Authors: Tanith Lee
Yannis heard himself say, “By the soles of their feet.”
The king unsmiled. His eyes shone like scorched stones, cooling,
cold. “So you
“Only the phrase.”
“Yes. The soles—not of their shoes, which are pristine as when
sewn for them—but the skin of their feet.
is marked as if worn right through. Blemished,
and decorated in silver and sparkle, too. As if they’d bruised and torn them, then dipped them
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• Tanith Lee •
in rivers of moonlight and rime. You must follow these bitch-whores
of mine, and see how they get out, and where they go, and if—
it’s to that hidden underland, and next—what goes on
. Things no man can see, of course, and keep his sanity. But you’ll already have been there, as I said, when you lost half your leg. You’ll already know.
You’re already partly mad. Why else are you here now?”
“And were the other men mad, sire?”
“They must have been, would you not say, old Crook-Shank?”
“Have you,” said Yannis, “never yourself
“I?” The king stared at Yannis. “A king does not ask. He is
Without asking. I set others to find out. And now
are here. If you succeed, you will be my son, and a prince, my heir, to rule after me.
Any of the twelve whores you choose shall be your wife. Or all of
them, if you want. I’ll have someone fashion an extra large bed for
the sport. If you fail, however, your head shall be slashed from your body, as the best of your leg once was. Top to toe, soldier. That’s fair.
And now,” said the king, “since this is the first of the moon’s three round nights, the servant outside will show you the way.”
It was rising in the long middle window, the moon, round as the
white pupil of an immense dark eye. It watched him as he entered
and was closed in, but it watched them, also, all twelve. Together, they and he made thirteen beings. But the moon perhaps made fourteen.
Besides, there were the animals.
Three big, wolf-like dogs sat or stood, still as statues; a strange
pale cat, with a slanted yellow gaze, lay supine. Additionally, there were little cages hung up, in some of which small birds perched
twittering—and as the door of every cage stood open, several others
flitted to and fro, while occasionally one would let loose a skein of lunar song, or a moon-white dropping would fall, softly snow-like
on the floor.
The princesses were arranged, like warriors before a skirmish,
some on the richly-draped yet narrow beds, or they stood up, and
two were combing their hair with plangent silking sounds, and
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drizzles of sparks that flew outward in the brazier-spread fire-glow.
This combing and spark-making was like the playing of two harps, a
musical accompaniment to the birds’ descant.
A magical, part uncanny scene. It lulled Yannis, and therefore
made him greatly more alert.
But he took time, as with the king, and since they stared full at
him, even the dogs and the cat, and some of the birds, to study these women a while.
For a fact though, he could not properly see past their hair.
Charms they had, and they were alike, all of them to each other—
and unalike, too—but the hair was still, in each one her symbol,
extraordinary, unique. Three colors, every time transmuted. For
had hair red as amber, and
hair brown as tortoiseshell, and
gold as topaz—and
red as beech leaves,
brown as walnut wood,
gold as corn fields—
red as summer wine,
brown as spring beer,
gold as winter mead, and
was red as copper, and
was brown as bronze. But she—Yannis hesitated between two flickers of the brazier-light—
—the youngest, there, there in the darkest shadow of the farthest bed—
had hair as gold as
“Well, here’s our father’s latest guest.”
It was the tallest, eldest girl who spoke, with amber hair. In age, the soldier thought, she was some years his junior, but then a wealthy,
cared-for woman, he knew, could often look much younger than her
years, just as a poor and ill-used one could seem older.
“There is a chamber set by for you,” levelly said the girl with
“Every comfort in it,” said the girl with topaz hair.
“But we know you won’t enjoy that since—” said the girl with hair
like beech leaves.
“You must watch us closely and follow behind so that—” said hair
like walnut wood.
“You may report to the king what we do,” concluded hair like
“A shame,” said Summer Wine.
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“And unkindness,” said Spring Hair.
“Every inch of your tired frame must protest,” said Winter Mead.
“But such is human life,” said Copper, tossing her locks as she
stopped her comb.
“Alas,” said Bronze, also stopping hers.
Then, in the sparkless gloaming, Gold-as-Gold said this: “We
know you must do it, and will never deny you have now no choice.
Come, join us then in a cup of liquor for the journey, and we’ll be on our way, while you shall follow, poor soldier, as best you can.”
The soldier bowed very low, but he said nothing, and when they
poured out the wine, each had a bright metal cup with jewels set
round the rim. But the cup they gave him was of bright polished
Then the young women drank, and the soldier pretended to drink,
because what the witch had told him was so firmly fixed in his brain he was by that instant like a fine actor who had learned his part to perfection. And presently he did speak, and said might he sit just for a minute, and the young women who were by then finishing putting
on their cloaks and shoes for the outer world, or so it looked, nodded and said he might.
The draught came from the same pitcher. The drug
must be in the cup—but no matter, I never even put my lip to it without
my finger between.
Next he plumped down the cup, spilling a drop. He let his head
droop suddenly and seemed surprised. He smiled for the first,
stupidly. Then he shut his eyes and thought,
God help me now
, but he had not forgotten the secret of the trance.
Another moment and Yannis himself sat upright in the chair, even
as his body stretched unconscious across it. He was out of his skin.
And oh, the moonlight in the chamber then, how thrillingly clear, a
transparent silver mirror that he could see straight through. And the soul-cord that connected flesh and spirit, more silver yet.
He let himself drift up a wall, and hung there, and watched.
They came soon enough, and tried him, gently at first. Then they
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mocked, and Amber and Beech Leaves and Spring Beer slapped his
face, and then Cornfields came up to him and tickled him maliciously.
Walnut Wood kicked his sound ankle, and Bronze and Winter Mead
spat on him. Tortoiseshell cursed him articulately, in which Summer
Wine and Copper joined. Only Topaz stuck a pin into his arm and
Sure he slept, they then turned together up the room to its darker
end, where Gold yet stood, the youngest of them. She instead came
down, and hesitated by him a second. Standing in air, the soldier
thought, Now what will
“Poor boy,” said Gold, though her face was impassive, and she
anyway half his age. “Poor boy.”
“You silly,” called one of the others. “Why pity him? Would he pity
? Hurry, so we can be off.”
So Gold left him, or his body, sleeping.
But Yannis pursued all of them, unseen, up the room.
They spoke a rhyme in that ancient and angular other tongue, and
then they stamped, each one, on a different part of the floor. At that, the dogs, cats, and birds—who had taken not much note of him—
looked round at the far wall, which sighed and slowly shifted open.
Beyond lay blackness, but there came the scent of cold stones and
colder night. One by one the girls fluttered through like gorgeous
moths. Yannis followed without trouble. Even though the hidden
door was already closing, he strode on two strong legs straight
through the wall.
Beginning with an enclosed stone stair, which did not impede the
now-fleet-of-foot Yannis, the passage descended. Nor did the almost
utter dark inconvenience him; his unbodied eyes saw better than
the best. After the stair came a descent of rubble, but everything
contained within the granite bastions of the palace. Here and there
the accustomed steps of the princesses now did falter. Once, Yannis
found to his dismay, he reached out to steady the youngest princess.
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Fortunately, she seemed not to realize. But he must be wary—her
compassion might have been a trap.
He had learned her name, nevertheless. The eldest girl had called
her by it. Evira. That was the name of the youngest princess, Gold-
Ultimately, the way leveled. Then they walked on in the dark until
splinters of the moon scattered through. At last full moonlight led
them out onto a snow-marbled height, far above the city. They were
on the western hill, where massed the houses of the dead.
Yannis knew they must soon enter some mausoleum, and next
they did, after unlocking its iron gate with a key the eldest princess carried.
Yannis had lost all fear. He had no need of it.
Within the tomb lay snow and bones, and the ravages of the
heartless armies of death and time.
And then there was another door, which Yannis, as now he was,
saw instantly was no earthly entrance or exit. And despite his power and freedom, for an instant he did check. But the twelve maidens
went directly through the door, even she did, Evira. And then so did Yannis too.
Beyond the door lay the occult country.
It was of the spirit, but whether an afterlife, or underworld below
the Sun Beneath—or an else-or-otherwhere—Yannis was never, then
or ever, certain.
Although it was unforgettable, naturally. In
Should the sun have sunk into a country beneath the earth, then
this land, lying below the other two, had no hint of daylight. Nor
was the round full moon apparent. Yet light there was. It was like the clearest glass, and the air—when you moved through it—rippled a
little, like water. The smell of the air was sweet, fragrant as if with growing trees and herbs. And such there were, and drifted flowers,
pale or somber, yet they glowed like lamps. Above, there was a sort
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of sky, which shone and glowed also, if sunlessly. Hills spread away, and before them an oval body of water softly glimmered. Orchards
grouped on every side, they too glinting and iridescent. The leaves
nearby were silver, but farther off they had the livelier glisten of gold.
The moment this somewhere closed around them, the women
discarded their cloaks and shoes, and shook out the flaming waves
of their hair. Then they ran towards the lake.
As they ran, he saw their plain garments change to silks and
velvets, streams of embroidery budding at sleeves and borders like
yet more flowers breaking through grass.
And he was aware of his own joy in the running, and his lion-like
pursuit, his joy in the otherworld, in life and in eternity. Strong wine.
He did not glance after the spirit-cord, however. He sensed he
might not see it, here.
When the women reached the lake, they were laughing with excited
pleasure. Some of the silver and golden leaves they had sped under
had fallen into their hair—ice on fire, fire on water—he, too, had
deliberately snatched a handful of each kind of leaf. But the leaves of the lake-side trees were hard with brilliancy.
were diamonds; they did not deign to fall. Impelled he reached out and plucked one.
It gave off a spurt of razorous white—like a tinder striking—filling the air with one sharp snap.
“Someone is behind us,” said the eldest princess, amber-haired.
The others frowned at her, then all about them.
Strange, Amber is the oldest of them, yet she is
young like a child, too. Perhaps in knowledge, soul-wise, the youngest
princess of all . . .
, he thought,
What am I? Perhaps in fact I am only drugged
and dream all this
But the youngest princess, Evira, said quietly, “Who could follow
here, sisters?” Trusting, and like a child as well.
They could not see him, he knew. Not even the silver and gold and
diamond hidden in the pocket of his no-longer-physical shirt.
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Then what looked to him at first like a fleet of swans appeared
across the lake. Soon he saw twelve gilded boats, one for each
princess. Who guided these vessels?
Up in the air, Yannis stood a pillar’s height high. He scanned the
vessels; each rowed by itself, and was empty.