It was a good thing that Maugreth’s men mutinied when they did. Otherwise he would have gone mad like the rest and fled shrieking into the moss-forest at the river’s edge to be devoured by spiders. Of course he didn’t know that at the time. He just sat in the ship’s hold where his men had locked him, shaking his grizzled gray-blonde locks, watching the sunless banks slip slowly past the embrasure.
He spied the first mate through the hatch. “Hey there,” he growled. “I don’t like this narrow bit. You’d better look to yourselves.” They were in a place where the river ran in two channels on either side of a long island.
The mate peered through the grating. “Still trying to lord it, eh, sweetheart?” he said, grinning. “Soon as we clear this island we’re bringing her about. We’ve had enough of this stinking hole.”
“You want to die poor? That’s your business. But I’d assumed you’d want to delay it as long as possible.”
The mate threw back his head and laughed. He broke off mid-guffaw when his already ugly face was made more unpleasant by a bone dart that appeared as if by magic in the middle of his left eyeball. For a moment he tried to blink while drops of blood ran down the shaft. Then he was rolling on the deck, clawing at the planks.
Instantly there was a hail of darts. Maugreth watched while his men swore and stamped and ran back and forth under the volley. Then the quills stopped flying as abruptly as they had started, and a shriek rent the air. A horde of gangly, ghost-pale goblin forms swarmed onto the deck from either bank.
It was hand-to-hand fighting now, and Maugreth’s men had the worst of it. He went berserk, throwing himself against the hatch until he burst the hinges. With a roar he drew the mate’s sword and began dealing death with double-handed strokes.
One helbor, he beheaded; another he split to the sternum. The massacre became a rout, and within seconds the goblins had vanished into the forest, shrieking and hooting.
Panting with exhilaration, he swept his gaze over the deck, surveying the damage. Half his crew had been slaughtered. The survivors were wounded to a man and stuck full of quills. “Well,” he said with a laugh, “all’s well that ends well, eh?” He began tossing the slain helborim overboard, one by one.
A whimper brought him up short. He looked to his men.
They were picking the darts out of their bodies and scratching at the holes, whining like curs. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he cried, walking toward them.
They fell over one another in panic, moaning and slobbering. Their bones seemed to be turning to rubber. Some scrambled over the sides and lost themselves in the river or the moss-forest. The two that remained groveled feebly at his feet. He hacked off their heads in disgust and kicked the remains overboard.
The engine chugged on through the descending hush. Maugreth eyed the moss-forest uncomfortably. The channel was like a tunnel, its unseen ceiling held aloft by the pale stems of the scale-trees. The only animals that ventured into the open were the white wingless cockroaches that crept over the fungous fruiting-bodies and the great gray tarantulas that fed upon them. The moist darkness was thick with the odor of old rot, like nauseous breath.
A sleepy voice broke the silence: “What’s going on?”
Maugreth turned. It was Horda, the half-wit stoker. His narrow skull and tangled locks gave him a look of wild inanity. “Who else is below?” Maugreth demanded.
“Nobody but me. Say, where is everyone?”
“Dead. We’re about to run aground. Get below and tend to the furnace. I’ll steer.”
“We still turnin’ around? Just asking. Since we don’t have no hands.”
“Good riddance. Are you of their party or mine?”
“Why, yours, sir,” said Horda. “I’m for you.” He slouched back below.
Maugreth kept the ship on course beyond the joining of the channels. Presently he perceived daylight streaming from around a bend up ahead, the first he’d seen in weeks. A muffled roar shook the air. Soon the ship emerged into a small lake that lay open to the sky.
Swaying scale-trees grew down to the pool’s edge on all sides like pale pillars holding aloft a purple-green awning. Looming over the far shore was a cliff-wall cloven by a canyon; brown and black high over the lake, mossily green close above the livid canopy, and vertically ribbed like the sides of a portal in a ruined cathedral. The dark heart of Ir spewed its gathered waters through the notch in a cascade of foamy white, with effervescing pools of blue-green edged by black rocks. Rainbows shimmered in the mist.
Maugreth let the ship crawl into the middle of the lake. Horda emerged from the engine-room and spun around, taking in the prospect. “Cor!” he shouted. “Look there! Ain’t that a sight for sore eyes!”
Maugreth followed the stoker’s finger. A glint of gold high above winked at him. Squinting, he descried a dark-haired woman perched at the head of the falls, naked as a needle apart from her jewelry. Beside her was a small white figure.
“That what we’re after?” Horda asked.
The lady seemed to spy the steamer. She vanished with her attendant into the shadows of the hemmed-in forest. “What was that white critter?” asked Horda.
“A goblin whelp, I guess.”
“Cor! Won’t she be glad to see us! Hey, if we make it out of this, that’ll be the reward split between us two instead of among twelve-odd, eh? If her folks keep their word, that is.”
“Yeah,” drawled Maugreth. He was looking at the back of Horda’s head, rubbing his sword’s pommel with the palm of his hand. “Well,” he said, “let’s drop anchor and see what we see.”
The ship thus secured, the pair dove into the water and swam ashore. Moments later they were scaling the cliffs like two lizards. It didn’t take them long to make it to the base of the notch.
Daylight streamed through the mouth of the canyon and played over the huge mosses that carpeted the understory, a riot of green and red and purple. But the fungus of the deep forest took the plants’ place as Maugreth and Horda picked their way up the corridor. They struck a flagged path winding amongst the scale-tree stems and fruiting-bodies. There were no signs of the lady or her attendant.
After a mile or so the canyon walls began to fall away. The main path diverged from the river. They climbed the slope, picking their way through thickets of yellow coral and clusters of scarlet elf cups and giant brown morels and suppurating stinkhorns and beds of pink foliose lichen. The path crested the rise and began to wind in and out of dark hollows. A sudden tropical cloudburst turned it into a rivulet.
The rain was still falling when they came to a place where the stems were silhouetted against pale daylight. “Go up yonder and take a look,” whispered Maugreth.
Horda crept cautiously forward and then returned. “You got to see it to believe it,” he said. “A village of ‘em.”
“Any sign of the woman?”
“Well, come on.” Together they crept up to the brink.
They were looking down from the rim of a steep-sided bowl. Its floor was cleared and carpeted with yellow liverwort, but the scale-trees that encircled it gave it the appearance of a deep well. In its midst was a circle of huts of dried moss limbs and leaves and other debris. There were helborim everywhere.
The goblins were lean and muscular, resembling upright frogs, their huge heads emerging directly from their torsos and shoulders, their mouths stretched in wide smiles like frogs’ mouths. Their lipless jaws drew to a point in front like a porwil’s, and their eyes were laterally placed orbs of unfathomable black, large and liquid and heavily lashed. The arrangement of their organs could be made out through their thin skin.
Some of them—females with wrinkled, pendant dugs—squatted on the mossy ground, working in unison, their smiling faces like masks of unutterable sadness turned up to an unhearing heaven. Others, males, were going to and fro with hampers on their backs, harvesting the fruits of the forest and emptying them into a covered crib. The rain poured down in ribbons upon all.
“Listen,” whispered Maugreth. “We need to see if the woman is in one of those huts. You go on down there and parley. Just hold out your hands to let them know you don’t mean any harm. I’m afraid that if both of us go down it’ll scare them.”
“Okay, sir, okay,” said Horda. He rose and walked into the basin. One of the helborim spied him and pointed, uttering a shrill peal of hysterical laughter. The other males dropped their loads and gaped sideways at him like monstrous birds. Some seized spiked clubs and leaped up the slope to meet him. He was still waving his hands and trying to explain when they beat him into a bloody pulp.
Maugreth burst upon the scene with a shout and a drawn sword. The helborim shrieked and swarmed up to serve him the same way. Suddenly a voice echoed through the dell. It came from one of the huts, but no goblin’s throat had produced it.
The warriors stopped dead, and Maugreth halted as well, waiting to see what would happen. The voice rang out again, and the goblins divided, making a path through their ranks. He sheathed his sword and stepped down the slope, giving his comrade’s remains a wide berth.
The hut was dark and musty, its floor covered with carpets of brown velvet made from the caps of giant mushrooms. There were stacked baskets and rows of spears and hanging nets filled with dried morels. The only real piece of furniture was the wicker chair in which the lady sat.
She was more beautiful than Maugreth had imagined; her silky hair was heaped high in strange coils, her pale lips curved in a haughty, voluptuous smile. She wore a king’s ransom in gold, wristlets and anklets and choker and headband, all of delicate workmanship.
“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice had a strange bounce to it, as though she were out of practice at speaking.
“They call me Maugreth,” he said with a leer.
This amused the lady. “A well-earned alias, no doubt,” she said. “You have the look of one. I regret what happened to your friend out there. If I’d known you were near, I would have spoken sooner.”
“Well, I’ll miss him. But those are the risks we take.”
“What brings you to Nightspore?”
“Legend tells of treasure hidden in the dark heart of Ir. Today I discovered its truth.”
“So you’re an adventurer, as I thought.”
“I go where my star leads me. Right now I’m thanking it for leading me here.”
“My, my,” the lady said. “My name is Minuë. Does that mean anything to you?”
“No,” he replied, a little too quickly. “Should it?”
“Not necessarily. When I first saw your ship I thought you might have come for me. I’m an Adulid, you see, and my family will be wanting to find me. Zilla,” she called, “fetch a chair for our guest.” Her attendant emerged like a newborn spider from the shadows and went out into the rain. “You’re wet,” she said. “Lay out your things.”
“Adulid, Adulid,” Maugreth muttered as he peeled off his tunic. “The lost princess of the House of Adul. Yes. I have heard of you. Everyone knows the Adulids, of course. The last noble house. They have strange ways, it’s said.”
“Yes. Ways that became odious to me. Pray be seated.” Zilla had returned with a chair. His black eyes glinted from the shadows like pieces of polished obsidian. Minuë went on: “I was young and impatient, and absconded in a stolen airship. We were crossing the Tethys Sea when a strange storm came out of the north and swept us over Ir. The helborim beset us when we crash-landed. They flayed my men alive, but I was taken before Cheirod, whose star was then rising.”
“Cheirod? Is he an Enochite, too?”
“No, of course not. He’s a helbor. What else could he be?”
“Why—but you speak of him as though he were a man!”
“And you, an Enochite, think the helborim beasts,” she said. “What else could be expected? News of the interior seldom reaches the degenerate tribes that live nearest the delta, while the men of Enoch haven’t ventured beneath Nightspore’s eaves in ages. Nevertheless, Cheirod is fit to be compared with the bloodiest conquerors of the Age of Strife, and his half-brother, Herit, is the greatest smith and tinker Nightspore has ever known.
“The warlord gave me two choices: to be shown to the waterish margin of his realm, or to become his mistress. I thought it better to be a royal concubine among goblins than a princess among Recusants.”
Maugreth was suddenly queasy. His desire was shriveling before the images that came unbidden to his brain.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Minuë. “It’s true, we’re hideous to them. But to Cheirod I was a peerless prize. He brooks no dissent and consummates his every desire. Several of his wise men objected when he chose to adopt the fruit of my womb as heir. They were promptly impaled.”
“Fruit of your—you mean, you—I, I never realized it was possible....”
Minuë was shaken out of her proud reverie. “Why, who else did you think Zilla was?” she said disdainfully. “I took you for a perceptive man. Zilla, come here.”
The helbor approached. Maugreth got a better look at him. His nose was a low ridge in the midst of his white-gold moon-face, sloping down toward a pointed lip whose corners were turned up in a mirthless smirk, while his eyes were forward-facing but larger than a man’s and solid black.
Maugreth felt as though falling into their depths, and soon dropped his own to the floor. “Where is this goblin king of yours?” he muttered.
“I’ve dwelt amongst the helborim for ten years,” said Minuë. “Their ways have become my ways. But my lord is a jealous master. He confines me in his great underground palace, reluctant to let me see the sun, lest I take wing and return whence I came.”
She had risen and was pacing as she spoke. “But whenever he goes to inspect his mines or to lead a slave-raid, I slip out with the connivance of my servants and come here with Zilla. We like to look out over the sea of leaves toward the world-city, ocean-girding Enoch, and watch the sun and the moon and the stars, and imagine all that we might do with our freedom.”
Maugreth’s ebbing desire began to flow once again. “Then leave this place forever!” he cried. “Forget this goblin in his caves. Leave the monsters to their own.”
“Do you speak in earnest?” she asked, drawing near.
“Yes. Come away with me. Today.”
“No,” said Minuë. She was standing over him now. He looked up into her eyes. “In the morning,” she said. “We have time enough.”
Zilla trilled enigmatically from the shadows.
Maugreth was roused by the concubine in the darkness before dawn. He threw off the chitinous coverlet of mushroom velvet and sat up. He was still half-asleep. “Eh? What is it? What?” he grunted, groping for his sword.
“Listen,” whispered Minuë. “Do you hear it?”
He listened. The sound of a distant horn rolled through the forest, echoed by another note from nearer at hand. “What is it?” he asked.
“Cheirod!” she hissed. “One of these traitors must have spied on us and gone to my lord in the night. He’s drawing his net!”
“Well, let him,” growled Maugreth. He was kneeling on the velvet and buckling his girdle.
“Sword-strokes won’t help us now,” she whispered. “These goblins know Nightspore like the landscape of their own minds.”
“To my ship, then.”
“I’ll get Zilla,” said Minuë.
Maugreth seized her arm. “Wait,” he said. “I told you I was going to set you free from these monsters. Leave the hybrid. They made you bear him. You owe him nothing. He’s one of them.”
Minuë’s eyes flashed. “Both of us or neither of us,” she said.
“My Love,” pled Maugreth, “I’m only trying to think of you. He wouldn’t be happy in Enoch. You know that. They’d ridicule him, or put him in the Palace of Collections. Better to leave him here.”
“Fool! And what do you think his father will do to him when he finds us gone? Both of us, or neither!”
“All right, all right,” said Maugreth. “Go get him. I’ll meet you at the edge of the village.”
Minutes later the three fugitives were picking their way into the depths of the canyon. The ominous notes continued to roll down after them, but the dense fog made it difficult to tell how far away the pursuers were.
“Wait a moment,” said Maugreth as they neared the river. “Can it understand me? Zilla, I mean.”
“Yes, of course. I’ve taught him our tongue.”
“Good. Wait here. I have an idea. Trust me.” He took Zilla aside, leading him into a little hollow hidden amongst the huddled fruiting-bodies.
“Listen,” he said, whispering loudly and slowly. “We’re in a tight spot. You want to help your mother, don’t you? I’m afraid of being taken unawares while we’re down by the rapids. I want you to stand sentry up here. When you hear them coming, dash after us as quick as anything to let us know. Understand?” Zilla trilled in response. “Good. If after a while no one comes past, follow us. We’ll await you at the head of the falls.”
He left the hybrid and rejoined Minuë. “Where is he?” she asked suspiciously.
“I sent him ahead of us. He’s going to slip along the other side of the river to make sure they don’t try to cut us off. He’ll be waiting for us at the falls.”
He took Minuë by the elbow and began to urge her along. She pulled against him. He cocked his ear. “What’s that?” he cried. “They’re after us! Now for it!” He took off down the path, his boots pounding the flagstones, and she followed behind. Presently he let her pass him up. He kept turning around as they ran, threatening the undergrowth with his sword, pretending to ward off pursuit.
The sun had risen ere they reached the falls. Its golden beams were working through the whiteness, but the lake was still invisible. Maugreth started to climb down. Minuë hung back. “Where is he?” she demanded.
“What? Oh. How can I tell? They must have cut him off. Listen. He’ll be able to get out of it if we shove off. But if we seem to be waiting for him, they’ll know for certain that he was with us. See? Come, follow me.” Minuë, though reluctant, complied.
They dropped out of the cloud-ceiling in their descent. The steamer was where Maugreth had left it, a rusty hulk in the blue-green cauldron. Soon it slipped behind the leaves of the scale-trees. They reached the foot of the escarpment and pushed their way through the undergrowth to the shore. From there they swam side by side to the ship and climbed aboard.
The lady wrinkled her nose at the corpses strewn about the deck. “You run a tight ship.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Can’t we wait here for my son?”
Maugreth shivered at the last word. “It’ll take me a while to get her fired up again, at any rate.”
As he descended to the engine-room he noticed a pale figure sitting cross-legged in the shadows of the stern. It was Zilla.
Maugreth froze, turning hot and cold in turns, but bit his tongue and went below decks.
The steamer rounded the bend and entered the tunnel of scale-trees. They made good progress and passed through the narrows without molestation. The falls were soon miles behind.
Maugreth cast anchor as evening fell. “We’re low on fuel,” he said. “There’s a place near here where there’s plenty more to be had. But I could use some help. Perhaps Zilla would care to come ashore?” He had put on what he hoped was a paternal air.
Soon he and the hybrid were marching into the forest with axes and hampers. Half a mile from the bank they came into a dark hollow and halted before the rotten stump of a scale-tree. The pithy, crannied mass was overgrown with toadstools and swathed in spider silk like the decaying cake of an abortive bridal feast.
Maugreth dropped his hamper to the earth. “We use chunks of these old stumps for fuel,” he said. “They burn like coal, almost. You begin chopping at that one while I look for another.”
Zilla began to hack at the stump. Grinning fiercely, Maugreth crept up behind him and raised his axe. But just as he was bringing it down, the hybrid sprang aside with the reflexes of a grasshopper. The blow went wide.
Maugreth looked at the gash he had made in his own shin. Warm blood was beginning to fill his boot. He lifted his eyes to Zilla, who was crouching beyond the stump, watching him.
“Fool,” the hybrid said. “Did you really think I would let a maugreth like you sully my mother?” It was the first time he had spoken. His voice was high and girlish but had a raw edge to it.
Maugreth’s face turned purple. “You! You little freak of nature!” He threw the axe down, whipped out his sword, and flew at the half-breed.
Zilla stepped lightly aside, parried a few blows with his axe, then sent Maugreth’s blade flying. “Do you not know at whose hands I received my training?” he trilled. “My father may hate me, but he and my uncle haven’t stinted in their instruction. For all their labor, though, the star that rose at my birthing didn’t destine me to lord it over the goblins of Nightspore. My fate lies with Enoch. Thither I go, with many thanks for the conveyance you’ve provided.”
Maugreth fell back, aghast. “You can’t leave me here!” he hissed. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you both!” Just at that moment he felt a pinching jab in his shoulder. He spun around. The largest spider he’d ever seen was arched above him, forelegs raised in warning, pedipalps working excitedly, black fangs lifted to reveal the delicate, vermilion-tufted inner parts of her vertical mouth.
“The poison that drove your men out of their minds was distilled from the venom of these spiders,” said Zilla. “Your descent into bestiality will be less swift. Spend your last moments forgetting what sets you apart from the cockroaches.”
Already Zilla’s words sounded to Maugreth as though coming from the end of a long tunnel. He fell to his knees. The agony of his soul found vent in one final empty moan of despair. And then the house of his mind came crashing down, and he crawled into the fungous undergrowth, drooling and whimpering, followed by the patient spider.
Zilla in the meantime had finished chopping up the stump. He loaded the hamper and set out for the riverbank.
“Did you do it?” his mother asked as he climbed aboard.
She eyed the reddened blade. “Is he...?”
“Yes.” He was silent a moment. “You shouldn’t have let him touch you, Mother.”
“We got the ship, didn’t we?”
“Those villagers will pay with their skins once Cheirod finds out what they’ve done.”
“Yes, it’ll be a nasty surprise for them, won’t it. Draw up the anchor, Zilla. We can make several more miles before nightfall. Enoch awaits you.”
His eyes met hers then, and she seemed to read there a bottomless and serene malignance. But he obeyed. Soon the ship slid into motion, urged by the Nameless River toward the dark heart of Enoch.