed.

After wrapping his cloak around himself more tightly–the robe he was wearing beneath was not very warm–he took a long swallow from his drinking skin. The water, from one of Sesuad’ra’s springs, was sweet and cold against his teeth. He took another swig, savoring the aftertaste of grass and shade-flowers, and tapped his lingers on the stone tiles. Dreams or no dreams, he was supposed to be thinking about the things Deornoth had told him. Earlier in the night, he had repeated them over and over in his mind so many times that they had finally begun to seem like nonsense. Now, when he again tried to concentrate, he found that the litany Deornoth had so carefully taught him would not stay in his head, the words elusive as fish in a shallow pond. His mind roved instead, and he pondered all the strange happenings he had endured since running away from the Hayholt.

What a time it had been! What things he had seen! Simon was not sure that he would call it an adventure–that seemed a little too much like something that ended happily and safely. He doubted the ending would be pleasant, and enough people had died to make the word “safely” a cruel jest…but still, it was definitely an experience far beyond a scullion’s wildest dreams. Simon Mooncalf had met creatures out of legends, had been in battles, and had even killed people. Of course, that had proved much less easy than he had once upon a time imagined it would be, when he had seen himself as a potential captain of the king’s armies; in fact, it had proved to be very, very upsetting.

Simon had also been chased by demons, was the enemy of wizards, had become an intimate of noble folk–who didn’t seem much better or worse than kitchen-and-pantry folk–and had lived as a reluctant guest in the city of the undying Sithi. Besides safety and warm beds, the only thing his adventure seemed to be lacking was beautiful maidens. He had met a princess–one he had liked even when she had seemed just an ordinary girl–but she was long gone, the Aedon only knew where. There had been precious little else in the way of feminine company since then, other than Aditu, Jiriki’s sister, but she had been a little too far beyond Simon’s awkward understanding. Like a leopard, she was: lovely but quite frightening. He yearned for someone a little more like himself–but better-looking, of course. He rubbed his fuzzy beard, felt his prominent nose. A lot better looking. He was tired of being alone. He wanted someone to talk to–someone who would care, who would understand, in a way that not even his troll-friend Binabik ever could. Someone who would share things with him…

Someone who will understand about the dragon, was his sudden thought.

Simon felt a march of prickling flesh along his back, not caused by the wind this time. It was one thing to see a vision of ancient Sithi, no matter how vivid. Lots of people had visions–madmen by the score in Erchester’s Battle Square shouted about them to one another, and Simon suspected that in Sesuad’ra such things might be even more common occurrences. But Simon had met a dragon, which was more than almost anyone could say. He had stood before Igjarjuk, the ice-worm, and hadn’t backed down. He had swung his sword–well, a sword; it was more than presumptuous to call Thorn his–and the dragon had fallen. That was truly something wonderful. It was a thing no man but Prester John had ever done, and John had been the greatest of all men, the High King.

Of course, John killed his dragon, but I don’t believe Igjarjuk died. The more I think about it, the more certain I am. I don’t think its blood would have made me feel the way it did if the dragon was dead. And I don’t think that I’m strong enough to kill it, even with a sword like Thorn.

But the strange thing was, although Simon had told everyone exactly what happened on Urmsheim and what he thought about it all, still some of the folk who now made the Stone of Farewell their home were calling him “Dragon Killer,” smiling and waving when he passed. And although he had tried to shrug off the name, people seemed to take his reticence for modesty. He had even heard one of the new settlers from Gadrinsett telling her children the tale, a version that included a vivid description of the dragon’s head struck loose from its body by the force of Simon’s blow. Someday soon, what really happened wouldn’t matter at all. The people who liked him–or liked the story, rather–would say he had single-handedly butchered the great snow dragon. Those who didn’t care for him would say the whole thing was a lie.

The idea of those folk passing false stories of his life made Simon more than a little angry. It seemed to cheapen things, somehow. Not so much the imagined naysayers–they could never take away that moment of pure silence and stillness atop Urmsheim–but the others, the exaggerators and simplifiers. Those who told it as a story of unworrying bravery, of some imaginary Simon who sworded dragons simply because he could, or because dragons were evil, would be smearing dirty fingers across an unstained part of his soul. There was so much more to it than that, so much more that had been revealed to him in the beast’s pale, motionless eyes, in his own confused heroism and the burning instant of black blood…the blood that had shown him the world…the world….

Simon straightened up. He had been nodding again. By God, sleep was a treacherous enemy. You couldn’t face it and fight it; it waited until you were looking the other way, then stole up quietly. But he had given his word, and now that he would be a man, his word must be his solemn bond. So he would stay awake. This was a special night.

© 1993 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.

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Memory, Sorrow and Thorn