The Black Tower
Click on image to enlarge.
by Ardath Mayhar
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: Balrog Award Winner's Unique New Fantasy Novel! "Ardath Mayhar writes damn fine books!"--Joe R. Lansdale. Black Magic, Native American lore, time travel and Medieval England make a heady blend of thrills and fantasy in The Black Castle. Two-Moons is an Onondaga warrior woman with the ability to Dream truly. When she was born, the extraordinary events that gave her name were considered predictive of an extraordinary life. That prediction comes true when a power-hungry Medieval wizard from another dimension kidnaps Two Moons, drawing her from her own time and place into Medieval England. With her extraordinary gifts, he hopes to use her to entrap her people to serve as his slaves. But through her dream gifts, Two-Moons is able to contact her own gods--setting the stage for an awesome duel that pits European sorcery against Obongda magic.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [252 KB]
Reading time: 214-300 min.
CHAPTER I: THE BLACK TOWER
Two-Moons struggled beneath the weight of the deer on her back. It was beginning to tell upon her strength, though the effort of carrying it helped, to some extent, to counteract the terrible chill of the evening. A blizzard howled among the great trees about her as if all the wolves in the country of her people had come there after prey, and Two-Moons had begun to wonder if this hunt might be her last.
She would not hesitate to go into death, she thought. Being provider for her family was not easy, for other women often derided her for becoming a warrior and hunter. That had been her fate, however, for her mother had taken the same path, though she had no sisters to keep her household in order.
A widow with three young daughters, she had taken bow and spear and mastered them, though the tribe would have cared for them all in the longhouse, as it did other bereft families. Yet her mother was too proud and independent to take from others, and the women of the tribe, even then, had not liked her ways. It had been the truth of her dreams that allowed her the choice, for the People lived by dreams, those messages sent by the spirits to guide them.
A gust of snow-laden wind whipped into the woman's face, almost choking her. She paused to lean against a huge elm, easing her burden on her aching shoulders. Shifting her bow to a better position, she stood still in the snow-light, listening intently.
In the distance she could hear a dog bark. There lay the longhouse where her sisters waited with her bearskin bedding warmed and strips of meat for her last meal sputtering into the coals. Soon she would be there, sheltered from the storm.
She straightened and trudged on, guided by her instinct, for the path and the forest were invisible, hidden by fresh swirls of snow.
The warmth of the deer carcass against her back had chilled, now, and she longed to be at home again. Not for the first time she wondered why she and her mother had been chosen for such difficult lives.
Her friend Runs-Bucks-Down could have made this journey, even burdened with meat, much more quickly on his long legs. Why had she not accepted his offer to move into her part of the longhouse? Life would be easier, if she were a woman, at least in winter, though summer would have found her digging in her cornfields and dressing out skins and meat.
She sighed and hefted the carcass again. That sort of thought sometimes intruded when she was doing something beyond her size and almost beyond her strength. Yet one who dreamed truly could not be content to farm, work hides, do all the routine tasks that others were better suited for. That would ruin her ability, for her dreams nourished and protected the spirit of the tribe, as did those of the other dreamers. For some strange reason, the Master of Life had given to her mother's line a great deal of orenda. Life-spirit must not be wasted, and those yoked to dull routine did not dream truly.
Two-Moons realized that something had changed while she rested. The wind seemed less sharp than it had been, The snow was settling, and she could see farther into the distance. The bite of the snow-smell in her nostrils seemed subtly different, as well.
She raised her head and sniffed. The underlying odor of the forest beneath the snow seemed different, too. She stared hard at the bole of a huge tree just ahead. Outlined in black against the snow, it had a strange shape, alien to her eyes.
Stepping forward, she laid her numbed hand against the bark. It seemed to be an oak, but its texture was subtly different from those she knew. There was, besides, no oak this large between the edge of the lake and the longhouse for which she was bound. Her people knew the trees of the forest as intimately as they knew the members of the tribe, and this was no tree she had ever met before.
Huddled against that alien tree, she listened hard. She could not hear the bark of the dog, now. Silence wrapped the forest. She pushed herself up again, knowing that some demon spirit, some false-face must be seeking to mislead her.
She knew that the home of her people lay ahead, and she must go there or make camp. It was too cold to continue trudging through the snow, and surviving without shelter was not likely. She thought of her warm bearskin beside the fire and stumbled forward, finding no path flattening the soil beneath the snow. Only rough drifts covering deadfall seemed to lie all about her.
Before long she realized that something was wrong; she should have reached the Onondaga village by now, for she was moving as quickly as possible in the deep snow. Yet now she stood beside an ice-locked stream whose gurgle could be heard beneath its frosting of snow. There should be no stream here. Had she become confused in her struggle through the dim forest?
The snow thinned and stopped; the wan light of that covering the ground made the forest seem even dimmer, etched with the shapes of thick trunks and tangled branches. The shapes seemed oak-like, but very ancient oaks, swollen with years. Here, so near the village, should be a stand of elm and maple.
Hitching the deer higher on her back, she stepped forward, knowing that there might be no shelter tonight. She might have to build a brush hut, in order to survive the chill. Still, she did not pause, not yet. Something lay before her, and her dream-trained sense felt it calling to her. She must see what lay ahead.
Her feet found a trail ... not a game trail, like that she had been following but a regular path made by human feet, wide and hard-packed beneath the snow. Even through her moccasins she could feel the surface. She could also see something through the veiling branches and the dim twilight. When she emerged into the open, she paused, her mouth open, staring upward. It seemed that some mad tribe had built a longhouse but had set it on end, rather than laying it sensibly along the earth. The shape was black against the slightly paler sky, and it stood in the middle of a larger stream, a small river, indeed.
She could see the darkness at its foot and knew it stood on an island, now connected to the land by ice much thicker than she expected it to be. Even as she stared, a flicker of ruddy light winked from an opening high in the side of the strange shelter.
She studied the shape, squinting to penetrate the dimness. There was no door-flap that she could see, even as she drew nearer, crossing the ice cautiously after she deposited her deer on the path. Once she was at the foot of the shelter, she touched it, finding it made of unyielding stone. How had anyone piled it so high? And what kept it from falling down?
Fumbling around the foot of the thing, Two-Moons found no yielding skin flap, although there were many cracks and crannies that ran in straight lines, up and down or across the surface.
She backed away and looked across the river. There was forest beyond the pale line of the stream and the white line of snow marking the path. She moved back over the ice to the spot where she left her meat. It seemed she might need that deer carcass, before she found her way home again.
Moving deep into the fringe of trees, she fashioned a crude shelter of brush, cutting her building material from thick growth that would not show the missing branches. She piled the brush carefully, hiding the structure in a thicket of bramble and holly that filled a small glade in the wood. Thankful for her kill earlier that evening,
she cut off a haunch, already half frozen, and piled more brush over the rest of the deer. Once inside her shelter she carved thin strips from the haunch and chewed them slowly, savoring the bloody juices. Meat was strength and warmth, and she must keep herself fueled for whatever dangers she might meet in this strange dream-place.
Her outer robe was buckskin, tanned finely by her sister Laughs-Too-Much. She tucked her arms inside that, when she was ready to rest, protecting them between that and her inner shirt, which was made of beaver fur. Sitting with her back against a springy wall, her legs crossed, spine straight, she prepared to call upon Aireskoi for aid, as her people did at need. She began to sing a quavering tune, very softly to avoid attracting unwanted attention in this unfamiliar country.
Aireskoi, who guides the hunt,
who strengthens the arm in warfare,
who sends the sun to warm the lands,
that crops and game may flourish,
to you I make my song.
There is need of a dream,
a true vision.
I, the daughter of Dreams-True,
ask this of you.
Her song had many verses, for she did not know if Aireskoi lived in this place. If he were far away, there was need for a long, long song to find him and bring him here. When she finished, she sat with her eyes closed, resting and waiting. But it was not a dream or a vision that approached her at last. There came the crunch of human footsteps in new snow.
In an instant, she was outside, hidden amid the thicket, her knife in hand. Slipping to the edge of the stream, she concealed herself amid the shadows of leafless willow trees and bushes, where the dark blot of her shape against the snow would not be distinguishable from that of a clump of reeds or a bush.
Her bow and arrows were behind her shoulder, fastened to their thong, but she did not know, as yet, if this might be an enemy. In this alien place, she might well need a friend, if this might prove to be one. She worked her arms free, flexed her fingers and gripped the knife afresh. Then she crouched, silent and waiting, to see who came toward her across the snow-laden ice of the stream.
The shape was only a dark blot, at first, but it was taller than anyone among her own people. Some sort of loose robe flapped about it, moved by the breeze of its passing. Two-Moons hugged a dense bush and watched intently as the shape took the path she had followed into the wood. The snow-light was stronger, and she could now see him.
Breath froze in her throat. The face was white--whiter even than that of a False-Face in the trees of her Onondaga forest. It shone between the dark stuff of the robe and a black hood that covered the head.
Two-Moons had never encountered the False-Face herself, although her mother had died after encountering one of those disembodied heads.
She had spoken of the terror of it with her last breath. Was this such a being? Then she rejected the notion. This one had a body, though it was too tall and thin to be quite human.
She caught her breath, finding in her heart a question. Did this creature possess orenda? That was the spirit-stuff that bound all things together, man and beast, plant and water and air. All things of the world were a part of it, as it was a part of them. Yet was this being a part of the world she knew? She found it in her heart to doubt that. Still ...
She inhaled silently and deeply, letting her spirit walk forth a bit to test and taste the spirits of the things around her. Strong, bitter spirits inhabited the oaks, which muttered among themselves about men like these, who slaughtered their sister trees and burned them. The bushes had a lighter, sweeter flavor, for they were in no danger from Men, except for the pilfering fingers of children among the summer berries.
All the grasses were asleep. The water was frozen to considerable depth, stilling its voice. The air was still busy with the memory of snow. All possessed orenda, all were connected, even in their alienness, with her, which meant that the man who still moved toward her hut must be connected, also.
She turned her questing toward him, who was standing quietly and gazing at her empty shelter. She felt a shocking jolt as something painful and sharp met her probing thought. This was no spirit joined in the web of life that was its world, whatever world this might be. No interlinking strand bound him to the land or the sleeping vegetation. The very air seemed to avoid touching that ghastly face, which shone silver in the tenuous light.
As if her glance called to him, he turned slowly and looked into the shadows. Two-Moons stirred no muscle, though she closed her eyes to avoid having a chance glint of light on her eyeballs betray her. She felt his gaze sweep over her like a chill wind, but he did not see her, and she smiled.
One of the Onondaga would have seen her, no matter how dark the shadows or how still the one in hiding. This man did not walk the way of the forest. He had not learned the secrets of the stalker, it was plain.
However, he seemed to have other abilities to command. When he finished his survey, he straightened his cloak about his shoulders and stood straight in the middle of the patch of snow. Raising one hand, he moved it in patterns, while sparks of light, colder than firelight, brighter than fireflies, grew at the tips of his fingers.
Her eyes retained the images inscribed by those shining specks, and she could see in afterimage the shapes he was drawing. They were strange forms, which gave her a shiver down her spine and her legbones.
He was chanting. She could barely hear his voice, so quietly did he speak. His words were alien to her ears, but something about them--the sound and the rhythm--compelled her spirit to move toward him, as he stood in the clearing. She clenched her hand upon the bone hilt of her knife until her palm and knuckles hurt. Her legs tensed, as if to rise and walk against her will. She held them quiet, but it required all her strength to do it.
Her hands strove to unclench, to push her upward and out of her hiding place.
Two-Moons-in-the-Sky recognized magic, though it was unlike any she knew. This was strong magic, though it did not draw upon any of the elements she recognized. There was no earth in it, no living plant or breathing beast; it was cold, cold, holding the feeling she sometimes knew when looking up on a cold, still night at the frozen lights winking afar in a black winter sky. This was a distant power that cared nothing for anything that lived.
Two-moons had magics of her own. In no other way could she have walked a road so different from the ways of other girls and matrons in her village.
Her mother's dreams had been true and her magics effective, yet they had not saved her from the False-Face of her vision. Knowing that, Two-Moons had fasted for days in the forest beside the lake north of her home. She had talked long with the shamans and had delved into herself with care and precision, identifying and building upon her own strengths. She had denied herself the comfort of Runs-Bucks-Down's caring, which had tempered her spirit more powerfully than any of the things that went before.
Now she relaxed, bone by bone, muscle by muscle, against the snowy ground. The bush hung about her, and the snow caught in its tangled twigs made it a secure hiding place. As if from a distance, she heard the man's voice, now shouting incomprehensible syllables into the night, as if he were angry and frustrated when she failed to emerge from hiding.
"Come forth, in the names of Orobas, of Marchocias, of Bael, I call you from hiding. In the names of Asmodeus, of Forcas, and of Buer I call you out! No shadow may hide you, no plant give you shelter. I compel you--come out!" Two-Moons lay quietly, allowing those alien sounds to flow around and past her. Yet when he uttered those harsh names she did feel a chill, as if an especially sharp breeze had touched her. Still, she was unmoved by his incantation. Instead, she felt an inflowing of power that told her a vision was about to appear to her. The blood slowed in her veins and her heart quieted to a steady rhythm; her hands and feet became heavy, while her eyes closed upon the snowlit scene. The warmth of Aireskoi surrounded her, and for the first time that evening she was no longer chilled to the bone.
Into her mind there crept a picture, which she studied carefully.
There was the uptilted longhouse, though in the vision it was not evening but broad day. The forest lay green on either side of the river, and there was no snow.
In the side of the house there was a doorway, and its closure, not of hide but wood, stood open, swung back against the wall of stone. As if a vital part of her were being led, she moved toward the opening and entered through it.
"This is a tower," came the soundless voice that was that of Aireskoi. "Within it lives one who possesses the power to warp the flowing of worlds and of time. He has called to you across terrible barriers for purposes that are not yours. Beware of him, for he is no friend of sun or forest or people or anything that lives. Look upon him as he labored to work his magic upon you."
The house rose like a tunnel that went up instead of sideways. Around it curled a climbing-place; though she had no material feet, Two-Moons set the shadows of hers upon the shelves of stone and moved upward, around and around as the steps followed the curve. At the end of the climb there was another doorway, and its wood closure stood open a crack. From that crack came strange smells and a light that was fire rather than sunlight.
A voice, strangely familiar, was speaking, the words crisp and firm and commanding. She recognized those names that had touched her with cold breezes as she lay beneath the bush. There were other words, as well, but she could not understand any of them. Instead, a picture within a picture formed within her mind.
There was the place where she leaned to rest her burden, the elm she knew as well as she did her own sisters. There in the midst of summer was the forest through which she had made her way in the snowstorm. That was the last spot she had truly recognized.
Just beyond it was a haze that moved like heat-shimmer between the trees. For an instant it shone distinctly, and it had the look of one of these door openings; through it she could see into a place that was no longer the familiar forest near her village. She could see that first unfamiliar oak, and past it were others, where the elm and maple wood should be.
"That is a trap he set for you, my daughter, as a child sets a snare for a rabbit. Moons ago, he created it, set to catch only one of Power, who might aid him in his wicked endeavors. Weariness and winter dulled your perceptions, or you might have felt it and avoided it, and you went through. Open this door and look into his chamber."
Two-Moons pushed lightly at the door with her indistinct hand. It swung back with a faint hiss, and the man in the room looked up from the odd things lying on a platform before him.
He turned his head, searching the chamber, but he could not see her, and she understood that she was not yet actually in his world at all. Only through the power of Aireskoi was she being shown this picture.
"The adept," Aireskoi breathed into her immaterial ear. "He is also alien to me, for he does not inhabit a world that I know or care to know. Yet because he had called upon one of mine, he has also called upon me. I understand more of him than I like to know.
"The things in those vessels have power in this task he is accomplishing. Look closely as he puts them away, for you may have need of their contents before all is done." Two-Moons watched intently as the man gazed into the vessels, which were not clay or stone,
as were those she knew, but were formed of some shiny stuff through which she could see their contents bubbling and steaming over a tiny point of flame. This burned beneath a metal stand, and there was another over which a pot was hissing viciously.
The adept mixed the contents of two of the containers, and the stuff turned as red as blood when it mingled. Then he added a few drops from the hissing pot. Everything turned blue, the blue of cold, of ice, of a blizzard-heavy sky.
The adept smiled, looking upon his work. Then he set the mixture on a high shelf and covered it with something thin and flexible. Other containers on that shelf he moved into a careful order, while Two-Moons marked the places into her memory, which was trained to retain deer trails and squirrel runs and faint paths used for going to war.
Without warning, she was back inside herself, beneath that sheltering bush. The adept was moving his fingers, while sparks of blue light shot into the air and flew away into the snowy forest. Two-Moons understood, without knowing how she knew, that those sparks searched for her. Even as she had the thought, one of the sparks found her bush and settled into its snowy tangle with a hissing of steam and a strange stink.
She slipped her bow over her shoulder and tightened the string, nocking an arrow without disturbing so much as the air around her. Then she stood erect, shaking the spark down into the snow, where it guttered out.
"Why do you seek me, Burning-hand?" she asked in Iroquois.
He whirled toward her at the sound of her voice. He seemed astonished.
"You sought for me. Here I am. What is your purpose?" she asked again.
He stared at her, and she knew he did not understand her words.
She stared back, uncowed, her bow ready in her competent brown hands.