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under hill
by Gene Wolfe

Sir Bradwen, that famous paladin, had heard stories of the Hill of Glass in far off Camelot. With Arthur's leave, he had ridden far and sailed perilous seas. For seventy days thereafter it seemed the tale fled even as he approached it, for at every village men pointed to the place where rose the sun, and swore it was but two days journey more — or three. Or a fortnight.

And yet…

The tale gained substance at each new place. The size of the hill diminished. Likewise the difficulty of the lower slopes. It was not merely of glass, but of green glass of about the color of this leaf, sir. The princess, once only a beautiful lady from a remote country, gained a name: Apple Blossom. And when Sir Bradwen protested that neither he nor any other man in Christendom had heard of a lady so named, his informants merely shrugged, and declared that she ought to know — an argument he found difficult to refute.

At length he encountered a merchant, a solid no-nonsense trader in wool and fleeces, who declared that he had seen the glass hill himself, and even conversed with the princess. "A smallish woman," he continued, "with long black hair and big eyes. I prefer my women larger, and I like a bit more meat on them. But she's very pretty if you care for the type. Delicate, you know. One of those oval faces. Young, I would say. Very young, and stolen from far Cathay. Daughter of their king and all the rest. Think you can climb a hill of glass, Sir Bradwen?"

"By Saint Joseph!" Bradwen exclaimed, and raised his sword hand to attest the oath. "I have not come this far to fail."

"Well said." The merchant smiled as the point of his dagger carried half his chop to his mouth. "I like a young man of spirit."

"And he likes you," Bradwen declared. And then, seeing that the merchant expected to be asked for a loan, "I have gold sufficient for my modest needs, you understand. I've lands, and a castle that we wrenched from the Heathen Saxon. But in the matter of tidings I am poorer than any churl. May I ask how you came to speak with the princess?"

"With little difficulty," the merchant replied, clearly relieved, "for I have been blessed with good ears and a good, loud voice. She was on the battlements, where she appears to spend a good deal of her time. The slope of the lower levels is easy, and there are crevices in the glass with bushes sprouting out of them. It becomes steeper higher up, then levels off at the top." The merchant traced the outline of a bell with his hands.

"So I was able to get pretty close," he continued. "It's not a large castle, and the walls aren't terribly high. I asked her name and so forth. She's been enchanted, she says — a spell to replace her own tongue with ours. But anyone who rescues her can have her. The enchanter has promised her that.

"Let's see…. What else? Well, the gates are open. I saw they were. She has food in there, she says, and springs of water and wine. Princess Apple Blossom's her name, her father's King of Cathay—"

Sir Bradwen, who had heard these things before, nodded somewhat curtly.

"And she wants to be rescued," the merchant finished, not the least discomfited. "I told her I wasn't a rescuer, that I was a married man and would leave rescuing to the younger fellows, but that I would try to find a rescuer and send him to her."

"You have succeeded," Sir Bradwen declared.

"I thought so." A draught of ale washed down the rest of the chop. "Is there anything else I can tell you?"

"Yes, indeed. I assumed she was locked in her castle. You say the gates are open. Why does she not walk through them?"

The merchant shrugged. "I can but speculate, though speculation feeds me well enough. It may be that she hopes for rescue, and prefers that to death. You see, my bold and knightly friend, with each step beyond the gate the slope grows steeper. Perhaps she might take ten steps, perhaps two. I don't know. But soon she would surely lose her footing, slip, and slide. The farther she slid the faster she would go. When she struck the stones and trees at the foot…" He shrugged again. "Suppose a kestrel, bold and young, were to fly full tilt into a wall of stone. For that matter, suppose that you were to ride at such a wall as you would a foe in the lists."

Sir Bradwen nodded thoughtfully. "Then one has only to reach the Summit of the hill to enter the castle."

"So it appeared to me," the merchant declared, "though I did not try it — or see anybody else try it either. Have you more questions?"

"One, certainly. How can I reach the hill?"

"Oh, there's no difficulty about that. It's but a day's ride. Go down the road tomorrow until you reach the ford of the Sart. Turn left. There's a path along the river."

Sir Bradwen nodded.

"Follow it. Keep your eyes to your left, away from the river. If the weather’s fair, you’ll have no difficulty at all. The glass flashes in the sunshine. If the day is dark, you’re looking for a smooth, grass-green hill with a small castle of gray stone at its top."

The merchant paused to clear his throat. "Tell Her Highness I sent you, will you? I swore I'd send somebody, and I'd like her to know I kept my promise."

"I will," quoth Sir Bradwen, "and I will rise next morning before the sky grows gray."

Which he did, waking both the sleepy grooms and his charger, saddling the latter and riding forth while the morning star still gleamed above the eastern horizon, his good sword at his side, his lance in his hand, and another morning star (a weighty mace with a head of steel spikes) dangling from his saddle-bow.

"For if I find Princess Apple Blossom half so easily as that merchant said I might," he murmured to Saint Joseph, "I may climb her slippery hill and claim her by sunset. Assist me, and Joseph shall be our first-born son."

The sun was scarcely higher than the treetops when his road reached the ford of the Sart. To his left, narrow indeed but quite visible, stretched the path of which the merchant had spoken. Up it rode Sir Bradwen with a merry heart, and before tierce beheld a distant hill flashing in the sunshine. A little nearer, and he saw plainly that this dazzling hill was crowned with a small castle – scarcely more than diminutive keep — of gray stone. Nearer still, and his keen eyes made out a figure on the battlements, a maiden, he felt sure, with long dark hair.

A maiden who tottered forward and back, wringing her hand at every step.

Dismounting and dropping his reins on the ground, he took a certain wallet he had secured before leaving Albion from a saddlebag and applied the fine powder it contained to the soles of his boots.

For a time it sufficed. He negotiated the lower slopes with little difficulty and was quickly seen by the maiden on the battlement, who waved a many-colored scarf so fine that sunlight freely penetrated it, and called, "Hail, illustrious stranger! Greeting and welcome! Should you be desirous of cushioned rest, delectable refreshment, cooling airs, and the attentions a humble maid overjoyed by the lightest smile from her courageous and ever-compassionate lord, be aware that all are to be found in this lowly dwelling which, should you wish it, will at once become your own."

He waved in return. "I am Sir Bradwen of the Forest Tower, Your Highness. Your friend the merchant sent me as your rescuer, as I had been seeking you earlier. I have ridden hard all the way from Camelot. I am a knight of Arthur's table. Have you heard of us?"

He essayed another step, and finding it difficult indeed powdered his boot soles again.

"Your glory, goodly, most generous lord, reaches to the stars," replied the maiden on the battlement, "and now has attained even to my decayed dwelling, for I have seen you, radiant as the sun and of clean and glorious visage."

At which point the knight came near to falling. "Your Highness," he called, "I can climb no nearer. This slope is too steep, and grows even steeper farther up. Do not lose hope. I will return with some better means of ascent."

Although the face of the princess was still distant, he saw her joy fade. "This inconsiderable person sympathizes most deeply with your plight," she called. "This bewildered and imprisoned maid had dared think it possible that her lord — that her l-lord…"

"I will!" he shouted, under his breath adding, "just not today."

There was a long silence between them, bridged only by desire. At last the princess called, "My lord, the wisest and most ingenious of men, has doubtless hit upon some sleight of noble simplicity by whose means this unexceptional person might regain her liberty?"

He shook his head.

"As, for example, harnessing a hundred wild geese to a sedan chair? This sleight was employed by the profound Lo Hi to pass over bandit-infested mountains."

"Unfortunately," called Sir Bradwen, "I have no sedan chair, Your Highness."

"Conceivably one might befriend the Storm Dragon, who would in magnanimity lift one up, even as the daring Sho Mee was borne among clouds to behold the earth?"

"Should I meet the Storm Dragon," declared Sir Bradwen, "I will surely oblige him so long as the matter involves no virgins. I have never made his acquaintance, however. Nor have I the smallest notion where he might be found."

Silence reigned once again, until the princess ventured, "This least of all persons has the honor to claim membership in a family highly favored by the August Personage of Jade. She herself, a poor weak woman, has often laid her wretched petitions at the feet of the Queen of Heaven. Perhaps if you were to petition her exalted husband…?"

"Of course!" Sir Bradwen snapped his fingers. "I'll ask Saint Joseph. I should have thought of that at once."

With that brisk speed which optimism engenders, Sir Bradwen left the glass hill and returned to the village in which he had lodged the night before. There was no church there, but the villagers directed him to a chapel in the wood, not very distant. There he spent the afternoon and evening in prayer and retired, fasting, to the dubious shelter of a nearby bush.

Of horse and sword, mail and helm, no trace remained. Clad in the single simple garment of the poor, he stood at the entrance to the workshop. Inside that shop a patient craftsman labored, drilling holes and pounding pegs into them at measured intervals. Leaving off his work, he straightened up. And their eyes met.

In the village next day, he explained the contrivance he had been shown to an old peasant who knew some carpentry; the old peasant made a model of it: a peeled sapling, with twigs pushed into little holes along both its sides.

Later that same day, he and the old peasant showed the model to two young men he had selected. "Fell a tree," Sir Bradwen explained, "a straight, slender one with a lot of boughs. Cut off most of those completely, but leave the stubs of a few. You would have something like this."

They scratched, and nodded slowly.

"There can't be many trees with boughs all the way to the ground. I looked for some and couldn't find any. But we can drill holes and pound cut off branches into them where we need them."

There was a lengthy silence, after which one muttered, "Ya."

"Old Lenz here will take care of the drilling and pounding. Your tasks will be choosing the trees, felling them, and getting into place."

One ventured, "Oxen we will need? It could be."

Sir Bradwen shook his head. "If you need an ox to move it, the tree's too big. Cut slender trees."

The old peasant added, "The top you cut where it lies. The branches you trim. Then it you move."

Both muttered, "Ya…"

"Work hard," Sir Bradwen said, "and I will pay you one lushberg per day, paid at the end of each day."

As he spoke he held up two lushbergen, and both young men exclaimed, "Ya!" To which the one with the cast in his eye added, "We work hard!"

Days passed. The first pole had brought him nearer the princess indeed, but carried him only to a point at which the glass hill rose steeper still. A second pole, lashed to the first at the top, provided a base from which they raised a third. That third brought him so near that for the first time he was able to appreciate the beauty and the marvelous delicacy of her countenance. His whole being throbbed with longing for her — even as the longing in her own eyes, and the tears, broke his heart.

"We must build a second triangle like to the first," he told the old peasant. "We can mount another ladder-stick on that, tie it to the one we've got up there already, and put a seventh on top of them. That should do it."

The old peasant nodded, his assistants mumbled, "Ya…" in unison, and the great new work was begun.

At two per night to the old peasant, and one each to his assistants, Sir Bradwen's store of lushbergen had begun to run short. He took to the highroad to refresh it, and had the good fortune to encounter a merchant the very first day.

"What ho, my bold knightly friend," quoth the merchant. "Have you rescued the princess?"

"My campaign is well begun," Sir Bradwen replied, "my troops advance even as we speak. We require, however, some small support from those well able to give it. May I count upon you for some trifling contribution?"

"Alas!" The merchant pulled a long face, an expression he had practiced and perfected. "My affairs go very ill. You spoke of a castle and lands when last we met. How I envied you, my bold knightly friend! For I have neither."

'Your contribution need not be large," Sir Bradwen explained. "A mere token of your support. What say you?"

The merchant sighed. "I cannot. I must buy wool with the few pence I yet retain, and if I cannot sell it at a profit I must starve."

"You appear remarkably well nourished at present," Sir Bradwen remarked.

"My difficulties, though very recent, are severe," the merchant declared. "Will you let me pass?"

"Alas!" Knowing that his own long face was wont to be interrupted by spasms of merriment, Sir Bradwen pulled down his visor instead. "Without a contribution, you may not pass this way. Doubtless there are other roads. There always are."

The merchant nodded. "There is one other. It is not as advantageous however. It is longer, for one thing. For another, it has the ill luck to pass the castle of Gifflet le Fils de Do, lord of these lands. As a loyal freeman thereof, I should think myself obliged to report your obstruction of the more convenient route."

"I would enjoy the contest," Sir Bradwen replied with perfect sincerity, "but before we engaged, honesty would oblige me to mention that I do not obstruct it, only seek to collect a trifling toll. Also that I am authorized to do so by a visiting princess, the daughter of the King of Cathay. Perhaps honesty would also oblige me to report that you were well appraised of these matters, and to ask whether you had communicated them in making your complaint."

"O my bold and knightly friend!" the merchant replied. "We were truly friends only a fortnight ago. Is it not a shame that two Christians should thus be at daggers drawn?"

"It is," Sir Bradwen replied, taking his morning-star from his saddle-bow and testing one of its points against his fingertip. "I rarely employ my dagger while on horseback, however, and I reserve my sword — a noble weapon with an attested relic of Saint Joseph in the pommel — for those well born. For the rest I employ this."

So saying, he rode hard at the merchant; and when the latter raise his arm to block the expected blow, struck him with the lower edge of his shield, knocking him from his saddle. In a trice Sir Bradwen had dismounted as well, and seated himself upon the merchant's belly.

The merchant's dagger he swiftly snatched from the merchant's belt and flung into the bushes. The merchant's large and weighty purse he then decanted onto the ground before him, an act accompanied by much chinking and chiming.

When he had selected those coins he favored, he returned the remainder to the merchant's purse; and the merchant, when he had recovered from being sat upon by a powerful man in chain mail, and had ridden a safe distance along the road, was surprised to find that his gold was intact — only his brass lushbergen had been taken, with two Roman aeris, one denarius, and some other silver.


[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]

Gene Wolfe is a writer of immense range and depth, whose work both honors and transcends genre. He is the recipient of three World Fantasy Awards, two Nebulas, and numerous other international awards for excellence, and has been nominated for the Hugo Award eight times. Gene was recently guest of honor at The World Horror Convention, and a charming autobiographical sketch is available on their site.

The illustrious John Clute terms him "an author who has never in his life told a straightforward tale, and an author who has never in his life published an inadvertent word." So you have been warned.

Although there's no official Gene Wolfe homepage, there are a number of excellent fan sites dedicated to Gene, among them: Paul Duggan's Gene Wolfe and The Lupine Nucio, a newsblog; Ultan's Library; and The Urth List, an email discussion group.

For keeping track of what's available, see Paul Duggan's list of Gene Wolfe books in print. And don't miss Nick Gever's recent article in the Washington Post, Master of the Universe.

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