Rolling on with the next couple of chapters of The Bard's Apprentice, my unpublished fantasy novel. I think my Hundred Nightmares, the short-short horror stories I've been publishing on this blog, are the most adequate fiction I've written. I'm not so confident about The Bard's Apprentice, which is rather too talky, especially as it goes on. But what the heck. Here's the next two chapters.
The anger disappeared from the old men’s faces at once, replaced by curiosity. Nobody ever knocked at the door of the Spiral room. Fox had stopped doing so years ago. The only other person who came in was Goodfellow, Grandy and No-Sooner’s friend. They were the last three Spiral players in the city, now.
Jasma came into the Spiral room before dawn, to clear out the bottles, sweep the carpet and do what other little tidying was required. She started work very early (once again, by choice), while Fox and Grandy were sleeping. Jasma disapproved of Spiral. There was very little of which Jasma did not disapprove.
“Come in, then”, called Grandy, with a quick glance over the position on the Spiral board.
The door opened, and it was indeed Jasma standing there. The girl was as thin as a sapling, with a face that would be quite pretty when she smiled. She had straw coloured hair and a pink complexion. She always wore black.
“What is it, Jasma?”, asked Grandy, after several moments during which the servant girl just stood in the doorway, looking from No-Sooner to Grandy.
She cleared her throat-- it was almost unknown for Jasma to be nervous-- and she said, “Someone called at the door”.
“Didn’t I tell you to turn everybody away, except for my friends?”, asked Grandy, frowning.
“He says he is your friend. No, actually, he says you were friends with his father. And his father’s name was…”
“What?”, asked Grandy, more softly than he usually spoke, after Jasma fell silent for another few seconds.
“I can’t remember”, she said, abashedly. Before Grandy could fume at her, she quickly added: “He’s hiding from the police. He begged me to let him in. I didn’t
know what to do. I was scared he’d attack me. He looks like he might be holding something.”
As soon as he heard this, Fox froze. He lived in perpetual fear of intruders. Grandy was hale enough, but he was an old man, and although Jasma’s constant scrubbing and stirring and laundering had given her a strong hand (as Fox had learnt painfully), she was still a young girl. People imagined big houses to be full of treasures. They would presume they were hidden and kill them for keeping them secret.
This time there was no reassurance from the adults. Grandy and No-Sooner looked almost as anxious as Fox.
“Call the police”, whispered No-Sooner. He had risen from the table, and knit his fingers together nervously. But he did not look panicked, and his voice did not waver. That felt Fox feel a bit better.
“Since when have you become a supporter of the police?”, asked Grandy, staring at the open door as if he expected the intruder to rush through it.
“I can’t stand chicken”, said No-Sooner, with the ghost of a smile, “but I would rather eat it than starve to death”.
“The police are thugs”, said Grandy, shaking his head with determination. Grandy was unlikely to look upon any suggestion favourably-- he liked ideas to come from him-- but he seemed even more stubborn that usual now. “All of the good ones were sent to the borders to fight. Only the dregs were left here, the ones who are no use as soldiers but have an appetite for beating helpless victims. Giving him up to them is like throwing him to rabid dogs. He may be innocent. Just as likely as the other way round”
No-Sooner nodded thoughtfully, rather grimly, as if he would like to disagree with Grandy but knew that he was right.
“I remember his name now”, said Jasma. “It’s Piper”.
No-Sooner and Grandy looked at each other, and there was something in their eyes that Fox couldn’t read, but that he didn’t like.
“Wasn’t he one of the men you had executed?”, asked No-Sooner.
“Yes”, said Grandy, and Fox could never remember him speaking so softly. “Piper, Cruxable, Antly, Jorter and Merryway. I’ll never forgot those five names.”
“Executed?”, asked Jasma, in her husky voice. “You?”
Normally Grandy would have scolded the girl for presuming to ask a question, but now he hardly seemed to notice who was speaking. “Yes, me“, he replied, almost dreamily. “Forty-three years ago, seventy miles from Lonelyhill. “
“There was a rebellion in the area, and some of the construction workers wanted to join. The others were wavering. If they had joined the rebellion, all of the engineers and educated men we had-- me included-- would have been slaughtered. We only had a few guns, for defence against wolves, and the men were a leaf’s-breadth away from turning.
“So you shot them?”, asked Jasma, her eyes glassy and her mouth slack.
“Aye”, said Grandy, shaking his head at the memory. “I shot them myself, with these two hands.” He raised his workmans’ hands, tough with years of hammering and wrenching.
“If he hadn’t”, said No-Sooner, looking from Grandy’s hands to Jasma, “neither of us would be alive today. And probably, the province would have fallen to the rebels. We had an enormous amount of gunpowder with us. And money, and food. Of course, it’s going to fall soon anyway.”
“Every year saved from anarchy is worth it”, muttered Grandy.
“I’m scared”, said Jasma, looking at Fox, appealing to him against the calmness of the old men. Fox was shivering, and Jasma’s fear only made him feel worse.
“Send him up, Jasma,” said Grandy. He looked at Fox then, for the first time since the servant-girl had knocked. “But take the boy away first. Go into one of
the other rooms, Fox, and wait till you hear voices in here. Then go downstairs, and get out of the house. Go to Goodfellow.” Goodfellow lived two streets and fifteen minutes’ walk away, in a strange house called Marvel House.
“I’m scared”, said Fox, though he could hardly push the words through his throat, clogged by fear. “I’m scared for you, Grandy.”
“An old man’s job is to die”, said Grandy. “Take him away, Jasma.”
No-Sooner said something as the servant bundled Fox through the door, but Fox was too scared to take it in.
She led him by the hand around a corner, into an empty room with a few boxes of clothes in one corner. “Don’t make a noise”, she said, almost ferociously, and she pushed him towards the boxes. He sat down on them, feeling more abandoned and scared then he had ever felt before.
Then she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, pulling his head towards her so hard that it hurt his neck. “God bless you, my love”, she said, through tears. With that, she turned around briskly, and marched back to the door. She had never shown him the slightest affection before, and it made him feel even more bewildered. And more scared.
The door snapped shut, and a wave of dust rose from the floorboards. They were scratched and worn, and the paint of the room-- a dirty white-- was peeling. He wondered what this room had been used for in the past. It was one of those rooms he felt strangely sorry for; places so far away from life, from action and drama.
But the only emotion he could feel right now was panic.
He stood there, listening to children bickering in the street and birds carolling in the sky, until he heard foosteps coming up the stairs. Two sets; one light and the other slow and heavy.
He could see the criminal in his mind. He had long, matted sandy hair, thick tanned skin and a dangerous, reckless grin playing around his lips. Such people didn’t feel fear, or regret.
The door of the Spiral room banged shut. Fox knew that was Jasma, making sure he knew what was happening.
He heard the cry of a little girl drifting from the street. “Only one go! Only one go! My turn!”
Then voices came from the Spiral room, the raised voices of Grandy and No-Sooner, and the deep voice of the stranger, that seemed more like a vibration in his bones than a sound in his ears.
He counted to a hundred, then to another hundred, and he carefully opened the door. That was a bad idea; it creaked loudly as he pushed. Wishing he’d just shoved the thing, since it could hardly make more of a racket that way, he stepped lightly along the hallway, hearing Grandy’s voice as he passed the door of the Spiral room.
“The common people know what you’re about very well. That’s why they curse you. And they’re right to curse you.”
He had already moved too far to make out any words by the time he heard the stranger’s angry retort. Would Grandy really provoke the man into killing him? Was he so proud, so stubborn as that? He hurried quicker with every step, hurring down the staircase. He was already too far away to hear any voices. Or had they stopped? Was the fugitive coming after him?
When he reached the bottom of the staircase, he could see the muddy imprint of the criminal’s boots on the hall tiles. They seemed enormous to him, and like a scar ripping open his entire world.
He took his bottle-green coat from the rack, carved in the image of a goddess with eight arms, and eased the door open. It was a dull afternoon, and the children outside were back to their skipping game.
“Longfingers wears a raggedy gown
Longfingers’ beard is long and brown
Longfingers takes away the boy
Who makes his mother fret and cry.”
He watched them for a moment, remembering how long he had wanted to join in their games. Already it seemed like an incredibly childish desire. What did things like that matter, now?
He ran down the narrow, rough stone pavement, unnoticed by the other children. Most of the houses in Prodigal Street were at least four storeys high, and had rich curtains in the windows, crimson curtains for Sacrifice Week. This was when all those who had died for the Empire were remembered. The old men even stopped playing Spiral for the Hour of Honour.
There were a fair few people about; mothers walking children, and servants on errands. Fox found himself wondering how they could be so calm, when his entire life was collapsing. How could they not know? How could even the stones and the clouds not know?
His legs pumped like train pistons and soon he was at Marvel House, the odd-looking house painted in a bewildering array of colours, with no two windows shaped differently. Grandy said it was a monstrosity. Fox liked it.
He gave a series of sharp taps on the front door, broke off for a moment, then repeated the tattoo. No other knock would bring Goodfellow to the door. Spiral players didn’t like being bothered.
As he waited, he thought how strange it was that he had expected Grandy to die every day he could remember, but now that it seemed likely, nothing could be more shocking. Would life always be like this? Was there no way of being ready? He thought these things in the manner an eleven-year-old thinks them, thoughts that he could never have put into words, but that were lying perfectly formed below the surface.
The torture finally ended, and the door creaked open. Goodfellow was standing there, in a violet house-robe, his usual impish smile on his face. It disappeared as he soon as he saw Fox.
“What’s wrong, boy?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. Goodfellow was always kind to Fox, but he never used his name. He seemed to think him too young to warrant a name.
Fox tried to speak, but only tears came. He tried again, and realised how hopeless it was. But already, Goodfellow had put his arms around him, and dragged him into the house. He heard the door catch shut behind him. The hall was dark, but he saw a room bright with firelight further in.
For a moment he felt a crazy fear that the criminal was there, too, but that passed in a moment. He had to help Grandy and the others. That was the only thing that mattered.
He was standing before the fire, and Goodfellow was giving him a deep cup. The scent of hot, sweet tea rose from it. Fox raised it to his lips, and drank every drop in three gulps.
“Now, speak, boy”, said Goodfellow, when he put the cup down. He did not have to look down at Fox; they were already on eye-level. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a criminal in the house….he has Grandy and No-Sooner. And Jasma.”
“A criminal?”, asked Goodfellow, raising his bushy eyebrows
“He’s…Grandy shot his father. For being a rebel”. Suddenly it was not hard to speak at all. Suddenly his mind was entirely clear. He told Goodfellow everything, without stumbling or stopping.
When he was finished, Goodfellow said “I have to go over there, right now.” He looked more serious than Fox had ever seen him before; he almost seemed like a different person.
Panicking at the thought of being alone, Fox started to say, “But--. He had no idea what the was going to say next.
“I have to, boy. Don’t you worry. Nobody knows you’re here, and nobody can get in when you lock the door”.
But Fox wasn’t worried about any of that. He was worried about being left without grown-ups, who had always been around to reassure him.
“You can watch what’s happening through the Proximator”, said Goodfellow, seeing that he was still worried. “I’ve showed you how to use it, haven’t I?”
“Yes”, said Fox, watching Goodfellow as he moved about the room. He had already put on a heavy fur coat, and now he went to a chest of drawers and took out something that made Fox’s skin go tight with fear. He had never seen a real one before, only pictures of them in The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse. It was a pistol.
“What’s going to happen?”, he asked, wanting Goodfellow to tell him that everything was going to be all right.
Goodfellow looked at him as he thrust the pistol in the coat of his coat. He looked confused, surprised, as if he was in a dream and expected to wake up from it any moment. “Just stay here, whatever happens”, said Goodfellow, and then he had left the room. Fox heard the front door slam behind him.
Marvel House had a winding staircase, painted in the colours of the various Spiral boards. The staircase itself was built to look like the swirling figure painted on each board. The house had been built by Goodfellow’s father, who had remained at the Spiral board when the Full Moon Riots had swept over the city, sixty years ago. When he was younger, Goodfellow had hated the game. He moved to the Glassy Isles to become a tea shipper, and made a small fortune. But when he returned home, he fell in love with the game he had once hated, and his father died a happy man.
Fox walked slowly up the stairs, trying to calm his nerves with every step. It would take Goodfellow an age to reach the house, he knew. Everybody he knew moved slowly, and old people seemed to move slower than was possible. Even Grandy.
An old man’s job is to die…
The Proximator was in a room of its own, on the third floor. The walls were covered in black curtains, and there was nothing else in the room beside the enormous machine Goodfellow had bought last summer. Proximators had been all the rage at that time.
Fox pulled on the strings that opened the huge curtains, unveiling the observation window. He put his eye to the eyepiece—he did not have to adjust the height, since Goodfellow was so tiny—and found it focused on a bird’s nest in a tree some five streets away. He reached out for the dials that lay under the eyepiece, swivelling the barrel of the Proximator so that it focused on his house.
The window of the Spiral Room was without a curtain, as always. Grandy liked to look over the landscape as he pondered his moves. Relief flooded through Fox when he saw there were still four figures standing in the room.
He twirled the dial again, zooming in closer. There was a momentary blur, and then the image sharpened. He always found this a strange sensation; to
know something was far away, while his eyes were telling him a different story.
The criminal was standing by the door. He was a tall man, but he wasn’t the scarred, burly thug that Fox had imagined. He was rather thin and frail-looking. He looked perhaps forty years old, and his skin was pale to the point of sickliness.
He was holding something that—to Fox’s joyous relief—did not seem to be a weapon, though he didn’t know what it was. It looked a little like a jewel, but it filled the criminals’ whole fist. It was purplish in colour, but it did not sparkle, and its surface seemed rough.
Grandy was standing with his back to the window, his hand on his hips, all defiance. Jasma and No-Sooner were standing between them, Jasma almost against the wall, No-Sooner not much further from it.
Now and again the criminal lifted his arms, in a pleading gesture. He seemed torn between anger and shame. He wore a brown leather jacket and tan trousers, and his clothes looked very old.
Fox felt as if reality was buckling beneath him. He had often worried about Grandy dying, about what would happen to him then. But that was part of the normal course of events. He had never expected something like this, when all his life was in doubt every single moment. Life was not supposed to be so full of dreadful possibilities.
Time passed, with groaning slowness. They continued to argue within the Spiral room. Jasma cried for a little bit and then stopped, looking angry at herself. Sometimes the tension between Grandy and the criminal seemed to relax, so that they might have been strangers having some heated but polite discussion about politics. Fox even saw the criminal laugh at one moment.
Then, at last, Goodfellow came into the room, but something was wrong. He was not holding his pistol, and his face was white.
In a moment, he saw why. Behind him came three policemen, in their black blazers and gleaming helmets. They were carrying pistols, and the one in front—a fat, red-faced man with a thin moustache—was smirking in a way that made Fox want to moan with fear. The guilt-crow must have noticed something as it was leaving. It was said that they could sense guilt.
The criminal had retreated into a corner of the room, so that Fox could only see his shoulder and arm. The police had their pistols pointed at him, though they didn’t seem about to shoot, judging from the expressions on their faces.
Then something unexpected happened, something that shocked Fox. Jasma stepped between the police and the criminal. She looked confused, almost dazed, like someone who had woken up all of a sudden. A look of intense anger passed over the faces of the policemen, and Fox thought they were going to shoot.
But then something even more unexpected happened, something so extraordinary that Fox couldn’t possibly have expected it. There was a flash of purple light that drowned all the figures in the room. It was not a blinding flash; it probably wouldn’t have been noticed by someone passing in the street below. But there was something weird and unearthly about the light. He had never seen anything like it. It was too deep, too rich. It was disturbing, but beautiful.
And when it was gone, there was nobody in the room. Only the purple rock lying on the floor.
Fox stood at the Proximator for a few moments, unable to move or even to think. He wondered if it was possible for them all to have rushed out of the room, but he knew that had not happened. There just wasn’t time. The Spiral room was not large, but the flash had passed in less than a second.
Fox was astounded, but he was a boy, and nothing seemed entirely impossible to him. He stood still for perhaps half a minute, as if paralysed, but a moment later he was rushing down the stairs.
He forgot to close the front door of Marvel House, but that didn’t matter. Goodfellow would never enter it again. It lay undisturbed for three days, before the street urchins noticed that nobody was leaving or arriving, and that the windows were not lit at night. They lost no time in making it their den, the capital of their own wild society; a capital that only fell when the Empire itself was swept away, some five years later.
But Fox did not think about Marvel House as he raced to his own house. He thought about the purple flash, and his mind raced through all the stories and rumours he had ever heard, every tale of witchery and enchantment that Jasma had told him as she stirred the afternoon porridge, or darned stockings. People often disappeared in those stories, but they were never seen again. And they disappeared because they wanted to, not because—because they had been taken.
Perhaps they had disappeared altogether, into nothingness…
Or perhaps, he thought, as he raced into his own street, not even noticing the stares of two young women out for a stroll, perhaps Grandy had been responsible? He knew so much. Maybe he knew more than Fox had ever imagined.
By the time he had reached the front door, which was hanging open, he had almost convinced himself that Grandy was behind the flash and the disappearance. He was running so hard that he tripped over before he reached the staircase, grazing his knee and wrist on the tiles. It hurt, but it didn’t slow him down.
As he reached the third floor, it occurred to him that there might be more police in the house, but he didn’t feel the slightest twinge of fear. All he wanted now was to find out, to know where Grandy had gone.
But when he reached the Spiral room, he found no answers.
The purple stone was lying in a corner of the room. Strangely, it looked smaller and more insignificant, seen close up. He picked it up rather cautiously, expecting it to be hot. It wasn’t. It felt even rougher than it looked. It felt full of bumps and irregularities and jagged edges. But he liked how it looked and it felt. He felt strangely reassured by it.
But what had happened? His heart, beating furiously after his run, began to slow down. He realised he had a pain in both sides. He stood for a minute or two, pulling air into his lungs, his body demanding a rest while his mind continued to go full speed.
When he was recovered, he looked around the room, searching for any clue to what had happened. In his heart he hoped to find some token left by Grandy; perhaps a few words he had managed to scribble, while the police were pointing their pistols at the criminal.
But there was nothing except what had always been there; the table with the bottles, and the Spiral boards, and underneath it the red metal box of records.
It had been Grandy’s most precious possession. For a moment, Fox accepted what he’d really believed since he saw the disappearance—that Grandy and the others were dead—and his heart was seized with pity and despair. Not for Grandy, strangely, but for the red box lying under the table. It had been Grandy’s dearest hope—his only hope, really—that the game would live on after him and all his friends had died.
Fox looked at the board, and nothing in his life had ever seemed as sorrowful and forlorn as the pieces standing motionless on its surface, abandoned by the players. Images passed through his head, of men and women dressed in old-fashioned clothes, playing Spiral in elegant rooms while dawn lit the sky outside. He imagined how the game drew them from day to day, a reason to live as much as any wife or child or cause.
The death of a creature often seems sadder to us than the death of a man or woman. We know we’re going to die, but what can a dog of a cat know about death? Nobody would ever play Spiral again. That seemed more tragic to Fox than the fall of an Empire. All the ghosts that hovered around the Spiral board, happy ghosts returning to the place they loved most of all, were about to flicker out. Grandy’s and No-Sooner’s and Goodfellow’s included.
He turned back to the metal box, drawing it out from under the table, determined to carry it everywhere with him, until new players could be found. But once it was secure in his hands, another strange thing happened. He was
surrounded by a deep purple glow, and when it passed he found himself somewhere else entirely.