Read The 1st Chronicles of Thomas Covenant #2: The Illearth War Online

Authors: Stephen R. Donaldson

Tags: #Fantasy

The 1st Chronicles of Thomas Covenant #2: The Illearth War (3 page)

BOOK: The 1st Chronicles of Thomas Covenant #2: The Illearth War
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Riding in the darkness, he had forgotten how far off the ground he was. An instant of vertigo caught him. He landed awkwardly, almost fell. His feet felt nothing, but the jolt gave an added throb to the ache of his ankles.

Over his moment of dizziness, he heard the driver say, “You know, I figured you got a head start on the booze.”

To avoid meeting the man’s stony, speculative stare, Covenant went ahead of him around toward the front of the nightclub.

As he rounded the corner, Covenant nearly collided with a battered old man wearing dark glasses. The old man stood with his back to the building, extending n bruised tin cup toward the passersby, and following their movements with his ears. He held his head high, but it trembled slightly on his thin neck; and he was singing “Blessed Assurance” as if it were a dirge. Under one arm he carried a white-tipped cane. When Covenant veered away from him, he waved his cup vaguely in that direction.

Covenant was leery of beggars. He remembered the tattered fanatic who had accosted him like an introduction or preparation just before the onset of his delusion. The memory made him alert to a sudden tension in the night. He stepped close to the blind man and peered into his face.

The beggar’s song did not change inflection, but he turned an ear toward Covenant, and poked his cup at Covenant’s chest.

The truck driver stopped behind Covenant. “Hell,” he growled, “they’re swarming.

It’s like a disease. Come on. You promised me a drink.”

1n the light of the streetlamp, Covenant could see that this was not that other beggar, the fanatic. But still the man’s blindness affected him. His sympathy for the maimed rushed up in him. Pulling his wallet out of his jacket, he took twenty dollars and stuffed them in the tin cup.

“Twenty bucks!” ejaculated the driver. “Are you simple, or what? You don’t need no drink, buddy. You need a keeper.”

Without a break in his song, the blind man put out a gnarled hand, crumpled the bills, and hid them away somewhere in his rags. Then he turned and went tapping dispassionately away down the sidewalk, secure in the private mysticism of the blind-singing as he moved about “a foretaste of glory divine.”

Covenant watched his back fade into the night, then swung around toward his companion. The driver was a head taller than Covenant, and carried his bulk solidly on thick legs. His cigar gleamed like one of Drool Rockworm’s eyes.

Drool, Covenant remembered, Lord Foul’s mad, Cavewightish servant or pawn.

Drool had found the Staff of Law, and had been destroyed by it or because of it. His death had released Covenant from the Land.

Covenant poked a numb finger at the trucker’s chest, trying vainly to touch him, taste his actuality. “Listen,” he said, “I’m serious about that drink. But I should tell you” -he swallowed, then forced himself to say it “I’m Thomas Covenant. That leper.”

The driver snorted around his cigar. “Sure, buddy. And I’m Jesus Christ. If you blew your wad, say so. But don’t give me that leper crap. You’re just simple, is all.”

Covenant scowled up at the man for a moment longer. Then he said resolutely,

“Well, in any case, I’m not broke. Not yet. Come on.”

Together, they went on to the entrance of the nightclub. It was called The Door. In keeping with its name, the place had a wide iron gate like a portal into Hades. The gate was lit in a sick green, but spotlighted whitely at its center was a large poster which bore the words:

Positively the last night America’s newest singing sensation SUSIE THURSTON

Included was a photograph which tried to make Susie Thurston look alluring. But the flashy gloss of the print had aged to an ambiguous gray.

Covenant gave himself a perfunctory VSE, adjured his courage, and walked into the nightclub, holding his breath as if he were entering the first circle of hell.

Inside, the club was crowded; Susie Thurston’s farewell performance was well attended. Covenant and his companion took the only seats they could find-at a small table near the stage. The table was already occupied by a middle-aged man in a tired suit.

Something about the way he held his glass suggested that he had been drinking for some time. When Covenant asked to join him, he did not appear to notice. He stared in the direction of the stage with round eyes, looking as solemn as a bird.

The driver discounted him with a brusque gesture. He turned a chair around, and straddled it as if bracing the burden of his belly against the chair back. Covenant took the remaining seat and tucked himself close to the table, to reduce the risk of being struck by anyone passing between the tables.

The unaccustomed press of people afflicted him with anxiety. He sat still, huddling into himself. A fear of exposure beat on his pulse, and he gripped himself hard, breathing deeply as if resisting an attack of vertigo; surrounded by people who took no notice of him, he felt vulnerable. He was taking too big a chance. But they were people, superficially like himself. He repulsed the urge to flee. Gradually, he realized that his companion was waiting for him to order.

Feeling vaguely ill and defenseless, he raised his arm and attracted the waiter’s attention. The driver ordered a double Scotch on the rocks. Apprehension momentarily paralyzed Covenant’s voice, but then he forced himself to request a gin and tonic. He regretted the order at once; gin and tonic had been Joan’s drink. But he did not change it.

He could hardly help sighing with relief when the waiter moved away.

Through the clutch of his tension, he felt that the order came with almost miraculous promptitude. Swirling around the table, the waiter deposited three drinks, including a glass of something that looked like raw alcohol for the middle-aged man.

Raising his glass, the driver downed half his drink, grimaced, and muttered, “Sugar water.” The solemn man poured his alcohol past his jumping Adam’s apple in one movement.

A part of Covenant’s mind wondered if he were going to end up paying for all three of them.

Reluctantly, he tasted his gin and tonic, and almost gagged in sudden anger. The lime in the drink reminded him intensely of aliantha. Pathetic! he snarled at himself. For punishment, he drank off the rest of the gin, and signaled to the waiter for more. Abruptly he determined to get drunk.

When the second round came, the waiter again brought three drinks. Covenant looked stiffly at his companions. Then the three of them drank as if they had tacitly engaged each other in a contest.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, the driver leaned forward and said,

“Buddy, I got to warn you. It’s your dough. I can drink you under the table.”

To give the third man an opening, Covenant replied, “I think our friend here is going to last longer than both of us.”

“What, a little guy like him?” There was humor in the trucker’s tone, an offer of comradeship. “No way. No way at all.”

But the solemn man did not recognize the driver’s existence with even a flick of his eyes. He kept staring into the stage as if it were an abyss.

For a while, his gloom presided over the table. Covenant ordered again, and a few minutes later the waiter brought out a third round-three more drinks. This time, the trucker stopped him. 1n a jocose way as if he were assuming responsibility for Covenant, he jerked his thumb at the middle-aged man and said, “I hope you know we ain’t payin’

for him.”

“Sure.” The waiter was bored. “He has a standing order. Pays in advance.”

Disdain seemed to tighten his face, pulling it together like the closing of a fist around his nose. “Comes here every night just to watch her and drink himself blind.” Then someone else signaled to him, and he was gone.

For a moment, the third man said nothing. Slowly, the houselights went down, and an expectant hush dropped like a shroud over the packed club. Then into the silence the man croaked quietly, “My wife.”

A spotlight centered on the stage, and the club MC came out of the wings. Behind him, musicians took their places-a small combo, casually dressed.

The MC flashed out a smile, started his spiel. “It makes me personally sad to introduce our little lady tonight, because this is the last time she’ll be with us for a while, at least. She’s going on from here to the places where famous people get famouser. We at The Door won’t soon forget her. Remember, you heard her here first. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Susie Thurston!”

The spotlight picked up the singer as she came out, carrying a hand microphone.

She wore a leather outfit -a skirt that left most of her legs bare and a sleeveless vest with a fringe across her breasts, emphasizing their movement. Her blond hair was bobbed short, and her eyes were dark, surrounded by deep hollow circles like bruises. She had a full and welcoming figure, but her face denied it; she wore the look of an abandoned waif. In a pure, frail voice that would have been good for supplication, she sang a set of love ballads defiantly, as if they were protest songs. The applause after each number was thunderous, and Covenant quaked at the sound. When the set was over and Susie Thurston retired for a break, he was sweating coldly.

The gin seemed to be having no effect on him. But he needed some kind of help.

With an aspect of desperation, he signaled for another round. To his relief, the waiter brought the drinks soon.

After he had downed his Scotch, the driver hunched forward purposefully, and said, “I think I got this bastard figured out.”

The solemn man was oblivious to his tablemates. Painfully, he croaked again,

“My wife.”

Covenant wanted to keep the driver from talking about the third man so openly, but before he could distract him, his guest went on, “He’s doing it out of spite, that’s what.”

“Spite?” echoed Covenant helplessly. He missed the connection. As far as he could tell, their companionns doubt happily or at least doggedly married, no doubt childless-had somehow conceived a hopeless passion for the waifwoman behind the microphone. Such things happened. Torn between his now-grim fidelity and his obdurate need, he could do nothing but torment himself in search of release, drink himself into stupefaction staring at the thing he wanted and both could not and should not have.

With such ideas about their tablemate, Covenant

was left momentarily at sea by the driver’s comment. But the big man went on almost at once. “Course. What’d you think, being a leper is fun? He’s thinking he’ll just sort of share it around. Why be the only one, you know what I mean? That’s what this bastard thinks. Take my word, buddy. I got him figured out.” As he spoke, his cobbled face loomed before Covenant like a pile of thetic rubble. “What he does, he goes around where he ain’t known, and he hides it, like, so nobody knows he’s sick. That way he spreads it; nobody knows so they don’t take care, and all of a sudden we got us an epidemic. Which makes Covenant laugh hisself crazy. Spite, like I tell you. You take my word. Don’t go shaking hands when you don’t know the guy you’re shaking with.”

Dully, the third man groaned, “My wife.”

Gripping his wedding band as if it had the power to protect him, Covenant said intently, “Maybe that isn’t it. Maybe he just needs people. Do you ever get lonely -driving that rig all alone, hour after hour? Maybe this Thomas Covenant just can’t stand to go on living without seeing other faces once in a while. Did you think about that?”

“So let him stick to lepers. What call is he got to bother decent folks? Use your head.”

Use my head? Covenant almost shouted. Hellfire! What do you think I’m doing?

Do you think I like doing this, being here? A grimace that he could not control clutched his face, Fuming, he waved for more drinks. The alcohol seemed to be working in reverse, tightening his tension rather than loosening it. But he was too angry to know whether or not he was getting drunk. The air swarmed with the noise of The Door’s patrons. He was conscious of the people behind him as if they lurked there like ur-viles.

When the drinks came, he leaned forward to refute the driver’s arguments. But he was stopped by the dimming of the lights for Susie Thurston’s second set.

Bleakly, their tablemate groaned, “My wife.” His voice was starting to blur around the edges; whatever he was drinking was finally affecting him.

In the moment of darkness before the MC came on, the driver responded, “You mean that broad’s your wife?”

At that, the man moaned as though in anguish.

After a quick introduction, Susie Thurston reseated herself within the spotlight.

Over a querulous accompaniment from her combo, she put some sting into her voice, and sang about the infidelities of men. After two numbers, there were slow tears running from the dark wounds of her eyes.

The sound of her angry laments made Covenant’s throat hurt. He regretted fiercely that he was not drunk. He would have liked to forget people and vulnerability and stubborn survival-forget and weep.

But her next song burned him. With her head back so that her white throat gleamed in the light, she sang a song that ended,

Let go my heart Your love makes me look small to myself. Now, I don’t want to give you any hurt, But what I feel is part of myself: What you want turns what I’ve got to dirt so let go of my heart.

Applause leaped on the heels of her last note, as if the audience were perversely hungry for her pain. Covenant could not endure any more. Buffeted by the noise, he threw dollars-did not count them-on the table, and shoved back his chair to escape.

But when he moved around the table, he passed within five feet of the singer.

Suddenly she saw him. Spreading her arms, she exclaimed joyfully, “Berek!”

Covenant froze, stunned and terrified. No!

Susie Thurston was transported. “Hey!” she called, waving her arms to silence the applause, “Get a spot out here! On him! Berek! Berek, honey!”

From over the stage, a hot white light spiked down at Covenant. Impaled in the glare, he turned to face the singer, blinking rapidly and aching with fear and rage.

No!

“Ladies and gentlemen, kind people, I want you to meet an old friend of mine, a dear man.” Susie Thurston was excited and eager. “He taught me half the songs I know.

BOOK: The 1st Chronicles of Thomas Covenant #2: The Illearth War
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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