5. A Collar of Silver
The secret in the collar was quite simple: being magic, a thing of the Underearth, it was attractive to men and to mortal things in a way no earthly adornment could ever be. More than its beauty, it was a lure. Whoever saw it coveted it, and besides, it was wonderfully made—even Azhrarn had received it with pleasure, at the first. Lastly, the seven gems set in the mesh of the collar were tears, and cast on it their own pale sorcery. A collar constructed in ambition and pride and jeweled with sorrow could only stir up greed and smiling fury, and bring weeping after.
One of the Eshva brought the collar to earth. In the form of a slim dark young man, he wandered dreamily from place to place through the night, glancing in at lighted windows, calling the night things, the badgers and panthers, to play on the forest lawns, and staring through moonwashed pools at his own reflection. In the lavender twilight before dawn, the Eshva crossed the market place of a vast city and found a beggar asleep on the steps of a fountain. The Eshva laughed softly with his eyes, and fastened Vayi’s collar about the beggar’s neck. Then, leaping in the air, fled away toward earth’s center like a dark star.
After a time the sun rose and the market stirred. Pigeons flew to the fountain to drink and women came with their water jars to gossip. The beggar got up and stretched himself in his rags, picked up his begging bowl and set off for his day’s work, but he had not gone far before a voice bawled out to ask him what it was he wore about his neck. The beggar paused, and felt the collar. No sooner had his hand encountered the smooth hardness of silver and his eye the cool brightness of jewels, however, than a huge crowd came pressing around him clamoring.
“Good sirs,” cried the beggar, “I am surprised you are so interested in this cheap bauble—it is only a talisman I bought from an old witch to keep me safe from the plague. But, alas,” he added, “I fear it has done me no good,” and he exhibited a few spots and sores he had previously painted on himself for begging purposes. The crowd uncertainly drew off a little and the beggar ducked through and rushed down a side street, but in a moment the mob were after him, yelling. Into a jeweler’s shop he flew, and flung himself down before the jeweler. “Succour! Aid me, sweet sir!” screamed the beggar. “Only rescue me, and I will shower on you the riches of the world.”
“You?” inquired the jeweler scornfully, but he wanted no trouble, and hearing the crowd coming, he thrust the beggar into a chest, slammed down the lid, and went and stood in the doorway as if waiting casually for business. Presently the crowd came cramming into the street, and implored him to tell if he had seen a beggar run that way.
“I?” asked the jeweler loftily. “I have better things to look out for.”
The crowd debated noisily and then began to break up in confusion, some running on down the street, others back up it, and shortly the way was empty.
“Now,” said the jeweler, throwing open the chest, “be off as fast as you can.”
“A thousand thanks,” said the beggar, stepping out, “but before I leave you, regard this necklet, and tell me how much you would give me for it.”
Immediately the jeweler’s face altered. His eyes and mouth narrowed and his nose twitched. Be sure he wanted the collar more than anything. but it seemed to him quite silly to pay a beggar for it. Such creatures are not used to coins, he thought. If I pay him what the collar is worth he will only get into trouble with the money. So he said cautiously: “Just give me the trinket and let me examine it a moment.”
The beggar did as he was asked, but no sooner did the jeweler have the collar in his hand than he shouted: “Ah! I hear the mob coming back. Quick, into the chest again. Make no sound whatever happens, and I will try to save you.”
The beggar in fright jumped straight back in: the jeweler banged down the lid, and this time secured the clasps. Then, hiding the collar in his robe, he went out into the street and called over two porters who were idling near the wineshop.
“Here is a gold coin each,” said he, “if you will only take this wretched old chest off my hands. It has been cluttering up my place of business for days, and no one will help me get rid of it, since it is so heavy. But you two strong fellows should make light work of such a job. Just carry it down the street and tip it off the bridge into the river.”
This the two porters gladly did. The unfortunate beggar kept quiet all the while as the jeweler had instructed him, and indeed, was never heard much of again.
No doubt the jeweler had intended to make his fortune with the collar of silver, selling it to some rich lord or lady, perhaps even to the king of the city. But as he lovingly examined it, the thought of parting with the collar at all became horrible to him. Presently he found an ivory box lined with velvet, laid the collar inside, shut the box and locked it. Next he went stealthily up to the top of the house and put the ivory box inside a box of cedarwood, and this cedarwood box inside a larger box of iron, and finally all three boxes into a great old chest, very like the one in which he had imprisoned the ill-starred beggar. Last of all he lugged the chest into a tiny room where the odds and ends of the household were kept, hurried out and locked the door. Then he took the key of the door and hid it up the chimney. Such was his condition since acquiring the collar of Vayi.
As he sat mopping his brow after his exertion, the jeweler’s wife came in and stared at him.
“Why, husband, how hot you are. Do you know, I just saw two men tipping a chest, remarkably like our own below in the shop, into the river, and when I stopped and asked what they were at, they laughed and said some old idiot had given them a gold coin apiece to do it.”
“Be silent!” roared the jeweler, starting up. “Say no more about it or I will turn you out of doors.”
The jeweler’s wife was greatly puzzled, for her husband had always been a very moderate man until now. Accordingly, she began to keep a careful watch on him. Imagine her surprise and alarm therefore, when, in the dead of night, the man, quite obsessed with his treasure and thinking her sound asleep—which she had pretended to be—stole out of bed and went creeping about. She was quick to follow, however, so she saw exactly how he behaved, first taking a key from the chimney, then using it on the room above, going in the room and securely locking the door again from the inside. Not amazingly, the jeweler’s wife kneeled down and applied her eye to the keyhole; but she could see very little, only a great many boxes being opened, and her husband crouching over something and crooning, and when a mouse ran across the floor, he hissed at it frenziedly: “Ssh! Ssh!”
The jeweler’s wife got up and went quietly back to bed. but her husband did not return for three or four hours.
Whatever can he have up there? wondered his wife, remembering certain street criers’ tales of invisible sprites and certain titillating arts they would practice in return for human blood or souls.
The next night it was the same and the next, and the lady became quite beside herself with anxiety and interest.
“Well, well,” said she to her husband on the fourth day, “I think I will turn out that room at the top of the house.”
“No!” shouted the jeweler, “I forbid you to go near the room. Dare lay one finger on it and I will have you whipped through the streets.”
“Please yourself,” said the wife. But she determined to see whatever it was that made the man so foolish.
That very day, as it happened, the jeweler had to go out on business.
“Shut the door, and let no one in till I get back,” he said, “and mind you stay down here and do your work and refrain from snooping.”
“Of course, O best of husbands,” murmured the jeweler’s wife. But as soon as he was off, so was she; first to the chimney, then up the stairs, into the room, into the chest, into the boxes, and—
“Ah!” cried the jeweler’s wife.
Before long the jeweler’s wife fell to thinking as she held the collar in her hands: A man or a woman could equally well wear this necklet, and it will therefore look very nice on me. But if my husband returns and finds what I have done, he will never let me wear it; he will whip me or worse. So, and it seemed quite natural to her, she ran down to the river wharves where there was a little dark hovel, and here she purchased a certain medicine and ran back home again with it.
When the jeweler came in at the door, there was his loving wife waiting for him with a brimming goblet.
“How I have missed you!” she cried. “And see, I have mixed you a cup of spiced wine.”
The jeweler drank and promptly fell dead, for his lady had added the medicine to the liquor.
What lamentation there was then, and the neighbors ran to comfort the poor widow, never suspecting anything. But no sooner was the jeweler in the ground than his wife sold up his shop and all his wares, and moved to a fine house where she kept peacocks to walk on the lawns, wore black velvet, and the magical collar always glittering on her breast.
* * *
The king of the city also had a few wives, and one of these was his queen. She wore a veil of golden threads sewn with emeralds, and each day she would ride through the city in her chariot drawn by leopards. Her slaves would walk behind, beside and before the chariot, crying: “Bow down to the king’s first wife, queen of the city,” and everyone would bow down at once, or if they did not, the slaves would seize them and cut off their hands or their feet, whichever most took the queen’s fancy that day.
One afternoon as the queen went riding, she saw something shining up on a balcony.
“Go, fourth slave on my right,” said she, “and fetch me whatever it is that glitters there.”
The selected slave hurried away, and quickly returned dragging a terrified woman, who was no other than the jeweler’s wife with the silver collar round her neck.
“O Imperial Mistress, this jewelry is what your beauteousness saw gleaming, but the woman refuses to give it up, and see, she has bitten and scratched me when I tried to take it.”
“Strike off her head then,” said the queen, “for I will not abide meanness in my husband’s city.”
This was at once done, the collar washed free of blood in scented water (which was always carried for just this purpose, the hands and feet the queen ordered subtracted frequently having ornaments on them), dried on a silken cloth, and handed up to her. With sparkling eyes, the queen placed the collar round her own throat.
Soon the sun sank, and the queen came into the banquet that every night the king her husband gave in his hall. All there marveled at the collar, and many gazed at it with hungry eyes, forgetting the food on their plates. The king himself reached out to toy with the seven jewels.
“What a necklet, my dove. Where did you come by it? It looks very fair on your whiteness, but think how magnificent it would seem about the neck of a man, for surely it is too heavy for your delicate throat and you mean to give it to me?”
“Not at all,” said the queen.
“But you will loan it me?” wheedled the king. “Loan it me, and I will give you a certain turquoise I have, larger than the palm of my hand.”
“Nonsense,” said the queen. “I have seen the turquoise in question, and it is no bigger than your thumb.”
“Well then, I will give you five sapphires bluer than sadness. Or a casket of rare wood filled with pearls, each from a different shore.”
“No,” said she. “I am content with what I have.”
So the king chafed in his skin, and grew very angry, but he did not show it. When the feast was done, he went out secretly into the night and up to a high place in the palace gardens. Here, by starlight, he turned east, north, south and west and uttered certain incantations which he had learned from a magician in his youth. At first all was still, but presently there came a noise like a winter wind beating over the sky, the crests of the garden trees combed the moon, and a wide shadow was cast like a net across the ground. The king trembled but stood firm. A fearsome dark bird had settled on the turf, greater than three eagles, with a cruel curved beak, talons like hooks of bronze, and ruby eyes as hot as fire.
“Speak,” said this terrible Bird, “for you have brought me, with your little spell, from a feast high in the crags of my home.”
The king shuddered, but he said: “My first wife has a necklet she will not give me, though I am her husband and have a right to it. Seize her and fly up with her into the sky. When she screams for clemency, make her render you the necklet, and then bring it here to me.”
“And she?” said the Bird.
“I care nothing for her,” said the king, “and care nothing for what you do, so long as I have that necklet, and am clear of blame.”
“Then, because you have called me by the spell, I must act as you say.”
It was not a demon, the Bird, but an earth thing, one of the monstrous creations left over like fragments from the first garment of time. It really belonged nowhere, neither on the world nor under it, a bit of chaos that had taken on a shape and roamed at large, sulky and evil, for men to call, if they dared, but mostly for men to dislike and avoid.
It spread its huge wings like vast fans of palm leaves, and soared up to the saffron window where the queen sat before her glass, caressing the collar.
“Beloved,” the Bird called softly, “beloved, beloved, second moon of the night, come out and show your beauty to the shadows.”
And the queen came to the window, wondering and haughty, and the Bird grasped her suddenly in its awful talons, and bore her shrieking into the vault of the night.
The Bird flew high and far. Near to the gardens of the stars it flew and brushed their silver roots with the breath of its wings. Below, the land lay like a smoky map, here and there on fire with the lamps of cities, while at its edge crept the violet deserts of the sea.
The queen wailed for terror.
“Give me your necklet, and I will let you go,” said the Bird to her.
All else was lost in fright. The queen tore off the prize she had bought with blood, the Bird snatched it in its beak. And then, true to its word, let her go indeed, and down she fell towards the world. Some say she perished so, some say a wandering elemental of the Upperearth took pity on her cries and turned her into a bird herself, a little spiteful falcon, which forever after fluttered about the sky screeching.
The great Bird, glad to be rid of her, shook the collar in its beak.
It did not mean to give it to the king of the city after all, but to keep the ornament for itself. But as it beat homeward for its crags, a storm was born with the sun over the mountains, and came running across the heaven, clashing together its cymbals. A lighting struck the Bird, only a glancing blow, but it cried out and the collar of Vayi dropped from its mouth and was lost. Three times the Bird wheeled, searching for its spoils and then, finding nothing, flew on furiously into the west after the trailing rags of night.
The collar plunged like a meteor. Misty hills, tinged by the Sun, opened and fell away, a river flashed, a forest lay like a green-furred beast. There was a valley, walled in by tall towers of rock, carpeted with flowers at its bottom. Here, by a narrow waterfall, a small white temple stood in a grove of trees.
The seven jewels rang together as the collar fell, like bells. It caught suddenly among branches, and its descent was checked.
Who knows what god was worshipped in that place? Three priestesses tended his shrine and lit for him a flame on his altar. They had no other company than each other and one little snake, which was said to be the god’s oracle. At festivals the people of the valley and the surrounding hills would come to the temple, and the priestesses would take up the little snake—which was dear to them and which, at all other times. they treated quite as a pet—and place it in a marble tray of sand. Then they would put to it certain questions concerning harvest, birth, death and fortune, and when the snake wriggled, they would read the marks left in the sand, and this would be the interpretation of the oracle, the god’s answer. Also they would milk the little snake of its venom which they used to make a special incense. They did this quite safely for, although poisonous, it never bit them since it liked them too well. They fed it honey cakes and cream.
Every morning one of the three priestesses would go to the narrow waterfall with a ewer, and today the youngest set out. All the birds in the valley were singing and so was the youngest priestess. Yet, as she drew near the water, she saw something sparkling in the grove of trees.
“A star must have fallen from the sky in the night,” said she, but when she went closer, she saw well enough what it was. The ewer dropped out of her hands, which she clasped before her, and her eyes burned very bright. All she wanted in the world was to take the collar and put it round her neck and let the jewels shine on her breast, but she could not reach the bough where the prize was hanging. While she stood there like this, the second priestess came looking for her.
“Why, sister, what are you gazing at?”
“At nothing. There is nothing here!” cried the youngest. Of course, the second priestess looked up at once and saw at once. “It’s mine!” cried the youngest. “I found it first. You shall not have it.”
“Not so,” said the second. “I am older than you and I will have it.” And, snatching up the ewer from the ground, she struck the youngest such a blow with it that she fell down dead.
Just then the oldest priestess, hearing these violent noises, rushed out to the grove.
“Here comes another of the pests,” muttered the second priestess, and taking up the ewer again, she hid behind a tree, and it was not long before the oldest priestess suffered the same fate as the first. Then, regardless of her grim work spread around her on the flowery grass, the second priestess seated herself before the tree and gazed up at the collar.
“Soon,” she murmured, “I shall think of a way to bring you down and wear you about my throat, but until then I am content merely to watch over you.”
The sun rose high, and still she sat beneath the tree. The rocky towers turned gold then crimson as the day beat on its wings toward the west. Then all the blush was gone from the land and the sky, and green twilight filled the valley. And still the last priestess sat beneath the tree, seeing nothing but the collar among the branches.
Presently, the little snake came winding from the temple, lonely and hungry and out of sorts, for no one had petted it or fed it. When it saw the last priestess in the grove, it moved to her gladly and coiled about her ankle. But she took no notice. At this, the snake looked up and saw what was in the tree.
It was as if a spark kindled in its brain. Such was the collar of Vayi that all earth things, human or otherwise, coveted it. As if it bled from a mortal wound, every drop of the snake’s gentleness drained away. Mine, it thought, as had thought all the others, and it nipped the priestess in her heel with its venomed fangs, so that soon she also lay unbreathing on the ground.
The snake felt one moment of awful desolation and loss, then a sensation of anger and power. Its desperate loneliness was changed to boiling pride. It stretched itself to encircle the broad trunk of the tree, and it began to grow. It bloated with hatred and arrogance, it swelled and lengthened. Three times three its sinuous body wound round the trunk, and it rested its flat cruel head on the bough where the collar hung.
Night came and blackened the face of the world, and the snake blackened also to the color of its furious spite, and its eyes turned to silver slits from gazing at seven bright jewels.
* * *
Years passed, mortal years. The roof of the temple fell in, the pillars crumbled; it was a ruin. The waterfall dried up at its source and the flowers died, the trees withered and died too. Only the great tree, the tree with the collar in its branches, continued to live and to grow, though, like the snake, it had become dark and unlovely. The snake lived too. While its anger and jealous pride persisted, it could not die. It never slept, roped about the tree, and when men approached with torches, songs or knives, it spat from its clashing mouth a poison rich with its hate, that destroyed everything it touched. The grass was shriveled and full of new flowers, white flowers: bones.
There was a blight on the valley. People abandoned it, it was deserted. The legend grew of a treasure in a tree and a serpent which enviously guarded it. Then the heroes came.
Some came with armies, some alone; some came on horses, in amour, protected by spells, with swords of blue metal; some on foot with native cunning and wild hearts. All perished. Their bone flowers were added to the others which lay in the rank grass, and their names passed away into myth, or were forgotten. After five centuries, or ten, the heroes ceased to come.
And after the time of heroes, there was a time of emptiness.
The snake lay stretched all its black length along and about the tree, its jaws dripping ready venom, thinking merely: “The treasure is mine, only mine. You shall not have it.”
But behind its thought, an ache began, an ache in its serpent soul. An ache for what? It did not know, as it lay wide-eyed through the centuries. Sometimes, when the dry wind stirred the grass, it would dart up and spit death at the wind, hungry for another hero. But then it grew weary, and only lay with its flat head on the bough, dazzled and unseeing, thinking: “Mine, only mine. No one shall take my treasure from me.”
Though it had forgotten by then what its treasure was.
* * *
One day, when the sky was like a dome of sapphire glass over the barren valley, the snake heard a human footfall some way off, in the porch of the ruined temple. It raised itself, and its eyes cleared a little. It saw a shadow—it saw only in shadows now—a shadow like a man. The snake hissed, and poison sizzled on the ground beneath the tree.
The shadow stopped where it was, not as if timorous, rather as if listening.
The snake had learned the speech of man centuries before, for hatred and jealousy must find a tongue; only the creatures which never feel those things have no need to talk. Therefore the snake spoke.
“Come closer, man born of woman, that I, the serpent of the valley, may kill you.”
But, instead of running away, or drawing nearer—as the adventurers with their swords had foolishly done—the shadowy figure seated itself on one of the broken columns of the temple.
“Why should you wish to kill me?” asked the man, and his voice was strange and new in the valley, not brazen and shouting, or wheedling or pleading like the voices of the heroes, neither harsh like the wind nor monotonous like the rain, but musical and very pleasing. It was a voice which seemed to have a color like that of a topaz.
The snake held very still at the voice, for it seemed to make the ache in its soul far worse, yet at the same time, oddly, soothed it.
“I kill all those who trespass here,” the snake said, nevertheless, “for all who come, come to steal my treasure.”
“What treasure is that?”
“Look up into the boughs of the tree,” the snake declared with bitter pleasure, “and you will see it.”
At this the voice laughed, very gently, almost kindly, and the laugh was like water to the parched earth.
“Alas, I cannot see your treasure, for I am blind.”
The words cut through the snake, sharp as any hero’s sword. That a man who spoke in such a voice should be blind somehow hurt the snake, perhaps since it too had grown almost sightless.
“Were you born without eyes?” it asked.
“No, I have eyes, though they see nothing. But I come from a land with one ancient custom.”
“Tell me,” rustled the snake on the bough, because, for the first time in long, long years, pity had touched it, and interest.
“The land which birthed me,” said the stranger, “lives in great terror of its gods. The people there believe that if an infant is born with unusual beauty, the gods will conceive an anger for it, and strike it down. Therefore, each child, either male or female, is examined by the priests on its third birthday, and if any are judged likely to incur the gods’ punishment, they are made to look on white hot fire until the sight is burned from their eyes. In this fashion the gods’ jealousy is averted. And for this reason, in my land, all who are fair are blind.”
“Are you then fair?” the serpent asked.
“It seems they found me so,” replied the stranger, yet there was no rancor or sorrow in his tone.
“Come near,” whispered the snake, “and let me look at you, for I too am almost blind from staring at a silver fire. I will not harm you, never fear me. You have been harmed enough.”
The stranger rose. “Poor serpent,” he said, and came close, quite unafraid, and feeling his way with his hands and with a slim staff he leaned on. Soon, gaining the tree he reached up, not for the collar of silver, but to caress the body of the snake. The snake let down its head and gazed at him. The stranger was a young man, handsome indeed as a god might have been. His hair was pale as barley under white spring sun. His eyes showed no mark of their blinding; they were as green and as clear as the finest jade. His body was slender and strong.
The snake, feeling a great weariness, rested its long head on the shoulder of the blind man.
“Tell me who took your sight, tell me your name and theirs, that I may wish evil on them for your sake.”
But the stranger stroked the head of the snake, and said:
“My name is Kazir, as for the others, they are troubled enough. They took my eyes, but my other senses have grown sharp. When I touch a thing, I know it. Walking through this valley, I have learned all its history, merely from the brush of long grass on my wrist or a warm stone picked up from the track. And touching you, I grasp your sadness and your burden far better then if I had seen you and been afraid.”
“Ah, you understand me,” sighed the serpent, its face against his neck. “Once I was happy and innocent. Once I was loved and loving. I have yearned so long and never known my hope. Oh, give me peace, blind Kazir, give me rest.”
“Rest then,” said the young man, and he sang to the serpent a quiet golden song. It had to do with ships made of cloud, and the drowsy country where sleep rose like a mist to comfort the grief of the world. Hearing it, the serpent slept, the first sweet sleep of centuries, and in its sleep its envy and its fury died, and presently it also died, as softly and as gratefully as it had slept.
Kazir felt the life of the serpent leave it, and, since he could do no more, he kissed its cold head and turned away. Suddenly a branch snapped sharply behind him, and there came the sound of bells falling through the air. Kazir put out his hand before he reasoned and into it splashed the collar of Vayi.
He held it only for a moment.
This thing is cursed, he thought, demon work. It has done much ill and will do more unless I hide it in the ground. Then, his fingers going over it, he touched the seven magic jewels.
Others, seeing them, had hungered for them. But Kazir saw only through his finger-ends, and this with his own curious power. For an instant he held his breath, and then he said:
“Seven tears shed in despair beneath the earth, seven tears shed by a flower who is a woman.”
In that second he knew everything—not only the bloody story of the collar, but what had gone before, the little Drin hammering in his forge, Bakvi the worm in Azhrarn’s garden. But more than all this, he knew Ferazhin Flower-Born who wept beside the lake in Underearth, for Sivesh and for the sun.
* * *