There was once a girl — excuse me, a young woman, you decide — who on account of having no excuse at all for an episode of bad behaviour, bad language, and bad attitude, was sent to her room. Not straight to her room, which is to say, without dinner, because none of the behaviour, language, or attitude were irredeemably atrocious or outrageous — but the whole package, considered together, was of the type about which grown-ups eventually, and quite rightfully, come to the conclusion that they have just had enough.
And this was behaviour which really could not be ignored; there would be a cleaning bill to countenance, and apologies to make, and eyes to roll during the retelling, and so the girl was given over to the servants. And before the jugglers and the clowns and the singers, and even the dancing Syrians (who said they were Sufis, but who could be sure?), had begun — before in fact, any of the King’s birthday celebrations had begun; as soon as the fruit pureed with ice from the peaks of the Urals and dusted with honeyed pollen brushed from the wings of Baalbek doves had been served — yes, dinner having been done, the miscreant was sent to her room.
Now, you are curious as to the nature of the trouble, I know. I can hear your restlessness from here; it reminds me of the way the archers from the palace guard grumble as they practice in the courtyard early on a cold morning, far below my window. But I am not going to tell you; not because I don’t want to, particularly — you see, I have no agenda and can be trusted implicitly — but because she and I, we have made a deal, and a good deal it is; in exchange for my silence on certain matters, and the reasons for the transgressions of the evening in question are the least of them (and I must admit that too much education of some people can be just as injurious as too little or none at all; so I am being careful about what I tell you — but please don’t take offence; I mean none of this personally) — I have been told that I can tell you the following.
The next day, she sought me out, while the mead hall was being returned to its normal immaculate state after the King’s birthday celebrations, which had apparently gone on all night, and were fit to keep even the monsters in their lairs on the marshes awake and grumbling — but let us not get started on monsters, for if we do that, we shall be here indefinitely…
The child (and I persist in thinking of her as a child; I think because of my own age, and the difference between us, rather than just her youth, which in itself is just a thing, and of no great importance; but also because if my own daughter had lived, she would be of the same order of age as the Princess; perhaps that has something to do with it, as well…) …the child, as I say… pressed upon me that I should put down my bucket and mop and follow her, so I did, because of course you do not refuse the Princess; none of us would ever think of it, and so I followed the Princess, and she led me — and do I need to describe my consternation, the ice which wrapped itself around my heart, the tightening of my lips, so that for several moments no words could part them, when I saw that she had led me to the door, heavy with chains and locks, shut fast with dire warnings and old rumours, sealed with whispers and averted eyes — you know of course, which door; I refer to that door, huge and unused for so long — she had led me to the room that had been sealed for as many years as the Princess is old (and you shall see how that works).
The tapestry that had concealed it since the day of the young Princess’s arrival lay in a convulsed pile on the floor where she had dropped it sometime during the night, when she should have been sleeping, and the guard outside her room should not; a mountain and attending foothills of brocaded skies and forest, and nymphs and satyrs, and a huge naked Artemis, lying sprawled and wanton across the floor.
‘I would have that door opened,’ said the Princess, turning to me rather than anyone else, her head held straight and her gaze clearer than that of anyone who had attended the King’s celebrations — and addressing me rather than anyone else. Of course. I always seem to get these jobs.
Now, please be patient; I need to digress. I have erred. With my mention of King’s birthdays, and jugglers, and being sent to rooms, and the dinner being exotic (Baalbek doves, really?), I think that quite possibly I have created in your mind a picture of the King as a sort of avuncular character, perhaps with a jolly smile, rosy cheeks, a happy and knowing twinkle in his eye — think of Saint Nicholas if you must — and perhaps a Queen beside him, beautiful and wise and radiant, a good mother to the royal household and the realm; and you probably had thought, if you dwelt on the matter at all, that you have not met these two yet simply because I have yet to introduce you.
And you may have an image in your mind of the young Princess as being a very young child, of maybe ten or eleven, which of course is the age at which all children are precocious and heartless, and I did mention some bad behaviour, after all, and young girls combine these traits with a terrible lack of mercy, as thoroughly and as skilfully as the cooks in hell’s kitchens, where of course the meal and the diner are often one and the same; a condition well-known to all parents.
Oh my, is that what you were thinking? We have gone a little distance down the wrong track, haven’t we… children do that to us, don’t they? One minute we’re sure of what we know, and then just one child, one sweet Princess later, we find, out of nowhere, a shock, like stepping into autumn leaves and finding a drain or a gutter lurking beneath, and there goes your ankle; or having killed the dragon and taken the treasure, slipping on the blood-slippery stone at the entrance of the creature’s lair, because you were not watching your step, and were thinking ahead too hard, too far, already dividing the jewels and gold and pearls between the members of your family, and so you slipped on the shed life blood of the dead monster (perhaps you were distracted by the mournful cry of its mother, perhaps the revenge that she swore to the heavens, causing the sea to boil, made you blanch a little, and miss your step…), and you lost your grip on the jewellery, the gold, the pearls, because you had to reach out, in a panic, and take hold of something, anything — a handhold of rock, or the branch of a blackened, scorched tree — to stop you and your armour and your horse and your servants and your supply wagons and your guards all from crashing, head over heel, one over the other, over and over, around and round, down over the precipice, into the abyss over which the dragon had kept guard, keeping the foolish and unwise away, so they should not dash their brains out on the rocks — and so you could do nothing but watch, your balance recovered but still precarious, as the treasure tumbled into the depths, and crashed to the bottom of the very pit from which the monster had first retrieved it. If you had not been distracted by the treasure, you would not have lost the treasure.
Hmm. Perhaps this is what tales of young royals do. Yes, I have digressed, and more than I intended to.
In short — yes, you see, I can do it, I can be brief — the Princess is: reserved, aloof, often withdrawn, introspective, frequently accused of rudeness or surliness, attractive, wide-eyed, not given to suffering fools, well-read, sometimes irascible (though never without cause), seventeen, raven-haired, intelligent (although so uninterested in the astrolabe that she has never touched one), given to gazing at the moon and composing verse which she never writes down, and of course, she is not the natural daughter of the King or Queen, and therefore lacks both the King’s raptorial nature and the Queen’s proclivity for screaming at anything or anyone, regardless of their distance from her, or their degree of fault in the matter at hand;
— and here is the King of Norway — he is short, and I don’t need to tell you, of all people, how little is the trust that should be placed in short men, because they hate the world so much on account of its ruthlessness and its enjoyment in seeing them cuckolded; and he is thin, and you must never trust those who are thin, because they are always hungry; and he is old, and so many of the old care about all the wrong things, or nothing — or even worse, about nothing so much as soft food.
The King is harsh, and careless, and cruel. Yet do not think that he is unfeeling; for he feels everything, and he finds much relief and satisfaction in the pain of those he delivers it to;
— and now you’re wondering how the Queen fits in.
She fits in like this: where he is short, she is not (she towers above him); where he speaks but little, she is an endless torrent of words; where he is cruel — well, she is that. The King loves the Queen — to the degree and in the manner that he does — simply because he cannot cause her pain, and this impresses him greatly; in fact the delirium of it often deprives him of sleep. She is impervious to him. Between them, in public as well as in private, they have established this beyond all doubt, with a certainty and thoroughness that would cause some to descend to the outer regions of madness. (Their relationship is not alone in this; but it is a good example of it.)
The King and the Queen preside over their realm as though no one else could possibly do it, or has ever done it before them. Only the mountains and the rocks and trees and the rivers and lakes, and the winds that hunt and race above it all, and the hamadryads that live in all of it, can remember the time when the King’s predecessor sat on the throne — but he was a fool, and quick enough about dying; and so they keep their silence, because for everything that exists, there is something for which a dagger can serve as a metaphor, along the blade of which glistens doom and dissolution.
Now in the days surrounding these events, the realm has come to resemble the Royal Couple; Norway has taken after them, just as any child will its parents eventually, through either imitation or resentment. (The effect, though often understandably unpopular, is inescapable and inevitable.)
Accordingly, the rivers here do not begin life as babbling brooks, all sparkling happiness and innocence; that is for the weak who live in the south, where it is warm, where the ice does not reach, where the heat saps strength, and the sun bleaches souls.
No, here the mountains are made of the same fury that possesses the King and the Queen, and just as it does with them, it causes the very earth to shake, so that from the mountains erupt cascades of lust and febrility, of rigour and will, as water that boils, but not on account of its temperature; as mist that rises not because it is steam, but because it rises to challenge the hot blood of the housecarls and the crews of the dragon-prowed longboats, and tests them, and then sooths their brows when they prove themselves strong and resolute;
and the water coursing through the rivers and streams is the relentless lifeblood of the world, bearing within it memories of strength and war and regret for nothing;
as waterfalls, it hurls itself into the frozen northern air, fearless, careless, and the men and women who breathe in the sight feel no doubt or fear, and the broadsword and the shield of the housecarl house its strength without fail or hesitation;
and it flows to the sea, and its memory does not dissolve there, but retains itself, like the recollection of a great victory of arms, and it picks up the dragon-prowed longboats and carries them across the broad ocean, to the southern lands of the soft and weak, whose mourning and doom is written on the blades of northern swords.
And the King and Queen preside over all this, and neither of them care anything for weakness, or failure, or children.
Oh yes, the door. We were in front of the door, weren’t we…
We stood, the young Princess and her friends and retainers, unmoving like so much terra cotta, before the door, the age and silence of which left heavy weights upon our tongues; the slow, effortless rusting of the iron frame reminded me of the dust-covered bark of the forests of Finland, captured in luxuriant, faithful fashion by the King’s court painter, in the memorials that hang in the summer banquet hall and in which the blood of the fallen depicted on the snow glows fierce and red when the light of the morning sun streams in, a flood of pale heat through high-arched windows, turning everything golden and red; but this is the heavy red of languid slow desire, the red that lowers eyelids and averts the gaze, that sends mouths fleeing to hide behind fans of burgundy lace, that puts an edge on the intake of a breath when a hand touches or brushes — or a glance brushes or lingers — or a gesture lingers or rests; and beneath it all courses an endless, red, stream of blood and deep, unending appetite.
The door was soon opened, of course.
And soon we were standing on the very spot upon which I had stood all those years ago, with the King and Queen there as well, standing at the edge of the water that filled the room; the gaping hole as wide as a dragon-prowed longship is long, filled with water into the depths of which there is no seeing; they and the members of the court, the lords and ladies and courtesans and sycophants and hangers-on, they were all there, but no-one knew anything as to what this was; but somehow it promised some great change, or at least the chance of it.
I can tell you, because I was there.
The room in which the royal court and its hangers-on stood had been uncovered during renovations in preparation for the birth of the Queen’s child; it had by all appearances been built around the edifice of the well, which had itself, by all appearances, been built by unknown hands, a long age ago, around the body of water. The water was dark and timeless and reeked of mystery and inscrutability, and had clearly itself been built around nothing; even a Saxon or a Russian, or a Dane such as I, could tell that much…
Some of us shook or shivered with fright; some of us could not look upon the water; some could not take their eyes from it. I cannot remember where I stood among all that.
It was the only time I have ever seen the King unsure, or the Queen unable to speak. (As for the singular nature of that circumstance, please just accept the notion without further discussion, otherwise we shall be here all day.)
But more than just water was at the root of the unease. Do you remember what I said about the power that resides in the water here, and how these people were so used to it? A power that broods or rages in water is nothing new. It would take more than a bottomless pool of water to gather a crowd here.
Before us, insensible and impervious to our dismay, and bobbing slightly on the water as a toy boat might after its owner has been distracted by the flurry of a flock of crimson parrots flying from a copse of trees — was a thing of wood and brass. It resembled a turtle as much as it resembled anything; or a wooden egg embraced by metallic limbs as much as it resembled anything else.
Water slickened its surfaces of dark and polished wood; water dripped from its handles and propellers, dripped from its raised hatch surrounded by portholes all made of brass and from which a mist of light glowed, causing the wetness on it to shine and shimmer, as though somewhere, within the space that this apparition occupied, with all its strangeness and wood and brass, a sun had risen, so that fingers of dawn pierced the gloom like rose thorns, and crimson parrots flew close, and somewhere there were marks of teeth on skin…
Now the Queen had, a few weeks before, lost the child that she had been carrying. It was not greatly developed, she not being far into the pregnancy; and the people in question being who they were, there were no tears or histrionics, and both the physical and elemental qualities of the landscape being what they were, no rivers had reversed their directions, nor had there been any eclipse or earthquake, nor had any statues turned, toppled, or wept. In fact, the truth of it is that the death of the unborn child had been forgotten almost instantly; make of that what you will. As for myself and the other prisoners, we did not look the matter in the eye, we just continued with our work, covering ourselves in the silence which all in our situation embrace, if they have any wisdom at all.
But on that morning, as the King and Queen and their attendants gathered in this strange room, the matter of children must surely have surfaced in their minds — because from the strange and barnacle-encrusted construction which floated before them, from the portholes of which a soft glow of light emanated, and the hatch of which had opened, they were told, by itself — the sound of a child happily burbling could plainly be heard.
In short, there was an infant in this thing, this diving machine which had risen from the depths of the black water just an hour before, in the full and shocked presence of workers, who, being superstitious, illiterate and uneducated (which is to say, foreigners), had dropped their tools and fled at the sight of the monster as it had heaved above the surface of the water, hissing, its gears winding down noisily as it came to rest.
The workers had informed their overseer, who had come and looked, and then had left and informed his overseer, who had come and looked… and so on and so on, and soon there had been so much coming and looking and overseeing going on that the King and the Queen found themselves standing before the machine, listening to the sound of what was irrefutably an increasingly hungry human infant.
It wasn’t long before the child had been retrieved from the vessel. The process involved two Danish prisoners, an English courtesan, and a Norwegian guard, himself not long released from prison, where he had spent a few months atoning for his practice of trolldomr — a tallying by which he was not one bit deterred.
Seeing the looks of wonder on the faces of the onlookers, the Queen stepped forward, took the baby from the Englishwoman, and said, as if it were the end of the matter and would resolve all doubts or complications or speculation: “The Princess Aslauga.”
The King nodded deliberately, this signifying that he was not about to interfere, even though, as was often the case in matters concerning the Queen, he had no idea of what was happening.
And that was that.
The Princess grew up as the daughter of the King and Queen, and no-one ever told her any differently.
Which is why it is something of a mystery; how she came to know of the door which had been concealed from her and the world for so long, and so well. I have my suspicions, but because they do not involve people talking, or people being told, or secrets being betrayed, or whispers, or notes, then I think that I shall not tell you, because if you are like most people, you would not believe me. Me, who has no agenda.
But all that was then, a long time ago.
Here we were, again.
The Princess and I stood before the water, which was exactly as we had left it all those years ago — just as dark and impenetrable as when the door was sealed. Also exactly as we had left it was the diving vessel.
The Princess had sent the others away, and the two of us stood in the pale light of the winter sun struggling through the dust-encrusted windows high above us, washing the color from everything, so that she, and I know I must have as well, took on the appearance of a ghost, standing there, the shade of a smile haunting her pale lips.
‘I will enter the bell, Bernardo,’ she said, using my Danish name, rather than that Norwegian slur they use to degrade me, and which I shall not mention here.
And she did enter the bell, and I helped her.
She waited until I had returned to what this strange room provided by way of a shore — this involved some lowering and raising of walkways — and then she closed the hatch of the bell, as she called it; and indeed, there was something of a ringing sound as it was shut up.
Then pieces of the device began to move, as though some train of events had been set in motion, which it most clearly was, as you shall see.
So as for what happened next, I cannot tell from having seen it myself, but I do have it from her own lips, and I can assure you that her account is to be trusted, for of all the people in this castle, the Princess Aslauga is the one who is truthful to her core, in whose heart there is no crevice or flaw in which the angel of deceit might find a foothold (I think it has to do with her provenance) — so, if she says that this is how it happened, then yes, this is how it happened…
The Princess descends into the water, past the point where I can no longer see the bell because darkness has swallowed it, and the sound of it, the ticking and grinding of its gears and the hiss of something that I do not understand has ceased, and I stand there and look, feeling helpless now, at the only trace of what has just happened. The settling disturbance of the water. The eddies of pale reflections…
As the bell takes her into the black depths, light spills from its portholes and illuminates the creatures that live here. Her breath gasps first, and then her heart and her mind gasp as well. The creatures here are so many and so fearsome; out of the darkness they swim towards her, they bare their teeth, huge and curved like the sabres of the King’s housecarls. Some brush their hoary scales against the side of the bell, and the sound of that is like names to her, heady names of things that want to take form and that almost make her swoon.
Crystals of ice form on the windows, and her flesh thrills with the cold as she wipes them away, so that she can see out to where the light dispels the darkness and reveals great hides and long, scaled backs. Eyes the size of cart wheels gaze back at her. She has said nothing. She says nothing.
And then past a great tear, a fissure in the water; through which, illuminated by a sun which never sets or eclipses, and which calls for no blood or sacrifice, she sees a great open field on which a godchild plays endless games with tortoises and kangaroos and lizards and Silent Gray Ibolons from the desert worlds of N53-157; all of these playmates being infinite in number, and seven light years long, except for the Ibolons, which are especially large;
From there the Princess travels down through the freezing sea, to where the creatures become thin and insubstantial and far apart, and they float like sheets of gossamer and forget first each others’ names and then their own;
And past the male and female gods and deities, past even the very point where the Goddess is enveloping the God, and He is entering Her, past the point where all their arms are intertwined in love, and all their bodies and legs are intertwined in love, so that Aslauga blushes, for prudence and on account of the sight of others, but also for eagerness and desire…
And she arrives, her craft in perfect repair, despite the pressures of the deep which would collapse the world to the size of a pinprick, if only the world could survive there long enough for that to happen; the weight of the water here is infinite; yet every piece and cog and gear of the bell is still functioning.
Here she is, at the place where the things that exist slide up against the things that do not exist, and they whisper together on the ocean floor.
The Princess navigates the bell to a place where existence and non-existence slide over each other like lovers, and she feels herself flicker, most deliciously and agreeably, and she smiles at the joy of this, because it is very deep down here, and not many bother to attempt the journey, and even fewer make it to the plane where existence and non-existence meet, where they do indeed (yes, she sees that now) slide over each other like sweat-soaked lovers, and the Princess smiles because she sees a great whale in the impeccable half-light of the distance, swimming near a ridge of doubt and curiosity, and a pool of light paints pictures on the eyes of the beast, and on its great hide are scars which are shaped like words such as might be in a book, if only books could contain words that large, or even if books could just exist down here, but then they cannot — and so she feels thankful that whales can. If only she had paid more attention to her books and her reading, especially the volumes on whales!
And then her smile becomes wide, and she laughs with such joy that all the deities and creatures come diving and flying to see, and far above the God and the Goddess hear her, and pause, and lift their teeth from each others’ skin, and look into each others’ eyes, She into His and He into Hers, and they laugh, and create several new universes, one of which, reader, is the one you are sitting in right now.
So I was told. The Princess Aslauga returned to us in the same manner that she had left, with the bell rising from the depths noisily, with much clanking and whirring and cascading water. And although she swore it was only a few minutes, it was a week that she was gone.
She has never been the same since. And now sometimes she disappears, for days at a time, and I know where she is, of course. Her secret is safe with me, for I have no agenda, and can be trusted implicitly. And every time she comes out of that room, I see that she has grown more, and says less, and every day she looks at the Moon, or where the Moon would be if it was there, and she composes verses, but she does not write them down.
But she does tell them to me, and as for that; perhaps another time.
* * *
From Air for Fire