Another snippet from the long con

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.


  • John Nowak wrote:

    I like this.

    Inci­den­tally, just about every large stone struc­ture I’ve been to has ravens, aside from the Pyra­mids. I guess there aren’t many in Egypt.

  • Ms. Grue wrote:

    So “Jack­daws love my big sphinx of quartz” was a lie all along!

    I don’t know why there’s just some­thing inher­ently creepy about Eng­lish his­tory. It’s hardly the old­est or blood­i­est civ­i­liza­tion, but there you are.

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