by C.J. Cherryh
The old man climbed the stairs slowly, stopping sometimes to let his heart recover and the teapot settle on the tray, while the dormouse would pop out of his sleeve or his beard and steal a nibble at the teacakes he brought up from the kitchen. It was an old tower on the edge of faery, on the edge of the Empire of Man. Between. Uncertain who had built it–men or elves. It was long before the old man’s time, at least, and before the empire in the east. There was magic in its making . . . so they used to say. Now there was only the old man and the dormouse and a sleepy hedgehog, and a bird or two or three, which came for the grain at the windows. That was his real talent, the wild things, the gentle things. A real magician now, would not be making tea for himself, in the kitchen, and wasting his breath on stairs. A real magician would have been more–awesome. Kept some state. Inspired some fear.
He stopped at the halfway turning. Pushed his sliding spectacles up his nose and balanced the tray, tea, cakes and dormouse against the window-ledge. The land was black in the east. Black all about the tower. Burned. On some days he could see the glitter of arms in the distance where men fought. He could see the flutter of banners on the horizon as they rode. Could hear the sound of the horses and the horns.
Now the dust and soot of a group of riders showed against the darkening east. He waited there, not to have the weary stairs again–waited while the dormouse nibbled a cake, and in his pocket the hedgehog squired about, comfortable in the stillness.
The riders came. The prince–it was he–sent the herald forward to ring at the gate. “Open in the king’s name,” the herald cried, and spying him in the window: “Old man-open your gates. Surrender the tower. No more warnings.”
“Tell him no,” the old man said. “Just tell him–no.”
“Tomorrow,” the herald said, “we come with siege.”
The old man pushed his spectacles up again. Blinked sadly, his old heart beating hard. “Why?” he asked. “What importance, to have so much bother?”
“Old meddler.” The prince himself rode forward, curvetted his black horse under the window. “Old fraud. Come down and live. Give us the tower intact–to use . . . and live. Tomorrow morning–we come with fire and iron. And the stones fall–old man.”
The old man said nothing. The men rode away. The old man climbed the stairs, the tea set clattering in his palsied hands. His heart hurt. When he looked out on the land, his heart hurt him terribly. The elves no longer came. The birds and beasts had all fled the burning. There was only the mouse and the hedgehog and the few doves who had lived all their lives in the loft. And the few sparrows who came. Only them now.
He set the tray down, absentmindedly took the hedgehog from his pocket and set it by the dormouse on the tray, took a cake and crumbled it on the window-ledge for the birds. A tear ran down into his beard.
Old fraud. He was. He had only little magics, forest magics. But they’d burned all his forest and scattered the elves, and he had failed even these last few creatures. They would overthrow the tower. They would spread over all the land, and there would be no more magic in the world. He should have done something long ago–but he had never done a great magic. He should have raised whirlwinds and elementals–but he could not so much as summon the legged tea pot up the stairs. And his heart hurt, and his courage failed. The birds failed to come-foreknowing, perhaps. The hedgehog and the dormouse looked at him with eyes small and solemn in the firelight, last of all.
No. He stirred himself, hastened to the musty books–his master’s books, dusty and a thousand times failed. You’ve not the heart, his master would say. You’ve not the desire for the great magics. You’ll call nothing–because you want nothing.
Now he tried. He drew his symbols on the floor-scattered his powders, blinking through the ever-shifting spectacles, panting with his exertions. He would do it this time–would hold the tower on the edge of faery, between the Empire of Man and the kingdom of the elves. He believed, this time. He conjured powers. He called in the great ones. The winds sighed and roared inside the tower.
His arms fell. He wept, great tears sliding down into his beard. He picked up the dormouse and the hedgehog and held them to his breast, having no more hope.
Then she came. The light grew, white and pure. The scent of lilies filled the air–and she was there, naked, and white, hands empty–beautiful.
“I’ve come,” she said.
His heart hurt him all the more. “Forgive me,” he said. “I was trying for something–fiercer.”
“Oh,” she said, dark eyes sad.
“I make only small–magics,” he said. “I was trying for–a dragon, maybe. A basilisk. An elemental. To stop the king. But I do flowers best. And smokes and maybe a little fireworks. And it’s not enough. Goodbye. Please go. Please do go. Whichever you are. You’re the wrong kind. You’re beautiful. And he’s going to come tomorrow–the king–and the armies . . . it’s not a place for a gentle spirit. Only–could you take them . . . please? Mouse and Hedgehog–they’d not be so much. I’d not like to bother you. But could you? And then you can go.”
“Of course,” she said. It was the whisper of the wind, her voice. The moving of snow crystals on frozen crust. Kissed them in turn, and jewels clothed them in white. “Old man,” she said, and on his brow too planted a kiss, and jewels followed, frosty cobwebs. She walked down the stairs and out the gate, and jeweled it all in her wake. She walked the land, and the snow fell, and fell, and the winds blew–till only the banners were left, here and there, stiffened with ice, above drifts and humps of snow which marked the tents. The land was all white horizon to horizon. Nothing stirred but the wolves that hunted the deer and the birds that hunted the last summer’s berries.
Death drifted back to the tower, and settled there, in the frost and the lasting snows, where the old man and magic slept their lasting sleep.
She breathed kisses on him, on the little ones, and kept watch–faithful to her calling, while the snows deepened, and even the wolves slept, their fur white and sparkling with frost.
C.J. Cherryh is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award, winner of multiple Hugo Awards (and numerous Hugo nominations), and a winner the Locus Award for best novel. She is author of the renowned Foreigner series and resides in the Pacific Northwest. “The Last Tower” was originally written—in twenty-four hours—with a micropoint marker on a post card. Reading it at a convention elicited a standing ovation. It is reprinted from The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh (Daw, 2004) and Abyss & Apex is thrilled to have the opportunity to share this tale with a wider audience.
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CJ is one author who has consistently made me weep for the beauty of her words.
This story is so haunting. And just perfect. I read it to my children. Reread it so many times. And it never fails to bring a tear to my eye. Growing old, failures, despair and a final victory, doomed it may be.