Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (8 page)

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“But Missus—never ever did I meet you before . . . ”

“Not me that speaks these words, but so many others—
womankind
.

My sisters, my mothers, my daughters, the daughters of my

daughters—all of those. For the old woman and the young woman,

they the rest of the soldiers might have killed for uselessness, or put to a use that would have killed them too. Those women that you helped,

that you defended, and hid, that you gave up your food to. Women

young and old are dear to you, and you in the midst of turmoiled

men, blood-crazed and heartless, have where able been a savior to my kind. And so, also to me, Yannis, my son.”

Then Yannis hung his head, lost for words.

But she, as she turned in at the leather curtain, said to him, lightly,

“I will after all tell you a third thing. It is how the old beast of a king knows his daughters are at dangerous work.”

Yannis shook himself. “How, then?”


By the soles of their feet.

II

They used a different language in the city—in their buildings, their gestures. While their speech contained foreign phrases, and occasional passages in a tongue that was so unlike anything in the regions round about that it took him time to fathom it. However, he came to realize he had heard snatches of it before. It was an ancient and classic linguistic of which, racking his brains, he saw he had kept a smattering.

Most of the city was of stone. But near the center—where a wide,

paved road ran through—the architecture was, like the second

language,
ancient
, and some even ruinous, yet built up again. Tall, wide-girthed pillars, high as five houses stood on each other’s heads.

Large gateways opened on terraced yards. A granite fountain played.

Yannis was surprised. But the metropolis had been there, evidently,

far longer than those who possessed it now.

• 70 •

• Tanith Lee •

On a hill that rose beyond a treed parkland, a graveyard was visible, whose structures were domed like the cots of bees. He had never

seen such tombs before. They filled him with a vague yet constant

uncomfortable puzzlement. He did not often turn their way. And he

thought this reaction too seemed apparent with the city people. Where they could, they did not look into the west.

The sun set behind the hill about an hour after he had got in the

gates—he had made very good speed. But it was darkly overcast, and

the sunset only flickered like a snakeskin before vanishing.

How strange their manners here.

The innkeeper that he asked for chances of work, or shelter,

answered instantly, in a low, foreboding tone, “Go to the palace.

There’s nowhere else.”

“The
palace
. . . ”

“I said. Go
there
. Now off with you or I call the dogs.”

And next, at a well in the strengthening rain, the women who

cried out in various voices, “
Off
—go on, you. Get work at the palace!

Get your bed there. There’s nowhere else.”

And after these—who he took for mad persons—the same type of

reply, often in rougher form, as with the blacksmith in the alley who flung an iron bar.

All told, a smother of inimical elements seemed to lie over the old

city, the citizens hurrying below with heads down. Maybe only the

weather, the coming dark. Few spoke to any, once the sun went. It

was not Yannis alone who got their colder shoulder.

The last man to push Yannis aside also furiously directed him,

pointing at the dismal park, by then disappearing in night-gloom.

“See,
there
. The palace. And don’t come back.”

To which Yannis, thrusting him off in turn, in a rush of lost

patience answered, “So I’m the king’s business, am I? Are you this

way with any stranger who asks for anything? Go and be used and

win—or die?”

But the man raised his fist. In a steely assessment of his own

• 71 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

trained strength—which the witch’s teaching had returned him to

awareness of—Yannis retreated. No point in ending in the jail.

Black, the sky, and all of it falling down in icy streamings,

which, even as he went on, altered to a spiteful and clattering hail.

He thought of falling arrowheads. Of the horse which fell. Of the

surgeon’s tent . . .

At the brink of the park a black crow sat in an oak above. And

Yannis was not sure it was quite real, though its eye glittered.

I am here by Something’s will.

But the will of what? A king? A witch? Some unknown sorcerer?

Or only those other two, Life and Death.

In the, end, all the trees seemed to have crows in them. Stumbling

over roots and tangles of undergrowth, where rounded boulders and

shards nestled like skulls, Yannis came out onto a flight of stony stairs.

It was snowing, and the wind howled, riotously bending grasses and

boughs and the mere frame of a strong man. And then a huge honey-

colored lamplight massed above out of a core of towery and upcast

leaden walls.

He judged, even clapped by now nearly double and blinkered by

snow, that the palace was like the rest, partly ancient, its additions balancing on it, clinging and unsure. But it was well-lit, and rows of guardsmen were there. One of them, like the unwilling ones below,

trudged out at him and caught him, if now in an almost friendly

detaining vice. “What have we here?”

“I was
sent
here,” said Yannis, speaking of Fate, or the fools in the city, not caring which.

“That’s good, then. Will cheer him up, our lord. Not every day,

would you suppose, some cripple on a stump can enhance the

evening of a king.”

His own king had once spoken to Yannis. The king had been on

horseback, the men interrupted, respectfully standing in the mud,

just after the sack of some town. The king had commended them

• 72 •

• Tanith Lee •

for their courage. It was ritual, no more, but Yannis had been oddly struck by how the king looked not like
other
men. That was, the king was not in any way superior—more handsome, say, let alone more

profound, yet
different
he was. It had not been his fine clothes, the many-hands-high horse. It perplexed Yannis. The king seemed of an

alien kind—not quite human, perhaps, but nor was it glamorous.

This
king was nothing like that anyway. When Yannis first saw him he was some distance off, but even over the sweep of the tall-roofed, smoky, steamy, hot-lit hall, he appeared only a man, ageing

and bearded between black and gray, and drunk, possibly; he looked

it.

The guardsman who brought Yannis in quickly pushed him into

a seat at one of the lower tables. Here sat a cobbler, tellable by his hands, some stable grooms still rank from their duties, and so on. A lesser soldier or two was in with the rest. The guard said, “Eat your fill. Have a big drink and toast his kingship. Don’t get soused. He’ll be talking to you later.”

The tables where the king’s court sat near him lay over an area of

painted floor just far enough off to indicate status. The king’s own High Table was up on a platform. It faced the hall, but directly to

its left side another table spread at a wide angle. The king’s table was caped in white cloth-of-linen, hung with medallions of gold. It

had utensils, beakers, and jugs of silver and clear gray crystal. It was crowded, the Master occupying the central carved and gilded chair.

The left-hand table meanwhile had a drapery of three colors, a deep

red, a plum yellow, and a chestnut shade. But no medallions hung

on it. The jugs were earthenware. It was also completely empty, but

having twelve plain chairs.

An armorer next to Yannis asked questions and commented.

Where did Yannis come from? Oh,
there
—Oh,
that
little war? A
horse
did for his leg? What luck! Try that pie—best you’ve tasted, yes?

Finally Yannis asked a question. “Why is that other table empty

up there?”

“Oh, they’ll be in.”

• 73 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

“Who?”

“His girls.”

Yannis, cautious, casual: “His wives, you mean?”

“No wives at present. He got sick of wives. His daughters. No

sons—none of those useless women of his ever made him a son. Just

girl after girl. Now look. Here they come. Do as they please. Women

always will, unless you curb them.”

Color. Like a bright stream they rippled into the basin of the big

room, flowed together across the platform.

And if this king was only human they, Yannis thought—or was

the idea only the strong ale?—
they
were
not
, not quite. Nor like that other unhuman king. These women, these girls, these twelve

princesses . . . like water and like fire, things which gleamed and grew and bloomed and
altered
, metals, stars, alcohol—the sun-wind in the wheat . . .

Not beautiful—it was never that, though not
un
beautiful—

graceful as animals, careless as . . .

“Where are you off to?”

Yannis found he had half-risen. He sat again and said quickly to

the armorer, “Pardon me, just easing my leg.”

And looked away, then back to the platform and the twelve flames

now settling on it like alighting birds. Because of the table’s angle, he could see each of them quite well. They had no jewels, unlike their

father. They wore the sort of dresses some not-badly-off merchant’s

brood might put on.

You could not but look. Their hair . . .

A hush had gone around the hall, and then been smothered over

by an extra loudness.

Watching, very obliquely now, Yannis noted the king exchanged

no words with any of these young women, not even she who sat

down nearest to him.

None of them appeared particularly old. Yannis tried to guess

their ages—a year, a little more or less between each one and her

closest neighbor.

• 74 •

• Tanith Lee •

He had been dazzled. Enough.

Yannis took another draught of ale, and when he raised his head

the armorer had shifted, and there was another man.

“Listen, and get this right. You’re done dining. In a count of twenty heartbeats get up. Go out that door to the yard. Someone will meet

you. You’ll be going to see the king.”

Then the man himself got up and went, and the armorer did not

return, and Yannis counted twenty beats, rose, and moved out into

the torch-scripted, black-white winter yard. The wind had dropped

with the snow. Two new guards bundled him along to another entry,

and up some miles of crooked steps. It was like being escorted to his own hanging. God knew, it might well be before too long.

The king stood in his chamber. He was a bloody king, lit by the

galloping hearth.

The king scrutinized Yannis, unspeaking.

After which, the king spoke: “The Land of the Sun Beneath.”

Yannis stared. He must be meant to—the king unsmilingly smiled:

“Have you heard of such a land? No? But you’re traveled. Where have

you put your ears? In a bucket?”

Yannis had pondered what to do if offered a drink—in the light of

the witch’s advice to trust only the communal and well-patronized

plate or jug, as in the hall. But this was not a hospitable king, either.

It was a game-player, and—an enemy?

Something nudged Yannis’s brain back to its station.

“Your Majesty means—the country into which the sun sinks at

evening, in the tales . . . ? The lands beneath the world . . . ”


In the tales
,” said the king. “The sun goes under the rim of the earth. Where else can it go?”

Yannis stood there. He knew that many clever scholars had

decided the earth was not flat, that the sun circled it. Others, however, remained stubbornly in the belief of a flat world with killing edges. It was, observing nature, difficult not to. And the roots of this city were ancient, primal.

• 75 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Yes. The Land of the Sun Beneath, where the sun rules after

darkness falls here. But there is a land beneath those lands, ever

without the sun. Some call it Hell, and some the Underworld. What

do you call it, Crank-Leg?”

Yannis thought the king did not anticipate a reply.

The king said, “I suppose, soldier, you’d call it death. Maybe, when they cracked your leg off, you even paid a little visit.”

Yannis found he hated the king. It was a response that this king

wished to foster in him. The king preferred to know how he weighed

with common men, and to make men hate and fear provided an

instant measure. Yannis had glimpsed traces of hate, fear, all over the court, both high and low exhibited signs. So the king knew where he

was.

“Well,” said the king, “you’ve few words. Do you know what you’re

to do here?”

Yannis did, of course. “No, sire.”

“Then you are not like all the rest, all seven—or was it seventeen

of them—those others who failed. Very well. My daughters, in my

hall, those girls with their hair. Even
you
will have noticed them. On nights of the round moon they go to another place, the place we spoke of. Despite they sleep all together in their luxurious bedchamber,

which every night is locked and guarded to protect and make sure

of them—on those three nights they
slip through
, like water from a leaky bowl. At dawn, they come back. Do you know how this was

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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