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Authors: Tanith Lee

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BOOK: Night's Master
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The Bird flew high and far. Near to the gardens of the stars it flew and
brushed their silver roots with the breath of its wings. Below, the land lay
like a smoky map, here and there on fire with the lamps of cities, while at its
edge crept the violet deserts of the sea.

The queen wailed for terror.

“Give me your necklet, and I will let you go,” said the Bird to her.

All else was lost in fright. The queen tore off the prize she had bought
with blood, the Bird snatched it in its beak. And then, true to its word, let
her go indeed, and down she fell towards the world. Some say she perished so,
some say a wandering elemental of the Upperearth took pity on her cries and
turned her into a bird herself, a little spiteful falcon, which forever after
fluttered about the sky screeching.

The great Bird, glad to be rid of her, shook the collar in its beak.

It did not mean to give it to the king of the city after all, but to keep
the ornament for itself. But as it beat homeward for its crags, a storm was
born with the sun over the mountains, and came running across the heaven,
clashing together its cymbals. A lighting struck the Bird, only a glancing
blow, but it cried out and the collar of Vayi dropped from its mouth and was
lost. Three times the Bird wheeled, searching for its spoils and then, finding
nothing, flew on furiously into the west after the trailing rags of night.

The collar plunged like a meteor. Misty hills, tinged by the Sun, opened
and fell away, a river flashed, a forest lay like a green-furred beast. There
was a valley, walled in by tall towers of rock, carpeted with flowers at its
bottom. Here, by a narrow waterfall, a small white temple stood in a grove of
trees.

The seven jewels rang together as the collar fell, like bells. It caught
suddenly among branches, and its descent was checked.

Who knows what god was worshipped in that place? Three priestesses tended
his shrine and lit for him a flame on his altar. They had no other company than
each other and one little snake, which was said to be the god’s oracle. At
festivals the people of the valley and the surrounding hills would come to the
temple, and the priestesses would take up the little snake—which was dear to
them and which, at all other times. they treated quite as a pet—and place it in
a marble tray of sand. Then they would put to it certain questions concerning
harvest, birth, death and fortune, and when the snake wriggled, they would read
the marks left in the sand, and this would be the interpretation of the oracle,
the god’s answer. Also they would milk the little snake of its venom which they
used to make a special incense. They did this quite safely for, although
poisonous, it never bit them since it liked them too well. They fed it honey
cakes and cream.

Every morning one of the three priestesses would go to the narrow
waterfall with a ewer, and today the youngest set out. All the birds in the
valley were singing and so was the youngest priestess. Yet, as she drew near
the water, she saw something sparkling in the grove of trees.

“A star must have fallen from the sky in the night,” said she, but when
she went closer, she saw well enough what it was. The ewer dropped out of her
hands, which she clasped before her, and her eyes burned very bright. All she
wanted in the world was to take the collar and put it round her neck and let
the jewels shine on her breast, but she could not reach the bough where the
prize was hanging. While she stood there like this, the second priestess came
looking for her.

“Why, sister, what are you gazing at?”

“At nothing. There is nothing here!” cried the youngest. Of course, the
second priestess looked up at once and saw at once. “It’s mine!” cried the
youngest. “I found it first. You shall not have it.”

“Not so,” said the second. “I am older than you and I
will
have
it.” And, snatching up the ewer from the ground, she struck the youngest such a
blow with it that she fell down dead.

Just then the oldest priestess, hearing these violent noises, rushed out
to the grove.

“Here comes another of the pests,” muttered the second priestess, and
taking up the ewer again, she hid behind a tree, and it was not long before the
oldest priestess suffered the same fate as the first. Then, regardless of her
grim work spread around her on the flowery grass, the second priestess seated herself
before the tree and gazed up at the collar.

“Soon,” she murmured, “I shall think of a way to bring you down and wear
you about my throat, but until then I am content merely to watch over you.”

The sun rose high, and still she sat beneath the tree. The rocky towers
turned gold then crimson as the day beat on its wings toward the west. Then all
the blush was gone from the land and the sky, and green twilight filled the
valley. And still the last priestess sat beneath the tree, seeing nothing but
the collar among the branches.

Presently, the little snake came winding from the temple, lonely and
hungry and out of sorts, for no one had petted it or fed it. When it saw the
last priestess in the grove, it moved to her gladly and coiled about her ankle.
But she took no notice. At this, the snake looked up and saw what was in the
tree.

It was as if a spark kindled in its brain. Such was the collar of Vayi
that all earth things, human or otherwise, coveted it. As if it bled from a
mortal wound, every drop of the snake’s gentleness drained away.
Mine,
it thought, as had thought all the others, and it nipped the priestess in her
heel with its venomed fangs, so that soon she also lay unbreathing on the
ground.

The snake felt one moment of awful desolation and loss, then a sensation
of anger and power. Its desperate loneliness was changed to boiling pride. It
stretched itself to encircle the broad trunk of the tree, and it began to grow.
It bloated with hatred and arrogance, it swelled and lengthened. Three times three
its sinuous body wound round the trunk, and it rested its flat cruel head on
the bough where the collar hung.

Night came and blackened the face of the world, and the snake blackened
also to the color of its furious spite, and its eyes turned to silver slits
from gazing at seven bright jewels.

 

Years passed,
mortal years. The roof of the temple fell in, the pillars crumbled; it was a
ruin. The waterfall dried up at its source and the flowers died, the trees
withered and died too. Only the great tree, the tree with the collar in its
branches, continued to live and to grow, though, like the snake, it had become
dark and unlovely. The snake lived too. While its anger and jealous pride
persisted, it could not die. It never slept, roped about the tree, and when men
approached with torches, songs or knives, it spat from its clashing mouth a
poison rich with its hate, that destroyed everything it touched. The grass was
shriveled and full of new flowers, white flowers: bones.

There was a blight on the valley. People abandoned it, it was deserted.
The legend grew of a treasure in a tree and a serpent which enviously guarded
it. Then the heroes came.

Some came with armies, some alone; some came on horses, in amour,
protected by spells, with swords of blue metal; some on foot with native
cunning and wild hearts. All perished. Their bone flowers were added to the
others which lay in the rank grass, and their names passed away into myth, or
were forgotten. After five centuries, or ten, the heroes ceased to come.

And after the time of heroes, there was a time of emptiness.

The snake lay stretched all its black length along and about the tree,
its jaws dripping ready venom, thinking merely: “The treasure is mine, only
mine. You shall not have it.”

But behind its thought, an ache began, an ache in its serpent soul. An
ache for what? It did not know, as it lay wide-eyed through the centuries.
Sometimes, when the dry wind stirred the grass, it would dart up and spit death
at the wind, hungry for another hero. But then it grew weary, and only lay with
its flat head on the bough, dazzled and unseeing, thinking: “Mine, only mine.
No one shall take my treasure from me.”

Though it had forgotten by then what its treasure was.

 

One day, when
the sky was like a dome of sapphire glass over the barren valley, the snake
heard a human footfall some way off, in the porch of the ruined temple. It
raised itself, and its eyes cleared a little. It saw a shadow—it saw only in
shadows now—a shadow like a man. The snake hissed, and poison sizzled on the
ground beneath the tree.

The shadow stopped where it was, not as if timorous, rather as if
listening.

The snake had learned the speech of man centuries before, for hatred and
jealousy must find a tongue; only the creatures which never feel those things
have no need to talk. Therefore the snake spoke.

“Come closer, man born of woman, that I, the serpent of the valley, may
kill you.”

But, instead of running away, or drawing nearer—as the adventurers with
their swords had foolishly done—the shadowy figure seated itself on one of the
broken columns of the temple.

“Why should you wish to kill me?” asked the man, and his voice was
strange and new in the valley, not brazen and shouting, or wheedling or
pleading like the voices of the heroes, neither harsh like the wind nor
monotonous like the rain, but musical and very pleasing. It was a voice which
seemed to have a color like that of a topaz.

The snake held very still at the voice, for it seemed to make the ache in
its soul far worse, yet at the same time, oddly, soothed it.

“I kill all those who trespass here,” the snake said, nevertheless, “for
all who come, come to steal my treasure.”

“What treasure is that?”

“Look up into the boughs of the tree,” the snake declared with bitter
pleasure, “and you will see it.”

At this the voice laughed, very gently, almost kindly, and the laugh was
like water to the parched earth.

“Alas, I cannot see your treasure, for I am blind.”

The words cut through the snake, sharp as any hero’s sword. That a man
who spoke in such a voice should be blind somehow hurt the snake, perhaps since
it too had grown almost sightless.

“Were you born without eyes?” it asked.

“No, I have eyes, though they see nothing. But I come from a land with
one ancient custom.”

“Tell me,” rustled the snake on the bough, because, for the first time in
long, long years, pity had touched it, and interest.

“The land which birthed me,” said the stranger, “lives in great terror of
its gods. The people there believe that if an infant is born with unusual
beauty, the gods will conceive an anger for it, and strike it down. Therefore,
each child, either male or female, is examined by the priests on its third
birthday, and if any are judged likely to incur the gods’ punishment, they are
made to look on white hot fire until the sight is burned from their eyes. In
this fashion the gods’ jealousy is averted. And for this reason, in my land,
all who are fair are blind.”

“Are you then fair?” the serpent asked.

“It seems they found me so,” replied the stranger, yet there was no
rancor or sorrow in his tone.

“Come near,” whispered the snake, “and let me look at you, for I too am
almost blind from staring at a silver fire. I will not harm you, never fear me.
You have been harmed enough.”

The stranger rose. “Poor serpent,” he said, and came close, quite
unafraid, and feeling his way with his hands and with a slim staff he leaned
on. Soon, gaining the tree he reached up, not for the collar of silver, but to
caress the body of the snake. The snake let down its head and gazed at him. The
stranger was a young man, handsome indeed as a god might have been. His hair
was pale as barley under white spring sun. His eyes showed no mark of their
blinding; they were as green and as clear as the finest jade. His body was
slender and strong.

The snake, feeling a great weariness, rested its long head on the
shoulder of the blind man.

“Tell me who took your sight, tell me your name and theirs, that I may
wish evil on them for your sake.”

But the stranger stroked the head of the snake, and said:

“My name is Kazir, as for the others, they are troubled enough. They took
my eyes, but my other senses have grown sharp. When I touch a thing, I know it.
Walking through this valley, I have learned all its history, merely from the
brush of long grass on my wrist or a warm stone picked up from the track. And
touching you, I grasp your sadness and your burden far better then if I had
seen you and been afraid.”

“Ah, you understand me,” sighed the serpent, its face against his neck.
“Once I was happy and innocent. Once I was loved and loving. I have yearned so
long and never known my hope. Oh, give me peace, blind Kazir, give me rest.”

“Rest then,” said the young man, and he sang to the serpent a quiet
golden song. It had to do with ships made of cloud, and the drowsy country
where sleep rose like a mist to comfort the grief of the world. Hearing it, the
serpent slept, the first sweet sleep of centuries, and in its sleep its envy
and its fury died, and presently it also died, as softly and as gratefully as it
had slept.

Kazir felt the life of the serpent leave it, and, since he could do no
more, he kissed its cold head and turned away. Suddenly a branch snapped
sharply behind him, and there came the sound of bells falling through the air.
Kazir put out his hand before he reasoned and into it splashed the collar of
Vayi.

He held it only for a moment.

This thing is cursed,
he thought,
demon work. It has done much
ill and will do more unless I hide it in the ground.
Then, his fingers
going over it, he touched the seven magic jewels.

Others, seeing them, had hungered for them. But Kazir saw only through
his finger-ends, and this with his own curious power. For an instant he held
his breath, and then he said:

BOOK: Night's Master
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