“What next?” she asked herself, as she cut through the darkening corridors and laneways. She met the answer not far along, in another little walled garden. The space was not very large, about as far across as a cottage, and was dominated by a large, scrabble-twigged tree that was leafless and grey. The walls on either side were so white that they looked as if they might have been carved from chalk, and under the emergent stars and moonlight, the stonework possessed its own ghostly quality. The tree itself was strange… not a type or breed that Caewen had ever seen, and though the lack of leaves suggested it might be some manner of oak, beech or hazel, it looked nothing quite like any of those trees. Oddly, too, Caewen realised, there were no remnants of Autumn’s leaf fall on the stone-paved ground through which a half-dozen visible tops of roots rent small clefts like hungry fingers. Even if the tree had lost its leaves months ago, the mulch would be heaped up in the corners of this walled space. Yet, there was no hint of any leaf or mould, litter, twig or even the slimy grime that comes after well decayed vegetation.
She walked around the tree, and was startled by a pluck of half-musical notes. Looking about, Caewen thought at first that there must have been another person in the garden after all, but she saw no one. She searched the branches of the tree then, and discovered a harp, dangling by a rusty iron chain, and swaying. It was about half-way up into the crown. A few more uneven and mindless notes sung from it. It seemed that the wind was catching a few stray notes from the gut-strings. She moved closer to it, finding it intriguing but not entirely sure why. Deep down inside her chest, she was aware of a sensation that was a sort of fearful attraction. And though she found herself wanting to gaze at the harp, she also understood without knowing how or why, that she did not dare climb into the tree and try to touch it. There was a sort of lethality to the shape and sound of it. A beautiful deadliness.
The instrument itself was made of some pale wood, inlaid with peals and chips of jet. There was silver braiding up and down the length of it, and the strings seemed to have a wan, silver hint to them too.
As it swayed on its length of chain, the links creaked, and a few stray notes plucked out of it again. They did have a musical quality. Something… whether it was the wind, or the tree, or the harp itself, or some other unseen intuition of force, was playing the harp. Something was making music, albeit unfriendly and wild to the ear.
Even as she listened–a little bit transfixed by the notes–a cold pine-needle feeling of discomfit brushed down her spine, along the underside of her arms, into her knuckles. The space behind her ears, and down her neck gave her an unpleasant twitching feeling. The notes grew and grew in her mind, taking up more and more space there, crowding out her own thoughts.
Being in the presence of the harp became too much for her to bear. She had to get away from it, out of this space and far away.
Hurrying, she left the walled garden.
She stole just one quick glance back at the harp, hanging on its red-spotted, rust-dappled chain, and she thought she did see the phantasmal outline of a person. Though, if there had been someone sitting there, perched up in the tree, the shape was gone a moment later. And though she stared, no matter how hard she looked, she could not see the shape again. The harp too had fallen silent.
Shrugging her cloak up around her shoulders, rucking the hood up so that it formed into a heap of hard, scraping cloth around her neck, pushing up under her hair, she curled her shoulders and walked on. Whatever had been in the space with the harp, she did not like the feel of it, but somehow it had been undeniably attractive too. It was the sort of sensation that was dangerous. An unsettling urge to learn more about something that was clearly, deeply dangerous. She felt like a mouse who had just seen a glimpse of beauty in the sinuous body of a cat.
After the courtyard with the chained, swaying harp and the bare tree, the maze-spaces and rock-cut corridors grew stranger still. It became harder for Caewen to focus, or even recall clearly what things she saw, or in what order.
There was a dead man laughing and dancing in a chamber full of shadows. There was a great coiling mass of reptilian scales, curling around and around a plinth on which rested something like a broken pearl tooth, and all of it smelling of brine, saltiness and rotten kelp. There was a man in a silver mask sitting on a throne. There was a majestically beautiful horseman hunting after a small, sad hairy creature that looked almost, but not quite, human. And finally, at the end of all this, she came to a room in which there was a statue, cut from hard white stone, of a woman draped from head-to-toe in a silken shroud. Her hands were out-held, and clasped in front of her was a human skull. This, Caewen decided on immediate glance, was death itself, surely, and not the local death of this hill and wizard’s moot either. The great death. The death at the end of all things.
She turned her face away from the statue as she walked passed it, and tried to think of something, anything else, but the vision of the carven woman in the stone shroud still filled her inner eye.
So, shivering, she pushed herself past the statue, not daring to look at it another time. The crawling suspicion that it was perhaps not actually a statue at all, but merely as still and as dead as white marble crept around in her thoughts and would not let go its whispers.
After the carved death she stopped short in a long, wide avenue that was thonged with… people? Or at least, something that had been people. Dozens of old woman, withered, corpse-like, dressed in funerary rags, grave-dirt on their necks and sleeves, they all stood to either side, a row of silent sentinels. All of them had had their jaws removed, cut away at the hinges, and each old corpse-women wore her severed jaw on a rope necklet slung around her neck and chest. In their left hands, they carried a spindle whorl, and with the right they raised arthritic, knotted old joints, like drift wood, and pointed at the far end of the way. There was no other way out, and she could not go back. She had no choice but to follow the way they indicated.
Just like a life, she thought to herself again. No choice but onward. With a nod she addressed them, because it seemed to her that they expected some response, and might be displeased if they did not get it. “Very well,” she murmured, “thank you,” and she followed the way that they pointed, passing them. They smelled of wet earth and grave soil, bloat, earthworms and old rotten linen. Their tongues, visible in the carved-up mouth, lay like still dead slugs, mottled and lifeless.
Closing her eyes against the visions, she worked to refocus herself, tried hard to steady her breathing, and somehow, without even a good sense of understanding how, she succeeded.
And then she was through them.
And past them.
The dozens of dead jawless women were behind her.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Post forty on Fair Upon the Tor. We’re now about 60,000 words into the story, more or less, and I’m expecting there to be another 20,000 or so. Maybe a bit more. I’m working ahead of the posts, so that there may be a point (time permitting) where I can start posting this in larger chunks, or maybe 2-3 posts per week instead of the one per week. I’m looking forward to having it complete so that I can make A Charm for the Nameless Child available, which is already complete at a second draft stage (though will require at least one more editing pass). Anyway, thank you everyone for keeping along with the story. There aren’t many comments, but I can see via the stats that there are some regular readers scattered around the globe, so thank you. Much appreciated.