Black Spire III: A Twisted King
Beyond Color and Light
Bleak and dim, the very air of the Fens, mottled as it were with specks of dust – spores? – caught in the slanting rays of infected sunlight, laboriously winding its way through the soupy emptiness between silver-flecked trees. So faint, so gentle, that it would be no surprise if it were snared in the shimmer of the spider’s webs, forever trapped in suspension above the marshy ground, never permitted to touch it. And why should sunlight ever deign to shine on that abominable ground? For though faintly visible through a twisted mess of unnamed vegetation, the thing there beneath them couldn’t rightly be named Earth, not by any conventional definition – rather some spongy, undefined mass of rot upon rot. Unfinished for ever, though sometimes fresh, the beady caps of little white mushrooms, the diminutive green spire of some misbegotten plant. Underneath them only the death which feeds their roots. Yet even in this decayed and distant landscape there is movement, travelers, so distant from their homes that they seem little but abstractions, idle dreams in the sere and bitter landscape painted around them in so many shades of brown that one might very well be forgiven for forgetting any other colors exist.
And yet they do; they unquestionably do. For these intruders, these aliens in the deep Fens, shine with a peculiar light of their own, stained and speckled shades of silver and yellow in the depths of the ink-brown darkness, their clothes spattered with rust-red old blood. The eye would, if any eyes here existed, be drawn first to the youngest – his clothes a verdant green, dulled by the half-light of the sleeping Fens into something like damp and dreary moss. A cloak flows from his back, of similar shades, meant to mimic the living leafy canopy of less unpleasant woods; but here, in this world mimicking verdigris and rust, it seems as forged and artificial as the longsword in his hand. It glimmers menacingly, its steel edge absurdly angular in the sprawling underbrush. His hair is flashing platinum, and his face is not precisely soft but smooth, ivory and glass, locked into a mask of indistinguishable character. It covers his emotions like a porcelain lid, his steel-grey eyes betraying the disquiet. Is it disgust that causes his mouth to narrow to a line no thicker than one of his brilliant hairs? Is it fear? Is it anger, directed at the bulky shape of the woman before him? He strides onwards, pulling his clothes about himself, glancing to the side. A nest catches his attention, brown like the brown trees, woven of grass the shade of pus. He steps aside, and the bulky woman notices.
She blazes with a light greater still than the youth. Her hair is richer, a deeper shade of gold, cast like a crown about her silver-armored shoulders, straining beneath the weight of a multitude of straps. It is hard to tell where she begins, covered as she is in jutting, irregular shapes – from her heavy sword which beats against her greaves to the jars and handles that sprout obscenely from the damp leather satchel on her back, intersected by the heavy wooden handle of a rigid steel-tipped polearm. It grows from her back like the stem of a flower, seeking desperately the sunlight to touch its polished edge, but what sunlight there is seems absorbed by her hair. Her face, as she turns, is alabaster like the boy’s, but far more vivid. Hints of rose-pink live beneath her cheekbones, flow around the corners of her eyes, a deft contrast with the cold sheen of her eyes. There’s a fundamental weight to her, a gravitas straining under some terrible pressure, but it’s not unkind – the character of an elephant or bear, made beast of burden under loyalty and love.
She stops. Her hand is raised as the boy sidles toward the nest, glancing this way and that. In the dim silence of the burnt-umber swamps, his caution seems both unnecessary and entirely appropriate, as he steps into a stock-still pool of ochre water, so lifeless it’s almost queer to see it ripple at his touch. The third companion peers in his direction, squinting against the half-light of the remote and unseen sun. She is slight, and though straight-backed moves so reservedly as if she were shy of her shadow and attempting to hide from it, the attentions of even that dim companion unwanted. She wears brown, all brown, but possessing a curious life of its own nonetheless – like the green of the boy’s cape, it is a brown that can’t belong here, echoing saffron and honey and grain. In any other surrounding it would seem faint, barely perceptible, but in these colorless airs it shines like amber. Her skin, too, contains traces of warmth. Less pale than her companions, yet still a reserved shade, recalling the sun though never quite admitting it. Her eyes dart nervously, her hand is on her belt at the grip of some long saber, sheathed curiously elegant and unobtrusive against her narrow hip. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but makes no sound – her throat producing merely a whisper, a faint edge of wind against the weeds. It is another’s voice who comes, and it is deep and hollow like the scraping of a dead branch over bark.
“We have stopped.” it says. There is nothing condemning about the observation, yet also nothing inquisitive; a voice devoid of curiosity, so detached from these affairs, so dead it might as well have echoed from those muted ochre waters; the voice of nothing but whistling reeds. Its owner is nowhere to be seen at first, but fades from the misery like ink on black paper once the eye has time to adjust. It is an incurious figure, so bland in the syrupy light that the sun might well have passed over it, chancing instead to reach the tangled ground rather than be trapped in the folds of its compost-colored cloak. Yet the figure has a face, somewhere beneath the dripping colorless tangle of drab and merciless cloth, and the face is presently turned toward the young man, and its eyes are stagnant pools. It seems to be male; but the descriptor is almost inconsequential. He, then, takes a step forward, his motion like the shifting of leaves in dead autumn.
“Eggs.” replies the young man’s voice. It is angled like the edge of his steel sword, and bounces against the trees, stopping the cloak-drenched figure in his tracks like had he been struck by a hammer. He inhales, once, like the barely perceptible death-cry of a toad, and sinks together to assume, once again, the shape of something shapeless and uninteresting. His long-fingered hand, bony and grey, fingers at nothing, as if trying to snare the dust-motes in the light. The boy, for his part, steps out in the yellow-brown waters, stretching his back so that his face catches the light and glows like a miniature moon. It lasts but a moment, and his hand retrieves a small round jewel, a small sepia oval speckled with blue. “Herons. Nearby. Nesting low.” Each syllable rings, less like steel now, but royally like silver, a metallic tang embedded in his heritage. “I’ll go find them.” The indistinct heap shrugs in response, his fingers ceasing their spider-like dance. He makes a sound like a drawn-out cough, then somehow catches the noise in his throat and gives it form. “Good.”
He turns. His hand waves at the two women as the boy steps to the other edge of the pool. He glides like a shadow once on the other side, withdrawing from the others. Without waiting, the drab man continues on his way, his movements less organic now, somehow stilted as if he really were simply a heap, suspended with some obscene skeleton of wood, propelled by a mad puppeteer. The bulky woman sighs, her voice deep and rich like brandy. “Be careful”, she seems to say, though she doesn’t actually say it, and besides it wouldn’t matter for the young man isn’t inclined to listen. Instead she adjusts her heavy belt and armor, her entire weight tilting alarmingly like some tower of hastily assembled cookware, and sets off after the stilted wooden skeleton in its covering of gray. One final glance she affords the green cloak, before it vanishes behind a tree, still within earshot. She begins to move, waving again for the woman behind her back.
It is the little brown woman who disappears last, in between the twisted shrubs in a shade that mimics green. She casts one glance over her shoulder, fingers still tightly gripping her sword, and her yellow-brown eyes are the last patch of brightness to be seen. Then she blinks, and turns around, and the stillness of the swamp sluggishly settles back down. A spider hangs from a shimmering thread, its carapace stealing the sun and reflecting it, and it seems to snare the last of the glow which never reaches the ground here, here in the Hag Fens, here beyond color and light.