BLOOD, BLIGHT AND BALLISTICS (c)
Ayer Town 3057.7.18
Seama’s tale was much less dramatic. Someone had set a spell of dissolution upon the castle. He explained as they forged ahead.
“Do you remember how to cast a blight?”
“Am I supposed to?”
“Standard teaching for the fifth years – I’m sure you’ll have had it when you were a student. Perhaps you’ll remember being taken to the beach and making up sandcastles?”
“Sandcastles?” Tregar, walking ahead of Seama said nothing for a few moments but his shoulders lifted into a shrug. “I can remember building sandcastles in my younger years but I don’t remember ... Ah, now wait a minute. This’ll be the one where you’re to build the castle and then knock it down without touching it, that right?”
“Well nearly. The students who fail the test are the ones who give it the push. Other more subtle students fill the castle with water and pull at a few grains here and there. They fail too. A pass is given only to the students who understand that all things eventually decay, decompose, come apart, and they have to understand why.”
Tregar grunted in derision. “Well, that’s easy isn’t it? Erosion, the weight of the earth, the work of the elements.”
“You pass. Nearly. It is a matter of other attractions. The castle is put in place by our own force, using the weak cement of sand in water. Our will, we could say, is what makes and holds the castle together for a period of time. Eventually though, other forces will assert themselves. Left to itself, through the drying power of the sun, the pull of the earth, the scouring of the wind, the weight of the tide, our sandcastle is doomed before the day is out. Of course everything we build, everything we create is subject to the same problem: other forces continue on their set course just as we continue on ours.”
“So,” said Tregar happily, “I’m right then. In effect what you’re saying is that it’s all to do with external forces. In that case what’s so wrong with giving it the push?”
“Sorry, you fail. A two year old can knock down a sandcastle. But what if you could influence the action of other forces and you could do that without the use of kinetics? What if your will could cause all of the forces of decay to increase their natural activity, to work faster together? And that you could localize the effect? A word of dissolution supports the forces of decay, lends them greater power, enables them and drives them into greater action.”
“All sounds a bit pointless, Seama, direct action’s the way with me. You know, I do remember now. It took me so long to figure out what the teachers were talking about that my sandcastle dried out and fell apart anyway. I’m not sure I got any further than that. But drying out now, that’s one of the processes ye say?”
Seama groaned. “Yes it is, but you’re supposed to bring the thing down in four minutes not four hours.”
“Oh well. It’s not the only thing I failed at. But anyway, the key point you’re trying to get into my noddle is that someone has set a word of dissolution upon Castle Ayer.”
“Well,” Tregar said, the weight of his thought suddenly bringing him to a halt, “It occurs to me that Ayer’s a good bit bigger than a sandcastle. Wouldn’t it take a lot of power to bring it down – a hell of a lot?”
Seama, facing him now, mirrored Tregar’s frown. He didn’t much like the notion.
“Yes. Yes it would,” he agreed. “Obvious really.” He pushed past his companion and strode on with a renewed urgency. “I couldn’t do it,” he said, “I might manage a wall but not a house. To bring down a castle, especially this castle, it should be impossible; but trust me Tregar, that’s what’s happening.”
Tregar had to trot to keep up.
“So how are they doing it then? How could anyone be more powerful than you are? Oh right, right. I see: they’re borrowing the power.”
“That’s what I think. And if they are borrowing power then I doubt the donor is anything benign.”
“Dangerous business, Seama, messing with dark powers. You’d have to be mad to try it, or desperate.”
“Or supremely confident.”
“Any idea who?”
“None at all. Come on, let’s get the journey done. The key thing is to stop the spell. We can worry later about who set it.”
“But I thought... Oh!”
Tregar’s note of surprise echoed oddly. Seama realized his companion had stopped again but not it seemed because he was weary. The light of the lanterns cast deep furrows upon the court wizard’s face, making his expression even darker than normal, but Tregar looked seriously worried. He signalled that Seama should step back a few paces.
“Look,” he said pointing back the way they had come.
Seama was surprised to see that, easy to miss walking up but in plain sight from where he stood, the tunnel had a spur. An unpleasant, tight looking thing.
“Where does that go?”
“Oh not far. Just to a room. I guess it’s a cave the builders used to keep their gear in – lots of rusted metal in there, other stuff. But look at this.”
A few feet in was a door-frame but the lintel had given way and the heavy door had fallen down and together with the rubble it half blocked the entrance.
“There’s a bad smell to that place,” Seama said, his dislike of the Back Passage increasing by the minute. “I wonder why they put a door in there?”
“No idea. Keep out a draft? Keep the smell in? Who knows, but that’s not what bathers me. Last time I was here that door was in its place, sturdy as ye like.”
“So? It’s hundreds of years old by your reckoning – as we were saying everything falls down eventually.”
“But what if it’s this cantrip?”
“What, so far down? Seems unlikely.” Seama rubbed his hand across a patch of the wall nearby. “Up above, if you rub at the walls the surface is loose, friable; the grains come apart. Looks pretty solid down here though. I think we’ll be fine.”
Tregar grimaced. He was not so certain. “Well let’s hope so. I wouldn’t much like to get stuck down here. Luckily the contraption’s not far now: we’ll soon be out.”
It was when Tregar admitted he didn’t know which bolt to pull that Seama began to think he had made a mistake. They could at this stage be rumbling up the Castle hill in a cart, slowly and steadily. And safely. He had presumed Tregar knew what he was up to.
“What’s your worry, Seama? If I pull the wrong one, we’ll just never get moving. And then I’ll know.”
The contraption was a stone platform with three walls around it – making it seem as though the tunnel had come to a dead end – and no roof above, just a shaft: an empty, vertiginous ascent into the dark. The platform quivered as they stepped onto it. On either side, on identical metal poles fixed into the platform, were the main release handles, full rings of iron the size of a large fist and above them, on horizontal bars, three bolts with simple cross pieces. The ballast bolts and the release handles slid into a slot lined with greased iron made in the side walls. The middle ballast bolts on either side had been pulled back out of the slot.
“Look, the middle bolts are set for two normal people or one heavy person like me; the others make the platform lighter, or heavier. It’s that simple.”
“Ah, away with ye. It’ll be fine.”
And with that assurance Tregar pulled simultaneously at both of the rearmost bolts. There was a squeal of metal on metal and then a shudder. But that was all.
“See what did I tell ye. That’s one of the weights released. Now then...”
He laid his paws on the handles.
“Always a bit better if you can pull both at exactly the same time or it wobbles a bit when it starts.”
The platform stayed where it was.
“A bit stiff,” he growled. “Don’t think I pulled them out enough. Will we do one each, d’ye think?”
Seama, feeling very uncertain about the whole thing, nodded reluctant agreement, planted his feet eighteen inches apart for better balance and grasped the left hand release.
“Here goes then. One, two, three, PULL!”
The bars grated against their holes but came free readily enough, and in a stately, pleasing fashion the platform began to gently rise, though with increasing speed.
“See,” Tregar said with a grin, “Easy as pie. Don’t worry about the speed: there are dampers to slow us down at the t...”
It was at this moment of comforting vindication that the remaining ballast fell off completely.
They hurtled up the shaft as if shot from a catapult, the platform bashing at the sides, knocking the pair of them off their feet. Seama had time only to scream: “You said there’d be...” before they smashed through the rotten timbers of a trap door, launched up at a ceiling of powdery plaster, thankfully now with less momentum, and finally came tumbling to a halt upon a cracked slate stone floor.
Seama allowed himself a few moments to establish that he was still a single piece before completing his earlier thought in an accusatory tone:
“You said there were dampers!”
He glared at Tregar who looked as if he might like to reply but all that came out of his mouth was vomit once more.
Exhausted by the motion, Tregar rolled onto his back, wiping his mouth with an already disgusting sleeve.
“You just going to lie there?”
“S’ms like goo’idea,” Tregar managed, but then actually moved slightly, shifting his body off one of the larger pieces of wood that made up his sick bed.
“Bit of a surprise,” he grunted, “That trap. Wasn’t there b‘fore. More like a cabinet thing. Ye slowed te a halt and then just opened the doors.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Three years, maybe.”
The rotten planks of the trapdoor had disintegrated into a shower of spars and splinters and dust all around them. Seama swept his hands over the floor and gathered up two handfuls of the detritus.
“Three years only and the timber’s as bad as this?” he said, and he let the stuff trickle through his fingers.
“Decay, Tregar – and I don’t think it took three years. More like three weeks. Thank gods the kitchen girls never stood on it.”
He pushed himself to his feet.
“C’mon Tregar. By the look of it the blight is getting worse - by the hour.”
They passed along dimly lit corridors and up narrow bare staircases to reach the public levels of the Palace, and all the while Tregar grumbled away about the filthy floors and the grimy doors. Seama became excessively irritable.
“It’s the spell, Tregar, not the domestics,” he snapped, “Just save your grumbles for the enemy – if we can ever find him.” He bashed through the final servant’s door that separated them from the Throneway, the ceremonial approach to The Presence, but then stopped in his tracks. “Tregar,” he said without turning, “I think you’d better you prepare yourself for a shock.”
Once bright with the light of a hundred lanterns but now gloomier than the worst winter’s day, the Throneway troubled their eyes and sapped their spirits. Tregar was utterly dumbfounded. Only one lantern in ten was lit but even in the poor light they could see hangings crumpled to the floor, tables on a kilter, suits of armour - the physical history of a strong and proud people - collapsed in pieces and turned red with rust; the carpets looked as if they’d been dragged through a farmyard, the chairs were rickety and the crumbling paint on the walls carried great dark patches that spoke of water getting in somewhere high above: it was as if the castle was diseased.
“Neath’s Sake, Seama, ye could’ve told me it’d be so... so bloody awful.”
“Actually I couldn’t Tregar. It’s ten times worse now than earlier. Now watch yourself. It’s not just the castle it attacks: this thing gets at your head too. That’s why we’re so irritable.”
Tregar scowled. “Ye think so? And I thought that was how you were normally.” He rummaged about in his trouser pocket. “Anyways, let me tell you, this spell’s not getting at me – not this time.” He pulled out an amber coloured crystal the size of a duck egg and proceeded to wave it in a pattern before his heart and before his forehead. “There you go: that’s me protected for a little while at least.”
“Lucky you. Don’t suppose it would help the rest of us?”
“No, you’re right; sorry about that. It was given to me by our Seer before I left Spurl for Errensea, years ago. Only works for me, I’m afraid. So, the question is: what else can we do - for the castle and everyone in it? Is there a cure to be had? Ye know it’d take days to trace the root of the spell and even then...”
Seama smiled wryly.
“And even then we might not have the ability to kill it. What we need, Tregar, is a different approach. It all depends on the Presence and the Throne but actually I have the makings of a plan. C’mon, let’s see what we can do.”
The Door-ward of the Presence was still in his place, his black garb and silver regalia as smart as it should be. The orbed staff he carried was of polished ebony, shod with steel. The heel of it hammered into the brass foot-plate three times and then once more as the Presence doors swung inwards. Seama sighed with profound relief.
In contrast to the Throneway, the Presence had lost none of its glory. It was as if the doors had opened upon a raging fire, the red and gold blaze of it bursting out into the darkling corridor as if it could re-ignite the torches and bring vigour to the mordant stone. Seama could feel the energy and the desire rushing past him. This was much more than he could have expected.
He glanced at Tregar, standing red-faced in the glow of it. Mador’s wizard was equally impressed.
“Gods’o’Number, Seama. I’ve been in the Presence a thousand times – two thousand - but this? I’ve never known anything like it.”
Seama nodded enthusiastically. It was like standing free in strong sunlight after an age of wandering lost in darkness and misery. Doubts that clung to him like shadows as they had passed along the Throneway dissolved into nothing and hope bloomed in every thought.
“It is just amazing,” he breathed, “Do you feel it? Ayer: she’s beginning the fight back!”
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
12/5/2012 wkj fantasy
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