I have mentioned previously that our niece, Grisla, lived with us for a number of years. Her mother, Shalla, is Shena’s younger sister and in my humble opinion has the ability to fall pregnant should her husband comment favourably about her cooking. Shena and I paid for Grisla to attend Dame Ralash’s school for ‘young maidens of humble family up to the age of thirteen.’ Our hope being that it would give the girl a decent start in life.
One late autumn evening I went round to Shalla’s house to collect Grisla as the girl was going to call in to see her mother on her way home from school. Rather to my surprise, she wasn’t there and her mother was, as usual, unclear as to whether she’d even arrived home yet.
This was a little worrying, Grisla is a bright girl and methodical. She is not prone to wandering off unannounced. Whilst I waited for Shalla to wrack her brains to see if Grisla had mentioned anything, one of her boys came running in. I think it was Tildan, or perhaps it was one of the twins. When he saw I was there he approached me rather than his mother.
“Grisla went into the Cattycrook Lane temple and hasn’t come out.”
“The temple of Aea in her aspect of Judicious Enthusiasm?”
“No, the old one next door.”
I knew that one. It’s been bricked up for longer than I can remember. However there was a problem in that a sickening stench now hung around the building, whilst a disgusting black liquor was seeping into the street and was starting to pool amongst the cobbles. I remember hearing that they’d decided to break into the old temple to try and find the source of the problem. Rumour had it that years ago the temple of Aea had installed a jakes for the semi-priests and lesser servants by the simple expedient of just putting the waste pipe through the wall into the abandoned temple.
I looked at the boy. “So why did she go in?”
“She saw another girl wander in and went to stop her because she said it wasn’t safe.”
There are times when a wise man realises that at some point in the day he made a mistake. In my case I felt getting out of bed that morning had been the first step on a long slippery slope which led to this. Things started going downhill badly at the event I’d been to that afternoon. I knelt down behind a settle to try to reaffix the faux silver buckle on my shoe. Whilst doing this I was inadvertently invisible to anybody passing through the room. Thus it was I overheard two of the guests discuss me with dispiriting frankness, something they would not have done had I been visibly present.
The first said, “Tallis is looking his age.”
“Is it the drink or is he as old as he looks?”
“You know what these poets are like. We will doubtless have the dubious pleasure of watching him drift inelegantly though late middle-age on a sea of wine somebody else paid for.”
I remained hidden. Whilst it might have given me some personal satisfaction to leap over the settle and belabour them with a borrowed parasol, poets who get a reputation for that sort of behaviour start losing patrons.
An hour later I sat in the gloom with a lady patron. She was sipping water ‘to cleanse her palate.’ She daren’t drink wine; she wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to stop. In the wooden and expressionless voice of somebody who no longer has any tears left to cry she told me her husband had ‘found someone else’ and she feared he was going to abandon her.
Hence I really didn’t need to go looking for lost girls. I sighed briefly and said to the boy.
“You stay here and look after your mother; I’ll borrow a lantern and go and look.”
Of course, this being Shalla’s house, I could borrow the lantern but they had no oil for it so I had to buy some of that on my way to the temple.
Cattycrook Lane was deserted. Nobody walked along it, because nobody wanted to step into a stinking puddle in the gloom. I lit the lantern and picked my way carefully to the old temple. I waited awhile in the portico of the temple of Aea, hidden by the shadows as I watched to see if anything was happening. As I loitered I heard footsteps. I shuttered the lantern and waited. Down the lane came a Sedan chair. It was followed by another and then a third. Even in the gloom I could see something was amiss, the chairmen were slumped, dressed in rotting rags. The chairs had their curtains drawn so I couldn’t see the occupants, but the chairs themselves were decrepit, almost falling apart due to their age. With no sound but the faltering footsteps of the bearers, the chairs turned off the lane and were carried into the old temple.
Cautiously I followed, and briefly unshuttered the lantern to help me pick my way through the broken bricks scattered across the entrance. Once inside the temple I was faced with a choice. I had either to advance in darkness and be heard by whoever was there as I stumbled, or I could risk some light and take the chance that that might be seen. I turned the lantern down as low as it would go and stepped into the antechamber. Here I found the Sedan chairs abandoned; their bearers and passengers had already left. I examined them cautiously in passing. They stank of mildew and decay; the once fine fabrics were stained and rotted. From up ahead I could hear footsteps, moving away from me. I glanced round and the light from my lantern glinted on a short crowbar left by one of the builders. I picked it up and hefted it, feeling the weight. Thus armed, emboldened I pressed on.
There was no choice of route. A relatively new wall cut across the antechamber. It struck me that the Priests of Aea had expanded their own temple into this one. This had created a passage which I advanced along. I kept the lantern flame low. In the dim light carved faces seemed to leer and grimace at me. I reassured myself that this was a trick of the light. It was more comforting than turning up the lantern and discovering that they still did it.
The passage became a stairway, climbing upwards. The smell was getting worse. I took a scented handkerchief out of my pocket and tied it firmly across my face. As I did so I tried to remember whose handkerchief it was, and why I remained friends with somebody who used such a cloying scent. Still at this point it was better than the smell that was coming from above.
I was picking my way carefully, the noxious black liquid was oozing out of the walls and trickling down the stairs. I could see the footprints of those who had gone before me. In one case whoever it was had only half a foot, the front half including the ball and the toes never left a mark.
At the top of the steps there was a wide open area, a large circular hall. I hastily shuttered my lantern and stood still. There were candles in sconces around the wall. These gave off some light. In the centre of the room there was another light source. This was a leprous green glow which seemed to emanate from a portal in the middle of the room.
In the light it was obvious that this room had to be carved out from several adjacent buildings, it was far too big for what little of the old temple there was left. It struck me that the temples on this street must be so interwoven that it was highly probable that nobody was entirely sure where one building ended and the next began. Between the candle sconces were archways like the one I was standing in. Shuffling, shapeless figures were entering the room through the other archways. They moved to gather around the portal and slowly, they rhythmically shuffled around it.
Try as I might I could see no sign of Grisla. Standing here was not going to help me find her. This, I told myself, was a task for a hero, or at least a strong contingent of men-at-arms. As it was the only person available seemed to be a much put-upon poet. I steeled myself and stepped forward to snuff out the candle on the sconce to the left of my archway. That way I hoped I could find my way out again. Cautiously I made my way along the wall. With my collar up and my hat pulled down, I did my best to adopt the shuffling walk of the creatures around me. I glanced into each archway as I crept past, hoping to spot Grisla hiding. In the middle of the room the shambling throng started to chant. Dry, creaking voices croaked and rasped, producing sounds that might have been words but were in no language I had ever heard before. At the third arch, as I stepped into it I almost collided with somebody stepping out. I reeled back, nauseated by the sight, struggling not to retch. The thing, man shaped and perhaps once human, reached out for me. I brought the poker down on its head with a double handed blow. The skull smashed and its contents splashed out. Maggots dropped to the floor as the creature slowly collapsed. Then as I stepped out of its way, the thing that had once been a man crawled its way to the throng in the centre and joined them in their dance, squirming around the portal on its belly.
It was on the far side of the great hall that I found the altar. Dangling upside-down over the altar, entangled in a web of cords, were two naked girl children. I checked the first. Her throat had been cut so that her blood had poured out over the altar as she hung there. I risked a little more light on her face, thank Aea in all her aspects that I didn’t recognise her. I moved hastily to the next one, it was Grisla and she was still alive, moaning quietly in terror. This I could sympathise with. My jaw ached, so tightly was I clenching my teeth to stop them chattering.
I glanced over my shoulder, the throng in the centre was larger, their chanting was building to a crescendo. I didn’t hesitate; I drew my knife and cut the ropes securing Grisla. She reached for me and I clasped her to me with my left arm making sure that the lantern didn’t burn her. I pocketed the knife and picked up the bar again. Muttering under my breath, “Drifting inelegantly though late middle-age on a sea of wine somebody else paid for,” I looked round at the candles in their sconces. Thanks to snuffing out one candle, I could work out where the arch was that I needed.
Shunning stealth I aimed almost directly for my way out, aiming to skirt the gristly mob in the middle. As I moved briskly forward, the portal started pulsing with a foul green radiance almost too bright to look at and in the centre of the portal a dark shape was slowly appearing. The shuffling stopped and all the horrifying creatures turned to face it with a collective sigh. Without any real thought, I half turned and threw the crowbar at the shape in the portal. Almost in slow motion I could see the cold iron bar cart-wheeling over the heads of the disgusting rabble. As it struck the portal there was a flash of actinic blue light that briefly blinded me. I struggled on, bright after-images obscuring my vision. Somehow I reached the arch; behind me I could hear the sounds of pursuit. I unshuttered the lantern and smashed it hard on the ancient wooden floorboards. Burning oil pooled around my feet. I stepped over it and ran down the stairs, clutching Grisla to me with both arms. Out in Cattycrook Lane I stopped to get my breath. A cold rain was being blown in from the sea so I took my jacket off and wrapped it round Grisla. Then I grasped her hand and jogged briskly down the lane. Glancing over my shoulder I could see that flames had already broken through the roof of the old temple. I slowed down a little; it’s less than helpful if some witness reports that they saw you fleeing the scene of a burning building.
We had to pass the Misanthropes Hall on our way back to the barge. So I walked into the upstairs bar, still leading Grisla by the hand. Old Var Tinkalwit was behind the counter. I leaned on the bar.
“I want a glass of plum brandy for me, a small white wine for the girl, and the rest of the bottle to take home.”
He stood, about to pour the plum brandy. “I trust you have the money to pay for this young Tallis.”
I looked at him in silence. Finally I said, “No, but if you just give it to me, I won’t tell you what I’ve just seen.”
He looked at us properly; a young girl in a sodden jacket, blank-faced. Me in my shirt sleeves on a cold evening, dripping rainwater onto his bar. He stared into my eyes and without a word pushed the brandy bottle across the bar and went to get the bottle of wine.
Within the life of Tallis Steelyard you’ll find both light and shade, one creates the other.
As the reviewer said, “The sheer ingenuity of Jim Webster’s short tales never ceases to amaze me as I work my way through this, and his other books.”