Daughter, at Hunt’s End

This is an independent scene I wrote ten years ago, which may reenter my stories later in some form.

Athowl and his daughter Lereya went to a council with the chief men of Hormal that night in the Hall of the East in Hormal House. The Hall of the East had been built by giants, and the rest of the house had been built around it years afterward. As they came in through the atrium they did not realize that they had gradually become the last of their party, while they spoke together in low voices. They slowed and stood still completely as the others passed into the Hall of the East through the huge, black doors. They did not see Weseout, the magistrate, waiting for them in the door with one leaf partly open. The door was so large that, though it was open wide enough for a man to pass through, it seemed only slightly open. Even when they turned to face the door, and slowly looked up all its height, they continued to talk.

When they stepped forward Weseout spoke quietly, “There are three large images in the stained glass window, I am warning you if you are sensitive to such things.” Lereya leaned on her fathers left arm, and the gesture seemed to make both of them large, even standing before the towering doors as they did. Athowl answered the magistrate, “We might be sensitive. With us it is not so fixed as your human disposition, because we are freer in our intercourse with images.” Weseout said, “Come in, they are a worthy sight.” Even when they came they did not do it immediately, they paused. Lereya laid her hand on her fathers breast, and he covered it with his own hand.

When they entered and saw the windows, three stories high, higher than the doors, they were stricken silent. They were not only amazed at their beauty and cognizance, but were stricken by the realization that they were known and recognized by the images. There were three images, the midmost one reaching nearly from the floor to the roof, but the two images that flanked it were not so high, because the top of the window was arched. The knowledge that in their hundreds of sleepless years they had known and waited for Athowl and Lereya was clear, and it seemed that they knew who they were before they had even approached the doors of the hall.

But as they wondered at the images, Athowl and Lereya did not know that their minds were swiftly, urgently examining the entire hall; their eyes had no need to move, their minds saw every detail. The ceiling had four vaults with a great chandelier hanging in each; the hall was built on the edge of a cliff, which dropped away from the foot of the window outside; at the east end of the hall a low doorway in each wall led out of the hall, and near the center of the room stood a large, wooden table, dwarfed by the hall, the window, the doors, and by the chandeliers, each chandelier being wider than the table (though not so long).

The images told Athowl’s mind to bar the door. He did so. The bar was great, and though it pivoted smoothly and noiselessly, it was heavy and hard to move. Weseout watched him, but said nothing. Lereya said to herself, as she gazed at her fathers back, stretching up to move the bar, “I hope I can do something for him, I hope I can be something to fill the gap.” She had been divided from her father when she was but three years old, and had been reunited with him when she was twenty six years old, when her foster family was slaughtered, and their home burned by… something dark. Nearly two years she had spent wandering with her father, since that had happened.

Weseout gave Athowl the place at the head of the table, and offered to have his daughter sit at his right hand, but Athowl said to him, “You forget, sir, that I am left handed.” Lereya smiled, and walked behind her father to take her place at his left. Weseout sat beside her. A messenger from Buhlkharest, a great nation which lay to the south and east, took the place at Athowl’s right hand.

Hardly had the rest been seated when the messenger from Buhlkharest stood to his feet again impatiently, and angrily began to speak. But Weseout held up his hand, and said, “There are some here who do not know the purpose of this council. We must speak to them first.” The messenger sat stiffly, making a strange smile. Weseout stood up.
“This is Athowl, and his daughter Lereya, who are masters of power. They are central to our purpose: we must decide whether one or both of them should meet the threat to Buhlkharest in the south, or travel north to defend the seat of the power of the Twitchers.” He then introduced those from other cities, and last of all he said, “A messenger from Buhlkharest is with us to show us the state of its defenses, and seek what aide we can give. His name is Jala, and he is of the house of Kharestokk, and he will now speak.”

The messenger’s smile had vanished when his name was mentioned, and he had nodded slowly to Athowl, and then to the rest of them at the table. When Weseout had sat down, Jala sat motionless for a moment, staring at the table. Then he stood, released a breath and said,
“What have we to do with the North? The threat is in the South, and the war is in Buhlkharest. I have already told my news, what more must I do?” He paused, with his mouth open, “Are all such councils with humans such cold flesh, and quiet sitting?” Jala was not human, which was evident by how the rims of his eyes seemed pulled back, and folded over, and there was something different about his entire manner, and something strange about his lips. Jala’s insult was recieved with a moment of silence. Then one of the nobles said, “Whatever war is in Buhlkharest we must fight a war here or we will be unable to send any help.” Jala sat down.

“I have something that I want to say.” Lereya saw her father’s whip in his right hand; he let the end fall to the floor. He brought his arm behind him, and swung his arm over his head. The whip straightened strangely in the air, and swung over like the spoke of a wheel, so that its entire length struck the table at one time. Everyone jolted, except for Athowl, and Lereya. Lereya had stared at the table as the whip struck, and had not blinked. The whip had seemed to cut the room in two, and the sound had stricken them almost like a blow, and made their heads feel dull.

Something had changed. All at the table seemed humbled somehow by what Athowl had done, including Athowl and Lereya. The images were relieved of a certain tension. It occurred to Weseout that Athowl was not human either, though his differences were in inherited unhuman power rather than physical appearence. Athowl said, “There are things which must be realized…” Jala broke in, though in a quiet voice with remains of humbling in it, “Tell us what they are?” And then added, “You must.” Athowl said, “They are not to be told, they must be realized.” After this Jala and Weseout were silent. The doctor had not said a word. The nobles began to talk in hushed voices of what news Jala had brought, and some of them hesitantly spoke of what they knew of the Twitchers North. They were not comfortable with that subject with a master sitting at the head of the table, and saying nothing.

Lereya took the whip, and coiled it in her hands. It felt warm. Athowl looked straight ahead, at eye level, and his head, and his eyes, did not move. He was as still as only a master of Twitching could be still. He was as still as the images, yet he was more still, because for living flesh to become as still as glass it shows a force of stillness, glass naturally has no such force: it rests in stillness.

As the others discussed earnestly, Lereya studied her fathers face. Again her mind was penetrating, searching, swiftly gathering. Athowl was beardless as an Asian, and his forehead was bald; his brow and mouth and chin seemed old, hard, and grim, and his eyes, nose, and jaw seemed young, musing, and mild; his hair was thick, short, slightly curled, and brunette; his hands were a little large, and the skin was brown, and loose, but hard. Both Athowl and Lereya wore the brown color of mastery of the Twitchers. Lereya’s gown fell from her throat to her ankles, unbound and seamless, and her sleeves fell to her elbows. Both her and her father had some of their more vital belongings with them in small leather scrips.

“What do you believe will be your decision, master Athowl?” One of the nobles asked, leaning forward onto the table. Athowl did not move his eyes. “It all depends.” He said. Everyone at the table seemed to become agitated. Jala had been staring down at the table, but he looked up, almost like a worried boy, and asked, “On what?” Only Athowl’s mouth moved. He said, “Look.”

The bar of the door was moving by itself, slowly spinning open. Jala was born of a brave, proud race, first formed from clots of the blood which perpetually drips from the edge of the blade called Elith, whose sheath is sealed forever. He leaped up, and would have run to hold the door, but Athowl made a quieting gesture with his hand (his left hand, though Jala was on his right), and said “Wait” in a breathy voice, thrusting his head forward as though he were trying to see better.

“We should see who our enemy is.” Jala suggested. Athowl said, “I have already examined the enemy, and if you find yourself before the door when he enters it you would avail nothing.” Jala sat down suddenly, put his hands in his lap, turned his head, and looked at the door. The leaf on the right began to open. This meant that the intruder was using his left hand to open the door; Athowl would have opened the other leaf, leaving his left hand free as he entered.

The whole height of the door seemed to slowly shudder from its foot to its head, in the time it would take a deep breath and blow it out. The fingers of a left hand moved around the door; they were hard to see from the distance of the table, and if the door had not been black they would have been invisible. They looked both pale, and ruddy, in the light of the chandeliers. Then the man stepped in, and at first they could only see the head and hands, as if hanging in the air, because the man was clothed in black, up to his throat, and down to his wrists, only his head and hands were bare. He quietly thrust the door closed behind him with his left hand.

He moved forward, one step, a second step. Lereya’s mind had seen the man in her fathers mind, though she did not know it. The intruder moved forward a third step, a fourth step: he was near enough for his face to be seen: it seemed young, and seemed straightened and built up by a master mason, but it was not sculpted: there were faint lines across the forehead; he was beardless, and his hair was thin and pale flaxen, and it all swept in one direction, to the right; his eyes were clear, and gray, and seemed to look out from a windswept mountain height (Athowl’s eyes were blue); to us he would have looked like a young officer from the Civil War. He moved forward a fifth step, a sixth step: they could now see that he was bent, his shoulders were bowed forwards; they had not seen it before because his face was perfectly erect, though his neck was almost craned for it to be so. The sudden realization that the man was bent over gave him a sense of hidden power. He moved forward a seventh step, an eighth step: they saw that like Athowl he wore a long, girdled tunic, and trousers. Lereya saw two hilts angled away from his body, low on his left side. One hilt was of a sword, the other of a great knife.

He moved forward a ninth step, and stood, nine long paces into the room. Athowl laid the forfinger of his left hand lightly on the edge of the table, and the table split in two. It broke where the whip had struck it: directly down the middle, and the two halves rose, like the wings of a great bird rising before a great leap into the air. Then with a swift, searing sound like shooting, flaming arrows, scores of cracks lanced down the two halves from the end where Athowl was sitting. Even the table legs split apart. All the long fragments tilted up, moving forward like a hord of serpents. Soon they flew like javilins. The man began to walk forward, and when the beams of wood reached him they parted and swung around him. They rammed the doors, and the doors groaned.

Now that there was no table, there was an open space between the two rows of chairs, and Athowl sat at the end of it facing down between them. Athowl thought, a moment too late, that he should have put his weight on his feet as soon as he saw the wood deflected by the dark man. The dark man stopped, and stood with his feet together. He bent his hands back with the palms facing forward as if he were warning some one to back away. Athowl, and his chair, with his hands still on the armrests, shot in a perfect diagonal from where he was to the center of the stained glass window, but as he flew his hair did not blow, nor did his clothes flap. The watchers heard a terrible crack, like a mast snapping in a storm, and they saw Athowl sitting in his seat in the center of the window, framed in jagged glass. Then he vanished up and out, leaving a black hole, shaped like a tombstone.

Outside the window where they could not see he continued to fly in the same path, but he now began to raise his left hand. The peices of broken glass that his passage through the window had thrust aside hung in the air like a tube finger stretching out to him, but, even before Athowl slowed to a halt, the tube rolled, collapsed, and twisted into a thread that spun swiftly as a drill. But it was only for a moment, the thread stretched out, nearly reaching Athowl, and a strange thing happened to the window.

The people watching from inside saw the dark hole in the window begin to spread, like ink being poured on a painting, or dandelion seeds being blown from a dandelion head. Then they heard the sound, like the crackle of thunder before the boom. The entire window was vanishing away, shattered pieces flying from the broken edge out into lightless space. Then the watchers saw something growing in the distance, hanging in the sky, spreading wider and wider, until they wondered whether it was a little way off or a long way off. Then they began to realize what it was, and, as the last, pointed pieces of glass flew from the smooth, stone window frame, they saw what it was. The entire three story window was reassembled in the black sky, upside down. A vast sheet of richly colored glass, fitted together like a puzzle of hundreds of thousands of pieces, hanging upside down in the air over a thousand foot drop.

Then the wall of glass begen to rotate, clockwise, and the next moment they realized that it was larger, moving towards them, coming back towards the hall. It suddenly gathered speed, in coming forward, and in turning, like a fist that is held up to gaurd the face, then is thrown forward, turning over. At the same moment that it reached the towering window frame, in its full spin, it had turned completely back upside right.

The entire three story wall of glass shattered again, with a blast which, if sound had substance, would have pulverized them like the blow of a hammer. Every individual piece of glass shattered. The glass did not pause in its forward movement, it broke like a tidal wave running up out of the sea and striking the arched mouth of a cave whose roof is as high as a tower. The watchers sucked in air, and their throats suddenly choked shut, as if they had been plunged under water, Lereya’s eyes widened, and she leaned slightly forward, but Jala leaped up from his seat. Happily for them the glass did not pause in its rotation either. It dropped, like an eagle dropping to a level glide over the surface of a lake, and wound together like the skirt of a mans cloak winds around him when he is spun around. It became a roaring, horizontal column of almost solid glass, spinning fiercely. It whistled through in between the two rows of chairs, Jala could have reached out and put his fingertips into it. It was black at its core, flashing like a river along its top, glimmering all the colors of an emperors palace in its whirling outer layers.

The dark man threw up his hands, and his body followed through with the motion, falling backwards as if he was hinged to the floor by his heels. But he did not touch the floor, but sprung up and down like a spring board, and his arms moved like a spiders legs, his hands flying with spread fingers, as if he were rapidly sorting scrolls into pidgeon holes. The glass was forced upwards, it rose, and unrolled, spreading like the umbrella of a thunderhead over a man lying in the grass, casting a wierd, shimmering shadow as it passed beneath the chandeliers. Then it poured down like water down the side of a bowl beyond the dark man, with a showery sound. When the last glass passed above the dark man he lowered his hands, angling his arms out from his sides, and rose upright again like a trapdoor opening. The glass rained down behind him like a broad waterfall. Everyone’s heads were turned towards him, and behind them Athowls chair returned to exactly its former place with a short scraping sound. Athowl was curled forward, with his left hand stretched out, and his right hand bent up against his chest. There followed a few moments of absolute stillness. Then the watchers moved, and Lereya was astonished to see Jala still standing in front of his chair. His arms were at his sides, and he was looking down, with a rather thoughtful expression on his face. Athowl stood up, and lowered his hands.

“Leave through the south door, take the chairs with you.” He said, in a very dark, husky voice. Jala took his own chair and Athowl’s, one under each arm, and Weseout took his own and Lereya’s chairs. Lereya gave the coiled whip to her father, and taking a girdle of brown cloth and binding around her waist, she flung their scrips towards the south wall, but they did not reach it. It took a long time for the others to reach the absurdly small, south door, and vanish one by one through it. Lereya and her father spoke under their breath.

The south door closed. Athowl put the handle of the whip in his right hand, leaving his left hand free. The coils did not fall to the floor, but all unrolled at the same time, slowly, like candle smoke. The whip did not touch the floor, but gradually stretched out before him like a thin tongue or a snake. The dark man threw up his hands. His sword flew from its sheath, flipped, and landed in his left hand like a leaping wolf, and, like the wolfs whelp, his knife flew to his right hand. He readied himself. Lereya began to walk towards the south wall, and a moment later Athowl began striding angrily towards the dark man. He stopped a few paces before him, and there was a pause. Lereya stopped and turned. Then Athowl brought back his hand, and swung the whip.

The sword and its whelp came to life. Lereya and began walking in a curve towards the great gap where the window had stood, looking to her left, watching the fighters across the wide, tiled, empty space that separated her from them. Athowl’s whip sought the throat, and writhed like a serpent, or a screw. Athowl made shovelling, clawing motions with his left hand. The dark man fought like a man trying to free himself from a net. He began to be driven backwards. Lereya was nearly halfway to the middle of the great arch. First the dark man must step back with one foot for balance, then the other to avoid losing his sword. Lereya reached the middle of the gap, with the cliff a few steps behind her. Her great distance from the fighters gave her a greater ability to help her father. She simply stood, with her hands relaxed at her sides, letting her body be used as a balance, and a turning post of force. She was in line with her father, and aided him in driving the enemy back.

Athowl was surprised when Lereya stopped at the window. It was a convenient place, but very dangerous. And he had more need of her to take the position to the north, to his right, to divert to him the power coming down from the Twitchers North, and starve out the dark man. He could sense that the victory of driving the dark man back would be temporary if they could not take the north.

But these thoughts kept him from the immediate problem of supporting Lereya in her threatened position. The dark man caught the arching whip for a moment on the knife, and thrust out the sword. The point stopped a few fingers from Athowl’s heart, as Athowl knew it would, but the force of the thrust went through him, and on. He did not think to prevent it until the instant it was too late. Lereya’s feet scraped straight backwards, she was swept out into space, as if by a broom. She felt that she was falling straight out, not down. There was nothing solid within reach. She felt she was sinking into open sea like a stone.

Athowl turned half around and stared hard towards her. He faced the dark man. The dark man pressed his lips severely together, lowered his left shoulder, brought his hand to his side, holding his sword in his fist. The sword shot from his fingers, past Athowl. Athowl whirled, switching the whip to his left hand, and flinging it out after the fleeting sword. The whip twined around the sword, and Athowl, holding the whips handle, was dragged up into the air. He flew farther forward, and landed on the sword and whip together, rolling when he hit the ground. Even as he rolled he was almost lifted from the ground again, and the sword and the whip, struggling like a mongoose and a viper, arched into the air. Athowl began to sprint towards the cliff, but too soon the sword again pointed itself east, and shot from the whips coils, leaving them hanging in the air.

Athowl leaped from the cliff like a spear. He spread his legs and swung them forward. The sword passed beneath him, and flew straight to Lereya where she floundered in the darkness beyond. Athowl plunged his feet downwards, pressing his legs together so that his feet nearly crossed, thrust his hands out to his sides, and raised his head. He was hung in the air, very dark before the hanger like opening of the hall. The sword stopped, between him and the form of Lereya, lit in the darkness by the light of the chandeliers falling on her. Then it flipped like a tile being pulled by one edge, and streaked to a sudden resting place, pierced through Athowls heart.

There is a sudden force of power, called the DeathTwitch, that comes at the moment of death. By it Lereya was jerked from the air, and she flew headlong over the long yards of darkness into the light of the hall again. Her father, transpierced like a dove shot from the top of a rock, dropped from her path into the darkness.

She flew over some yards of the floor before she began to roll. When she came to rest she was curled on the empty floor facing the dark man, who stood far away on the empty floor. He calmly switched his knife to his left hand. Lereya moved around so that her feet were pointed towards him, and she was leaning on her right elbow. She felt a soft, overwhelming feeling, she was in danger, and she knew what to do.

She swept her left up and across. The old chain from which hung the second chandelier from the window snapped. She sat up and leaned forward, forcing the chandelier to the floor. It fell diagonally to crash on the tiles before her feet. The dark man, as if drawn by a pulley, shot diagonally to the height of the vault where the chandelier had hung, and his curved back broke on the stone roof. In his DeathTwitch the knife shot from his hand like the bolt of a crossbow, and he fell like a black, stricken fly.

Lereya lay back on the floor watching the knife plummet toward her. Her left arm was across her body, and when the knife was within six yards of her she flung her arm back across to the left with all her strength. The knife was diverted three inches, and slipped beneath the flesh of her side below her arm, and stuck through the tile into the stone of the floor. She arched her back, and gave a single, piercing shriek. Every light of the remaining three chandeliers went out simultaneously. There was absolute blackness, there was complete silence, and if there was any movement it was small, and gave no light, and made no noise.

After a time there came a small sound, like panting, but after a time it became clearer, a sound like a little girl crying in an empty cathedral. A pale light began to glimmer on the wreck of the chandelier. It seemed that a thin moon had escaped the silent clouds. The low crying went on. Then there was a grating sound, and a ruddy light appeared in the crack of the opening south door. It was darkened, and there was a pause. Then the opening widened, and Jala walked out, followed by Weseout carrying a lamp. The others followed in a close body. They followed the sound of the crying, then the lamplight fell on Lereya’s brown form, with a cubit of the knife standing up from her body. Her left arm, which lay stretched out on the floor, was trembling. Her face was pale, and wet with tears, and her eyes were closed. Her lips were drawn, and she went on crying weakly. Weseout kneeled down, and said, “What can we do?” She said, “Take away… the knife. Do not let it touch me.” The physician appeared suddenly in the light. He said, “Try to move the knife.” Jala tried to pull it upwards, but failed. All of them came to where Lereya lay and tried to move the knife, but they could no more than they could split stone with their fingers. Lereya ceased trembling, opened her eyes, and began to moan lowly.

The doctor kneeled and looked into her eyes. “She is dying, we must cut the flesh to free her.” It was hard for them to work so close to the floor. Lereya only clenched her teeth as she was cut. Then she was quiet, as if she were asleep, while they bound up the wound, and bound her left arm to her side with bandages. Jala and the doctor lifted her to her feet, and she found she could stand by herself. Something caught Weseout’s eye, and he lifted the lamp. He hissed and shuddered. The whip hung motionless in the air above them, twisted this way and that like candle smoke. Lereya looked down at her left hand. She was reluctant to touch the whip with her right hand. Finally she raised her right arm and took hold of part of the whip. It moved like candle smoke when she pulled it. It was slightly warm. She found the handle, and coiled the whip in her left hand. She stood, holding the coiled whip in both hands, below her waist, and looked down, rather than at the surrounding darkness.

The doctor looked in her face. Jala asked her, “What will you do?”
She said, “I will go to the north, I will go to the seat of my father’s power.”

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