Caerthemon in the Garden of Sorrow

 

A figure sat, wrapped in dark robes, his face hidden in his hood, on the bank of the river. At his back was one of a group of five trees, their foliage so dark a green that they were almost black. By him, in the long grass, lay a staff and a sword. They showed signs of neglect, as if carried only under an obligation that could not be discharged.

In his hand he held a small brooch, to the design of two knotted Möbius bands. Each of the sectors of the hexagon thus formed was outlined in bright metallic colour, and in four — red, purple, yellow, green, gems were set. Blue and orange, the other two, were just empty sockets of grey metal.

He who had once been amongst the most powerful of mages slid his badge of Colors into his cloak, and reluctantly stood up. He belted the sword about his waist, and picked up his staff, its white wood scorched where he held it. It was shod in the same colours as his brooch.

He looked around. The light cloud that covered the sky did little but diffuse the sunlight; the air was hot and still, with insects buzzing lazily over stagnant pools by the riverside. Apart from the two rows of trees flanking he river, the grassy plain was bare, and so the course of the river that was called the Tears of Shammarra was plain to see. As it led, so he would follow, and with every step he took, he moved further from his world.

Some miles down the river, he came to a bridge, its pocked, nigh rotten stonework bearing the testimony of the passing of the years. A road of grey dust led away to either side.

And here was the end of the world that he knew. In the maps the great library of Closearbour, the territories that bordered the Land that was Bought with Blood were depicted only as far as this bridge, beyond the parchment always blank, or fancifully decorated. Only the most ancient of maps, fragile, almost illegible showed otherwise, hinting at ancient abandoned cities far away.

Caerthemon climbed up to the middle of the span, and leaned on the parapet, looking at the new land beyond. The river continued on, flanked by trees, until it was lost in the haze of distance. Nowhere that he could see was there a taint of Color. Perhaps they were gone, and he could follow the river until it reached the ultimate Ocean, or he died on the way. The lie was little comfort to him, but it was an amusing conceit.

Indeed, the tales of those ancient times maintained that when the Colors came, men had indeed lived far to the north and east of the Land, and as the six planes of Color had drifted into phase with Earth, they had been driven south and west into the Land, and there, last affected, they had fought bloody wars for the remaining enclaves of constancy. Perhaps now, history moved itself in reverse, and the Grey now moved towards them from the old lands, perhaps that was why he had lost his command of four Colors.

No. He knew it was not so. The reason why burned too clearly in his heart and mind, and it was his shame, his pride and his honour that had driven him into this self imposed exile, away even from the only person who he had loved and had loved him in her turn. Whatever the reason, whatever had been the root cause, he had no choice — his road could lead but one way onwards.

With that resolve, he walked down once more to the river. He felt a slight regret as he realized that he would never be able to follow the road which crossed here, but it soon passed. Death might be his eventual goal in this wandering, but not the sudden violent end he would surely meet should he leave the narrow margin of greyland the river laid down along its course — and beside, there were far too many other choices he had made in unwisdom, and now regretted, too many failures for one more, and a minor one at that to have any effect. He had gone beyond despair, past where any fragment of hope remained. Now there was only the journey, and the slow parade of country to keep his mind away from wounds he constantly worried.


He was resting after a frugal lunch, when he was woken by the sound of hooves. He stood, and drew his sword, and then slid the dull blade into its sheath. There was but one horse, its rider, bearing neither sword nor staff, a young woman — and not, as she came closer, he saw, the one he had hoped and feared it might be, his Tiphareth, come to rescue him.

“Good day, My Lady,” he called. His voice sounded harsh to his ears, for he had not spoken for several days. She reined in her mount, and climbed down. She had an assured maturity of carriage that spoke of more years than her complexion seemed to carry, seeming scarcely yet come to womanhood, fair of skin and delicate of build. She wore light blue-grey, and her hair was raven back.

“Good day, Caerthemon. What brings you beyond the Land that was Bought with Blood?”

“My shame; many things that I have done that now I rue. As a consequence, I have no power over the Colors, no place in the Conclave of Sorcerers. Now I am less than the meanest peasant, merely by having been that much greater.”

“You would confess that to anyone you met?”

“I do not know, but I think not. I cannot even say why I told you, merely that it seemed right to do so.

“You answered me by name. Is my infamy thus widespread, or my shame?”

“Now it's my turn to say that I do not know. All I do know is that I recognise you, and know something of what you have done, but I can't remember anything else, not even what my own name is.”

“Do you know where we are?”

The girl paused a moment before answering. “Yes,” she said, “That is the river called Shammarra's Tears. That way lies the Last Bridge, and the Land, and in the other, a Chaos of Colors, all the way past the Old Lands to the shores of Ocean, and also to the Garden of Sorrow …. and that is where I must go.”

“Why?”

“I can't remember. Maybe when I get there, I will, but not now.” She sighed, and then spoke a few words in a tongue Caerthemon did not recognise. Then after a pause, “Do you mind if I follow you?”

“No, my Lady.”


Towards the next noon, they reached a city. They had not noticed it as they had camped for the night by the unchanging river, but in the morning, the sunlight glinting from its towers was a beacon to draw them on.

The transition at its borders was sharp. Along an almost perfect line, the grass ended and gave way to bare earth. The same line marked the start of rows of mounds that flanked the river, and where the trees, one each between the mounds, were lopped into dead y-shapes. The weight of the years rolled like a mist from the mounds, tainting the air. They seemed to belong to an age so long past that they were now wrong. A paved path grew from the dust beneath their feet, smooth slabs of grey crystal, rising, as if new, from the depths, their surfaces, unworn, mirror polished.

Towers appeared, beyond the mounds, arranged in precise rows, and between them, more paths. Crossways, extending from the riverside path occurred more and more often, and became longer, until their ends were lost to sight.

As the day wore on, the clouds thickened as if to warn of impending storm, and in the gathering gloom, Caerthemon believed he could see faint flickers of Color, as if one of the other universes was moving into conjunction with Earth, as if that truly were Greyland a stone's-throw away. Then, along the side of one of the mounds, a patch of red grew, until the whole structure glowed like neon. Then perhaps he was not totally lost to his power, and that coming closer to its source, he grew once more in strength. He asked his companion if she saw the Color.

“Yes,” she replied, “but it's being artificially enhanced so even one like I, who cannot…, I don't know the word you use… who cannot” she spoke a nonsense word,“ cannot work the Dust, and perform wonders, where Earth and Otherworld overlap, can see.”

“Then if you are not Talented, my Lady, how do you see it?”

“Light is made in its place by other means, I know not how.”

Even as they spoke, great blobs of luminescence appeared in the air, spreading, faster than a horse could gallop, from the centre of infection. They wavered like reflections on water, splitting and rejoining, but all the while growing. Along the ground, the glow spread like fire, striking and catching on outstretched structures, avoiding only the path upon which the travellers walked.

Within minutes the process was complete. There was no light but the sourceless neon glow, and through that and the natural mistiness of the lands of Magic, they could see that the city had come upon change as all within Color. The river was a road of cancerous boiling, and the lopped trees, bars of metal. The riverside path was unchanged as if it had shrugged off the change, but beyond, the ground was carpeted with red grass that covered the mounds and engulfed the feet of the twisted, misshapen towers. Caerthemon worked a simple spell in red to guard them, but as he sketched the runes in the air, a spark flashed like red lightning in his hand, washed it in flame. There was a faint smell of brimstone in the air. He cursed his burned hand, and the failed spell, for all it showed that he had some residue of Talent.

“It is not far now,” the girl announced, “The Garden is near, I can feel it.”

Islands of the other Colors began to appear about their way, from a few inches to several feet across, in blue and purple, yellow orange and green, and then, as they went on, misty effusions of jade-white that Caerthemon recognised as the unformed matrix that backed up the system of seven planes. This last grew like a mist as they approached the centre of the place, a great square where the Matrix boiled out like the mouth of the Pit, and within it, a ring of black bushes in a dense hedge.

Shapes moved in the middle distance of the Colors about them, dark and full of menace. For the first time in many years, they had found travellers without protections against them, and far from refuge, and they would have their revenge against one who could control them. In his power, Caerthemon could have bound the denizens of his Colors to his service against the others, but now that was beyond him. Only the Matrix might prove safety, if the unaided fiends could not leave their own continuum for that as they could not enter the Greylands.

Sword in hand, its iron blade a bane for these creatures, Caerthemon continued to lead the horse towards the White. Careless of their own existence, no matter how many dozens he might slay, he would go down before their onslaught, and empty as his tally of bodies might be, he would exact every last penalty should it prove necessary.

As they crossed the border, into the soft and swirling, self luminous, mist, the girl, who had remained silent since announcing their proximity to the Garden, let out a forlorn wail that made the hairs stand up on Caerthemon's neck, and slumped forwards in the saddle weeping hysterically. He looked around for the threat, and saw that the Matrix was all around, and spread where the city should have been. So there was no demon threat and, remembering his own first experience of this realm, he looked at the girl, to see a silver light flickering at her brow.

“My Lady…?” he asked in bafflement.

“I,” she gasped between sobs, “Can't…you…feel? The … years…the empty…years…what…are…you…Sorcerer?”

“I am beyond sorrow. My shame has burned it from me.”

He lifted her from the saddle, and thus burdened, walked towards the iron gate he had seen set in the hedge. It opened to his kick, and he stepped through. Beyond the barrier, he had indeed felt nothing, but here, within, in the paths of the Garden of Sorrow, even he could feel its bitter-sweet melancholy. He screamed it out in song, in a voice that made even he wince.

The Garden, now laid out before him, until it vanished in the mist, seemed to have the structure of a maze, with radial and circumferential walls leading indirectly to some centre. Indistinct cowled figures could be seem moving far around the curves, faint ghosts. Caerthemon took the right hand way, and began to attempt the route to the centre.


Eternities, or certainly hours, passed as he found dead-end after dead-end, carrying the inert — dying? — girl in arms that ached with impossible fatigue, crying out the sorrow, before he found the centre.

It was an open space, far larger than the Garden had seemed from the outside. The sky was grey here, as if with cloud, but a dull yellow sun cast its sunset light down from that pewter sky onto green grass. A small stream trickled past, between brightly flowering bushes. He lay down his burden, and slept.

The girl woke him from deep sleep without dreams.

“This is it. We are in the keystone of these universes. Follow me!”

She ran off across the grass to the small hill in the centre of the Garden, on which stood a small building of white stone. Caerthemon picked himself up and followed.

He found her in a room littered with the skeletons of men, and other creatures, and with the wealth of empires, ignoring the sparkling pieces, in a search for a hidden doorway. She looked up as she heard him enter, met his eyes for an instant prolonged beyond custom, before pushing at a spot on the wall that clicked, and opened as a door. In the gloom beyond, lights flickered.

“My quest is done,” She smiled broadly, innocently, “My Lord Caerthemon, I could not have done this without you. I shall reward you for this Follow, and I shall give you your heart's desire.”

The next chamber was hexagonal, the far wall to which they entered an open doorway, but the other four rimmed by waist-high shelves like writing desks that flickered with lights, and in the centre, a hexagon marked in the six Colors of Magic on which stood a slender pedestal, bearing a crown of seven points, one each for each Color, and one of jade-white.

“Take the crown, and you shall bend all Colors to your will, or if you wish, touch these panels” — she indicated a deeply recessed box on one of the shelves, where lighted panels in the six Colors lay — “and the Colors will be forced from conjunction. You have it in your hands to do away with, or control, Colors. Come, what is your choice?”

“Neither, my Lady. When I failed with the Blue Gauntlet, and lost my power, and the purity of my first love, I turned my back on all practise of magic.”

“Liar.”

“Yes. I did not make the decision then, but make it I have. I shall take neither gift — I cannot for honour, take such power unearned. Let them lie for someone else, more worthy, to find.”

“So what will you do?”

“If you permit, I shall follow you.”

She did not answer him, but instead returned to the previous chamber. From amongst the piles of precious wares, she drew a simple clay pot, and returned.

“Here is Harmony, Sorcerer.”

And he knew it was so. He felt as if he had freshly awoken from sleep, calm and refreshed. Renewed.

“My key. To that door.” The alcove opposite the doorway now opened to a great circle of doors, some large, some small, all free-standing, and between which, all manner of people moved.

“You truly wish to follow me through my door? Then upon your own head be it. My world is very different from yours.”

“Mine? I have no world now. That is why I took exile.”

“Then come with me!” Her voice was filled with the same quiet joy that he now felt, the aches and anguish of hours and years before robbed of their sting.

“Yes, to the ends of the Universe, my Lady.”

And arm in arm with his Lady, Caerthemon stepped through the door.

This concludes the story of the searching of Caerthemon.


In its original form, this story was the first that I wrote that I actually completed, rather than fragments left after free-associating for 5–10,000 words before running out of steam (like None so blind and the rather less elegantly terminated early works referred to in that afterword), and the first fairly pure fantasy (rather than SF with some fantasy tropes) I attempted.

That first cut was written after my first year undergraduate exams, which had been a nasty shock to the system — I'd never before associated the concepts of “revision” and “maths exam” — and I barely scraped a First. Caerthemon's plight was an externalisation of that trauma, written in one sitting, using the old SPI game Sorcerer as inspiration for the background (for which it proved more use than as a game). The name came from Cedmon, which felt right, but which I also reworked to remove any prior associations it might carry to the reader. Then, over the next two and a bit years, I worked on the back-story. Who was this man who had grown so powerful, and how had he come to fall so low?

So I started from the beginning, and wrote the rest of the sequence in the internal chronological order, filling in details of how the world on which Caerthemon had turned his back when first encountered functioned — the fact that it was a planet, rather than some magical cosmology, though where and when I never made clear; that White magic was not part of this setting (replace those hexes with Grey); setting up places that got revisited in later tales; deciding that Magic had caused the fall of some more technical civilisation.

Inevitably, especially given his first role in my life, there are some autobiographical elements in what he suffers. And he does suffer, compared with the other avatars of mine that appear in the other sections of this collection, because he's the protagonist, and not a spear-carrier. There is probably something deeply Freudian in the way that the female leads in the other cycles are always more competent and collected than this sorcerer who, in the peak of his power, as glimpsed in Child of the Sun, possessed a higher kick-ass quotient than either Jennifer or Nancy (excluding her Phoenix mode).

This version of Caerthemon in the Garden of Sorrow is the third. The second, made after completing the cycle, added the references to the back-story (the white Color — the USAn spelling being used to denote the magical quality — as the Matrix rather than six Colors in one; the Blue Gauntlet and his scorched staff — the original having made no mention of how he had lost his powers; the presence, off-stage, of Tiphareth), and expanded some of the details in the final scene, growing by about 30% in the process. This version, adjusted from the scan of the second, tweaked the description of the mysterious woman — though I still don't think I've got that quite right (she's from somewhere high-tech, and at least in her late twenties — possibly far more if they have serious emortality — but not showing the same signs of wear and tear that women from his world would at that age); and What it was that she found in the Garden. Who she is, why she was wandering amnesiac on a world-hopping Grail Quest, and where she is returning, I don't know.

I've mentioned the Sorcerer influence on the whole cycle; but there are others — Into the Mystic has a section built around one Hawkwind track; and Child of the Sun has some egregious Blue Öyster Cult references, and its title's association with the tale indirects via a caption in The All-New X-Men #108. The river, as described in the opening scene above, is the Cam as one heads out past Fen Ditton, into the remote reaches towards Horningsea and Waterbeach, to the bridge at Clayhithe, where I had walked a few days before.


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Episode 3 — Child of the Sun

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