Someone did not quite slam a pint glass on the table in front of me; foamy ale sloshed out of the glass and soaked the cheap coaster. I looked up to see Atlas sitting in the booth across from me. He grinned and toasted me with a glass of something that was nearly black. “Cheers, love,” he said. “You were a thousand miles away. Go ahead, drink up, it’s just Watney’s. It won’t bite.”
I returned his toast and we drank. As he’d said, it was a good bitter ale. I assumed he was drinking something old that the pub didn’t even know it had in back until he’d ordered it. Atlas is traditional in certain things, and he keeps close to the earth.
“What are you calling yourself these days?” I asked.
“Not Atlas,” he said. “People would think I was a body-builder. I’m going by Basil Nightlake. A good British name, wouldn’t you say? But a touch of drama, so it’ll pass with the toffs who think they know what’s what.”
“Niht-lác,” I said. “Night-sacrifice. Very clever.”
He laughed. “And, of course, those who do know what’s what, such as your lovely self, get the joke. I’ve had at least one don lecture me about the Saxon roots of the name and I had to pretend I was impressed. But past that, not more than the odd comment about it being a stage name.”
Which it was, in a sense. Whatever Nightlake’s real name is, I’d take good odds it’s in a language that died out before William the Conqueror set foot in England. His people, whoever they were, built the foundations of the Tower of London; the Romans came along later, I think, and eventually the Normans, but the oldest stones are still there, with his shadow bound and nailed inside the foundation-stone. That kind of sacrifice is very powerful and the victim is supposed to waste away, eventually, without a soul, but Nightlake survived it. There have been rumors – aren’t there always rumors, with us? – about a dark pact, or some kind of talisman, a spiritual prosthesis, that serves in place of what was trapped inside that ancient stone. But everyone agrees that the Tower stands because his shadow holds it up.
No, not because of the ravens. The ravens showed up for the carrion, which has always been plentiful around the Tower. Maybe they can also feel the death-that-should-have-been, the corpse that always follows the killing of a shadow. But they’re not what keeps the Tower from falling; he is.