From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory

Left:

The guide led us over a rise, and there was the ruined fortress, draped across the foothills like a wrecked body on a slab. I saw it first, but of course Jessica saw it better. Her young eyes dwelled on the jagged foundations of every fallen tower, and the gray stone blocks that had lain scattered throughout the centuries since the breaching of the broad walls, and the neglected palaces and armories half-revealed through the gaps. She drank in these details, fitting each to the histories she had heard since she was a child, and I thought again what a gift it was to share her sight.

A period guardhouse had been recreated alongside the path, and the vendor within jumped to his feet as we passed by the doorway. Our old guide made as if to steer me in. “Here you can purchase many fine illustrations of the Gray Fort,” he said in his tinny accent, “quite suitable for greetingcardspostcardsbirthdaycardsholidaycards and the like. If you will just step this way—”

“Don’t be absurd,” I said, and shrugged him off. The tip he could expect from me would feed him for a week, and there was no need to subsidize his cousin as well. Jessica and I kept walking, and he rolled his eyes apologetically to the fellow within before catching up with us.

The path, which had once been a broad road, was pitted with holes. Back in the heyday of the fort, the paving stones had been interspersed with scraps of iron the humans had salvaged from their own defunct machines. It had hurt to march that road—our feet had burned, and my regiment stayed to the verge and fields whenever possible. In the years after the Elven triumph we had sent out details of Men to pick the poison from the earth here and the other places they had defended against us, and throw it into the sea.

Jessica was wearing loose silk for me. A cool breeze came down out of the hills and played the fabric over the smoothness of her shoulders. I delighted in the sensation, and she knew it. I smiled at her, and my beloved hesitantly returned my gaze for a moment. Our pair-bond was still new enough that she found it disorienting at times; looking into each other’s eyes could throw her into an infinitely recursive image of ourselves, with a vertigo that twisted both our guts. She would require gentle handling, for a while. It had been so with my first wife as well: an awkward initial adjustment period that settled into centuries of intimacy and trust, ever strengthened by the continual sharing of our five senses. I knew every facet of her life, and I would not have traded a moment of it, even during those last long years of pain when her illness gripped her more closely than I could. When she died I was amazed to find that I had not gone with her, and for decades afterwards I had no use for this drab and colorless world, or even for our own. Although it is not often done, I think it was wise to choose a human for my bride this time; they are frail and short-lived, and I will not be faced with another such lingering illness or the same depth of love.

Even though Jessica could not return my gaze directly, I saw that in this clear light her hazel eyes were as green as new leaves. I watched her slim, unconscious grace and the way the wind pulled at the heavy mass of her dark hair, and thought for the hundredth time that no one could claim she was not as fair as one of our own. Their women don’t take to the bond as well as ours do, but I’ve learned the benefits are well worth the risk. Jessica and I are now perfectly synchronized. Our sensibilities are linked so tightly we can guess each others’ thoughts; I know when the food in her mouth suits her palate; and in private moments I am able to give her exactly as much pleasure as she can bear.

The guide directed us towards the crumbling hulk of the fortress, and the uneven track awoke the old war wound in my thigh. If we went slowly I could hide the limp, but Jessica of course would know.

To either side of the path stretched a wild meadow. Once upon a time this land had been fields and pastures cropped short by cows and sheep, but it had since gone untended for generations of men. Overhead, a hawk wheeled sharply, its pinions spread like the fingers of a hand raised in greeting. Somewhere in those bushes below it no doubt, a rabbit was wishing it could re-think its last move. It would be crouched rigid, body juddering with its own heartbeat, waiting for the shadow of the hunter to slide past it. I wondered if it realized it would never be more alive than right now, and if it had some way of treasuring the moment. This was, after all, what it was made for.

Here and there ahead of us we saw a few other clusters of tourists, mainly Folk with their attendants. There were not many now who cared for the early days the way my Jessica did. It was, in fact, the reason we had met—she had heard there was an old hero of the Restoration in her city, and sought me out. Even her anachronistic name, which stumbled roughly across the tongue, recalled a bygone epoch.

Our guide labored ahead with his own doddering gait. “In the olden days when the fortress still stood,” he said, “this road was lined all the way up with manymany redoubts, towerhouses and palisades. An army would cower at the thought of crossing through.”

The fierce pride in his voice clung to shreds of his race’s former grandeur, just as one would expect from a long-vanquished people. It had indeed been something to see, but when the time came, those defenses had not stopped us from crossing this valley. And the Great Siege that broke this fortress, the final action of our long war to subdue this strange world, had been a straightforward affair with few surprises.

“And yet in the end, it was you that folded,” I said under my breath.

“That’s true—in the end,” my Jessica murmured back to me. She could have whispered it from the other side of the world, and I would have felt her mouth shape the words. Her eyes rose no higher than my tunic, but she had the arch expression she wore when challenging me to a debate. How I delighted in her fire! “But humanity fought you off for centuries, even before they had the chance to adjust to the changes that the Fair Folk brought our world.”

“They weren’t meant to adjust, my love. They were meant to find their glory. The very chaos was a gift to them, and I am sure the men of that time knew it in their hearts. When we first parted the veil between our worlds and returned to this one, your alien ways had turned you into shades that we could barely see. You know how bad it was—machines too small to see did all the work and all the thinking.”

“You can’t deny that we were strong in those days,” she rejoined.

“Your armies may have been strong, but your warriors were not. Your people had no sense of what it meant to be alive. We stopped those tiny machines, by calling upon the power that slept in the sinews and bones of your own earth, and so gave you the opportunity to live and die by the strength of your own arms once again. And how you fought, even though it was new to you! We were in awe of you right up to the moment of your defeat.”

I had never mentioned this to her before. Perhaps it was striding this battlefield for the first time in all those years that brought back the memory. No matter. Now of course, we could not afford awe. They were children who needed our guiding hand lest they lapse back into the same mistakes—as tedious as that responsibility was.

“The Gray Fort is considered the finest example of Resistance-era human architecture,” recited our guide as we approached the outer wall. “It was constructed over a period of thirtythree years—thirtythree being, as you know, a particularly auspicious number—using granite quarried from the hills behind it. Far more than a mere military stronghold, this was the home base of the Army of the Northeast, as well as the retinues-retainers-advisors-wives-consorts-and-harems of the warlords who led them, for one hundred eight years. It was the first structure to incorporate certain stoneworking methods for hand-cutting and laying large blocks that had been forgotten for almost a millennium.”

“Indeed,” I said. “We helped you recover your own lost past.”

“Well, sir—” he allowed himself a wry grin that revealed gaps in his teeth “—I’d hardly call it ‘helping.’”

He was forgetting his place. “You wouldn’t? And how well would you know what transpired in those days?”

“Sir, I have a doctorate in pre-Resistance history from the University of the Northeast Territory.”

“Of course you do,” I said. A native’s degree, from a native’s institution. “And how useful have you found that?”

The old fool recognized the gibe and responded with a smile and a bow, then turned back to the path.

“A lesson for you, my love,” I subvocalized. “Those days are gone. The history of the years before the Folk came to you is beneficial only as a reminder of mistakes you should never make again. Because of your unique position, one day your people will call upon you to teach them wisdom, and this must ever be at the forefront of your mind.”

Jessica nodded sagely. She was remarkably sharp for her race. When we first met, she had hung on every detail I shared with her of the Days of Conflict and the battles I had seen. Her perception and wit spurred me to strengthen my reasoning and know myself better—exactly what I needed now that I was expected to settle into the role of Prefect of such a sorry district. When it dawned on me that I must make her my bride, I rushed to contact her father. He was loath to lose her, and he rejected my financial incentive, despite the crowded hovel and unwholesome slum in which he kept his family. But Jessica and I meant too much to each other, and there was no choice but to apply my influence across his entire community. He acceded at last, and I was as thrilled as a schoolboy.

It is said that when the Queen was brought the news, she considered it idly for a moment, then laughed and blessed our union, and all her dazzling, debonair court laughed along with her.

As we approached the fortress, Jessica’s regard returned several times to the wreckage that had once been the great gates. They lay rotting where we had left them in front of the walls, and she lingered on their twisted forms. She must have been wondering what nature of assault we had used to throw them outwards, rather then knock them inwards. In truth, we had taken the stronghold by penetrating the wall at other points; we had only smashed the doors and archway days later, from within, when we ravaged it in our dismay that there was no longer anyone left to oppose us. Her people have not failed to disappoint us since then. For years we have been secretly sending our idle soldiers home in increments. No occupying force is needed here—just the rumor of one is enough to keep these sheep docile.

“Before the gateway,” our guide told me quietly, “you will see many vendors waiting for tourists.” Indeed, in the flat space before the gaping maw of the arch, a listless pack of hawkers manned tables and booths or sold baubles from sacks slung over their shoulders. “They are a worthless bunch of huckstersconmenpickpocketsandthieves, and you should keep your hand on your wallet and ignore them as we pass through.” At last, a point on which I was inclined to credit his opinion. “Afterwards I will take you someplace where the proprietor is trusty and you will surely get what you paid for.”

We approached and the hawkers rushed forward and surged about us, thrusting souvenirs in our faces, crying out with rotten breath, and steering us towards their shoddy tables. They vied to shout over each other and swirled between us in dizzying, unwashed confusion that was redoubled with the impressions from my bride. Our dotard of a guide protested ineffectively and impugned the parentage of anyone who came within range. I had been in a melee on this very spot once before, a lifetime ago, as an officer with a tall helm and a long spear. Men had died here, and some good Folk, too. I would have been within my rights to kill one or two this day, and I was not too old to destroy this whole rabble single-handedly. However, I was obliged to keep in mind that I was guardian and teacher to them now. At a loss, I retreated.

While I picked my way past the yelping mob, Jessica barely made headway, and she was obliged to halt before a plank piled high with cheap trinkets. To appease them, she tossed a hag a coin and in exchange took the first thing that caught her eye—a flimsy play dagger with a gaudy hilt and scabbard encrusted in paste gems. When she pushed her way out of the crowd, she pulled the silk shawl from her shoulders and bundled it around the toy as if she was reluctant to touch it. (Oh, to find just one of her people with the will to bear a weapon!) She was shaken by the onslaught, and I took her free hand until she was calm.

The hawkers lost interest as soon as Jessica emerged from their midst, and receded to reveal our guide, who hobbled up the path towards us. He made his apologies to Jessica directly, which was not entirely proper, but could be forgiven under the circumstances.

“But here,” he said, “before we enter the fortress itself, is a display created especially for pair-bonded fair lords and ladies such as yourselves.”

“A stereogram, no doubt?” I said.

“Indeed, sir.”

“What’s that?” asked my Jessica.

Before our guide could attempt an explanation, I answered, “A standard tourist gimmick, aimed primarily at newlyweds. They can however, on occasion, be diverting. Show us.”

We handed over a few more coins and were ushered into a small building with high windows. The space inside was well-lit this time of day. It held a wide carved stone screen with two small apertures cut into it, just close enough to allow the couple peering through them to hold hands. Jessica took it all in, uncomprehending.

“Beyond that screen is a painting,” I told her. “Two paintings, actually. Taken separately, they mean nothing—just streaks of color and jumbles of dots across the canvas. But when the viewers are bonded as we are, and one painting is viewed through your sight and one is viewed through mine, and we allow our intimacy to combine those views into a single image, the true nature of the portrait is revealed. It’s a clever technique, and if it’s done properly it can sometimes yield unexpected detail and perspective.”

Jessica put her right eye to the hole in front of her and saw nothing but a broad expanse of blotches and marks. I put my left eye to the opening on my side and saw a similarly meaningless jumble. We reached for each other and clasped hands, and we allowed our breathing to ease and our vision to relax until it became a bit vague at the edges.

And then, as if a third mind straddling the two of ours had suddenly divined how the marks were meant to align, the images from her eye and mine snapped together and revealed a single, meaningful prospect. What we were looking at was the Gray Fort, not the massive ruin that stood outside, but as she was in the days of her glory—when her unblemished walls rose with the graceful curve of a ship’s prow from the knees of the mountain behind her, and her towers and turrets caught the morning sun as they stood tall into the blue sky, and gold gleamed from her domes, and her long pennants made whip-cracks in the breeze. The artist’s hand held a magic that made the image stand away from the canvas, as though we could have walked around it and new details would have been revealed with each step. Soldiers in bright armor manned those ramparts and lay in wait in those turrets. (They would send a cavalry charge first, and it would devastate our front ranks.) I was back on the field before those walls, and tiny chill fingers ran down my spine as I remembered for the first time in centuries the dread and wonder those men had instilled in me. I missed the weight of my spear in my hand, ready to dole out death. I recalled that I was made to fight, and to love, and to die for the things I believed in.  I was not a bureaucrat or the overseer of a dull, submissive people, but a warrior once again, at a moment when history held its breath.

And over it all, I felt an immense gratitude to have that moment back, and that my Jessica was here to see it with me, and that I could share with my bride the majesty and power of that day.

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Right:

Loran’s long stride took him ahead of me, and he saw the fortress before I got to the top of the slope. For a frustrating moment until I caught up I had to be content with his impression of its mass and shattered strength and the way it dominated the valley. I preferred it as I saw it myself—there was more to it than I expected, and the stonework of the palaces behind the walls seemed as delicate as froth. So we really had been builders, back then.

A man was selling souvenirs inside a small stone building next to the path. Our old guide announced in his self-taught Folk tongue, Here you can purchase many fine illustrations of the Gray Fort, quite suitable for greetingcardspostcardsbirthdaycardsholidaycards and the like. If you will just step this way—

But Loran kept walking. The vendor inside noticed me as I passed, and his face twisted. It was an expression I had seen several times in the days since we were bonded, and what it meant was, Faery’s Whore. Our guide warned him off with a hard look.

I prayed that the guide didn’t recognize me, though I doubted he would have forgotten. His name was Nikander. When I was a child he was a teacher, holding school in the abandoned stable he had made into a classroom, charging for lessons only what each family could afford. He smelled like turnip soup, and he laughed at his own jokes like a braying donkey. He taught me some reading and writing, and a bit of sums, but the real reason I sat in that crowded stable through hot summer days was to listen to his fantastical stories of Men before the Fair Folk came. Men before the generations of war and barbarism, and before the generations of occupation. Only a small bit of what he told us was close to believable—people flying to the moon and performing inside tiny boxes of light must have come out of his own dreams—but even that was enough to make me think there might be more to us than the Folk wanted us to know.

Today he addressed me through Loran, as was right for our respective positions, but he wouldn’t meet my eye for even a moment, and that more than anything else told me he knew who I was.

The wind pulled at my hair and my shawl, and I saw myself through Loran’s sight as he paused to admire me. I wouldn’t have guessed that even the long-lived Folk, with their powers and deadly pride and incomprehensible moods, could be giddy newlyweds. Another fact they chose not to reveal to the Men they ruled. I looked back at him, but I only had time to glimpse his slender height and elegance, and the straight white hair hanging past his jawline, before my stomach rebelled and I had to turn away. Let him think it was because I hadn’t adjusted to our bond yet. We each now lived through the other’s body as we lived through our own, but this intense intimacy was a leash held by whoever was the stronger. And even dogs learned ways to keep their collars loose.

Coming to this old spot had been my idea—the sort of honeymoon trip the ancients might have taken. It was our shared interest in the olden days that had first brought me to Loran, though for him it had been mainly a chance to tell stories about his youth, while I was searching for some sense of what my people had once been. The human-tales I had heard from Nikander as a girl had stuck in the back of my mind and smoldered there. As the sprawling mud-thatch slums took my childhood and I saw a hundred daily reminders of our weakness and incompetence, I found I needed to understand what parts of those fables were true. It had been simple to flatter my way onto Loran’s estate overlooking the city, and then to flirt until I had an invitation to come back. Loran had been only too happy to talk about himself to an adoring young woman. After a while, by stitching together his silences and the details left unsaid, I gathered that the Elves’ conquest of our world had not always gone smoothly, and perhaps had even been a challenge.

I had not expected our relationship to progress as it did.

I felt the old axe wound in Loran’s right thigh throb, and he paused once or twice as we approached the fort. Despite his age and his decades behind a desk, Loran was still frighteningly strong, a born warrior, and not many could stand against him in one of his moments of rage. He watched a hunting hawk turn in the air over the meadow, and then scanned the bushes to locate its prey. His breath went a little shallow, in anticipation of the kill, I supposed.

Nikander indicated the valley around us. In the olden days when the fortress still stood, he told us, this road was lined all the way up with manymany redoubts, towerhouses and palisades. An army would cower at the thought of passing through.

He spoke to Loran, and it was odd for me to hear him string words awkwardly in the Folk tongue when he was so compelling in our own, but I knew his meaning was intended for me, and I could see it in my mind’s eye.

And yet in the end it was you that folded, I felt Loran mutter.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that he wouldn’t let me have even this.

That’s true—in the end, I chided him. But I said it under my breath, suddenly ashamed to have Nikander see me discussing this topic so lightly with my Fay husband.

Loran responded with the same doctrine and morals I had heard all my life. But then he let slip—

We were in awe of you right up to the moment of your defeat.

My pulse banged for a moment, but I already knew the trick of dampening it with a careful breath before he noticed.

So we were your equals, I thought, and kept the realization private. Could it be that your beautiful, blessed and cunning people came across not to guide us, but to be shaped by the struggle? You loved us for being worthy adversaries, didn’t you? Is that why your rule seems so arbitrary—do we bore you now?

What boredom was I a cure for? Loran had decided that we would be wed before I realized how far I had let things go. Honor is more important to people who have nothing than to generals, and my father had furiously resisted Loran’s attempt to take me. My family held firm against the string of illnesses and petty hexes that laid them low and crumbled our home around us. But when soldiers started taking our neighbors to the work-farms one by one, and word spread that we had the power to save them, my parents were forced to let me go. I haven’t spoken with them since.

Nikander filled the silence with his rote gabble. Far more than a mere military stronghold, he quoted, this was the home base of the Army of the Northeast, as well as the retinues-retainers-advisors-wives-consorts-and-harems of the warlords who led them, for one hundred eight years. It was the first structure to incorporate certain stoneworking methods for hand-cutting and laying large blocks that had been forgotten for almost a millennium.

Indeed, said my lord and husband. We helped you recover your own lost past.

I fought down the sudden churn in my stomach.

Well sir, I’d hardly call it helping.

It was the wrong time for Nikander to remember his pride. The familiar tone was like a red flag to a bull.

You wouldn’t? And how well would you know what transpired in those days?

Sir, Nikander replied with quiet dignity, I have a doctorate in pre-Resistance history from the University of the Northeast Territory.

Of course you do. Loran’s voice was dry and cold. And how useful have you found that?

There was a charged, still moment in which Nikander might have gotten himself killed, but then he ducked his head in a quick bow, and turned back to the path as if erasing the incident from his memory. I will never be Folk, but I can’t go back now, and if one day, riding through the streets of the city I happen to come across my family again, I hope they won’t know me.

Loran was in particularly good spirits now, and he ignored the raw nerves in his thigh as we made our way towards the fortress. I could see the massive gates still lying where they had been thrown down, green and brown with corrosion, covered over with growing grass in some spots and twisted up higher than a man’s head in others. Like the heavy stone blocks around them, they weren’t worth the effort to move. I wondered what ram or magic had thrown them outwards when they were breached. The Folk had done a good job of keeping that technique secret from us too.

The area in front of the gates had been turned into an improvised market, though there wasn’t a single customer. Loran would be baffled, but I had grown up amongst people like this—men and women with so little they could wait all day next to a disintegrating stall or a board laid across crates, in the hope that travel might make one sightseer a bit generous or careless with his money.

Nikander warned Loran, They are a worthless bunch of hucksters-conmen-pickpockets-and-thieves, and you should keep your hand on your wallet and ignore them as we pass through. Afterwards I will take you someplace where the proprietor is trusty and you will surely get what you’ve paid for.

We stepped into their midst and they came desperately alive, swarming around and between us, each demanding our attention for their chipped relics or cracking jewelry or cheap toys. The crowd was smothering, and I could focus only on the tiny wedge of space directly in front of me. Loran waded through the fringes, and Nikander in the thick of things feigned indignation, but I had never been rich before, and when I said No it was without conviction. Against my will, I was swept into the very middle of the market, and jammed hard against a stand overseen by an old woman who could have passed for my grandmother.

I dropped a coin on her table, and she slid something across the rough planks.

This one, she said.

I snatched up a hilt of bright false jewels and peeling paint. I didn’t test the blade or look at it. I didn’t want to be betrayed by the knowing. Placated, the hawkers gave way before me. They jostled and called out as before, but when I passed their last stall it was as if I crossed beyond their borders, and they returned to their places. I went to Loran’s side.

Nikander joined us, with a show of shaking his head ruefully. I’m sorry you should be burdened with such. . . unpleasantness, milady, he said, and he looked directly into my eyes for the first time.

But here, before we enter the fortress itself, he continued, is a display created especially for pair-bonded fair lords and ladies such as yourselves.

A stereogram, no doubt? Loran said.

Indeed, sir.

Loran led me into a small room filled with clear light. Running across the middle was a white marble barrier fashioned like lacework. There were two places to peek through.

Beyond that screen is a painting. Two paintings, actually, Loran explained. Taken separately, they mean nothing—just streaks of color and jumbles of dots across the canvas. But when the viewers are bonded as we are, and one painting is viewed through your sight and one is viewed through mine, and we allow our intimacy to combine those views into a single image, the true nature of the portrait is revealed.

Loran and I looked through and both saw a nonsense hodgepodge of streaks and blots, as if someone had let squirrels run through their paints. We took each other’s hand, and he softened his breath and let his eye go a little out of focus, and I copied him.

The two images swam towards each other, and mated, and suddenly we grasped the picture as it was meant to be seen. It was the Gray Fort in all its grace and magnificence, a sight that stopped the breath and sent the heart soaring in your chest as if it had been given hawk’s wings. We could build strong walls and tall turrets and dream-like palaces. Armies would cower at the thought of testing our defenses. We were everything the Folk told us we weren’t. We had had hands that created works of beauty, and wise minds that calculated how to shape them, and strong arms that drove our enemies before us—and this even after we had clawed our way out of chaos; the faintest shadow of the forgotten days of our true power, that had been stolen from us.

My shawl was wrapped so tightly around the hilt of the dagger that I couldn’t recognize its shape in my hand, and Loran suspected nothing. I flicked my wrist, and the loose scabbard slipped off and clattered on the flagstones. Then, while both of us were held by the vision of the fort, I raised the blade and brought it down hard into my own right thigh, and twisted it.

The pain drove through me in a sickening wave and I lurched against the marble screen. Loran, however, struck in the center of his old axe wound, spasmed with a grunt and dropped to the floor. He landed half-curled on his side, struggled to rise, and slipped.

I limped to him, and his scalp felt my fingers slide along it as I pulled his head back by his hair. I looked into his eyes.

Thank you, milord, I said. It was beautiful to see.

Loran saw the dagger in my hand, and saw my intent, and smiled with real joy.

I knew I chose well! he said.

I didn’t understand. I wondered if it mattered.

The blade is sharper than I would have thought; when I make the single thrust to drive it through his eye socket, perhaps I will survive the agony. Perhaps I will be suffered to live long enough to see the Folk strike back against my city in reprisal for the assassination of an Elven lord. Then my race will be pushed too far, and we shall rise up and have war again, to the terrible delight of both our peoples.

And things may turn out differently this time.

Paul M. Berger has been a Japanese bureaucrat, a Harvard graduate student, an M.I.T. program administrator, an Internet entrepreneur, a butterfly wrangler and (God help him) a Wall Street recruiter, which, in the aggregate, may have prepared him for nothing except the creation of speculative fiction.  His fiction has appeared in Strange HorizonsInterzonePolyphony 6Twenty EpicsAll-Star Zeppelin Adventure StoriesIdeomancer and Escape Pod. The story of his battle against giant Japanese spiders was the first true-life memoir published in Weird Tales. He is a 2008 graduate of Clarion. His website iswww.paulmberger.com.