End of the Stair
. . . Lethilde felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet as she ran, panicked, through the shape-filled dark. She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid. She did not waste perception on the sights in the unfamiliar hall, sights she knew by heart and would soon see again. What Self she had she spent on slowing her feet, smothering the fear - - anything to keep from passing through the door at the end of the hallway, from what would come after . . .
. . . There was a sound above and Lethilde knew she had not been quick enough. She hurried faster, clutching the remnants of her robes around her, feet flying down the carpeted stair, calves aching with unaccustomed exertion. One hand, seeking balance, brushed along the uneven, sometimes sharp stones of the outer wall. There was no inner wall, only a steep drop.
Lethilde felt her nose beginning to run and wondered if the steps would ever end. Surely she had come down far enough to reach ground level. Coldness twisted in her flesh as she wondered if the stair was spelled. This was a wizard's house. Could the stair be spelled to send strangers traveling round and round forever without moving at all between floors?
She heard an animal's whine and recognized it for a sound from her own throat. Then she saw the archway and hurried through it, terrified at her own imaginings.
Lethilde felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet as she ran, panicked, through the shape-filled dark. She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid. She began to notice the pattern again and to hope that, like last time, she would be spared the sight of the thing at the bottom of the stair. A part of her withdrew as she raced along, tensed as her hand closed upon the doorlatch . . .
. . . The footsteps receded and Lethilde released her breath, thankful that whichever servant had passed had needed nothing in this supply alcove. Naked, she fumbled with the robe that she had grabbed, amazed that her hands shook so when she, herself, felt no anxiety. The robe was torn and rumpled and reeked with the fear she could not feel. She fastened it about herself as best she could. She listened carefully. Slowly and calmly she crept out of the alcove and down the carpeted stairs that ran in the tower down the side of the house.
Slowly she began to descend those stairs, listening as she went. Slowly she went and then faster and faster still, as the fear that had hidden, clenched in her bones, uncoiled itself to take her.
There was a sound above and Lethilde knew that she had not been quick enough. She hurried faster, clutching the remnants of her robes around her, feet flying down the carpeted, circular stair, calves aching with unaccustomed exertion. One hand, seeking balance, brushed along the uneven, sometimes sharp stones of the outer wall. There was no inner wall, only a steep drop.
Lethilde felt her nose beginning to run and wondered if the steps would ever end. Surely she had come down far enough to reach ground level.
Lethilde's Self stirred warily. Could the stair be spelled to send strangers traveling round and round forever? The pattern was edging her backward, further from the horror at the bottom of the tower, but that thought was not as comforting as it had been. She heard an animal's whine and recognized it for a sound from her own throat. Then she saw the archway and hurried through it, terrified.
The weight of unformed memory pressed and she shifted beneath it. She felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet. The memory centered on the stairway and she gave her perception to that. An image formed in the part of her mind that watched rather than ran. It was a symmetrical image - - a perfect helix with hallways at the top and bottom. She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid. And at the end of the two hallways, two doors.
A panic rose within Lethilde's Self to match that of the self that ran. For if she was moving away from one door, she was moving toward the other . . . and both doors were closed on horror. Deep with herself, Lethilde began to scream. The scream grew to fill her senses, a rattling, grey scream that drowned out all other sound and then all sight, and then, mercifully, all sensation.
The blow across her cheek shocked Lethilde's eyes open and stopped her crying as suddenly and unexpectedly as a duck caught in a pond freeze. Her father's face swam into focus as she hiccoughed and sniffed. His expression was disdainful. It was a familiar expression. He handed her a handkerchief and turned pointedly to look out a window as she guiltily mopped her face into presentability.
At the window, her father smoothed his robes and beard and began to explain, with the obviously careful patience he used only when he felt himself to be speaking to one who, despite reasonable expectation, was behaving with the intelligence of a half-witted child. He explained again what he plainly thought would be obvious to all - - that a night, even a fortnight, spent with the son of the Wizard of Hilltower, was more than worth the price that man was willing to pay.
Still gazing out into the streets, he listed, one by one, her reasonable fears and, one by one, discounted them. Lethilde tensed, knowing that her fear was not a thing that could be named and banished, like a milk-sprite. Lethilde relaxed, recognizing this time as a relatively safe one.
Her father would win the argument, of course; had won it. She would be sent to Hilltower in a closed litter carried by two dark men and preceded by another man with a lantern. She turned her attention back to the man at the window. He was saying, matter-of-factly, that it was not as if she were a virgin or as if she were likely to marry, even young as she was, burdened, as she was, with a deformed bastard daughter. There was no trace of sarcasm or censure in his tone as he said this.
Lethilde let her perception waft back to her own actions. These consisted of tormenting a sodden handkerchief with both hands and trying to keep the breath from aching at the back of her throat as she tried, desperately, to construct some argument that would keep her from her fate. This being impossible, Lethilde let her perception wander. She could go through the motions well enough without attending. Her father's voice droned on.
A moment of silence caught her attention. She looked up to see her father looking at her expectantly. The moment extended. An answer was required but neither Lethilde nor her Self had one. It didn't matter. Wouldn't matter, Hadn't mattered.
"Well?" said her father, his hands clasped behind him in a scholar's pose. He considered himself to be a scholar, her father did, though others called him Deyron the Scribe and set him to copying contracts and business messages. He had named all her fears and patiently refuted each. Therefore any fear she still harbored was, by definition, irrational or, worse, willfully wrong-headed.
"Good," said her father, as if she had agreed, and her heart fell within her. "Good," he said, and her heart lightened, remembering that the talking was over. Deyron would construct her no more patient sentences of carefully, slowly chosen words. The was a right word for the expression of every thought, every sentiment, and Deyron, by his own admission, knew them all. He had, so he said, a natural way with words. There was a proper action for every situation. Deyron knew those as well, or could calculate them, given time and quiet.
That Deyron was constantly surrounded with idiots who could not see the proper action for their situation, and therefore acted differently, inconveniently, was Deyron's curse. That these idiot's actions imposed upon the time and quiet he needed to be sure of his own actions was his infuriation.
Lethilde was plainly in the wrong, plainly behaving improperly, and, therefore, plainly infuriating. Being his daughter, she had no excuse. She had had the advantage of his teaching.
Deyron turned, equally satisfied with the outcome and his own generous patience. Lethilde's perception drifted. It was time for supper, which would be eaten in tense silence. There was no point in wasting perception on this. It was not terrifying, but it was not comfortable. Best to think of other things. Everything here had already happened. Everything would happen again, with no help needed from her. Lethilde could not remember the Wizard's son's name. But until she entered his rooms there was nothing that could not be . . .
. . . though expected, the knocking was early. Supper was not yet finished. Deyron was plainly not pleased as he left the table. Lethilde's numbed fingers could neither raise her filled spoon to her lips nor set it back in the bowl. Her mind dulled. She could not decide which of these actions she should seek to accomplish, though it was important that she know. Her Mind cleared. Something had happened. There had been a jump.
Deyron returned, irritated, and began to explain something that Lethilde couldn't hear, hadn't heard, properly. He looked disgusted when the spoon fell from her hand with a splash and clatter. Lethilde saw that her hand hadn't moved . . .
. . . the rocking would have been soothing if her food weren't arguing with her stomach. There were no windows, just slots high up in the box, and those were covered with a fringe of tassels. It was dark and close but at least she was not required to move or speak or be looked upon.
There had been another jump. How was this happening? Was someone . . . she didn't want to think about that. There was a small lurch as the man to the rear of the litter stumbled . . .
. . . Lethilde was walking up a carpeted stair. Although she kept her eyes carefully on the stair, she knew that the old man drawing her along was watching closely, enjoying her. Somehow she had thought that anyone described as somebody's son would be young, but this was not true . . .
. . . "You blush so marvelously," was the sound, and the feel was of the backs of his fingers, loosely curled, stroking against her cheek. There was wine in the cup in her hands; she could smell it. It was stronger than the scent of her fear. She would drink it down to ease things if only her throat would open. Lethilde wondered how she could keep holding the cup. Her hands felt so limp and looked so dead.
The hand lifted and turned, fingers sliding down her neck, slowly, from ear to collar. He said other things. She did not attend, had not attended. Lethilde didn't remember, didn't wish to remember, what came next. Especially not jumping like this. Before there had been time to go as limp and dead as her hands. . . .
. . . The man was angry with her. He was pacing back and forth, punctuating his complaints with sudden sweeps of his arms. Lethilde saw him at the edge of her vision as she sank down into herself. Soon she would be small enough to hide, surrounded by a protective cocoon of unhurt, unfeeling flesh . . .
. . . eighty-three . . . eighty-four . . . eighty-five . . . What was this?
Oh, yes. The tapestry. She had counted the stitches in a white rose . . . eighty-nine . . . Her body must be somewhere. Such cold toes . . . ninety-three . . . It was easier than she expected . . . ninety-five . . . ti ignore it again. Poor body . . . ninety-eight . . . now there were two selves ignoring it . . . one hundred . . . And, counting the body, three selves ignoring him . . . hundred and three . . . Oh, yes, he's angry about that. I can hear him complain . . .
. . . The room comes back from far away. Lethilde is floating about her body. There are two of her floating, but one self cannot see the other, which is lonely. Meaning comes back to the shapes that become him drinking by the fire, his back to them. There must be somewhere else someplace if only she could think about wanting to be there . . .
. . . The footsteps receded and Lethilde released her breath, thankful that whichever servant had passed had needed nothing in this supply alcove. Naked, she fumbled with the robe . . .
. . . There was a sound above and Lethilde knew that she had not been quick enough. She hurried faster, clutching, one hand brushing along the uneven stones of the outer wall, the inner wall only a steep drop . . .
. . . the cold polished hallway floor stinging against her feet, she heard the sharp sounds . . at the end of two hallways: two doors.
Once again her hand closed upon the doorlatch. Once again her shoulder struck the sticking door. Once again it gave way suddenly. Once again she stumbled onto damp stone steps only to slip and fall - fall down and down, down onto symbols drawn in blood on a black glass floor - down into pain and roaring . . .
I KNOW THE REST.
Lethilde gasped at the shock of being reconnected to her body. It felt as if she had been dropped into it, raw and naked and unfamiliar, from a height. She felt her hands on herself, felt the meaninglessness of the robe. She watcher her hands touching - arms, shoulders, face. She felt a panic at not being able to see her face, as if it might be missing if she could not see it. Was this a feeling of past panic that she could jump away from?
No. The panic belonged to this place and time, to this event that she would not be jumping away from. Not seeing her face was just the thought occupying the moment when the panic had returned. It was a normal thing. The panic belonged to the shapes in the center of the room, to the death that she felt swimming in her veins.
YES. HE KILLS YOU. I AVENGE YOU. BEHOLD!
A large, grey shape, difficult to see in the dim room, lifted the limp form of a wizard. If this was the Wizard of Hilltower, he looked much younger than his son. He looked handsome and vital and merely asleep in a strange, lumpy chair. But the chair bent a noseless, mouthless face to the wizard's chest and, as Lethilde watched, the wizard aged.
Had he been dead? Was he dead now? There was no outcry, no moan or movement. Was there pain?
Slowly the wizard wrinkled and withered and began to collapse, as if hollow. Lethilde stepped back, bumping the stone wall behind her. A glance revealed no exit but the circling stairs that lay beyond - - that. She looked back. The wizard was a brittle, folded mass, small enough to hold in two hands . . one hand.
The chair straightened. The wizard was now a handful of crumbling dust, drifting down the chair's - the demon's front. He was certainly dead now. Lethilde was the double circle of symbols that the wizard had used to summon and contain the demon. The inner one was smeared.
YES. YOU FALL. YOU DOOM HIM. HE KILLS YOU. YOU REMEMBER?
"Why? Can't you pull that from my mind, too?" Lethilde's voice was a small, dry croak in the echoing dark.
DISTRESS. APOLOGY. KNOWLEDGE NEEDED. WHERE COME? WHERE DANGER? WHO MASTER?
"You eat master."
NO. EAT WIZARD THAT KILLS MASTER. RELEASE. EAT OTHER. EAT WIZARD SON THAT CHASE YOU DOWN TO DIE.
MASTER SUMMON. MUST SERVE. COMMAND.
"No. Hush and let me think." Lethilde tried to remember what had happened since the stair. If felt strange to be going through her memories alone, after the demon's rifling. Her mind felt bruised.
The stair seemed the most real thing in her memory. At the top things had happened, unavoidable things, things she didn't want to think about. At the bottom . . . what? She had fallen. She had smudged the wizard's circle. Had she? It seemed so. But how had she smudged only the inner circle? How had she come to be outside the circles and across the room?
Had she walked through that wide, intricate outer circle, the demon would have been released into her world. But the demon was still trapped. She tried again to remember. There was the fall, the landing. With the landing came pain and noise. Slowly the memory came, but it was a vague and dim thing next to the scenes the demon had pulled through her.
In the memory, the demon roared in triumph and hatred and reared above her, terrifying and indistinct. The wizard roared in anger and contempt, handsome eyes icy. As the demon lunged, the wizard turned, his hands flaring. Lethilde had been thrown across the room by the bolt, had felt the death of his spell enter her and curl, larval and waiting. She remembered one other thing as well: looking into a demon's eyes is a mistake.
"No. Wait. Can you undo the wizard's spell, the one that's killing me?"
NO. RELEASE. EAT OTHER.
"No." The thought of the demon loose in the town was unbearable, the final obscenity of a hideous night. She had not actively cooperated with the other. She would resist this, too.
The demon did not seem troubled. Perhaps, being a demon, he could not be troubled. Perhaps it showed differently. Perhaps . . . Lethilde looked at the blood of the circles. It had been arranged as plump little puddles, puddles that were beginning to dry. Perhaps the demon could cross a circle of dried blood. Perhaps it only needed to wait.
"I release you," Lethilde croaked.
CANNOT. MUST SERVE. ASK.
Lethilde groaned. She was beginning to shiver. She had been unable to forestall her father or the so-named son upstairs. How could she forestall a demon?
"If I ask and you give and I say . . . say . . 'I release you, return from whence you came,' would you have to go?"
There was a shuffling and a smoldering.
Lethilde sat down to think. Presently: "Does giving information count?"
YES. IF INFORMATION IS SIGNIFICANT.
"What is behind you there?"
THAT IS NOT SIGNIFICANT.
"I know. Just answer."
"What is on the workbench? List everything and what it does."
Lethilde only half listened to the sorcerous recitation. As she had suspected, most of the information was meaningless to her. The demon's voice boomed brokenly on and on as her insides shifted warmly. The floor was getting colder. It was so hard to feel the words. How was she going to find a way to . .
"What was that?"
WISHES. IN BOTTLE.
"Show me." A dusty bottle, plain as a vinegar bottle, drifted over to bob before her face. Within swam three blue lights, smaller than fireflies. "Explain how the wishes work."
OPEN BOTTLE. MAKE WISH. WISH COMES.
The demon was too pleased with this. There had to be something wrong with it. Something wrong, and thinking was so hard - so very hard to do. Lethilde couldn't feel her hands or her feet. Don't think about that. Think about what would please a demon. Oh, yes. Wishes cause trouble if not wished properly. All the old stories said so. And if she died before she used them all, she could be leaving the demon with a wish.
Lethilde reached drooping fingers toward the bottle, then paused. The wizard hadn't used the wishes.
"Is the bottle spelled?" There was a long pause.
"What will the bottle do if I open it?"
Oh, yes. But there were breakings and breakings. "Killing me?" There was a longer pause. Above, the voices of the son and servants murmured in an unimportant froth of concern. They had found her gone, evidently, found the open door above. They did not sound like they were coming down.
"Can you open the bottle in such a way that I get the wishes but an not hurt?"
Was the demon arguing. Lethilde could not argue. Could not afford to. She had lost every argument she had ever been part of in her life. Don't think of that. Fingernails were beginning to curl back like drying leaves, lips to droop and drool. Take a breath and concentrate on the words or they won't come out right.
"I command you to open the bottle in such a way that I get the wishes but am not harmed and I command you to be gone to whence you came as soon as this is done."
A roar of demonic rage echoed through the castle. Lethilde heard it flinging itself, panting and growling, against its bonds. Definitely an argument. She had nothing to fight with - had never had anything to fight him with.
"I command." It was foolish to repeat it. Foolish to waste her energy making the words. But there was nothing better to think about and many things to forget.
The silence as the threefold command took effect was painful to the ears. Lethilde saw the blood of the circles begin to glow and shrink inward. She wondered vaguely what would happen to the demon if it hadn't completed its task by the time the circles shrank to its size. It was a think she was never to learn.
The bottle quickly floated far up over her head, mouth downward, and exploded outward in a tearing pulse of orange light and glass shards. The shards rained and bounced in the dark glass room, pinging gaily, as the floor beneath the demon turned molten, allowing it to dive in and disappear a moment before the circle clenched.
Thoughts came slowly. Over. No. The wishes. The son. Lethilde could imagine him with the wishes. She tried to wish for three glasses of water to use them up, but she could not speak, could no longer sit up. She sprawled sideways as the three small lights floated in a swirl before her eyes.
At least she had banished the demon. Over, now. No more trying. Relax. Ignore this. Think of Ella. Little Ella curled in her basket by the hearth. Little Ella with her club foot. Over.
One of the blue lights expanded, shaped itself into an image of a toddler, curled in a basket. Over. A toddler who could not toddle. Over. No. Not over.
Not over? Tired as she was, Lethilde had a vague feeling that it was not over.
No. I'm tired. Think of Ella. Think of Ella and die quietly. I'm tired.
Think of Ella.
Lethilde thought of Ella and slowly thought of what Ella would look like with two straight legs. She thought of Ella walking . .. and wished.
The light puffed itself out, unraveling into the wish. Lethilde let it go and was glad.
Two more. No. So tired. Think of Ella. Think of Ella living in a town where that up the stairs had two wishes. So tired. A glass of water? No. Think of Ella. Ella with father.
Lethilde thought of a wife for her father, a mother for Ella, and other children for her to play with. She thought of this with a vague sense of financial ease. She wished before the image was clear, hurrying, and the wish raveled away.
So tired. But as the end came there was a sudden sense of desperation, an urgent need to do the last wish properly. Lethilde felt herself wishing without knowing what for, as if the wish were trapped inside her, fighting to get out.
The last light formed an image of Ella. The image grew, changing. Her daughter was growing up without her, would never remember her.
Lethilde wished her last wish as her eyes closed, thinking the words that she could not say, for she could think of no way to form an image of what she wanted.
"I want my daughter to know that I love her, that I'm thinking of her. I want to see her grown and know that she knows that I love her."
Lethilde felt her body drop away, felt herself float upward. She thought of seeing and sight came. Below her something huge spread and ran amid the tatters of an impossibly large, ruined robe. Someone else's problem, now. Within her was an urgency. Examining it, she laughed, though a twinkle is the only laugh a wish can give. Floating, she hurried homeward, not noticing the panic she caused in the hallway.
Some wishes last a long time. She would last until her daughter was grown, embedded in her father's hearth, an unknown source of love and comfort. Everything would be fine, now. No more arguments. Everything would be fine.
Deyron looked up from his manuscript when the baby stopped crying, pulling a thick layer of justified satisfaction over the small guilt he felt, smothering it utterly. He blinked to see the small, blue light dancing before the child's eyes.
Good. Lethilde had finally seen her duty and had pleased the wizard's son sufficiently to be rewarded with this small bit of minor magic. Things were working exactly as he had planned, exactly as they ought. Everything would be fine, now. There would be no more arguments. Everything would be fine.