Hunting the White Witch is the concluding volume of the Birthgrave Trilogy. Rediscover this realm of brilliant cruel beauty and seductive immortal ruins, of savage war and grand conquest, of falling stars and silver gods—with these 40th anniversary editions of legendary fantastist Tanith Lee's debut book series.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The boat Zrenn had chosen to steal was a skiff, very similar to Qwef’s craft, but capable of sail. The slave had stepped the mast and unfurled the coarse-woven square, rigging it to catch the ragged morning wind that came slanting from the mainland far behind. He told me after, for he was unusually talkative to me, how his people sailed back and forth over a wide blue river in the course of trading. They understood ships and boats in the same way they understood gods—a hereditary oblique wisdom, passed from father to boy. This blue river lay a million miles distant west and north; he had sculled there in his childhood before the slave levy fell due and he, along with countless others, was taken to black Ezlann, later bartered to So-Ess and finally absorbed, via a raid, into Eshkorek Arnor.
Long-Eye was four years my senior and looked old enough to have sired one twice my age. He said the girls of his people were nubile at nine or ten, many had borne babies at the age of eleven; even among the tribes, this would have been considered forward. Not surprisingly, the poor wenches were used up before they reached twenty, wizened hags at twenty-five, and dead most often a couple of years later. The men fared not much better. An elder of forty was unusual and greatly revered. Their hair and the hair of their women commenced turning gray about the twentieth year. I saw some evidence of this, for, as Long-Eye’s pate began to blossom into blue-black stubble, badger gray tufts sprouted along the ridge of his skull. Oddly, his face remained bald. I had occasion to envy that, as the thick growth of beard continued to push, itching, through my own jaw and upper lip.
Long-Eye raised the sail to catch the wind, put it to rest, and took up the oars when the wind failed. At night we drifted, but by various sailors’ tricks he kept abreast of the skiff’s inclination and the mood of the sea. We must head east before south, his old map had told him. We baited lines with dead Zrenn’s provender, and caught fish. There was even a fire-box in the boat on which to grill them, and two clay water bottles Long-Eye had replenished at the island spring.
I had lost my discomfort at the size of the ocean; yet the curious phenomena of the sea did not leave me untouched. The height of the sky, the large clouds at its edges, looking close enough to put your hand on; the light of a fine day penetrating liquid like glass; the shine of fish burning with their own cold fire in the darkness; the sea laced with phosphorous, the oars catching it, turned to silver.
Looking over my shoulder at this wild venturing of mine, I try to recall what I must have felt, having abandoned myself with such fatalistic, grim optimism to the unknown. I think my life had moved too swiftly for me, and I had not caught up. That would account, perhaps, for my complaisance and the curious, uneasy sense of waiting that lurked beneath it.
Five days went swimming by. The climate was deceptively, as I might have noted, threateningly mild. The sea went down under the skiff, blue-green and clear, into a shadowy weed-forest, peopled by fish.
Toward the end of that fifth day, just as the innocent sky was folding itself into a scarlet sunset, something loomed up on the sea’s eastern edge, a bar of red-lighted cliff stretching north to south, and out of sight.
The wind had been dying, though the sea was heavy as syrup. Long-Eye unstepped the mast, and sculled. We reached the cliff wall as the last embers went out in the west. A rough escarpment led up from the sea; the base of the wall was clogged with the green hair of Hwenit’s sea maidens: They must have enjoyed much love on the barren ridges. We hauled the boat aground for the night, and found birds visited there—one to its regret, since it provided dinner.
An oddity, that wall of rock, breaking the ocean end to end, as it seemed, yet only a mile or so wide. I climbed the bastion at moonrise and looked out to the east, beyond the barrier, at new miles of white-painted water and that other great ocean of stars. Perhaps a continent had sunk here, leaving only the tops of its highest mountains, transmuted ignominiously to cliff. I had been childishly expecting to reach new land every day, and thought this marvel to be the outpost of it.
At sunup, after a breakfast of eggs—two other potential birds that had lost out at a chance of life—we slid the boat back in the water. I took the oars, the god feeling in need of exercise; Long-Eye acted as lookout. Presently he located a curious hollow tunnel that passed through the cliffs to the open sea.
The sky was like the inside of a glazed pot. Little fine hairs of pale blue cirrus were all that disturbed its enamel perfection. The storm did not come that day but on the next.
* * *
The ocean, credited here and there with being female, has a woman’s wiles and ways. She wants you to love her, but she wants your guts into the bargain. Man’s weight and dominion of ships she bears with a honey groan, but soon she means to swallow you whole into the hungry, salty womb. At her most benign, she is promising a scourge.
That day of transcendent quiet ended with another crimson, copper sunset. Fish leaped from the swells, ruby plated along their backs, their wings spread as if they would fly up to the red clouds. Black night, with no wind, followed; next, a silver dawn, and still as metal. By midmorning every hair on my body was electric.
“What is it?” I said to Long-Eye.
“It has been too calm. A storm, perhaps.”
I glanced around like an idiot, the way a man will, looking for something he wishes for but knows is not there. We were more than a day from land at back and none in sight before. It was hard to be sure, from Long-Eye’s wooden manner, what variety of rough weather threatened, yet the feel of the air was bad.
Presently the sky darkened to an iron green.
“She is coming,” Long-Eye said.
I never in my life had met so briefly ominous a sentence.
This was where my blind quest had brought me, my dream of power that would lead me straight to the goal, unhindered.
Long-Eye’s face, more than wooden, was serene. He was safe, being with a god.
“Long-Eye,” I remarked, “are you supposing I am about to work a wondrous spell to subdue the elements?”
He shrugged, and this supernatural, indifferent confidence shattered the last vestige of my lethargy.
Then the storm came, the hurricane.
The voice of the wind swept toward us over the sucking roll of the waves. It was like the howling of an enormous flesh-and-blood voice box—and made less pleasing by this resemblance to something human or animal—growing impossibly larger and more imminent with each second. Such a noise had no place in the real world, but it was unmistakably here. It was the kind of clamor to run from, save there was no place to bide. Then a tree of lightning flooded up the shadow sky, branches and claws slitting the overcast from horizon to horizon. From the lightning’s roots sprang the storm itself, a sheet of solid yet preposterously volatile lead, that smote the skiff one hammer blow straight on her back. She leaped, as the flying fish had leaped, as if to get free.
The sea hit me. My mouth was full of water. I tried to take a breath and that was water, too.
The wave passed on with another riding behind it. The boat bravely attempted to chase up the length of it. The vast swell—black shot with green like a bolt of rotting Eshkirian silk—slammed under the keel. The skiff swung, poised on her tail, and capsized.
So the invincible god was to be drowned after all. The invincible god could not swim.
The black water gushed up over my head; I was bottled in it. My panic was indescribable; there was no sequence as I thrashed and choked in that stranglehold of heaving ink.
Long-Eye, taught to swim strongly in a poisonous blue river one swallow of which meant death, hauled me up. He dragged my hands together around the floating mast.
A moment of precious air was followed by fifty seconds drowned in the vitals of a roller. The wind screamed in my eyes and ears.
Even through the dark, I had a glimpse of Long-Eye’s face, as blank and noncommittal as I had ever seen it. When the next big breaker smashed over us, he clapped his palm across my mouth and nostrils and stopped me taking on a fresh lungful of water. With the cordage of the sail, he had lashed his left hand to the mast. Somehow now, between the surges regular as heartbeats that thrust the sea at the sky, he contrived to lash my left hand also to this life raft.
“Fool,” I said, “you chose the wrong master, fool of a slave.”
By way of a change, the black sky fell down on the black sea.
The hurricane lasted in fact, in the first portion, for about three hours.
How we survived it, I had no notion. I quaffed deep of the sea, that much I knew, and brought it back again. The buffets of water and wind numbed me, though I felt my ribs crack in the old place. There was no feeling in my feet and legs up to the crotch, but there I had grown painfully erect as if the sea indeed would couch me. The flesh of my face was flayed like the hide of a whipped man. My hands turned blue as they grappled the mast, and the left wrist was braceleted where it was tied with my own raw, bloody meat. Long-Eye was in a similar case, or worse, his cheeks peeled open and half-blind. We learned soon enough that both his legs had been broken by the force of the waves.
But for his trick with the lashing, we should have been fathoms down some while before. Even with it, our bruised and battered carcasses were fair set for death. I had fed on fish, now fish should feed on me. Barely conscious, I clung to existence—the mast; survival reduced to pure stubbornness, abstract motives literally washed away.
After those three hours of hell (I reckoned the duration only later from the positions I had vaguely noted, when I could see them, of the sun), I appeared to myself to be drifting up into another sea, the water grown so level I thought it had congealed, so level it actually nauseated me after the turmoil that had preceded it, and to which I had grown accustomed. Then, lacking the frenzied beating of the sea, my numbness began to wear thin, revealing a hundred bursts of pain of variable intensity.
The hurricane seemed spent, the ocean abruptly flat, the sky pastel and very bright with low sun. The unnatural lull was, however, the vortex, the storm’s eye that travels at its center—merely an interlude, the cat toying with the mouse.
This fact Long-Eye presently told me. Even in my half-wit state, his fortitude appalled me.
I glanced about, illogically glad of the lull despite its transience. The sun was lying over in the west, on my right hand now.
“If you are in the mood to curse me,” I said, “do it.”
My speech sounded like a drunkard’s, blurred and thick.
“You will act when you are ready, lord,” Long-Eye said imperturbably.
“When I am ready? Don’t you see yet, fool’s slave? I am incapable. Behold, I manumit you. Curse me.”
He said, “Mast not enough to save us. Without the lord’s power of will, we should not still be living.”
Apparently he continued to believe I had illimitable abilities, yet did not reproach me for not using them. What he imagined me playing at, I cannot guess.
I rested my face on my arm over the mast. My mind was blank.
Suddenly, between one breath and the next, it reached me. It was like a voice calling, far back in my brain—Here. Look for me here.
All your life you must be ready to change course, open for it. Then, when the signal comes, you are prepared. When I was a boy in the krarl, learning to hunt or to ride and mainly my own teacher, for the environment was hostile to me, I must continually go over the actions of what I did: Now, I set my hand so, and now my foot. One day, a great surprise—I found I had done everything by instinct without thinking it through first: I had learned. Something like this occurred in the storm’s eye, as I have later concluded. At the hour, it was as if a black window broke in me and radiance streamed through it, a revelation, such as men say they have of their gods or their destinies. It is only their own wisdom, maybe, catching up to them at last.
The light was bronze now, and the sides of the waves like jewelsmith’s work, heavy seas of amber and beaten gold.
Something ran molten together in my chest. It was the break healing in my ribs. Dead flesh flaked from my face and hands, which had knit whole beneath. I broke the lashing on my left wrist. Then I did what magicians dream of. I got to my feet, easy as a man rises on a boat’s deck. I stood upright on a floor of choppy brazen gold, and I walked on the ocean.
I analyzed this, after. When it occurred, a sort of aberration came with it, precluding reason. Analysis told me, however, only one fact. Belief is the root of this power. Not to tell yourself you may, but to know you can. I have journeyed far enough since, in the seasons of my life, to understand by now that the skill is not as exclusive as I then supposed it. The sorcerer-gods are only those born knowing the key to the brain’s inner rooms. That is their luck, but beware—the meanest may search out the key, or stumble on it, and become gods also.
Having achieved one miracle, the rest seemed little more than a process of mathematics.
I kept my balance lightly, as a charioteer does, levitating my body without effort, my feet braced on the smooth toiling of rollers. The sky was veiling again; the wind threatened from a different quarter.
I stared at sky, at sea, one with it, master of it.