He stood looking down for a long moment, then in the direction from which he had come.
He cannot have gone so far, he thought, remembering how he had found Russandol in the meadow the following morning. Likely he will run for a while, then tire himself out and stop to graze somewhere, and wait there until I return….
Why had he come on this mission? What would he accomplish?
He would do well to turn back now, and look for his horse. Whom did he have now, save for Russandol?
Yet his mother may well be imprisoned there. Once more he began limping toward the mist.
As he descended the slope and approached the hollow, he could feel the air grow distinctly colder, and soon he found himself shivering, drawing his cloak more closely about him, wishing he had brought a warmer wrap. He had no memory of this place, of any such fog enveloping the house, which he could not see anyway. What was it the old farmer had said about a “blasted” appearance—no trees, no grass or flowers, he’d said, or something along those lines? Yet Gaergath could see trees in the mist, very dark ones…most likely dead, but trees nevertheless. Under his feet he could feel only coldness, as if he were walking on snow.
He could hear something now. A very faint, slightly mournful sound, a little like crying and a little like singing. He stopped and stood still the better to hear it, and it went on like that for a time, then it sounded like talking, a very muted and indistinct murmur, then something almost like laughter, then it seemed to die out altogether. Then gradually it started up again, moaning a little as if in pain, then the singing once more, or something like it, and Gaergath had never wanted anything more than to turn and flee back where he came from, and never come back here again, or remember he had been here.
Yet as he stood riveted to the spot, trembling, he could not remember which direction he had come, and could see nothing beyond the fog and the dead trees. No path, no sky; it was worse than darkness. It was the absence of daylight, and the complete uncanniness, the total lack of sanity, reality, divinity, music, truth; all was separation, lies, nullity.
Had he passed into the Shadow world? How would he ever escape?
Thuringwethil, he found himself whispering once more, closing his eyes. It was a long moment before he opened them again, and he drew his cloak tightly about him once more, shivering, wondering if he had died, and crossed into the Void. That murmuring voice went on and on, until he thought he should go mad with hearing it, and half hoping he would, then perhaps this Place, if place it were, might be more tolerable.
At last he opened his eyes, and found that the mist was less thick than before, and less cold, and that he could see something white in the distance…something like a house.
He had never been so glad to see any dwelling before. He came close to falling on his knees and kissing the ground.
The house was in an open space, and as he drew closer, he could see it looked remotely familiar. He remembered it as being quite beautiful; this house was a ghost of that memory, dingy, with black staring empty windows, as though it had been deserted long ago.
And he could see that high wall behind it.
He could not see the tree he had climbed long ago, trying to see over it, however. Not even a stump. But he could see the tops of trees over the wall, dark-looking, and somehow foul, far more so than he remembered. He had no desire to go into that garden now. It was the last thing he wanted to do.
But how to get into the house? Likely the door would be locked…or would it? He saw it, very large, rounded at the top, made of some grey stone, with a knocker of some sort, a wolf’s head, he thought. The idea of knocking at it seemed absurd. And it did not appear as if anyone lived here. What of the windows? They all appeared to be barred, although they were so dark he could hardly tell. Such black emptiness. How could anyone abide here?
It looked as though the wall might be the only way in, after all. He shuffled out back of the house to inspect.
The wall was made of grey stone, about ten feet high. The stone was slimy to the touch, as if it were the inside of a well. How could he possibly climb it? He would need a ladder, and he could see none about the place. If only Russandol were with him, he might have climbed up on his back…. Were there any branches lying about that might be long enough that he could climb one? He saw none. Stones he might stack up and build himself a staircase? He would have to go far and wide to find enough.
All he saw was a long dark iron pole, about two inches in diameter, lying next to the back of the wall. Could he stick it into the ground and climb up, perhaps? He took it and tried pounding it into the earth near the wall, but the ground was too hard. Groaning in frustration, he came close to giving it a hearty kick…when an inspiration came to him, from where, he would never know. And he took one end of it and dragged it a good distance away, then made a run for the wall, and when he was very close, jabbed the far end of the pole into the ground and tried to fling himself upward…nearly impaling himself in the process.
It took three more tries…and on the third, a strange thing happened. The pole seemed to have decided to cooperate; it was as if it suddenly took root in the ground, and his body swung almost involuntarily over the garden wall. He remembered to let go of the pole, so that at least he did not end up smacking himself against the wall.
And hurt his ankle all over again. But at least it was the same ankle.
For a long moment, he saw stars, and was overcome with dizziness. Then he blinked a few times, and dared to look around him.
And saw those trees he had only managed to see over the top of the wall.
He was inside the Forbidden Garden.
He found himself sitting in the middle of a circle of some sort, with stones placed all around it, and realized he had fallen right in the middle of the garden. Hard to believe that had been accidental.
Someone or something meant for him to be here.
At first it seemed as any other garden. Many of the plants were very like those in his mother’s herb-garden: sage, rue, yarrow, foxglove, poppies, mugwort, henbane, belladonna, mandrake, hyssop, wormwood, bear’s-foot, and suchlike. Yet there was a difference, which he began to perceive the longer he looked. A certain subtle luridness, an aliveness that was neither of plants nor of animals, but of something beyond either, and entirely malevolent. There were other plants he did not recognize, had never seen the like of before. Some were vines, and he could see what the iron pole must have been used for, since there were several forming a trellis, connected with strong twine, and the vines grew over this. It put out a strange blossom, scarlet in color, beautiful, yet somehow malignant, in a way he could not define. The flowers seemed to glare and snarl at him somehow, and their fragrance had something at once cloying and corrupt about it. There was another bush, with bizarrely shaped leaves, and a gaudy purple flower about eight inches in diameter, with a shape and scent that was somehow obscene.
And the trees; their leaves were unnaturally long and of a strange greenish brown color, with an almost slimy sheen to them, and they bore fruit that was small and dark and shiny, a little like plums, and although he was hungry he did not care to try one. There were other fruits and berries as well, some of which he knew better than to eat, and none of the others looked entirely wholesome despite their bright colors and glossy textures.
And he could still hear that murmuring-singing-sobbing-laughing-babbling sound, just as muted as when he was outside the wall, but now he could hear a certain depth to it—a shrillness here, a rumble there, and in between, the steady murmur went on and on, without pause, sometimes mocking, sometimes pleading, relentless, idiotic, inhuman. It was as though the soul of a lunatic had been infused with a quick-flowing underground streamlet, doomed to seek without finding, never to rest.
It occurred to him that the biggest favor he could do himself was to leave this garden here and now, and never look back.
But what of the fog? It was oddly clear here in the garden, but he could see the fog outside, that it was gathering thicker than ever, and he would never find his way out, if he walked for weeks.
He was trapped.
Somehow by invoking Thuringwethil, he had been transported into another plane, a parallel world, a secret realm that could not be accessed any other way. And now the only way to get free of it, would be to destroy her.
But where was she? Inside the house, no doubt. Dare he try the door? Most likely it was locked. It was a heavy, plain dark wooden door, with some sort of symbol carved upon it, and when he tried the knob, found that it would not turn. Then something caught his eye, down to his left. A cellar window, it would seem, but there was no pane, no bars, nothing—just utter blackness. It sent chillbumps all over him, for it seemed he had seen it before…but where, he knew not, unless in a dream. There was not the slightest gleam of light in it, and inside, surely, lurked the worst possible thing he could imagine.
Yet it seemed the only way inside the house.
It was either that…or the fog.
Soon he realized he was sweating. Even though it was not warm in the garden.
Destroying her should be no object, he told himself. He had come equipped. He had his silver dagger, his crossbow, a quiver of arrows, a stake, a tinder-box, and lamp-oil (but no lamp). All he would have to do now was to find her, where she lay in her box. He wished he had thought to bring in a tree-limb to use as a torch. There were none lying about here, and did he dare break off a branch from one of these trees?
He would have to use the stake. Hopefully it would not burn fast.
He dipped it in the oil, then took out his tinder-box and struck the flint until it came a flame, and lit the end of the stake. Then he stooped down to the cellar window and held the stake before him, poking it far down to try to see what was there.
It seemed to be a tunnel of sorts. At last he screwed up his courage and let himself down through the window, hoping hard that his torch would not go out. It threw little light in the tunnel, but at least he felt his feet on solid ground, however slippery it may have been, and how foul-smelling the air was. With his heart in his throat, he stepped cautiously along, one foot in front of the other, his free hand groping for the wall of the tunnel, until it touched something slimy, and he jerked it away as though he had touched a decomposing body…which he had done once, on a dare…to be sure, it had been the body of a cow.
But there seemed to be no life down here at all. No rats, no spiders, no insects, nothing.
But at last his foot hit something…a step, it seemed. Yes, a step, then another, and then by the faint torchlight he could see a slimy stone staircase going upward, and had never been more glad to see anything in his life.
He mounted the steps, hoping against all hope that the door at the top would not be locked.
It was a short flight, as it turned out, and soon he found himself on a narrow stoop, with a dark wooden door in front of him.
Fearfully he pushed it open, scarcely noticing that he could no longer hear the garden “music”, and peered all around. He was in a hallway, he found, yet it did not look at all familiar. One sconce burned on a wall, evidently providing the only light, and he quickly doused the fire on the stake and stuck it into his belt. He barely recognized one door as being that to the room where he had slept as a child. Timidly he opened it and looked all about. The room was as he remembered, with the two barred windows, which had been covered so they did not let in the daylight, and there was a narrow bed and a few other articles of furniture, dusty and webby as he might have expected. He could remotely remember a woman coming to tuck him in and say goodnight…but he could not recall her features, and he knew it was not his mother. He wondered where she was now.
His throat tightened, and he quickly turned and exited the room, wishing never to look upon it again.
And bumped into someone, who gave a sharp exclamation, as he gave a most undignified squeak.
It was a woman. But it was not Her. This woman was taller than his mother, who was tall for a woman, but delicate and ethereal in her appearance. The woman in front of him was big-boned, broad in the shoulders, square-faced, and could have been taken for a man but for her long braids and large breasts. And the white apron she wore over her dark-colored dress.
“Who—who—who are you?” he stammered, backing up against the door with his hands behind him, as if to hide something stolen.
“I was going to ask you exactly the same,” the woman said.