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05.06.02

 
under hill
 
by Gene Wolfe
 

part 2

  illustration
 

The great day came at last. Four overlapping triangles supported similar poles forming two triangles of their own. These (high up the glassy slope) supported another two which with the addition of a bottom pole to brace them formed the final triangle that raised high the final pole — the one triumphantly climbed by Sir Bradwen, the one he stepped from where the slope was gentle enough.

The one at the top of which Princess Apple Blossom met him, a perfect, dainty maiden a head and half shorter than he, perfumed and robed in magnificent brocade. The one at whose top they embraced and kissed, and kissed again and again. And yet again, until at last Sir Bradwen, fearing that he might be overwhelmed by his passion, suggested they go, saying, "If you cannot climb down, or hesitate to climb down for sweet modestyís sake, I will carry you down. I can hold you with one arm, and we will stand upon honest clay in a trice."

At this the princess smiled. "If my exalted lord will consent, this beggarly person retains a few poor possessions, and my all-wise lord must surely know that we miserable ones who have nothing greatly value what little we have. There is my inconsiderable jade figure of the Queen of Heaven, to whom I have no joss to burn though she is dear to me. There is my second-best gown, a contemptible thing in the eyes of every beholder, yet precious to me."

"I understand, Your Highness," quoth Sir Bradwen, "and shall have one of the men in my employ climb here and carry down these things."

The princess lowered her eyes in shame. "There is also my chop — my seal, perhaps? Has this humble one committed some risible error, my lord?"

"No, indeed."

"And the ivory sticks with which I feed myself, the gift of my gently-nurturing mother. Would my lord consent to view the debased quarters to which this wretched prisoner has been for three long years confined?"

"Eagerly," Sir Bradwen replied, "if Your Highness will consent to show them to me."

"There is a magic box—"

She smiled again, and he felt his love deepen.

"Which may be opened only at certain times and behold! it is filled with rice and fruits. If it can be opened now, is it possible that the most gracious lordly rescuer would consent to sample its poor contents?"

"I would, Your Highness." Sir Bradwen bowed, for though he was eager to be gone he was far too well-bred to refuse the invitation of a princess.

Together they went into the castle, she tottering and half supported by his hand and arm; and if their words were the stately ones of their time and their disparate homelands, their hands spoke a language much older: I am a woman and you — you are a man! whispered the tiny hand; and I am a man and you are a woman indeed! replied the great one.

Soon they stood before the box of which the princess had spoken, which was in fact a cabinet or locker set into one of the interior walls of her castle. She explained that the sun was now high — one of the times at which the box might be opened. She further described the food they might expect to find within it, and having received Sir Bradwen's courteous consent, she touched the latch.

At which the floor gave way beneath them, dropping nearly as fast as a falling stone. Together, she clutching him in terror, they descended into the hill of green glass.


Their fall slowed, and at length it halted altogether. Soft green light bathed them; unguessable shapes surrounded them. "Welcome!" a small voice cried; and again, "Welcome!"

A very small man with a very small face in a very large head approached them riding in a silent and ugly little cart with invisible wheels.

"The unconscionable and tricksy person you see before you," whispered the princess, "is that very wicked magician who snatched me from the City of Peace."

Sir Bradwen bowed as he would have at Arthur's court. "Perhaps we meet as antagonists," he said politely, "yet I would much prefer to count among my friends a man so learned in all the ways of the Unseen World. You placed the lovely and royal lady at my side atop this mountain—"

"To find us a man of the Dark Ages who showed a glimmer of intelligence," the very small man in the cart replied. "She's done it, too, as I knew she would." He simpered, and seemed to be on the verge of laughter. "my name's 12BFW-CY-, by the way, and I come from the remote future."

The knight bowed deeper still. "Sir Bradwen of the Forest Tower am I, and in larger sense of glorious Camelot. In a sense larger still, of Albion, the White Isle."

"This inconsiderable person," the princess said, "is called by the unattractive name of Apple Blossom. She has been torn, as may be known, from the Land of the Black-haired people, Kingdom of Ch'in, a country well governed by the most illustrious person whose light dazzles these inferior eyes, her father, here styled King of Far-Off Cathay."

12BFW-CY-ís smile broadened, becoming almost as wide as both the princessís thumbs. "You wish to return home, I'm sure. This knight has won you, though. He probably won't agree to it."

"On the contrary," Sir Bradwen declared, "if this lovely lady can be returned to her parents in safety, I could wish for no happier outcome. I declare heró" His voice wavered, and he paused to clear his throat. "I declare her free to go at once, and may God speed her on her way."

At this, the princess clung more tightly than ever. "This wr-wretched person, the m-m-most m-miserable of w-women, w-would — w-w-would…" She burst into tears.

With his free hand, Sir Bradwen patted her shoulder. "There, there. Do not weep, Your Highness. You will be in the arms of your royal mother almost before you know it. Do you have sisters?"

"She has five hundred and twenty-six," 12BFW-CY- put in somewhat dryly. "And six hundred and ten brothers. It was because she came of such an extensive family that we selected her — the removal of one very minor princess from so large a group is unlikely to result in historical—"

"I w-want to st-st-stay here!" wailed the unfortunate princess. "I w-w-want to be in your arms!"

Sir Bradwen's heart bounded like a stag. "Then you shall! As long as my hand can grasp a sword, no one shall take you from me. By good Saint Joseph I swear it! By the Holy Family! By my honor and my motherís grave!"

"Certainly not me," 12BFW-CY- remarked dryly. "I donít want her. As for your sword—" He tittered. "I am about to give you a more effectual weapon."

Sir Bradwen's eyebrows went up. "Do you mean a magic bow? An enchanted lance? Something of that kind?"

12BFW-CY- tittered again. "Precisely. It will enable you to overcome the most powerful opponent without fighting him at all. A little background must be filled in first, I think. If you'll indulge me.

"Hem, hem! My companions — vile and selfish creatures with whom you would not wish to speak — and I represent a sizable fraction of humanity in the year thirty-two thousand three hundred and eleven. in another generation or two the human gene pool will be too small to support a viable race, even with all that genetic engineering can do for us, and humanity will be irrevocably doomed. Finished. Ended. Headed to be shredded, eh?"

"This fribbling person weeps," declared the princess with feeling.

To which Sir Bradwen added, "I'm not sure I understood everything you said, the bit about the magic pool especially, but it sounded very bad. If my sword can be of service to you, you need but ask."

"Oh, we don't mind." 12BFW-CY- waved an airy hand. "We don't mind at all. In a way we rather enjoy it. Our race has always been a filthy mess you know, and we feel it's high time we gave the daisies a turn at the hupcontroller. Now I'll show you. Don't be afraid."

Sir Bradwen was sorely tempted, but said nothing.

"Here's what we've come up with, and very clever of us too, if I may say it. Of me, especially, which is why I get to talk to you two."

It was a short staff with a bulging, lusterless crystal at one end.

"I won't point it at you," 12BFW-CY- continued, "and if I did, I wouldn't turn it on. That would be too dangerous for you. But you may point it at other people, you see. It's thought-controlled, of course, just like my car. Point it, think of it working, and you'll see a crimson flash, very short."

Sir Bradwen nodded slowly.

"Suppose an enemy knight comes into view. He doesn't have to attack you. If you can see him, that's plenty. You merely have to point my paciforcer at him, and think of him being paciforced. He will be incapable of any violence whatsoever, from that moment on."

Softly and involuntarily, the princess moaned.

"Yes! Yes, yes!" 12BFW-CY- paused to clear his throat. But there's — hem, hem! — more. The same holds true for his descendants. Or at least for any conceived after ten days or so. No violence. None! Can't kill a chicken or bait a hook. And their own children will inherit the, er, tendency. If they have any. You appear troubled."

"I am," Sir Bradwen conceded. "You see, Sir Magician, many of my foes are Arthurís rebellious subjects. It is my task to return them to their loyalty, whether by killing them or by other means. With this…?"

"Paciforcer."

"With this paciforcer they will be of no use to Arthur even if they renounce their rebellion. Knights and nobles who will not smite the heathen have no value."

"Why worry?" 12BFW-CY- smiled. "In such cases you need not use it. But against the — ah?"

"Heathen."

"Heathen themselves… Eh? Eh?"

"I hesitate—" Sir Bradwen began.

"Do not." 12BFW-CY- held out the paciforcer, and edging his cart nearer actually forced it into Sir Bradwenís hand. "I must warn you that should you decline, this toothsome lady will be restored to her family. I shall be compelled to use the paciforcer myself. On both of you."

Sir Bradwen bowed. "In that case I accept. No price is too great."

"Good. Good!"

Sir Bradwenís hand closed about the paciforcer.

And 12BFW-CY- released it with a sigh. "An infinity of pain and suffering is thus wiped away. Human history will be infinitely more peaceful. Shorter, of course. Much shorter. But delightfully peaceful. My own generation will never have been." For a moment he appeared radiantly happy. "We will have the oblivion we crave. Guard my paciforcer well. If it is not subjected to abuse, it will endure and continue to function for a thousand years."

"You may trust me," Sir Bradwen declared, "to do the right thing."

"Then go."

12BFW-CY- pointed down a long aisle between towering devices of sorcery, and suddenly Sir Bradwen beheld an opening at its termination and sunlight beyond the opening.

"Blessings are without meaning," 12BPW-CY- murmured, "and yet, and yet…"

"Farewell!" Sir Bradwen told him, and flourished the paciforcer.

The princess bowed until her hair swept the floor. "This submissive person makes haste to remove her loathsome self from your august presence. Ten thousand blessings!"


No sooner had she and Sir Bradwen left the glass hill than its opening shut behind them. A pleasant walk of a quarter mile (over much of which he carried her) brought them to the old peasant and his helpers. Sir Bradwen gave each of them a full day's pay, though they had labored for less than half that.

That done, he lifted the princess into his great war-saddle and mounted behind her; and together they rode away until they reached the path beside the River Sart. There he took the paciforcer from his belt and flung it into the water.

And the two of them rode on, upon a great white charger who felt and shared their joy, the princess singing and Sir Bradwen whistling.

 

[ 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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