Continued from Part 51

Start at the beginning

Inside the tower the air was cool.

Enoch looked up, and saw that while the spiral staircase that hugged the wall ascended in an unbroken path, he counted eight windows, looking out, this way and that, some letting strong light shine in, others simply reflecting weak colors from a distant landscape.

The staircase had no outside railing.  He would have to be careful in the heights.  A fall onto the harsh stone floor would be fatal.

At the top of the staircase, he thought he could see a heavy wooden door, leading, he assumed, to a lookout or parapet.  It would be a long climb, he knew, and whatever was behind the wooden door would still be there when he got to the top.

When Enoch put a foot onto the first step, he felt an odd, tingling sensation, even through the thick, reinforced leather of his boot.  It wasn’t painful, but it was not particularly pleasant, either.  He hoped the feeling would pass.

But, it didn’t.  Each time he placed a foot upon a step, he felt the tingling.  Was it getting more intense, he wondered?  He could not tell, but even if it were to become painful—and who knew what might happen in this strange structure?—he would not quit.  There was someone up there, he was sure of it.  The person he had been sent to see.

Finally, he thought, he would know why he had been sent on this strange quest, and perhaps even find out if he could ever again find his darling Elsyn, find a place to settle, and to have a decent, quest-free life.

His foot touched a fourth step, a fifth.  The climb was more difficult than he had expected.  He looked up, then, to see how much further he would have to climb.  He immediately wished he had not done so.  A wave of dizziness came over him.  He swayed on the steps, then forced himself to take another step, but there was no step there.  He had become confused, and he was falling.

He barely had time to yell in fear before he hit the hard floor.  He had only gone up five steps, and while the fall had felt much further than that, he was not seriously hurt.  He could feel a nagging pain in the heel of his left foot, and saw that he had scrapped the skin of his right hand.

“Careful,” he told himself, and his words echoed up the tall, gray stone that was the tower.  “Careful.  Fall from any higher and it would be worse than a sore heel or a scraped palm.  Careful, careful.”

Once again he stood before the first step of many, but as he raised his foot to climb, his memory of the unpleasant tingling came back, a fear of dizziness, and of falling came close behind, and he hesitated.

“Why bother,” he asked the walls.  What could possibly be up there worth the risk of an unprotected staircase, and sure death if he made a single misstep?

“Hello, up there!”  Enoch called up, eyes fixed upon the sturdy wooden door at the top.  “Open that door, and come down to me.  I am too tired to climb all these steps,” he yelled.

The door did not move.  There was no sweet creaking of old hinges, no scrape of leather on a stone floor, no sound of any kind coming down to where he stood.

“I will not go,” he told himself.  “I will go outside and call for Raytch.  He will come to me, and we will journey on together.  We will find a new home to the west, and shall never pass this way again.  I shall not go.”

But by then, he had gone.  He had reclaimed the five previous steps, and overtaken a sixth.  Apparently his feet had more courage than his heart did.

He could have faced not taking that first step a second time.  He’d fallen.  It could have been much worse.  He could have walked away with impunity, but he could not walk away from the sixth step.  That would be obvious cowardice, and even alone, that could not be allowed.  His father had once told him that character is who you are when no one is watching.  He had not understood that at the time, but just now the meaning was clear as crystal.  He must continue.

He took the seventh step slowly, telling himself that it was not cowardly to be careful.  After all, if he needed to fight whoever was up at the top—this was a new and disturbing thought—he could not do so if he, himself, was wounded.

He lifted his foot for the eighth step, and his foot seemed heavy, like it does when you walk through mud that is nearly dry, but still sticky, clinging to your feet, making them so much heavier.

It became a ritual as he slowly climbed the stairs.  Lift a foot, and feel the weight, place a foot, and feel the unpleasant tingle.  All in all, he longed for this climb to be over.

Then, without expecting it, he came to the first window.

He stopped to breathe in the fresh air, and to look out at the countryside that surrounded the tower.  He hoped to see his friend Raytch flying guard over the tower, watching out for him as he so often did, but the bird was not to be found.

“He is probably on the far side, or flying in the great lazy circles he so much loves,” he said aloud.  But he didn’t believe it.  No, Raytch was gone.  He could feel it, sense it within himself.

While he did not see his friend, however, he did see something to give him pause.  It was another tower.  Enoch would have sworn that there could not be another tower, one exactly like the one he now climbed, so close to the first, without him seeing it when he made the circuit to find the entrance.  But proof of sight was strong, and there it was.

“What,” he asked himself, “if I have started to climb the wrong tower?”

For a moment he considered racing down the stairs, and running to that other tower, but the same feeling that had kept him from fleeing this tower touched him again.

“No,” he told the air.  “I will go to the top of this tower first, and if I am wrong, I can always come down again and go to the twin.”

It was true, he knew, for the sake of this quest, for the sake of this ridiculous quest that still made no sense to him; he would descend the one and climb the other if he must.

But what, he wondered, if he got to the first window of that second tower, and found a third?  What if there were an endless stretch of identical towers, and the one he presently climbed was only the first in that long, long line?

He chided himself for making up problems where they did not—where they probably did not—exist.

With effort, he pushed himself away from the window, and for a moment was dizzy again, nearly losing his balance, his hand shot forward to grasp the sill of the window, and so doing, stopped himself from toppling over into empty air.

He wanted to sit, to take several long and deep breaths, but he was determined to push on.  He turned, lifted a heavy foot, and placed it upon the next step up.  The tingle had gotten stronger.  It still wasn’t what he would have called pain, but it was most uncomfortable and odd.

“No matter,” he told his foot.  “No matter,” he told the tower, and he took another step.

But each step was harder than the last, and before he could reach the second window he felt sweat pouring down his neck and back.  His miraculous armor, which had never brought the slightest discomfort, was beginning to chafe.  His amazing sword, swinging in its scabbard seemed to try to throw him off-balance.  The pack on his back—that and his cloak the only things that had been with him from the start—shifted like the sword, like they were turning traitor on him.

He needed to put it behind him—and that made him laugh, for both the pack and cloak were behind him—he needed to take another step, and so he did.

He was panting heavily when he finally got to the second window.  He reckoned he had come a full revolution, and a quarter to reach it, and with each step shy of that goal, had told himself that once he got there he could rest for a few minutes before pushing on.

When he finally made the small landing beneath the second window, he sank to his knees, panting.  How will I ever top this thing, he wondered, if I am so tired after barely beginning the climb?

As much as he wanted to sit for an hour or more; to rummage through his pack for a skin of wine, or some wrapped meat, he was determined to finish his quest before taking food or drink.

Struggling, he regained his feet, and, reaching up to the sill, pulled himself up to the window to breath in the fresh air, but stopped in mid-breath.  It was as though the tower had moved.

He could not see the second tower, but that made sense, as he’d moved along to another side, but that did not explain the dense wood he saw below.  It was not possible!  He had walked most of the way around the structure, and had seen all sides.  The tower was in a field, not in a forest, and there were no deep, thick trees close at all.

No, wait, he realized, he had not long ago passed through such a wood.  Was it some illusion, he wondered, that allowed him to see that forest from these heights?  No, he thought again, for as he looked down he saw that those tall, thick and dark trees had grown up to the very base of the tower, and that he knew was not possible.

Was there something, he wondered, in the air of the tower that worked as a narcotic?  Some unusual drug that made him see things that were not there?  Could that be the cause of this vision?

He looked again, and as he stared through the window, a face surprised him.  It was Raytch, flapping languidly to stay in the air just outside of the window.

“How goes your climb, Sar Enoch,” asked the bird, gasping slightly as he worked.

“I uh…” stammered Enoch.  “Is that you?”

“I think it is me,” said Raytch, a twinkle in his eye.  “Why do you ask?”

“Look down, friend Raytch.  What do you see?”

“I see the ground, Sar Enoch.  Did you expect I would see something different?”

Afraid of what he would see, Enoch moved closer to the high stone window, and looked down.  The trees were gone, and the meadow looked as it had, if further down.

“What magic is this?”  He asked his avian friend.

“What magic is what?  You know I can fly.  I’ve been doing it all my life, and I have flown scout for you.  Are you somehow afflicted, Sar Enoch?”

“Afflicted, yes,” he told the bird.  “That must be it.  There is something in the air in here, or a dreadful mold on the walls—although I cannot see it—that makes me see things which cannot be there.”

Raytch did not answer.  Getting on his toes to better see, Enoch looked down, up, and to either side.  His friend was nowhere to be seen.

“This is not funny!”  He yelled into the air, but there was no answer, and when he looked down again, the thick forest was back.

So, he thought.  That’s it.  I am spelled, or enchanted, or under the influence of some odd drug.  I cannot trust what it is that I see.

Still, he thought, for a moment, seeing his friend there, working to stay in place, and speaking in a friendly manner with him, he had been a relief.  It had given him a little strength, and perhaps understanding that the windows were magic—although he hated that idea, for what could he do against magic?—or he was in some other way afflicted, it made it a little easier.  If what he saw was not real, if it could not be real, then perhaps he could finish this climb.

But then it occurred to him that perhaps it was the tower itself that wanted him to fail, to fall or to retreat.  And that made him angry.

He adjusted the straps of his pack, steadied his amazing sword in its sheath, and set his eyes upon the third window.  Making each window a goal made it somewhat easier.  He did not have to attain the door at the top of the tower in one long push.

Step by painful step he moved up, and around, one and a quarter turns around this massive tower, his body protesting, his breathing rough, and every beat of his heart labored, but he did not stop until he reached that third window.

There he stood, just shy of the third opening, and he found his hands shaking.  What would he see through this window?  Should he even look?  What had any window brought him thus far but pain, fear and questions?

“I will not look,” he told the window.  “You have nothing I need to see.”

But it did, and he knew it.  Whatever the window would show him, he needed to see.  For all he knew it was a part of the quest.

With tired resolve, he struggled to his feet and went to look.

What he saw was impossible, and while the other sights he had seen were also impossible, this view brought him up short.  It was a whole new level of impossibility.  For through the window he saw the court of King Allyear, where he had supposedly been tried, and had definitely been sentenced to death.

There was the king in his throne, and the two councilors one seating to the king’s left, and the other standing before Enoch and the mass of people.  And, that was bad enough, for it had been a trying and fearful time, but even more astounding to him was this:  the king’s court was at eye level with this, the third window.

For a moment Enoch thought the only thing left was to gouge out his own eyes, or to step into the air and crash to the ground, for his sanity was lost.  He had no doubt now.  This was no magic vision, no trick by drug, this was insanity, pure and simple.

One could not look through the same window twice, as he had one below and seen different scenes.  Yet he had.  And now he was seeing something that suggested he was not in a tower at all, but only a round room, a cell perhaps, just off the legal court of King Allyear.  And, if that was not insanity, then Enoch knew not the meaning of the word.

“I thought you would quit.  I knew you didn’t have what it takes to complete a simple task” It was the rasp of the shadow man.

In other times, Enoch might have jumped, frightened to his skin by this voice from nowhere, but not now.  He was angry.

“What would you know?”  He demanded of the voice.  “You move around by some ethereal means, without substance, without effort, and yet you have the audacity to call me a coward?  A quitter?”

“I can see what you are thinking.  You wish to die.  Does that not qualify as cowardly to your way of thinking?”

Enoch was shaken by this.  How could this evil creature know his innermost thoughts?  He would not admit it, not to an unseen foe who had pushed him away from his home in Goodhope.

“You know nothing of what I am thinking.”

“I know that you think I am your enemy, and that my, how did you phrase it ‘pushing you away from your home’ was some evil thing.  I assure you it was not, but hopefully you will learn that all in good time.”

Enoch was shaken by this.  It was too much in a single day.  A tower with impossible windows, and a man—at least he thought the owner of the raspy voice was a man—now that knew his innermost thoughts?  It was just too much for a man to take.

“I don’t believe so,” said the voice.  “It will all be over soon, all you need do is climb a tower.  It isn’t like you do not have the strength, is it?”

“I am exhausted.”

“A mere detail,” said the voice, “and I’ll have none of it.  I know, perhaps better even than you, what it is you are capable of.”

“You know nothing of me.  You lie and you cheat, and you push an innocent into action not in his own interest.  What are you?  Why are you doing this to me?  I want you gone!”

“And gone I will be, and very soon, Sar Enoch.”  That last sounded rude, insulting.

“You cannot be gone soon enough for me.”

“I wonder,” rasped the voice, and the sound of those words chilled Enoch thoroughly.