Towers

What kind of tower is it?

He wondered. It was before him, sudden in a clearing in the forest – he’d been riding by, cantering, watching for any sign of activity or flurry of fur along the leaf-carpeted ground, and had pulled his horse up short at the sight of a tower looming over them. It was stark and regular, after the crookedness of the trees he’d been passing for so long. He sat and gazed, ignoring the mare’s whinny.

The tower was so tall, he could barely see the top of it, up among the treetops that brushed against its sides. It was built in stone cut in chunks and stacked to spiral many stories high, perhaps as wide as an ordinary room. He could see, nearer the turrets of the tower, the indents of windows marking the pale stone. He couldn’t see a door at the bottom, though. He tugged on the reins once more, and walked his horse around the tower, but there were vines twisted and twined into the stones so thickly that their leaves obscured any detail. He slipped off the horse’s back, and tried to venture closer, to look for a door somewhere on its wall, but the underbrush caught at his knees as he struggled closer. The air lay sweet and thick with the scent of honeysuckle, and the spiky yellow flowers poked at his legs. He gave up, after a minute, and returned to his horse, who was nibbling at flowers. He leaned against her warm flank, an arm thrown across her saddle, but he did not mount to leave. She didn’t seem to mind – she looked up for a moment, and returned to pulling blossoms off the twigs with her teeth.

Leaning there, standing planted in the foreign forest ground, he looked up at the tower. It could have been anything, and he speculated. Perhaps it was a wizard’s tower; he imagined an old man, a beard flowing from the wizened face, peering over a cauldron of sizzling spells. Or a witch, with hair that crackled in the heat of her spells and eyes that flashed with magic. He could murmur incantations in a deep cracked voice, growing louder and louder until the words boomed out across the forest dampened by night, which would glint with the hints of magic he’d strewn about. It would be perfect for a wizard’s tower.

But, he thought, it could be something completely different. Perhaps a swarm of creatures—elves, imps, maybe gnomes—was trapped in the room at the very top of the tower, with limbs that arced and bowed in a way no human or animal could. Tiny beasts with bones like birds, all angles poking and blue skin shimmering. They chirped and sighed, staring out at trees they could not touch and a sky that showed itself in glimpses. Perhaps they could see him now, and wished desperately that some human like himself would climb the stones, tearing at the vines with his fingers, scrabbling at the rock, to the top where he would rescue the window with a swoop and a flourish. He could watch them all flutter out on wings that flapped in the wind.

It might not be those creatures unknown, though. Perhaps, rather than a person at all, the tower held a dragon. Right now, even, it could be sleeping, curled up, and head tucked into its tail, the light of gold reflected on its scales from the hoard of riches it had collected. Perhaps each night it rose, straight up from the center of the tower, spinning in the air and unfurling its wings, until with a flick of its tail it swooped off to pluck up livestock from the fields and unsuspecting maidens. It would exhale a cloud of smoke that curled through the air and choked living things.

Yes, he decided, it could very well be a dragon. A tower like this would be perfect for a dragon – or a swarm of strange beasts, true, though a wizard was as likely. It held something of great mystery and importance in its depths. He left his mare, nosing another clump of leaves now, to walk toward the tower once more. He imagined that perhaps the bushes would part as he approached them, like the briars surrounding the sleeping princess, but they did not, and they pushed at him until he stopped just as before. He stood at the side of the tower, glaring up its wall against the brightness of the sun, breathing the perfume of the flowers. The scratches on his shins throbbed, but he was intent on the tower. He listened – was that a roar he heard? He was almost certain of it, a grumble filling the stones from within. No, it couldn’t be – it was the sound of words spoken with solemnity, and a faint boom. Perhaps. He listened harder, and admitted to himself that his ears may have conjured the noise themselves. After a moment, he cocked his head again – was that the sound of sobbing, drifting down from the top of the stony tower? No, it couldn’t be. Whatever the sound was, it had stopped. He stood absolutely still, fingers stretched against the rock. After a moment he lifted his head. He was almost entirely certain that the noise above him was the shrill of a scream, weaving through the thickness of stone. He listened for a moment, waited silent but for his own breath rustling through the air – no, it couldn’t be. His imagination again, surely.

He turned, determinedly, back to the horse yards away, still munching on foliage. He swung himself onto her saddle, and with a twitch of his heels rode away from the tower, not glancing back, chiding himself for wasting time.

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