Kingdoms of the Wall [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Robert Silverberg
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: The village of Jespodar nestles in the foothills of a world-dominating mountain known to all as "The Wall." Poilar Crookleg has grown up in Jespodar training hard and hoping that he will be chosen for the annual Pilgrimage, a group journey to the top of the mountain from which no pilgrim has ever returned both alive and sane. The pilgrims seek to replicate the legendary journey of a distant ancestor who scaled the mountain and, so the story goes, met with the gods. The Pilgrimage is a a life journey, an overwhelming challenge and a sacred honor and Poilar feels blessed when he is finally chosen to lead it. But not all is as it first seems. Along the journey lie hazards of all kinds, both vilently dangerous and seductively beguiling and to triumph in the climb is to confront a revelation so surprising and so disturbing that none, not even the smartest and best prepared, are likely to survive. What belief and what devotion leads so many to hope for such a challenging task and what will be the ultimate result of such dedication? Only The Wall itself can reveal the destiny for those who undertake the Pilgrimage. Now with a new introduction by the author.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1992
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012
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This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, I who have been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall and have felt the terrible fire of revelation there. I have seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, I have grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death. These are the things I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I must teach you for the sake of your souls. Listen and remember.
If you are of my village, then you know who I am. But I want the story I am about to relate to be heard and understood far beyond our own village, and so I will tell you that my father was Gabrian son of Drok, my House is the House of the Wall, and my clan within that House is Wallclan. So I come from a noble line.
I never knew my father when I was growing up, because he set forth on the Pilgrimage when I was only a small boy and never returned. So there was only a hole in my spirit where others have fathers to guide them. All that he left me with to carry me through childhood and boyhood was the memory of a tall man with bright eyes and strong arms, sweeping me up and tossing me high overhead and laughing in a deep, rich voice as he caught me. It may not be a trustworthy memory. It may have been some other man entirely who lifted me and tossed me like that; or maybe it never happened at all. But for many years that was all I had of my father: bright eyes, strong arms, a ringing peal of laughter.
My father's father had gone to the Wall also in his time. That is the tradition of my family. We are folk of restless soul, Pilgrims by nature. We always have been. The Pilgrimage is the high custom of our people, of course, the great defining event of one's life: either you become a Pilgrim or you do not, and either way it leaves its mark upon you forever. And we are of the Pilgrim sort. We claim descent from the First Climber; we take it for granted that we will be Pilgrims ourselves when we come of age, and will go up into the fearsome heights where one's body and one's soul are placed at dread risk of transformation by the forces that dwell there.
Like my father, my father's father failed to return from his god-quest in the realms above.
As for me, I never gave the Pilgrimage a thought when I was young. I looked upon the Pilgrimage then as something that concerned older folk, people in the second half of their second ten of years. It was always certain to me that when my time came I would be a candidate for the Pilgrimage, that I would be chosen, that I would undertake it successfully. Taking the Pilgrimage for granted in that way allowed me not to think about it at all. That way I was able to make it unreal.
I suppose I could pretend to you that I was a child of destiny, marked from my earliest years for supreme achievement, and that holy lightnings crackled about my brow and people made sacred signs when they passed me in the street. But in fact I was an ordinary sort of boy, except for my crooked leg. No lightnings crackled about me. No gleam of sanctity blazed on my face. Something like that came later, yes, much later, after I had had my star-dream; but when I was young I was no one unusual, a boy among boys. When I was growing up I wasn't at all the sort to go about thinking heavy thoughts about the Pilgrimage, or the Wall and its Kingdoms, or the gods who lived at its Summit, or any other such profundities. Traiben, my dearest friend, was the one who was haunted by high questions of ultimate destinies and utmost purposes, of ends and means, of essences and appearances, not I. It was Traiben, Traiben the Wise, Traiben the Thinker, who thought deeply about such things and eventually led me to think about them too.
But until that time came the only things that mattered to me were the usual things of boyhood, hunting and swimming and running and fighting and laughing and girls. I was good at all those things except running, because of my crooked leg, which no shapechanging has ever been able to heal. But I was strong and healthy otherwise, and I never permitted the leg to interfere with my life in any way whatever. I have always lived as though both my legs were as straight and swift as yours. When you have a flaw of the body such as I have there is no other course, not without giving way to feelings of sorrow for yourself, and such feelings poison the soul. So if there was a race, I ran in it. If my playmates went clambering across the rooftops, I clambered right along with them. Whenever someone mocked me for my limp--and there were plenty who did, shouting "Crookleg! Crookleg!" at me as though it were a fine joke--I would beat him until his face was bloody, no matter how big or strong he might be. In time, to show my defiance of their foolish scorn, I came to take Crookleg as my surname, like a badge of honor worn with pride.
If this world were a well-ordered place it would have been Traiben who had had the crooked leg and not me.
Perhaps I ought not to say so cruel a thing about one whom I claim to love. But what I mean is that in this world there are thinkers and doers; doers must have agility and strength of body, and thinkers need agility and strength of mind. I had agility and bodily strength aplenty, but my leg was a handicap all the same. As for Traiben, the thinker, there was no strength in his frail body anyway, so why shouldn't the gods have given him this limp of mine as well, instead of me? One more physical drawback, among so many, would not have made his life any worse, and I would have been better fitted to be the person I was meant to be. But the gods are never so precise in parceling out our gifts.
We were an odd pair: he so small and flimsy and fragile, with no more strength to him than a gossamer, and me so sturdy and unwearying. Traiben looked as though you could break him with a blow, and you could. Whereas I have made it clear throughout all my days that if there is any breaking to be done, I will be the breaker rather than the broken. What drew us together, then? Though we belonged to the same House and the same clan within that House, that in itself would not necessarily have led to friendship between us. No, I think the thing that linked us so tightly, different though we were in so many respects, was the fact that each of us had something about him that set him apart from the others of our clan. In my case it was my leg. In Traiben's, it was his mind, which burned with such fierce brilliance that it was like a sun within his skull.
Traiben it was who first set me on the path that leads to the summit of the Wall, when he and I were twelve years old.
The name of my village is Jespodar, which the Scribes and Scholars say is a word in the old Gotarza language that once was spoken here, meaning, "Those Who Cling to the Wall." I suppose we do. Our village, which is really not a village at all but a vast conglomeration of villages all tangled together, containing many thousands of people, is said to lie closer to the perimeter of the Wall than any other--right up against its flank, as a matter of fact. It is possible to take a road that runs out of the center of Jespodar that will put you on the Wall itself. If you were to make the great journey around the base of the Wall, you would come to scores of other villages--hundreds, maybe--along its perimeter; but none, so the Scholars tell us, actually abuts the flank of the Wall the way Jespodar does. Or so we are taught in Jespodar, at any rate.
The day of which I want to tell you, that day when my friend Traiben first lit the fire of Pilgrimage in my twelve-year-old mind, was the day of the departure of that year's Pilgrims. You know what great pomp and splendor that involves. The ceremony of the Procession and Departure has not changed since ancient times. The clans of every House that make up our village gather; the sacred things of the tribe are brought forth, the batons and scrolls and talismans; the Book of the Wall is recited, every last verse of it, which requires weeks and weeks of unceasing effort; and finally the forty successful candidates emerge from the Pilgrim Lodge to show themselves before the village and take their leave. It is a profound moment, for we will never see most of them again--everyone understands that--and those who do return will come back transformed beyond all knowing of them. That has ever been the way.
To me in that innocent time it was all just a grand festival, nothing more. For many days, now, people from the outlying districts of the village had been arriving at our House, which lay closer to the Wall than any other in Jespodar: we were the House of the Wall, the House of Houses. Thousands had come, thousands of thousands, so that the whole unthinkable swarm of festival-goers was crammed elbow to elbow all the time, packed so close together that often we found ourselves changing shape involuntarily, just from the heat and congestion of it all, and we had to struggle to get back to the forms that we preferred.
Wherever you looked, our Housegrounds overflowed with mobs of people. They were everywhere and they got into everything: they trampled our lovely powdervines, they crushed and flattened our handsome daggerfernbushes, they stripped the gambellos of all their ripe, heavy blue fruits. It had happened that way every year for more dozens of years than anyone can remember: we expected it and were resigned to it. The longhouses and the roundhouses were filled, the meadows were filled, the sacred groves were filled. Some people even slept in trees. "Have you ever seen so many people?" we all kept asking each other, though of course we had, only the year before. But it was the thing to say.
We even had a few of the King's men in town to see the ceremony. They were swaggering thick-bodied men who wore robes of red and green, and they went striding through the crowds as if there was no one in their way. People stepped aside when they passed. I asked my mother's brother Urillin, who had raised me in my father's absence, who they were, and he said, "They are the King's men, boy. They sometimes come here for the Festival, to enjoy themselves at our expense." And he muttered a bitter curse, which surprised me, because Urillin was a mild and quiet man.
I stared at them the way I might have stared at men with two heads, or six arms. I had never seen King's men before; and, in feet, I have never seen them since. Everyone knows that there is a King somewhere on the other side of Kosa Saag who lives in a grand palace in a great city and holds dominion over many villages, ours among them. The King owns the magic that makes everything work, and so I suppose we are dependent on him. But he is so very far away and his decrees have so little direct bearing on our everyday life that he might just as well live on some other planet. We dutifully pay our tribute but otherwise we have no dealings with him or the government he heads. He is only a phantom to us. I scarcely thought about him from one end of the year to the other. But the sight of these men of his service, who had come such a great distance to attend our Festival, reminded me how huge the world is, and how little I knew about any of it except our own village lying in the shadow of the Wall; and so the King's men awakened awe in me as they went strutting by.
The days passed in rising frenzy and excitement. The moment of the Procession and Departure was approaching.
The chosen Pilgrims, naturally, were kept out of sight: no one had seen them for months and certainly nobody was allowed to see them now, at this time of times. They remained hidden away in Pilgrim Lodge, the twenty men in one room and the twenty women in the other, while food was shoveled to them through slots in the doors.
But the rest of us enjoyed constant revelry. All day and all night there was dancing and singing and drunkenness. Of course there was plenty of work to do too. Then as now, each House had its special responsibility. The House of Carpenters set up the viewing-stands, the House of Musicians played songs of jubilation from dawn to the moon-hours, the House of Holies stood in the plaza and chanted prayers at the top of its lungs, the House of Singers began to recite the innumerable verses of the Book of the Wall outside Pilgrim Lodge in continuous relays without break, and the House of Vintners put up its booths and opened casks as fast as we could drain them, which was very fast indeed. The House of Clowns went among us in yellow robes miming and making faces and gaily pummeling people; the House of Weavers brought forth the heavy golden carpets that must line the road to the Wall at this time; the House of Sweepers toiled to clean away the hideous mess that the multitudes of other festival-goers were creating. The only ones who had no duties were youngsters like Traiben and me. But we understood that the adults did their work gladly, for this was meant to be a time of universal celebration in the village.
We who belonged to the House of the Wall, naturally, had the task of coordinating all the activities of the other Houses. That is a frightful burden, but for us it is also a source of great pride. Meribail, my father's father's brother's son, was the head of our House then, and I think he went without sleep a dozen nights running as the day of the Procession drew near.
And then it was Departure-day itself: as always, the twelfth day of Elgamoir. The morning was steamy-warm, with steady rainfall. Every leaf of every tree glistened like a knifeblade. The ground was soft as sponge beneath our feet.
No one could ever say that smothering warmth and pelting rain are any novelties to us in our lowland home. Then as now, we lived all the year round in the kind of heat that stews one's flesh, and we loved it. But even so this was unusual warmth, unusual rain. The air was like a bog: that morning we felt as though we were breathing water. We were all of us decked out in our fine Procession clothes too, the blue leather leggings and scarlet ribbons and droopy-topped yellow caps that people wear at such times, children and elders alike. But we were wet to the skin, what with the constant rain and our own dripping sweat. I remember how hard I had to fight to hold my shape, so great was the heat, so sticky was the air. My arms kept melting and writhing, my shoulders would swing around at strange angles to my torso, and I would have to clench my teeth and force everything back into place. Traiben beside me was fluttering also from form to form, although however much he changed he somehow was always the same flimsy, hollow-chested, big-eyed Traiben with the pipestem legs and the scrawny neck.
As the hour of the Procession arrived there came a miracle. Just as the Singers reached the last words of the final verse of the Book of the Wall--the verse that is known as the Summit--the rain abruptly relented, the thick gray soupy mists thinned and vanished, the heavy shield of the sky became transparent. A cool swift wind began to blow from the north. Everything became wonderfully clear and radiant. The bright hot light of blue-white Ekmelios appeared and shone down dazzlingly upon us like a fiery jewel in the forehead of the sky. It was a double-sun day, even: that day we were able also to see the enormous remote sphere of red Marflemma, the sun that gives no warmth. We could see everything. Everything.
"Kosa Saag!" we all cried in one voice, gesturing with tremendous excitement. "Kosa Saag!"
Yes. The Wall was coming into view in all its immensity. It had, of course, been hidden by the murkiness of the morning air, but now it appeared above us, climbing and climbing and climbing. It pierced the sky and disappeared into the immeasurable heights. People fell trembling to their knees and began to weep and pray, stricken as they were by fear and humility at the sight of that gigantic mountain suddenly revealing itself.
Certainly Kosa Saag is always a mighty sight, even when the usual low-hanging clouds hide most of it from view and just the squat reddish base can be seen. But that morning it exceeded itself in awesomeness. It had never seemed so huge to me before. That day I imagined that I could see all the way to the home of the gods. Its endless slope went up and up, a colossal pink thing of unimaginable height and length and breadth lying upon the land like some enormous slumbering beast. I stared in wonder at its great intricate bulk, its pocked and pitted surface, its million spires and pinnacles, its uncountable caverns and crevices, its multitude of subsidiary peaks, its myriad turrets and parapets, its hundreds of spiny ridges and incomprehensible twisting trails leading to unknown lofty realms. And it seemed to me, even then, that in that moment of revelation I could feel the power of the mighty forces that dwell there beating down on me, the invisible fires that emanate from every stone face of the mountain, every rock, every grain of soil--the forces that seize so many of those who venture into those heights, transforming the weak and the unwary into things that can no longer be reckoned as human.
Because our clan within the House of the Wall was Wallclan, from which the heads of our House are always elected, Traiben and I had a privileged position for the Procession. We were seated in the main viewing stand just opposite the stone roundhouse of the Returned Ones, which is just adjacent to Pilgrim Lodge, from which the chosen Forty would soon emerge. So we were at the very center of things. That was truly dizzying, to know that such a great multitude was arrayed around the central point that was us, spreading outward and outward to the borders of the village and far beyond, all the teeming thousands and thousands of people of all the clans of every House of our village, the highborn and the lowly, the wise ones and the fools, the strong and the weak, packed elbow to elbow in the grassy streets under the shadow of the great mountain that is Kosa Saag.
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Then came the words that changed my life. Traiben turned to me while we were waiting and said in an odd and somehow belligerent way, in a voice that had an edge on it, "Tell me, Poilar, do you think that you're likely to be chosen for the Pilgrimage?"
I gave him a strange look. As I have said, that was something I had never bothered to think about at all. I took it for granted, a given of my life. In every generation going back to time's first dawn someone of my family has been selected. I had no brothers or sisters; therefore I would be the one to go in my time. My limp would be no obstacle. Of course I would be chosen. Of course.
Hotly I said, "The blood of the First Climber runs in my veins. My father was a Pilgrim and so was his father before him. And I will be too, when my time comes. Do you think that I won't?"
"Of course you will," said Traiben, staring at me very intently. His eyes were like huge dark saucers with slits of light at their centers. "You'll go up there the way so many others have before you, and you'll climb and climb and climb, and suffer and suffer and suffer. And more likely than not you'll die somewhere up there, the way most of them do, or come back a babbling madman. Well, what's the good of it, then? What's the point? What value is there going to be in all your hard work, Poilar? If all you do is go up there and die. Or come back crazy."
Even for Traiben, this was going a little far. It sounded like blasphemy to me.
"How can you ask such a thing? The Pilgrimage is a holy task."
"So it is."
"Then what are you saying, Traiben?"
"That it's nothing at all just to be a Pilgrim. All it is is a lot of walking, that's all. On and on and on, up and up and up. You move one foot and then the other and before long you're higher up the mountain than you were before. Any stupid animal can do that. It's only a matter of endurance. Do you understand me, Poilar?"
"Yes. No. No. I don't understand you at all, Traiben."
A little smile appeared on his face. "I'm saying that being picked for the Pilgrimage is no big thing in and of itself. It's a nice honor, yes. But in the long run honors don't mean a great deal."
"If you say so."
"And neither does simply gritting your teeth and making the climb, if you're doing it without any real sense of why you're putting yourself through such an ordeal."
"What does matter, then? Surviving until you get to the Summit, I suppose."
"That's part of it."
"Part of it?" I said. I blinked at him. "It's the whole idea, Traiben. That's why we go. Climbing all the way up to the Summit is the entire point of making the Pilgrimage."
"Yes. Exactly. But once you reach the Summit, what then? What then, Poilar? That's the essential question. Do you understand?"
How difficult Traiben could be, how bothersome!
"Well," I said, "then you go before the gods, if you can find them, and you perform the proper rites, and then you have to turn around and make your way down."
"You make it all sound very trivial."
I looked at him and said nothing.
He said very quietly, "What do you think the actual purpose of the Pilgrimage is, Poilar?"
"Why--" I hesitated. "Everybody knows that. To present ourselves before the gods who live atop Kosa Saag. To find them and ask their blessing. To maintain the good fortune of the village by paying homage to the holy ones."
"Yes," he said. "And what else?"
"What else? What else can there be? We climb up, we pay homage, we come down. Isn't that enough?"
"The First Climber," said Traiben. "Your great ancestor. What did He achieve?"
I hardly had to think. The words came rolling out automatically, straight from the catechism. "He offered himself to the gods as an apprentice, and they taught Him how to use fire and how to make the tools that we needed for hunting and building, and how to raise crops, and how we could clothe ourselves in the skins of animals, and many other valuable things. And then He descended from the mountain and taught these things to the people below, who had been living in savagery and ignorance."
"Yes. Therefore we revere His memory. And you and I, Poilar--we can do just as He Who Climbed did. Climb the Wall, find the gods, learn from them the things we need to know. That's the real reason why we go: to learn. To learn, Poilar."
"But we already know everything that anybody needs to know."
He spat. "Stupid! Stupid! Do you really believe that? We're still savages, Poilar! We're still ignorant! We live like beasts in these villages. Like beasts. We hunt and we raise our crops and we tend our gardens. We eat, we drink, we sleep. We eat, we drink, we sleep. Life goes on and on and nothing ever changes. Is that all that you think there is to being alive?"
I stared. He was utterly bewildering.
He said, "Let me tell you something. I intend to be a Pilgrim too."
I laughed right in his face. "You, Traiben?"
"Me. Yes. Nothing can stop me. Why do you laugh, Poilar? You think they'll never choose anyone as weak as I am? No. No, they will. They'll choose you despite your crooked leg and they'll choose me even though I'm not strong. I'll make it happen. I swear it by He Who Climbed. And by Kreshe and all the sacred ones of Heaven!" His eyes began to blaze, bright with that hot eerie Traiben-brightness of his that made him so mystifying and even frightening to all who encountered him. There was a Power about Traiben. If he had been born a Witch instead of into the House of the Wall, he would have been a santha-nilla with great magic at his command, of that I'm sure. "There's work for us to do up there, Poilar. There are important things that need to be learned and brought back. That's why the Pilgrimages began--so that we could sit at the feet of the gods and learn the things they know, the way the First Climber did. But for a long time now nothing useful's been brought down from the mountain. We make no progress. We live as we've always lived, and when you stay in the same place, you start to slide backward, after a time. The Pilgrimages still go forth, yes, but either the Pilgrims don't return or they come back crazy. And they bring us nothing useful, so we stay forever in the same place. What a waste, Poilar! We have to change all that. We'll go up there together, you and I, side by side, rising through Kingdom after Kingdom just as the First Climber did. We'll meet the gods, just as He did. We will have their blessing. We'll see all the wonders and learn all the mysteries. And together we will return, with new knowledge that will change the world. What kind of knowledge that is, I can't begin to say. But I know it's there. I know it without any question. We have to find it. And so we have to make it happen that we become Pilgrims, you and I. Are you following me? We have to make it happen."
And he stretched his hand toward me and encircled the thick part of my arm with his fingers, three above and three below, digging his fingertips into my flesh so that I had to gasp with the pain of it: and this was little Traiben, who had no more strength than a fish! Something leaped from him to me in that moment, something of the strange fire that burned within him, something of the fever of his soul. And I felt it burning within me too, an utterly new thing, the passionate yearning to find my gods on that mountain, and stand before them, and say to them, "I am Poilar of Jespodar, and I am here to serve you. But you must serve me too. I wish you to teach me all that you know."
He held me like that for a long moment, so that I thought he would never let go. Then I brushed at his hand, gently, as one might brush at a glitterfly hovering around one's head that is too lovely to hurt, and he released me. But I heard him breathing hard beside me, in hot excitement. It was a troublesome thing for me, this frenzy of Traiben's that had come over him so passionately and that he had passed over into my spirit.
"Look," I said, desperate to step back from the intensity of the moment, for passion of that kind was something new to me and it was making me tremble, "the Procession is going to start."
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Indeed everyone was uttering little hsshing noises to silence his neighbor, for the grand march was beginning. The Sweepers in their purple loincloths went dancing by, whisking dangerous spirits out of the roadway with their little brooms, and then, in silence, came the heart of the Procession out of the heavy morning mists that lay at the lower end of town. My father's father's brother's son Meribail led the way, all bedecked in a shining and magnificent cloak of scarlet gambardo feathers woven tightly together. Beside him on the one side was Thispar Double- Lifer, the oldest man of the village, who had lived seven full tens of years. Traiben's father's father's father, he was. On the other side of Meribail was another of our old ones, the double-lifer Gamilalar, who had lately celebrated the beginning of his seventh ten. Following these three in the Procession came the heads of all the Houses, walking grandly two by two.
But my mind wasn't on the Procession. It was full of Traiben's words, which had set me aflame with new and consuming ambitions. He had put an urgent need into me that had never been there before.
And so I made my vow. I would climb the Wall to its utmost point. I would attain the Summit. I would stare into the eyes of the gods, from whom all wisdom flows, and I would absorb all that they could give me. Then I would return to our lowland home, which only a few had ever succeeded in doing, and most of those no longer in their right minds. And I would teach to others everything that I had mastered on high.
So be it. From that moment on my life's goal was graven in stone.
And it was Traiben's goal too. How strange! That frail awkward boy had dreams of being a Pilgrim? It seemed almost comical. They would never choose him, never, never. And yet I understood that when Traiben desired a thing, Traiben was capable of attaining it.
Together we would achieve the Pilgrimage, Traiben and I. We were twelve years old, and our lives were irrevocably set from that moment forth.