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The Hounds of Avalon

an extract from the novel
by Mark Chadbourn

The Hounds of Avalon by Mark ChadbournNight had fallen by the time they located the mysterious tower in the section of the court that resembled the Moorish quarter of a Spanish city: white stone, minarets, ornate awnings and fragrant smoke blowing in the warm breeze. It lay high up the hillside, and when Sophie turned to look back over the court spread out below her, the sight took her breath away. Tiny white lights had sprung up everywhere, like fireflies in the dark; there were candles in windows, and lanterns hanging over shops along the streets, tiny suns holding back the night.

The tower stood in a small walled garden filled with palms and orange trees and small, spiky shrubs. A white-stone path wound through the vegetation. More lanterns hung from the trees, attracting moths in clouds. The gate was unlocked.

Caitlin caught Sophie's arm and said, "Let's go carefully."

"Why? Guard dogs?"

"I've heard some strange things. The one who lives here might be dangerous. There are stories about him ... " She caught herself. "Let's just be careful."

The tower was constructed from ivory, glass and gold, each element merging into the other with a delicate architectural sensibility that instilled a quiet wonder. The path led to a mahogany door covered with iron studs. A bell-pull hung beside it. Caitlin hesitated and then grabbed the pull to announce their presence.

For a long minute there was no reply. Gradually, a rhythmic hissing rose up from the vegetation on either side of the path. As Sophie and Caitlin waited with thumping hearts, snakes slithered on to the path towards them. The serpents glowed so brightly that the women couldn't be sure if they had substance or were just patterns of green and red light.

The snakes moved quickly along the path and then split into two groups, curving around on either side of Caitlin and Sophie. They continued up the sheer, slick walls and came together over the top of the door, where they began to crawl into each other's mouths. The serpents merged, became larger until finally one huge snake undulated down until its eyes were on a level with Caitlin and Sophie. They glittered red with a disturbing intelligence.

"Speak your business," the snake said with a soft sibilance.

"A Sister of Dragons and a Fragile Creature are seeking the wisdom of Math."

There was a brief pause before the serpent said, "That name has not been heard since the days of the tribes."

"But it still holds, does it not? Math, great magician, brother of the goddess Don. He was a friend to Fragile Creatures in times past."

"There are no times past," the snake hissed. Another pause. Then: "Enter ... and prove yourself worthy to stand before the Seer of the Seven Worlds."

With a fizz, the snake dissolved into tiny balls of light that drifted away on the breeze. A second later the studded door swung open in a heady aroma of incense.

"I don't like the sound of that," Sophie whispered.

Caitlin stepped over the threshold and made her way to a staircase that wound around the inside of the walls. It was lit intermittently by tiny lanterns, but there were still many troubling pools of shadows.

Caitlin and Sophie moved hesitantly up the stairs, one hand trailing on the cool wall for support. When they had reached what they guessed was the halfway mark, the atmosphere became oppressive.

"Can you feel it?" Sophie asked. "Something's coming."

A sound like the wind through leaves echoed softly at first from further up the tower, drawing closer. Caitlin and Sophie waited with mounting apprehension, until the first signs were indicated by undulating shadows cast by the flickering lanterns.

"Snakes," Caitlin said. "Lots of them."

As they rounded the bend in the stairway, Caitlin and Sophie saw these weren't the light-snakes they had encountered at the foot of the tower, but hard-scaled, sharp-fanged serpents that were undoubtedly real. Yet they had an otherworldly ambience that made them even more menacing. Several were as broad as Sophie's body, their tails lost in the dim recesses of the upper tower, but the majority ranged from the width of an arm to barely larger than a finger, shimmering greens and scarlets and golds, with strange black patterns along their skin that resembled runes.

There were so many snakes they filled the stairway up to Sophie's waist, a slow-moving tidal wave that would easily engulf the two women.

Sophie grabbed Caitlin's arm. "Come on. We have to go down."

"We can't," Caitlin said desperately. "This is our one chance. If we go down, he'll never let us back up again." She turned to Sophie, her face hard and determined. "You go. You don't have to do this."

"You're insane! Look at them."

The nearest snake had the hood of a cobra, but strange alien growths sprouted like mushrooms along its back. It reared up to bare its fangs, venom sizzling where it splashed on the steps.

Caitlin surveyed the mass of writhing bodies, then said firmly, "It's a test. Math wants to see if we're up to the honour of meeting him."

The nearest snake moved within striking range. Caitlin made her decision and then lay flat on the stairs.

"What are you doing?" Sophie said incredulously.

"He said we had to prove we're worthy. He wants us on our bellies, supplicating."

"You're mad." Sophie looked from Caitlin to the snakes and then back down the stairs. "If I survive I'm never going to forgive you for this." She closed her eyes and pressed her face hard into the cold ivory of the steps.

The serpents reached her a second later, a weight of writhing mass pressing down so hard that Sophie felt she might suffocate. The sensation of constant movement above her made the bile rise in her throat. Their skin was dry against her face, forcing their way through her hair, wriggling past her cheeks, under her nose, forcing her lips apart with their tiny bodies, pressing against her eyes.

And then the claustrophobia set in and she began to choke, but the weight above her was so great she couldn't have lifted herself up from the steps if she tried. Panic rammed her rational thoughts aside.

The snakes continued to come for what felt like hours, until Sophie couldn't believe there were so many snakes in all the worlds. Just when she thought her last breath was about to give out, the mass above her grew lighter, and quickly receded.

Finally, she was on her knees, choking and spitting, unable to believe she hadn't received one bite. Caitlin was beside her in the same state, yet strangely smiling. She grabbed Sophie's arm and indicated down the stairs where the serpents had gone. Sophie looked round; there were no snakes to be seen anywhere.

"You're not telling me that was all in my mind," Sophie choked.

"It was real all right," Caitlin said. "And we survived."

After a moment to gather themselves, they started back up the winding stairway. The aroma of incense grew stronger, and eventually the stairway opened out on to a room that covered the whole floor in the very top of the tower. Four windows at the cardinal points looked out over the glittering lights of the dreaming city. In front of each sat a creature that resembled an animal, but had the same otherworldly quality as the snakes, a gleam of intelligence in the eye, or an odd movement of the mouth as if it were muttering to itself, or an unusual size.

There was an enormous boar, fat and bristling, its piggy eyes green and furious, a hawk that was almost as big as Sophie, a salmon, again as big as person, sitting in a large wooden chair, its tail flapping against the wooden floorboards, and a bear, watching them contemptuously. All were fastened by an iron chain attached to a ring bolted to the floor. The four beasts radiated an air of menace that made Sophie and Caitlin wary of venturing too close.

Purple drapes covered with gold and silver magical symbols lined the walls between each window, and the floorboards were marked out with similar magical symbols. A brazier gave off the heavy incense, while other mystical objects lay around: several lanterns burning with a dull red light hanging on chains from the ceiling, a brass telescope, maps and charts on a table, books and flasks and philtres.

And in the centre of the room, nearly seven feet tall, stood Math. He wore long black robes that covered his entire body and on his head, protruding from a four-holed cowl, was a brass mask with a different face in each of the holes: a boar, a falcon, a salmon and a bear.

"You survived the test," he said from the mask of the boar, with a voice that was strangely gruff. "I would have expected such a result from a Sister of Dragons. But from a Fragile Creature?" He tilted the mask towards Caitlin. It would have been easy to wilt under the cold eyes just visible behind it, but Caitlin held her head proud.

© Mark Chadbourn 2004.

The Hounds of Avalon is published in April 2005 by Gollancz; ISBN: 0575072784.
The Hounds of Avalon by Mark Chadbourn

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