Kingdoms of the Wallby Robert Silverberg
Each year twenty men and twenty women brave death and insanity in order to reach the Summit, a place where humans have the opportunity to learn directly from the gods. Poliar Crookleg has waited his whole life to go on the Pilgrimage to Kosa Saag. With his childhood friend Traiben, he is determined to be one of the few who return sane and filled with knowledge. But what the gods have to say may shatter the very fabric of the people's beliefs. Join Nebula and Hugo award-winner Robert Silverberg in his science fiction masterpiece KINGDOMS OF THE WALLS.
- Random House Publishing Group
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Kingdoms of the Wall
By Robert Silverberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Robert Silverberg
All rights reserved.
This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, I who have been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall and have felt the terrible fire of revelation there. I have seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, I have grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death. These are the things I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I must teach you for the sake of your souls. Listen and remember.
If you are of my village, then you know who I am. But I want the story I am about to relate to be heard and understood far beyond our own village, and so I will tell you that my father was Gabrian son of Drok, my House is the House of the Wall, and my clan within that House is Wallclan. So I come from a noble line.
I never knew my father when I was growing up, because he set forth on the Pilgrimage when I was only a small boy and never returned. So there was only a hole in my spirit where others have fathers to guide them. All that he left me with to carry me through childhood and boyhood was the memory of a tall man with bright eyes and strong arms, sweeping me up and tossing me high overhead and laughing in a deep, rich voice as he caught me. It may not be a trustworthy memory. It may have been some other man entirely who lifted me and tossed me like that; or maybe it never happened at all. But for many years that was all I had of my father: bright eyes, strong arms, a ringing peal of laughter.
My father's father had gone to the Wall also in his time. That is the tradition of my family. We are folk of restless soul, Pilgrims by nature. We always have been. The Pilgrimage is the high custom of our people, of course, the great defining event of one's life: either you become a Pilgrim or you do not, and either way it leaves its mark upon you forever. And we are of the Pilgrim sort. We claim descent from the First Climber; we take it for granted that we will be Pilgrims ourselves when we come of age, and will go up into the fearsome heights where one's body and one's soul are placed at dread risk of transformation by the forces that dwell there.
Like my father, my father's father failed to return from his god-quest in the realms above.
As for me, I never gave the Pilgrimage a thought when I was young. I looked upon the Pilgrimage then as something that concerned older folk, people in the second half of their second ten of years. It was always certain to me that when my time came I would be a candidate for the Pilgrimage, that I would be chosen, that I would undertake it successfully. Taking the Pilgrimage for granted in that way allowed me not to think about it at all. That way I was able to make it unreal.
I suppose I could pretend to you that I was a child of destiny, marked from my earliest years for supreme achievement, and that holy lightnings crackled about my brow and people made sacred signs when they passed me in the street. But in fact I was an ordinary sort of boy, except for my crooked leg. No lightnings crackled about me. No gleam of sanctity blazed on my face. Something like that came later, yes, much later, after I had had my star-dream; but when I was young I was no one unusual, a boy among boys. When I was growing up I wasn't at all the sort to go about thinking heavy thoughts about the Pilgrimage, or the Wall and its Kingdoms, or the gods who lived at its Summit, or any other such profundities. Traiben, my dearest friend, was the one who was haunted by high questions of ultimate destinies and utmost purposes, of ends and means, of essences and appearances, not I. It was Traiben, Traiben the Wise, Traiben the Thinker, who thought deeply about such things and eventually led me to think about them too.
But until that time came the only things that mattered to me were the usual things of boyhood, hunting and swimming and running and fighting and laughing and girls. I was good at all those things except running, because of my crooked leg, which no shapechanging has ever been able to heal. But I was strong and healthy otherwise, and I never permitted the leg to interfere with my life in any way whatever. I have always lived as though both my legs were as straight and swift as yours. When you have a flaw of the body such as I have there is no other course, not without giving way to feelings of sorrow for yourself, and such feelings poison the soul. So if there was a race, I ran in it. If my playmates went clambering across the rooftops, I clambered right along with them. Whenever someone mocked me for my limp—and there were plenty who did, shouting "Crookleg! Crookleg!" at me as though it were a fine joke—I would beat him until his face was bloody, no matter how big or strong he might be. In time, to show my defiance of their foolish scorn, I came to take Crookleg as my surname, like a badge of honor worn with pride.
If this world were a well-ordered place it would have been Traiben who had had the crooked leg and not me.
Perhaps I ought not to say so cruel a thing about one whom I claim to love. But what I mean is that in this world there are thinkers and doers; doers must have agility and strength of body, and thinkers need agility and strength of mind. I had agility and bodily strength aplenty, but my leg was a handicap all the same. As for Traiben, the thinker, there was no strength in his frail body anyway, so why shouldn't the gods have given him this limp of mine as well, instead of me? One more physical drawback, among so many, would not have made his life any worse, and I would have been better fitted to be the person I was meant to be. But the gods are never so precise in parceling out our gifts.
We were an odd pair: he so small and flimsy and fragile, with no more strength to him than a gossamer, and me so sturdy and unwearying. Traiben looked as though you could break him with a blow, and you could. Whereas I have made it clear throughout all my days that if there is any breaking to be done, I will be the breaker rather than the broken. What drew us together, then? Though we belonged to the same House and the same clan within that House, that in itself would not necessarily have led to friendship between us. No, I think the thing that linked us so tightly, different though we were in so many respects, was the fact that each of us had something about him that set him apart from the others of our clan. In my case it was my leg. In Traiben's, it was his mind, which burned with such fierce brilliance that it was like a sun within his skull.
Traiben it was who first set me on the path that leads to the summit of the Wall, when he and I were twelve years old.
* * *
The name of my village is Jespodar, which the Scribes and Scholars say is a word in the old Gotarza language that once was spoken here, meaning, "Those Who Cling to the Wall." I suppose we do. Our village, which is really not a village at all but a vast conglomeration of villages all tangled together, containing many thousands of people, is said to lie closer to the perimeter of the Wall than any other—right up against its flank, as a matter of fact. It is possible to take a road that runs out of the center of Jespodar that will put you on the Wall itself. If you were to make the great journey around the base of the Wall, you would come to scores of other villages—hundreds, maybe—along its perimeter; but none, so the Scholars tell us, actually abuts the flank of the Wall the way Jespodar does. Or so we are taught in Jespodar, at any rate.
The day of which I want to tell you, that day when my friend Traiben first lit the fire of Pilgrimage in my twelve-year-old mind, was the day of the departure of that year's Pilgrims. You know what great pomp and splendor that involves. The ceremony of the Procession and Departure has not changed since ancient times. The clans of every House that make up our village gather; the sacred things of the tribe are brought forth, the batons and scrolls and talismans; the Book of the Wall is recited, every last verse of it, which requires weeks and weeks of unceasing effort; and finally the forty successful candidates emerge from the Pilgrim Lodge to show themselves before the village and take their leave. It is a profound moment, for we will never see most of them again—everyone understands that—and those who do return will come back transformed beyond all knowing of them. That has ever been the way.
To me in that innocent time it was all just a grand festival, nothing more. For many days, now, people from the outlying districts of the village had been arriving at our House, which lay closer to the Wall than any other in Jespodar: we were the House of the Wall, the House of Houses. Thousands had come, thousands of thousands, so that the whole unthinkable swarm of festival-goers was crammed elbow to elbow all the time, packed so close together that often we found ourselves changing shape involuntarily, just from the heat and congestion of it all, and we had to struggle to get back to the forms that we preferred.
Wherever you looked, our Housegrounds overflowed with mobs of people. They were everywhere and they got into everything: they trampled our lovely powdervines, they crushed and flattened our handsome daggerfernbushes, they stripped the gambellos of all their ripe, heavy blue fruits. It had happened that way every year for more dozens of years than anyone can remember: we expected it and were resigned to it. The longhouses and the roundhouses were filled, the meadows were filled, the sacred groves were filled. Some people even slept in trees. "Have you ever seen so many people?" we all kept asking each other, though of course we had, only the year before. But it was the thing to say.
We even had a few of the King's men in town to see the ceremony. They were swaggering thick-bodied men who wore robes of red and green, and they went striding through the crowds as if there was no one in their way. People stepped aside when they passed. I asked my mother's brother Urillin, who had raised me in my father's absence, who they were, and he said, "They are the King's men, boy. They sometimes come here for the Festival, to enjoy themselves at our expense." And he muttered a bitter curse, which surprised me, because Urillin was a mild and quiet man.
I stared at them the way I might have stared at men with two heads, or six arms. I had never seen King's men before; and, in feet, I have never seen them since. Everyone knows that there is a King somewhere on the other side of Kosa Saag who lives in a grand palace in a great city and holds dominion over many villages, ours among them. The King owns the magic that makes everything work, and so I suppose we are dependent on him. But he is so very far away and his decrees have so little direct bearing on our everyday life that he might just as well live on some other planet. We dutifully pay our tribute but otherwise we have no dealings with him or the government he heads. He is only a phantom to us. I scarcely thought about him from one end of the year to the other. But the sight of these men of his service, who had come such a great distance to attend our Festival, reminded me how huge the world is, and how little I knew about any of it except our own village lying in the shadow of the Wall; and so the King's men awakened awe in me as they went strutting by.
The days passed in rising frenzy and excitement. The moment of the Procession and Departure was approaching.
The chosen Pilgrims, naturally, were kept out of sight: no one had seen them for months and certainly nobody was allowed to see them now, at this time of times. They remained hidden away in Pilgrim Lodge, the twenty men in one room and the twenty women in the other, while food was shoveled to them through slots in the doors.
But the rest of us enjoyed constant revelry. All day and all night there was dancing and singing and drunkenness. Of course there was plenty of work to do too. Then as now, each House had its special responsibility. The House of Carpenters set up the viewing-stands, the House of Musicians played songs of jubilation from dawn to the moon-hours, the House of Holies stood in the plaza and chanted prayers at the top of its lungs, the House of Singers began to recite the innumerable verses of the Book of the Wall outside Pilgrim Lodge in continuous relays without break, and the House of Vintners put up its booths and opened casks as fast as we could drain them, which was very fast indeed. The House of Clowns went among us in yellow robes miming and making faces and gaily pummeling people; the House of Weavers brought forth the heavy golden carpets that must line the road to the Wall at this time; the House of Sweepers toiled to clean away the hideous mess that the multitudes of other festival-goers were creating. The only ones who had no duties were youngsters like Traiben and me. But we understood that the adults did their work gladly, for this was meant to be a time of universal celebration in the village.
We who belonged to the House of the Wall, naturally, had the task of coordinating all the activities of the other Houses. That is a frightful burden, but for us it is also a source of great pride. Meribail, my father's father's brother's son, was the head of our House then, and I think he went without sleep a dozen nights running as the day of the Procession drew near.
And then it was Departure-day itself: as always, the twelfth day of Elgamoir. The morning was steamy-warm, with steady rainfall. Every leaf of every tree glistened like a knifeblade. The ground was soft as sponge beneath our feet.
No one could ever say that smothering warmth and pelting rain are any novelties to us in our lowland home. Then as now, we lived all the year round in the kind of heat that stews one's flesh, and we loved it. But even so this was unusual warmth, unusual rain. The air was like a bog: that morning we felt as though we were breathing water. We were all of us decked out in our fine Procession clothes too, the blue leather leggings and scarlet ribbons and droopy-topped yellow caps that people wear at such times, children and elders alike. But we were wet to the skin, what with the constant rain and our own dripping sweat. I remember how hard I had to fight to hold my shape, so great was the heat, so sticky was the air. My arms kept melting and writhing, my shoulders would swing around at strange angles to my torso, and I would have to clench my teeth and force everything back into place. Traiben beside me was fluttering also from form to form, although however much he changed he somehow was always the same flimsy, hollow-chested, big-eyed Traiben with the pipestem legs and the scrawny neck.
As the hour of the Procession arrived there came a miracle. Just as the Singers reached the last words of the final verse of the Book of the Wall—the verse that is known as the Summit—the rain abruptly relented, the thick gray soupy mists thinned and vanished, the heavy shield of the sky became transparent. A cool swift wind began to blow from the north. Everything became wonderfully clear and radiant. The bright hot light of blue-white Ekmelios appeared and shone down dazzlingly upon us like a fiery jewel in the forehead of the sky. It was a double-sun day, even: that day we were able also to see the enormous remote sphere of red Marflemma, the sun that gives no warmth. We could see everything. Everything.
"Kosa Saag!" we all cried in one voice, gesturing with tremendous excitement. "Kosa Saag!"
Yes. The Wall was coming into view in all its immensity. It had, of course, been hidden by the murkiness of the morning air, but now it appeared above us, climbing and climbing and climbing. It pierced the sky and disappeared into the immeasurable heights. People fell trembling to their knees and began to weep and pray, stricken as they were by fear and humility at the sight of that gigantic mountain suddenly revealing itself.
Excerpted from Kingdoms of the Wall by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1992 Robert Silverberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Robert Silverberg is one of science fiction’s most beloved writers, and the author of such classic books such as Gilgamesh the King, Dying Inside, Nightwings, and Lord Valentine’s Castle. He is a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the winner of five Nebula Awards—including one for the short story Passengers—and five Hugo Awards. In 2004 the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented him with the Grand Master Award.
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This is a tale of tragedy and enlightenment, for the trials of the Pilgrims are as much personal as physical. Sometimes appalling, other times (though rare) amusing, there is a pang of sadness and satisfaction for the characters as they come to realize their fate. I've re-read this work many, many times and I always find some small nuance that I had missed before -my own little re-illumination, perhaps. For those who love fantasy and scifi, and those who enjoy twists in the tale, this is a must read.