THE HOUSE OF THE STORMRIDERS: Tale and Travail
Unremembered, yesterday is extinct.
Without yesterday, today has no meaning.
Who are you, if forgotten?
Who are you, but the sum of your memories?'
Despite being immured within the dark, airless, walled spaces of the Tower, despite the fact that he was badly informed and struggling to comprehend his plight, the foundling came to understand that in some way the existence of Stormrider Houses revolved around horses. The sound of horses echoed from unexpected directions in the dominite cavities, the warm scent of them wafted suddenly to the nostrils from Outside, along with a thicker, avian odor as of caged birds. Horses were hoisted up and down the towers in lift-cages, and horses were kept in stalls in the upper stories. When he began Outside work, the newest and most lowly menial of the House was able to divine their purpose.
One morning the foundling was sent Outside to a balcony, to trounce the dust from floor-rugs. Flat-based cumulus clouds floated tranquilly like latherings of soap bubbles on invisible water, their frayed rims gilded by the dawn. Viewed from high on the balcony, the clouds were almost at eye level. This was the first time the boy had ventured into the open air, and excitement made him shiver.
Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, he could see the demesnes laid out like a map - the kitchen gardens, the neglected flower gardens, the stables and training yards, the wizard - s hall, and bits of the rutted road between the trees that over-hung it. Horses roamed the meadows,hattockingtracks, training yards, and stables below. They all seemed to be burdened with pairs of panniers slung on either side of their flanks, but what those baskets contained, the watcher could not tell from a distance.
On the other side, a wide, flat expanse of water - Isse Harbor, shimmering like rose-and-gold silk in the morning. From the shore projected a pier on marble stanchions, reaching far out into the bay, with docks and wharves set at intervals along its length. Still standing firm after uncounted centuries, Isse Harbor's wharves had proved a marvel of engineering, a reminder of the lost skills of glorious days long past. Here anchored Waterships of the sea, splendid lily-winged birds of the deep, come from the outland runs to roost at this haven, if only for a while. They brought tidings and trade, their cargo was rich with barrels of pickled meats, fat flavescent cheeses, bales of cloth, sacks of flour and beans, casks of wines and spirits. There were stone jars brimming with honey, preserved and dried fruits, salt meat, sainfoin, stockfeed, leather, pots and porringers, pitchers and porcelain, fragrances, essences, spices, saffron, scrim, shabrack, musk, muslin, madder, purpurin, talmigold, tragacanth, wax, and all other manner of provisions.
The youth's goggling eyes traveled to the north and west. Here, wooded hills rolled gently away to a horizon wrapped in a niveous haze. Beneath the innocent roof of leaves, it was said, roamed all manner of eldritch wights both seelie and unseelie, but although the boy searched, he could see no sign of such incarnations. He had heard that a haunted crater-lake lay nearby to the northwest, and to the east, two miles from the sea, a puzzle most curious - the ancient remains of a Watership, its back broken, wedged in a cleft between two hills. Were such a legend true, the Empire of Erith must indeed be wondrous and perilous.
A satin scarf of a breeze floated up from the forest. In the south, gulls circumaviated Isse Harbor. Dust motes swarmed from the patterned rugs as the youth beat them, causing him paroxysms of sneezing. Reeling, he leaned against the parapet to recover. At that moment his watering eyes saw a sight that assured him he had sneezed his wits out through his nostrils.
At first it seemed to him that high and far off the dark shape of a large bird - an eagle or an albatross - was flying out of the sky in the southeast. Yet, as it approached, the silhouette resolved itself into the shape of a winged horse and rider galloping through powder-puff clouds toward the fortress. The youth blinked and shook his head. A second look cleared any doubt that the vision not only existed, but was closing in rapidly. The rider's head was the skull of a monster, or else he wore a winged helmet with a faceplate. Saddlebags bulged behind his thighs; his cloak billowed. The bird-horse moved fast, but with a strange and unnatural gait, placing its hooves with quick, mathematical precision just below the clouds' condensation level, simultaneously beating its wings in long, graceful arcs.
Sagging against the parapet, the foundling stared. Blood drained from his head. Almost, he fainted. Surely the world must be turned upside down if a horse possessed wings to fly! As he gaped, looking like some rooftop gargoyle, a fanfare issued from silver trumpet on the ramparts, cleaving the morning air with long, ringing notes. The aerial cavalier reached an upper story of the fortress and entered in at a platform jutting from the outer wall. His heart jumping like a scared rabbit, the youth sank to his bony knees. Then, recalling his task and how he would be beaten more vigorously than the carpet if he were discovered idling, he hastily returned to pounding mats, invoking dust, and sneezing.
Now at last he could make sense of the term he had heard so often - "eotaur." The word referred to the mighty, horned Sky-horses, the pride of the Stormriders. And it was not the last marvel he was to discover. Being shunned and ignored was not without its advantages. It meant that the lad was able to go about the mazy ways of the Tower largely unnoticed. He began to ascertain that insignificance was, in many ways, advantageous to his education.
In one instance, he had managed to elude Grethet and find an unobtrusive pantry-nook to doze in, when he was roused by a sound like the cooing of two doves. Within earshot a chambermaid was seated on a cider-barrel, her young child nestling on her lap.
The two were conversing.
". . . brought news from Namarre," said the mother softly. "I heard one of the upper-level chambermaids say so."
"Where is Namarre?" asked the child, snuggling her downy head closer to her mother's shoulder.
"It is very far away."
"The eotaurs must be truly strong, to be able to gallop from very far away."
The mother shook her head. "Even the greatest among them has not the strength to come all the way from Namarre without resting. Letters and other air cargo must be relayed. Isse Tower is a Relay Station."
"What is a Relay Station?"
"One of the staging posts where inland and outland runs meet. At Relay Stations, incoming mounts and Relayers interchange with fresh couriers. Messages and payloads are transferred."
"Oh," said the child, sounding disappointed. "Are there many Stations? But I thought Isse Tower was important."
"Of course it is important. It is part of a network of Relay Stations and Interchange Turrets. They are the crossroads for communications networks spanning the countries of the world, far above the perils of land roads."
The child digested these facts in silence. Presently she said, "And Stormriders they are the most important lords in all of Erith, are they not? Aside from the King-Emperor, I mean."
"They are aristocrats, yes," replied the mother, caressing the child's hair. "But there are other nobles at the court of the King-Emperor who are considered to be equally as important. Yet, hush now, for we must not talk so about our betters."
By now the foundling had learned that the Stormriders were indeed peers of the realm an exclusive caste born and trained to become masters of their profession. Without them, messages could not be Relayed. Without them, valuable small cargoes could not be forwarded across the country, among cities, mining-towns, and larger villages. The Stormriders' trade was exacting, he knew, and it belonged exclusively to the twelve Houses.
However, the fact that his masters traversed the skies of Erith meant very little to the new servant-lad. Between the mortar of daily drudgery and the pestle of pain, life went grinding on. There was no shortage of provender in the Tower, but he did not receive a great deal of it. His ration, although insignificant, was often withheld or stolen. Emptiness always pinched at his insides, like tiny clockwork crabs.
Some of his fellow servitors shunned the nameless lad. Most ignored him. A few nursed a strong antipathy to him. No matter how obedient he showed himself, no matter how hard he tried to please, they discovered fault. These punished and bullied him continually; he feared them with every fiber of his being. When they came near, he shriveled and trembled to his bones. There was no appeal against their abuse and the pain they inflicted; it had to be endured, that was all. He became accustomed to the constant tenderness of flesh brought on by bruising and the cuts that occurred when he fell or was thrown against some unforgiving object.
Because it seemed obvious that the newcomer was a half-wit, no effort was made to communicate with him, let alone teach him. None offered kindness, save for the daughter of the Keeper of the Keys, who was powerless to help him substantially.
Her name was Caitri, and she was very young - perhaps twelve Summers old. She had encountered him once when he was at his work - waxing the aumbries and weeping, so that the wax mingled with his tears. She, like the rest, had at first recoiled from his ugli-ness - yet, after the shock of first sight, she looked upon him anew, and her gaze softened as though she viewed him not as a deformed idiot, but as an injured animal in need of succor.
"Why do you weep?" she asked. He could only shake his head. She perceived the way his belly hollowed beneath his tunic, and sometimes she brought him hunches of stale bread or withered apples. She was the only one who ever really talked to him. It was she who explained to him about Windships, the majestic vessels that sailed the skies and sometimes berthed at Isse Tower. However, Caitri's duties kept her away from Floor
Five most of the time, and he met her infrequently, only accidentally. Over time, by way of eavesdropping and osmosis and rare acts of kindness, the youth learned more from those who lorded him. Most of it he gleaned in the evenings, for that was when the servants would often gather and tell stories. In this way the unworthiest among them began to discover the nature of the perilous and wondrous world beyond the Tower.
The servants' kitchen, Floor Five, was a spicery of sage and wood-smoke. Evening brought tranquillity to the bustling chamber.
Fireplaces big enough to roast an ox glowed with the last of the day's incandescence. In the chimney corner leaned one of the battered straw targets that, when soaked with water, was used to shield the spit-boys from the fierce heat of the fires. Lamps flickered with a dandelion light, describing various implements: copper pans, stoneware jars - gray hens and gotches, skeins of thyme and lemongrass, garlic, hams, onions, turnips, and cheeses hanging like comestible jewelry from blackened roof beams. Beside a set of scales, an empty one-gallon blackjack stood on a wooden bench, its leather seams reinforced with brass mounts and studs. Brass mote-skimmers, basting ladles with handles over a yard long, ale-mullers, and skillets dangled against the walls. Someone had left a warming-pan sticking out of a copper-bound wooden bucket. Caudle cups, posset pots, and pipkins lined up on a shelf beside a gristmill and a meat mincer.
Alongside brass chamber-sticks, their candles drip-ping yellow tallow in turgid formations, the table supported several pitted pewter tankards and a large brown spike-pot with a miniature spike-pot mounted in its domed lid. Shadows distorted themselves into uncanny shapes. Dogs and small capuchin monkeys sprawled before the open hearth, scratching their fleas. Like restless bees, scullery maids, flunkeys, cooks, and a few children congregated in buzzing groups, drinking from wooden porringers of steaming spike-leaf and medlure. The thin figure that slipped in at the far door and huddled in the corner beside a food-hutch went unnoticed, being among grotesque shadow-shapes of its own ilk.
Softly, a sweet young voice was singing some kind of incomprehensible lullaby:
Sweven, sweven, sooth and winly, Blithely sing I leoth, by rike. Hightly hast thou my este, Mere leofost.
The song ended. As the chief cellar-keeper cleared his throat and spat precursively into the fire, an expectant hush settled over those assembled. Brand Brinkworth held the respected and well-deserved position of oldest and best Storyteller at Isse Tower. As a jongleur, he had traveled Beyond; his own life and adventures had already passed into legend, and he still wore about his neck the copper torque shaped like a snake his most prized possession, the sigil of a bard, a lore-master.
Many traditional gestes had been passed down through the generations, and newer ones had been imported to the Tower by sailors, aeronauts, and outland road-caravaners. Most had been relished many times without losing their savor and garnished a little more with each recounting.
Stories of Beyond were, more often than not, stories of eldritch wights. Yarns were told about wights of the seelie kind, who wished mortals well and even gave them supernatural help or who merely used them as targets for their harmless mischief. Then there were the tales of unseelie things wicked, fell wights of eldritch, the protagonists of nightmares.
Those were dark tales.
"Speaking of unseelie wights," began Brinkworth, which he had not been doing, "did I ever give out about the time the Each Uisge happened by Lake Corrievreckan?"
The servants shuddered. The stories described many different types of waterhorses haunting the lakes and rivers, the pools and oceans of Erith, but of all of them, the Each Uisge was the most ferocious and dangerous.
It was one of the most notorious of all the unseelie creatures that frequented the watery places, although the Glastyn was almost as bad. Sometimes the Each Uisge appeared as a handsome young man, but usually it took the form of a bonny, dapper horse that virtually invited mortals to ride it. Once on its back, no rider could tear himself off, for its skin was imbued with a supernatural stickiness. If anyone was so foolish as to mount, he was carried with a breakneck rush into the nearest lake and torn to pieces. Only some of his innards would be discarded, to wash up later on the shore. The occupants of the kitchen waited. They had heard the tale of Corrievreckan before but never tired of it. Besides, Brinkworth with his succinct style had a way of refreshing it so that it came to his audience like news each time.
"'Tis a very old story - I cannot say how old, maybe a thousand years - but true nonetheless," said the old man, scratching his knee where one of the hounds' fleas had bitten him. "Young Iainh and Caelinh Maghrain, twin sons of the Chieftain of the Western Isles of Finvarna at that time, were hunting with their comrades when they saw a magnificent horse grazing near Lake Corrievreckan."
"Where is that?" interrupted a grizzled stoker.
"In the Western Isles, cloth-ears, in Finvarna," hissed a buttery-maid.
"Do you not listen?"
"I thought the Each Uisge dwelled in Eldaraigne."
"It roams anywhere it pleases," said Brand Brinkworth. "Who shall gainsay such a wicked lord of eldritch? Now if you don't mind, I'll be on with the tale."
The other servants shot black looks at the stoker from beneath lowered brows. The stoker nodded nonchalantly, and the Story-teller continued.
"They saw a magnificent horse grazing near Lake Cor-rievreckan," he repeated, and as his pleasant old voice lilted on, there unfolded in the minds of the listeners a place far off in time and space, a landscape they would never see.
A white pearl shone like an eye in a hazy sky. The sun was past its zenith, sinking toward a wintry horizon. It cast a pale gleam over the waters of the lake. The entire surface was lightly striated with long ripples, shimmering in silken shades of gray.
Through a frayed rent in the clouds, a crescent moon rode like a ghostly canoe, translucent. A flock of birds crossed the sky in a long, trailing V-for-mation. Their cries threaded down the wind - wild ducks returning home.
Dead trees reached their black and twisted limbs out of the waters, and near the shore, long water-grasses bowed before the breeze, their tips bending to touch their own trembling reflections.
Tiny glitters winked in and out across the wavelets. The play of light and shadow masked the realm that lay beneath the lake. Nothing could be seen of the swaying weeds, the landscapes of sand and stone, the dark crevasses, any shapes that might, or might not, move deep beneath the water.
As the wild ducks passed into the distance, the tranquillity of the lake was interrupted. Faint at first, then louder, yells and laughter could be heard from the eastern shore. A band of Ertishmen was approaching.
Eight of them came striding along, and their long, tangled hair was as red as sunset. They were accompanied by dogs, retrievers wagging feathery tails. Baldrics were slung across the shoulders of the men, quivers were on their backs and longbows in their hands.
At the belts of some swung a brace of fowl, tied by the feet. Already they had had a successful day's hunting. Buoyed by success, they were in high spirits. This last foray to the eastern shores of the lake was considered no more than a jaunt - they did not intend to hunt seriously, as was evidenced by the noise they were raising. They chaffed and bantered, teasing one another, sparring as they went along. All of them were young men, hale and strong indeed, the youngest was only a boy.
"Sciobtha, Padraigh," laughed the two eldest, slapping him on the back as he ran to keep up, "ta ocras orm! Tu faighim moran bia!" The looks of the two Maghrain brothers were striking - tall, copper-haired twins in the leather kilts and heavy gold torcs of Fin-varnan aristocracy. Their grins were wide and frequent, a flash of white across their brown faces.
"Amharcaim! Amharcaim!" Padraigh shouted suddenly, pointing to the black and leafless alders leaning at the lake's edge. The men halted and turned their heads.
A shadow moved there. Or was it a shadow? Gracefully, with arched neck, the stallion came walking out from among the trees. Clean were his lines, and well molded; long and lean his legs, finely tapered his frame. He had the build of a champion racehorse in its prime. His coat was sleek and glossy as the water of the lake, oil-black but highlighted with silver gray where the sun's diffuse glow caught the sliding of the muscles.
Clearly, here was a horse to outrace the wind. The men stood, watching in silent awe. The creature tossed his beautiful head, sending his mane flying like spume. He too stood still for a moment, then demurely, almost coquettishly, began to walk toward the huntsmen. The stallion seemed unconcerned by their presence, not frightened at all, but friendly and tame. They were able to go right up to him - he did not shy away but allowed them to stroke the midnight mane and marvel at the grand height of him, he sheer perfection of his contours and the power implicit therein.
Then, in their own Ertish language, Iainh Maghrain spoke huskily, from the back of his throat. "That is the finest steed in Aia," he said, "and I shall ride him." His brother threw him a swift, hard glance. "I, too," he said immediately, not to be bettered.
Fearless, these two - and competitive. It did not enter their heads that appearances might be deceptive.
"Easy now, easy, alainn capall dubh," said Iainh, caressing the elegant arch of the neck. The stallion stood as steady as a corner-stone, almost as though he were encouraging a rider to mount. His eyes were limpid pools, fringed with lashes as a pool is fringed with reeds.
But young Padraigh was wary.
"Don't do it, Iainh," he said. "See how the hounds droop their tails and slink away? They are afraid of him, for all that he is so fine."
Indeed, the retrievers were cowering in the shelter of a clump of tall rocks at the lake's edge, a hundred yards away.
The brothers paid no heed to the youngster's warning. In a trice, Iainh had vaulted up on the horse's back, and in the next instant Caelinh was up behind him. Still, the stallion appeared unperturbed. At the touch of Iainh's boot-heel he trotted amicably in a circle.
"The fine one is as quiet as a lamb!" cried their comrades. "Hey, make room for us why should you two be having all the fun?"
One by one the other youths mounted. Like all Ertishmen, they were proficient horsemen and had been able to ride bareback since they could walk. They sprang with ease onto the stallion's back.
Meanwhile Padraigh hung back cautiously - prompted by some inner caution, he had decided to be last.
It seemed apparent, as he watched each man jump up, that no space would be left for the next. Yet each time a new rider took his place, there was still enough room for another. Padraigh's eyes strayed to the horse's croup. Something unusual about it disturbed him. He thought that under the satin hide, the bones of the skeleton were shifting in an odd way, and the sinews were - the only way to describe it was lengthening.
The last of his comrades leaped onto the horse. Now seven were seated there, laughing, jesting, and beckoning to him from atop the friendly steed.
"Come on, Padraigh mo reigh," they cried. "Get up and let's see how he gallops!"
A flash of understanding scorched the boy's brain.
In horror, Padraigh realized that the horse had grown longer to fit all its riders. Utter terror seized him, and his voice choked in his own gullet. Too frightened to scream a warning, he ran to the lofty boulders that stood at the lake's edge and concealed himself among them, with the cringing dogs.
Black against the silver-gray ripples of the lake, the horse turned its long head. It looked toward the rocks. Dark lips curled back from teeth as square as tombstones. An utterance issued like fumes from that aperture.
"Come along, snotty-nose, do not be left behind!" A voice to corrode iron-cold, unforgiving, appalling.
The boy did not move.
The seven mounted men abruptly fell silent.
Then the horse came after Padraigh among the boulders, dodging this way and that, flinging the riders from side to side, and all the while they were screaming, unable to tear their hands off its back. Back and forth they ducked about among the monoliths, and the hounds fled, howling, and Padraigh's stricken gasps tore at his chest like claws, and the pounding of his heart thundered in his skull as if his brain would burst; but the boy in his desperation proved too nimble for the Each Uisge. At last it gave up and tossed its stormy mane, and with a snort like laughter it dived into the lake and under the waters.
The last echo of their screams hung over the place where the men had vanished. Padraigh stared at the ripples spreading slowly from that center. He was shaking so violently that he could scarcely stand. Sweat dripped from his brow, but his flesh was cold as a fish's.
Nothing reached his ears but the fading staccato plaint of plovers on the wing, the sough of the wind bending the long water-grasses until their tips kissed their own reflections, and the lap, lap of wavelets licking the shore.
When the white sun sank into the mists on the edge of the world, he was there still, his face bloodless; listening, unmoving.