Read Shadow and claw Online

Authors: Gene Wolfe

Tags: #Science Fiction - Series, #Fantasy - Epic, #Fantasy Fiction, #General, #Gene - Prose & Criticism, #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Wolfe, #Epic

Shadow and claw (42 page)

BOOK: Shadow and claw
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"And what is that?" Jonas was looking down into his wine cup.

"A torturer, let's say a master at the Citadel, is occasionally brought into contact with exultants of the highest degree. Suppose there's some exceedingly sensitive prisoner who's thought to possess important information. An official of lofty standing is likely to be delegated to attend such a prisoner's examination. Very often he will have had little experience with the more delicate operations, so he will ask the master questions and perhaps confide in him certain fears he has concerning the subject's temperament or health. A torturer under those circumstances feels himself to be at the center of things—"

"Then feels let down when it's over with. Yes, I suppose I can see that."

"Have you ever seen one of these affairs when it was badly botched?"

"No. Aren't you going to eat any of this meat?"

"Neither have I, but I've heard about them, and that's why I was tense. Times when the client has broken away and fled into the crowd. Times when several strokes were needed to part the neck. Times when a torturer lost all confidence and was unable to proceed. When I vaulted onto that scaffold, I had no way of knowing that none of those things was going to happen to me. If they had, I might have been finished for life."

"'Still, it's a terrible way to earn a living.' That's what the thorn-bush said to the shrike, you know."

"I really don't—" I broke off because I had seen something move on the farther side of the room. At first I thought it was a rat, and I have a pronounced dislike of them; I have seen too many clients bitten in the oubliette under our tower.

"What is it?"

"Something white." I walked around the table to see. "A sheet of paper. Someone has slipped a note under our door."

"Another woman wanting to sleep with you," Jonas said, but by that time I had already picked it up. It was indeed a woman's delicate script, written in grayish ink upon parchment. I held it close to the candle to read.

Dearest Severian:

From one of the kind men who are assisting me, I have learned you are in the village of
 
Saltus, not far away. It seems too good to be true, but now I must discover whether you can
 
forgive me.

I swear to you that any suffering you have endured for my sake was not by my choice. From
 
the first, I wanted to tell you everything, but the others would not hear of it. They judged that no
 
one should know but those who had to know (which meant no one but themselves), and at last
 
told me outright that if I did not obey them in everything they would forgo the plan and leave me
 
to die. I knew you would die for me, and so I dared to hope that you would have chosen, if you
 
could choose, to suffer for me too. Forgive me.

But now I am away and almost free—my own mistress so long as I obey the simple and
 
humane instructions of good Father Inire. And so I will tell you everything, in the hope that when
 
you have heard it all you will indeed forgive me. You know of my arrest. You will remember too
 
how anxious your Master Gurloes was for my comfort, and how frequently he visited my cell to
 
talk to me, or had me brought to him so that he and the other masters might question me. That
 
was because my patron, the good Father Inire, had charged him to be strictly attentive to me.
 
At length, when it became clear that the Autarch would not free me, Father Inire arranged to
 
do so himself. I do not know what threats were made to Master Gurloes, or what bribes were
 
offered him. But they were sufficient, and a few days before my death—as you thought, dearest
 
Severian—he explained to me how the matter was to be arranged. It was not enough, of course,
 
that I be freed. I must be freed in such a way that no search should be made for me. That meant it
 
needs appear that I was dead; yet the instructions Master Gurloes had received had charged him
 
strictly not to let me die.

You will now be able to fathom for yourself how we cut through this tangle of obstructions. It
 
was arranged that I should be subjected to a device whose action was internal only, and Master
 
Gurloes first so disarmed it that I should suffer no real harm. When you thought me in agony, I
 
was to ask you for means of terminating my wretched life. All went as planned. You provided the
 
knife, and I made a shallow cut on my arm, crouched near the door so some blood would run
 
beneath it, then smeared my throat and fell across the bed for you to see when you looked into my
 
prison.

Did you look? I lay as still as death. My eyes were closed, but I seemed to feel your pain when
 
you saw me there. I nearly wept, and I recall how frightened I was that you might see the tears
 
welling up. At last I heard your footsteps, and I bandaged my arm and washed my face and neck.
 
After a time Master Gurloes came and took me away. Forgive me.

Now I would see you again, and if Father Inire wins a pardon for me as he has solemnly
 
pledged himself to do, there is no reason why we need ever part again. But come to me at once—I
 
am awaiting his messenger, and if he arrives I must fly to the House Absolute to cast myself at the
 
feet of the Autarch, whose name be thrice-blessed balm upon the scorched brows of his slaves.
 
Speak to no one of this, but go northeast from Saltus until you encounter a brook that winds its
 
way to Gyoll. Trace it against the current, and you will find it to issue from the mouth of a mine.
 
Here I must impart to you a grave secret, which you must by no means reveal to others. This
 
mine is a treasure house of the Autarch's, and in it he has stored great sums of coined money,
 
bullion, and gems against a day in which he may be forced from the Phoenix Throne. It is guarded
 
by certain servitors of Father Inire's, but you need have no fear of them. They have been
 
instructed to obey me, and I have told them of you, and ordered them to permit you to pass
 
without challenge. Entering the mine, then, follow the watercourse until you reach the end, where
 
it issues from a stone. Here I wait, and here I write, in the hope that you will forgive your Thecla.
 I cannot describe the surge of joy I felt as I read and reread this letter. Jonas, who saw my face, at first leaped from his chair—I think he supposed I was on the point of fainting—then drew away as he might have from a lunatic. When at last I folded the letter and thrust it in my sabretache, he asked no questions (for Jonas was indeed a friend) but showed by his look that he stood ready to help me.

"I need your animal," I said. "May I take her?"

"Gladly. But—"

I was already unbolting the door. "You cannot come. If all goes well, I'll see that she is returned to you."

As I raced down the stair and into the inn yard, the letter spoke in my mind in Thecla's very voice; and by the time I entered the stable I was a lunatic indeed. I looked for Jonas's merychip, but instead saw before me a great destrier, his back higher than my eyes. I had no notion who might have ridden him into this peaceful village, and I gave it no thought. Without hesitating an instant I sprang onto his back, drew Terminus Est, and with a stroke severed the reins that tethered him.

I have never seen a better mount. He was out of the stable in one bound, and in two, lunging into the village street. For the space of a breath I feared he would trip on some tent rope, but he was sure-footed as a dancer. The street ran east toward the river; as soon as we were clear of the houses, I urged him to the left. He leaped a wall as a boy might skip across a stick, and I found myself galloping full-tilt over a meadow where bulls lifted their horns in the green moonlight.

I am no great rider now, and was still less one then. Despite the high saddle, I think I would have tumbled from the back of an inferior animal before we had covered half a league; but my stolen destrier moved, for all his speed, as smoothly as a shadow. A shadow indeed we must have appeared, he with his black hide, I in my fuligin cloak. He had not slacked his pace before we splashed across the brook mentioned in the letter. I checked him there—partly by grasping his halter, more by speech, to which he harkened as a brother might. There was no path on either side of the water, and we had not traced it far before trees rimmed the banks. I guided him into the brook then (though he was loath to go) where we made our way up foaming races as a man climbs steps, and swam deep pools.

For more than a watch, we waded this brook through a forest much like the one through which Jonas and I had passed after being separated from Dorcas, Dr. Talos, and the rest at the Piteous Gate. Then the banks grew higher and more rugged, the trees smaller, and twisted. There were boulders in the stream; from their squared edges I knew they were the work of hands, and that we were in the region of the mines, with the wreck of some great city below us. Our way was steeper, and for all his mettle he faltered sometimes on sliding stones, so that I was forced to dismount and lead him. In this way we passed through a series of little, dreaming hollows, each dark in the shadows of its high sides, but each flecked in places with green moonlight, each ringing with the sound of water—but with that sound only, and otherwise wrapped in silence.

At last we entered a vale smaller and narrower than any of the others; and at the end of it, a chain or so off where the moonlight spilled upon a sheer elevation, I saw a dark opening. The brook had its origin there, flooding out like saliva from the lips of a petrified titan. I found a patch of ground beside the water sufficiently level for my mount to stand and contrived to tie him there, knotting what remained of his reins around a dwarfish tree.

Once, no doubt, a timber trestle had provided access to the mine, but it had rotted away long ago. Though the climb looked impossible in the moonlight, I was able to find a few footholds in the ancient wall and scaled it to one side of the descending jet.

I had my hands inside the opening when I heard, or thought I heard, some sound from the vale behind me. I paused, and turned my head to look back. The rush of the water would have drowned any noise less commanding than a bugle call or an explosion, and it had drowned this, yet still I had sensed something—the note of stone falling upon stone, perhaps, or the splash of something plunging into the water.

The vale seemed peaceful and silent. Then I saw my destrier shift his stance, his proud head and forward-cocked ears coming for an instant into the light. I decided that what I had heard was nothing more than the striking of his steel-shod feet against the rock as he stamped in discontent at being so closely tethered. I drew my body into the mine entrance, and by doing so, as I later learned, saved my life.

A man of any wit, setting out as I had and knowing he must enter such a place, would have brought a lantern and a plentiful supply of candles. I had been so wild at the thought that Thecla still lived that I had none. Thus I crept forward in the dark, and had not taken a dozen steps before the moonlight of the vale had vanished behind me. My boots were in the stream, so I walked as I had when I had led the destrier up it. Terminus Est was slung over my left shoulder, and I had no fear that the tip of her sheath might be wet by the stream, for the ceiling of the tunnel was so low that I walked bent double. So I proceeded for a long time, fearing always that I had come wrong, and that Thecla waited for me elsewhere, and would wait in vain.

CHAPTER SIX - BLUE LIGHT

I grew so accustomed to the sound of the icy water that had you asked me I should have said I walked in silence; but it was not so, and when, most suddenly, the constricted tunnel opened into a large chamber equally dark, I knew it at once from the change in the music of the stream. I took another step, and then another, and raised my head. There was no ragged stone now to strike if I lifted my arms. Nothing. I grasped Terminus Est by her onyx hilt and waved her blade, still in the protection of its sheath. Nothing still.

Then I did something that you, reading this record, will find foolish indeed, though you must recall that I had been told that such guards as might be in the mine had been warned of my arrival and instructed to do me no harm. I called Thecla's name.

And the echoes answered: "Thecla . . . Thecla . . . Thecla . . ." Then silence again.

I remembered that I was to have followed the water until it welled from a rock, and that I had not done so. Possibly it trickled through as many galleries here beneath the hill as it had through dells outside it. I began to wade again, feeling my way at each step for fear I might plunge over my head with the next. I had not taken five strides when I heard something, far off yet distinct, above the whispering of the now smoothly flowing water. I had not taken five more when I saw light.

It was not the emerald reflection of the fabled forests of the moon, nor was it such a light as guards might carry with them—the scarlet flame of a torch, the golden radiance of a candle, or even the piercing white beam I had sometimes glimpsed by night when the fliers of the Autarch soared over the Citadel. Rather, it was a luminous mist, sometimes seeming of no color, sometimes of an impure yellowish green. It was impossible to say how far it was, and it seemed to possess no shape. For a time it shimmered before my sight; and I, still following the stream, splashed toward it. Then it was joined by another.

It is difficult for me to concentrate on the events of the next few minutes. Perhaps everyone holds in his subconscious certain moments of horror, as our oubliette held, in its lowest inhabited level, for those clients whose minds had long ago been destroyed or transformed into consciousness no longer human. Like them, these memories shriek and lash the walls with their chains, but are seldom brought high enough to see the light.

BOOK: Shadow and claw
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