Our carriage came to an abrupt halt at a crossroads, the driver and footman muttering to each other, before one grew courageous enough to answer my inquiry as to what could possibly be the matter.
“We do not know the roads here,” the footman said.
“To put it truthfully, you are lost,” I said, with an irritated shake of my head. The footman offered no reply, knowing that what I said was correct.
I turned to my companion for advice. He was a native of the region and familiar with the roads and he suggested we disembark from the carriage so he could ascertain where we were. With great reluctance I agreed to this course of action, seeing no other. It was a cold and blustery day, the clouds in the sky promising snow.
We walked a bit beyond the crossroads, leaving the carriage to the care of the driver and footman, my companion casting about for some landmark to spark his memory. I was no help, for I found the region to be a desolate place, all rolling hills, stretching on forever, with hardly a tree to be seen. The wind grew vicious and I had to turn up my collar against it, grimacing. My companion, noting my discomfort, suggested that we return to the carriage and carry on in the direction we had come, at least until we came to something he recognized.
That we did, and not five minutes later there came a call from the driver that there was a tower ahead. My companion glanced at me and frowned. He knew of no tower in the area. We both stepped out of the carriage to look at it for ourselves. What I saw gave a me a chill deeper than any the wind had that day. The tower sat atop a hill, and was so tall and broad I was surprised we hadn’t been able to see it from the crossroads. Its stones were a deep black, as if they were made of obsidian, and worn down by the elements, giving it the appearance of being ancient and of another world. I had the impression of shadows and movements where none should be.
My companion seemed as disturbed by its appearance as I was. He turned to me, shivering, but not from the cold. “We must go back. I had no idea we had gone so far astray.”
I agreed and the driver gladly turned the carriage around. We went back along the road for some miles until we managed to find our way. We traveled in silence at first, both of us brooding on the tower, I think. I could not get the darkness of its stones from my mind. I had seen nothing like it in any of my journeys, especially in this land where there was little stone and few towers or grand buildings were constructed, the natives preferring wood or dirt houses built low to ground, the better to guard against the bitter winds.
My companion seemed particularly distressed. I saw him biting at his lips and worrying his finger at his temple. Several times he glanced at me and seemed on the verge of speaking, only to hold himself back in the final instant. After a time he could no longer contain himself and he told me the tale of the black tower. These are his words:
“Long before this age we live in now—I do not know how long, for as you know our written records here are few—there were several great families that ruled in this region. They were rivals, always and in all things, and as you can imagine strife often broke out amongst various of the families. The two greatest fell to fighting one year, but unlike so many of the other feuds, this one did not cease after a season or two.
“The conflict, which began with the usual poisonings and knifings of firstborn sons, did not die out, as so many of the battles amongst the family did with more practical minds prevailing. Instead, each act provided new tinder to the fire, until the conflagration seemed to feed itself. Generations passed and the bloodshed between the families seemed only to worsen. It threatened the standing of both families amongst the great houses, to say nothing of their wealth.
“As is always the case in these blood feuds, the origins of the dispute are long forgotten. They cease to matter, for there is always a fresh grievance to look to. Normally they die out, as the families die out, too many kin sent to the grave too young. And perhaps, given enough time, that might have happened here too. But it did not.
“For two of the patriarchs had the foresight to see that things could not continue as they were. You are imagining that these great men saw the need to put aside whatever differences lay between their families and bring an end to the feud and the bloodshed that had consumed the entire region. Such was not the case. They sought not only to perpetuate their families line, but the feud itself.
“They contracted a wizard to build a tower, with dragon stones brought from faery lands. This the wizard did, and then he placed binding spells upon the tower, so that any who entered could not leave. When the work was done, the two patriarchs gathered before it with all their families and had a lottery. One member of each family, selected by this lottery, was banished within the tower, never to be seen again. Each year the families gathered again and chose a member for banishment. In this way the feud was carried on but peace was kept and both families prospered greatly, extending their dominions across the land.
“What became of those banished within the tower, you will be wondering. Many others did as well. Rumors abounded, for, of course, no one would dare to enter, for fear of suffering the same fate as those cursed to that place.
“The truth did not become known for centuries, after generations had been banished to live out their days in there The first of those banished had killed each other, carrying on the feud within those terrible walls. But some few survived as time went on. Naturally, there were not only men banished but women, and so the inevitable happened and the two families were joined within that tower. Those children had children and their children as well. For them the feud was only a burden, the reason for their continued imprisonment, and they grew to resent the families who continued, year after year, to send members to the tower to live out their days.
“Wizards are, of course, untrustworthy sorts, as we both know only too well, and the spell of binding that the wizard cast was not so binding as the two families believed. It bound those banished to the tower properly enough, as many of that sorry lot had come to know only too well. But the progeny of those banished had not, in point of fact, entered the tower, and so were free to leave.
“It was some time before this discovery was made, for the banished had long since surrendered themselves to their terrible fate and had passed on their fatalistic view to their children. Once it was, the children of the feud came forth from the tower and sought vengeance upon those who had condemned them and their parents to such a place. I do not need to tell you that life in the tower was hardscrabble and mean, and the people that emerged from the tower were fearsome indeed.
“Both families were wiped out utterly, the only survivors banished to the tower. Those who had escaped the tower ruled here for a time, but life in the tower had made them too cruel and, eventually, the people rose up and cast them out.
“The tower still stands, as we have both seen today. And no doubt the wizard’s enchantment still holds. There are those who say that some still live within, children of those banished long ago who, for whatever reason, never left. And those unfortunate souls who, not knowing the terrible story of the place, wandered in by mistake, never to leave. Some say that those born within will come forth one day and wreak vengeance upon this land again, while others say they have grown so used to life within the tower that they have no urge to leave.
“I have heard it said that if you are in these hills on a day like today, when the wind blows hard, you can hear the voices of those within carried beyond the walls. They speak a language no one can understand.”
After my companion was done with his tale we were both silent. That night, and for many nights after, my sleep was troubled by dreams of the tower and of the souls who might be within there. I felt a desperate pull to go within and see for myself what remained there, to hear the language no one could understand. It was madness to even think such a thing, to condemn myself to such a fate for mere curiosity. And yet I think I might very well have done it, if not for my companion and our own fate, which forced us to carry on to the farthest edges of those lands in search of even more terrible magic than that used in the making of that tower.
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