Orphans of Chaos

The Chronicles of Chaos (Volume 1)

John C. Wright

Tor Science Fiction

I

The Boundaries

1.

The estate grounds were, at once, our home, our academy, and our prison. We were outnumbered by campus staff, and by the imposing old Georgian and Edwardian edifices. There were more mares in the stables than there were students in the classrooms. It was only the five of us.

The estate was bound to the North by the Barrows, to the West by the sea cliff, to the East by the low, gray hills of the Downs. What bound us to the South is a matter of dispute.

2.

Colin claimed the forest was the only boundary to the South. His story was that the wood had no further side, but extended forever, with the trees growing ever taller, the shade ever darker, and beasts within it ever more dangerous, huge, and savage. He said that beyond the world’s end the trees were titanic, the darkness was from Tartarus, and the beasts were vast enough to swallow the sun and moon.

When the two of us broke into the Headmaster’s library, I climbed up to wipe with my skirt the dust from the glass-covered map that stood above the volumes and antique folios of the oaken bookshelf. The map showed Wales to the North and Cornwall to the South. To the East were English towns famous from history and legend: Bristol and Bath, Hastings and Canterbury and Cambridge. There was London, queen of all cities. Beyond the White Cliffs of Dover was the Channel and Calais on the coast of France, gateway to the continent, to places rich and bright and beautiful and ever so far away.

Colin rolled his eyes, which were large, startlingly blue, and very expressive. "And you believe our world is the one depicted on that map?" His voice dripped silky contempt.

He ducked his head to peer up at my under-things, but scampered back when I aimed a kick at his head.

3.

Quentin, on the other hand, implied the Old Road (which ran through the forest) constituted the boundary to the South. He argued that the Straight Tracks were older than the Roman road built atop them; older than the standing stone we found among the gray hills of the Downs; older than the green mound on the South Lawn.

He spoke of ley lines, and energy paths and mysterious connections between certain hilltops, standing stones, the crumbled ruins of the tower on a rock in the bay we all called the "lighthouse." He had charts to show their alignments with various rising and setting stars on certain dates. He used an astrology chart from the back of one of Mrs. Wren’s magazines to show, with some plane geometry, why the Straight Tracks defined the transition point between different astral domains. The argument was incomprehensible, and that made it easier to believe.

Where Colin was loud, Quentin was quiet, indrawn, unassuming. He never claimed to be a warlock, and therefore we all thought he was.

Vanity and I saw him on the Manor House roof tiles one October midnight, talking to a winged shape too large to be a crow. It took flight, and we saw its outline against the moon.

4.

Victor was more logical. He argued that the Southern boundary was the new highway B-4247, which led from the coast to Oxwich Green. This new highway was on our side of the forest, and cut through it in places. Following the highway toward the bay led to the fishing village of Abertwyi, from which the island of Worm’s Head could be seen. Victor said the highway right-of-way followed the legal boundary as defined in the courthouse records for Shire of West Glamorgan, which listed the metes and bounds of the Estate.

We knew Victor had disappeared when the group all went to Mass one Sunday in Abertwyi-town. We did not know how he got over the stone wall surrounding the churchyard and courthouse unseen, or picked the lock on the massive iron grate, forged into fanciful shapes of leaves and black roses, which blocked the courthouse doors. Victor just was able to do things like that.

We know what he had been looking for, though. We all knew: records of our parents.

"I was naïve to expect our records to be there," he confided in me curtly. "The adoption records and genealogies only apply to men."

I cocked an eyebrow at him, and gave him an arch look. "And what about women, then?"

"The word refers to both sexes."

"Does it, really? You’ll never talk me into going with you to the Kissing Well, if you sit there and say I look to you like a man."

"Define your terms. We are certainly human. We are certainly not Homo sapiens."

And, after a moment, he said, "Actually, I do not recall asking you about going to the Kissing Well. Your comment seems to be based on a false assumption."

Victor was, in some ways, the smartest one of the five of us. In other ways, he was just so stupid.

I should explain that, during that summer, the chapel attached to the estate had been undergoing repairs for water damage from the rains. When Mr. Glum, the groundskeeper, brought Victor, dragged by his ear, back to stand before the Headmaster, there was a consultation in the library among the Board of Trustees. The next Sunday we went to Mass in our own chapel, water-streaked walls behind the saints covered with tarp, scaffolding blocking the stained-glass windows, and everything. Further expeditions to Abertwyi were canceled.

Victor’s argument was brief and solid. A boundary was a fiction defined by law; there were documents reciting the applicable law; and they named the new highway as the boundary. Q.E.D.

5.

Vanity was of the opinion that if we did not know where the boundary was, it could not affect us.

Her argument ran along these lines: we had been warned something bad would happen to us if we went over the boundaries, or tarried too long on the far side. But boundaries do not exist in the material world. A rock or a tree on one side or the other of an imaginary line is still a rock or a tree, is it not?

Therefore the boundaries only exist, as Vanity put it, "in our fancy."

"Think of it this way," she would say, between various ejaculations and digressions. "If everyone woke up tomorrow and agreed we should spell ‘dog’ C-A-T, why, dogs would be cats as far as we could tell. But the dogs would not care what we called them. If everyone woke up and said, ‘Vanity is the Queen of England!’ why, then, I’d be the Queen of England, provided the army and the tax gatherers were among the people who said it. If only half the army said it, we’d have a civil war."

The boundary to the South was no different. As one moved South there were trees upon the south lawn, a few, and then more, and then scattered copses, then thick copses. At some point, you would find yourself in a place with no grass underfoot, where no one had stepped before, and see trees which had never felt the bite of an axe. But where exactly was the dividing line?

The trees were thick around the servants’ quarters, the stables, and the pump house. They were thicker beyond the old brick smithy. They were thicker still beyond the even older green mound connected with local King Arthur tales; but that mound was bare of trees itself, and one came from the shadows of silent leaves into a wide round area of surprising sunlight, where four standing stones held a tilted slab high above wild grass. The stones were gray, and no moss grew on them, and no sunlight ever seemed to warm them.

Vanity said that Arthur’s Table clearly could not be in the forest, because there were no trees there. A forest, by definition (Vanity would exclaim) was a place full of trees, wasn’t it?

So (she would conclude triumphantly), there was no Southern boundary, provided we all agreed that there was none. What other people said amongst themselves was their own affair.

Colin would ask sarcastically, "And when they send Mr. Glum and his savage dog to hunt us down and maul us, does it then, at some point, become our affair?"

Vanity would roll her eyes and say, "If the dog mauls us on this side of the boundary, we could still say he was on the other side, couldn’t we? Things like boundaries don’t exist if you don’t see them when you look for them, do they?"

"And I guess dog fangs don’t exist if you don’t feel it when your arm gets ripped off, right?"

"Exactly! Suppose the dog only thought he mauled us, but we did not see him nor feel him when he came to attack us! How do you know the dog hadn’t just dreamed or imagined he attacked us? We could agree he hadn’t done it, couldn’t we? We could even agree the dog had agreed not to hunt us!"

Colin would respond with something like, "Why bother arguing with me? Why don’t you just agree that I agree, so that, in your world, I have?"

Vanity would rejoin, "Because I prefer to agree that you argued and you lost, as anyone who heard the dumb things you say would agree."

Colin was not one to give up easily. "If you merely dreamed you had found a secret way out of here, that would not let you walk through a solid stone wall, would it?"

"Of course not. But no one knows which walls are solid and which are hollow because no one can see the inside of the solid ones, can they? The ones you can see inside aren’t hollow, are they? No one else has any proof one way or another."

Vanity’s argument was as incomprehensible as Quentin’s, and as brief (when pared down) as Victor’s. Apparently as long as she, Vanity, in her solipsistic purity, did not believe the Southern boundary existed, then, for all practical purposes, it would not.

6.

Vanity was short, redheaded, with a dusting of freckles on her cheeks. Her eyes were the most enormous emerald, and they sparkled. She had a little upturned snub nose I always envied just a bit. She was fair skinned and always wore a straw skimmer to keep the sun off her face.

With her lips so pale a rose color, and her eyebrows so light, I always thought she looked like a statue of fine brass, held in a furnace of flame so hot as to be invisible, so that she seemed to glow. Even when frowning, she seemed to be smiling.

She was curvy and she took wry amusement at the fact that the boys, the male teachers, even Mr. Glum, could have their gazes magnetized by her when she walked by.

I always thought Vanity was a little sweet on Colin, because she yelled at him and called him names. In the romances I read, that was a sure sign of growing affection.

As I grew older, I noticed how carefully she noticed everything Quentin did, Quentin the quiet one, and I realized she doted on him. And I began to realize Vanity actually was annoyed and exasperated by Colin.

That was when I realized, for the first time, that the five of us were not the tightly knit band of Three Musketeers Plus Two that Victor said we were, one for all and all for one, and all that.

It was not until I was around an age which, in a human being, would be between sixteen or eighteen or so, when I had the thought that with two girls and three boys, one of the boys in our merry band would end up a bachelor, or married to a stranger.

I remember where I was when this thought came to me. I was sitting on the lip of the Kissing Well, with my skirts flapping in the gusts coming from the bay, quite alone. I had just come from the infirmary, and was still seasick from Dr. Fell’s most recent round of vaccinations. We were usually allowed to skip lessons any afternoon when Dr. Fell worked on us, provided we made up the lessons later. The well was high on a hillside, and overlooked the water. Sea mews were crying, and the sad sound lingered in the air.

It was spring, I remember, and two male birds were fighting. That was what prompted my thought.

That was also when I started wondering what my future would be. I wanted to be a pilot, an explorer. A cowgirl with a pistol. Anything that got me away from here. The idea of being a housewife seemed intolerably dull and lacking in glamour. On the other hand, the idea of never having a child was like death.

And then I said aloud to the well, "But what if they never let us go?"

The voice in the well said back softly, ". . . never let us go . .. ?"

7.

My name is Amelia Armstrong Windrose. I should say, I call myself that; my real name was lost with my parents.

We chose our own names when we were eight or ten or so. It was not until we started sneaking off the estate grounds that we realized that other children in the village were christened at birth, and kept anniversaries of their birthdays, and knew their ages.

We knew about birthdays from various readings, of course. There were references to such things from histories, where boy kings had to be killed before they ascended the throne, or from gothic romances, where girl heirs had to be wedded before they came into their majority. We knew, in a general way, what a birthday party was.

Mrs. Wren started holding them for us, with snappers and barkers and wrapped gifts, and candles on cake with icing, and toasts and games, when we complained. But her notion was to have them twice or three times a year, usually during months with no other holidays of note. And the number of candles she put on the cake could be anywhere from one to one score, depending on her mood, or the success of her shopping.

The gifts we got from her did not seem odd at the time, for we had no other basis of comparison. Once I got a wrapped roast duck, which had turned cold in the cardboard box, and lay amid its own congealed grease. Another time, a box of nails.

Colin got one of Mrs. Wren’s shoes at that same party; Vanity got a drawer from the kitchen with knives and spoons in it. And yet, other times, her gifts were things of wonder and pleasure: a wooden rocking horse, painted fine, brave colors; a toy train set with an electric motor and a cunning little chimney that puffed real smoke; a dress of breathtaking beauty, made of a soft scarlet fabric, perhaps satin; an orb of pale crystal that glowed like a firefly when you held it in your hand and thought warm thoughts; a walking stick with a carved jackal head with silver ears, which Quentin was convinced could find buried streams and fountains underground.

One birthday party, the Headmaster simply announced we were to choose names for ourselves, and put our baby-names behind us. Only Quentin refused to choose, and kept his original name. I, who had been Secunda, used the chance to name myself after my heroine, the American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. My family name I took from that eight-pointed star which decorates maps and determines North.

You see, I had always felt closed-in and trapped by the walls and boundaries of our estate. No matter how handsome and fine the grounds, it was still a cage to me. My dreams were for far, unguessed horizons, hidden springs of unknown rivers, un-climbed mountains shrouded in cloud. The edges of maps interested me more than the middles.

Naturally, such dreams led me to admire that breed of men who sailed those horizons, found those springs, conquered those mountains. Roald Admussen was my idol, along with Hanno, Leif Erickson, and Sir Francis Drake. My favorite books from Edgar Rice Burroughs were those where the lost city of Ophir appeared.

Amelia Earhart seemed so brave and gay, her smile so cheerful and fearless, in the one picture in the little encyclopedia entry I found of her, that only she could be my namesake.

I told myself she had not been lost at sea, but had discovered some tropic island so fair and so like Eden, that she landed her plane at once, knowing no one else would ever be daring and cunning enough to find the route she had flown. All the years that had gone by, with her still not found, seemed to confirm my theory.

My name, invented when I was perhaps a twelve-year-old, may seem silly now. But I console myself that young Tertia named herself after a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, so that she could be called Miss Fair. We are lucky she did not end up called Miss Pride N. Prejudice.

8.

I cannot describe myself except to say that I am either very vain or very beautiful, and that I hope I am the latter, while suspecting I may be the former. My hair is blond, beyond shoulder length, and I liked to wear it queued up and out of the way. My complexion has been tanned by spending much time out of doors in the wind and weather.

I always had the idea, when I was young, that if I stared in the mirror long enough at some feature, my lips or eyes, some sun freckles I did not care for, or a mole, I could somehow, by force of will, "stare" my face to a more perfect shape—clearer skin, higher cheekbones, eyes greener, or more long-lashed, perhaps slightly tilted and exotic.

And because this does indeed describe me, then as now, I had always had the unspoken, haughty assumption that plain girls either lacked willpower, or lacked imagination. It is my least attractive feature, this prejudice against the unsightly, and it is based on a very wrong notion of what life is like for normal people. It gives me no pleasure to notice that many normal people have the selfsame prejudice against the plain, but with far less reason than I.

I am tall. Rather, I should say, I am tall for a girl, but I hope you will understand me if I say I was taller when I was younger. Everyone but Primus, who became Victor Invictus Triumph, was smaller than me, and I could outrun and outwrestle my two younger brothers.

9.

I remember the day when Quartinus, who turned into Colin Ib-lis mac FirBolg, proved he could master me. There was some quarrel over who was to pluck apples from the tree, and I threw one at his head hard enough to raise a bruise. He grinned, as he did when he was angry, and chased me down. You see, I laughed because the last time we had raced, I had beaten him. Now he tackled me, rolled me on the ground, and took my hair in one hand to yank my head back—something he would never have done to a boy. Still, I grinned, because the last time we fought, I had toppled him downhill.

And so I struck and I wrestled and I pushed and I kicked, but my blows seemed, by some magic, to have been robbed of their force. Just one year before, he had been a child, and I could bully him. Where had my strength gone?

He pinned my wrists to the ground, and knelt on my legs to prevent me from kicking. Suddenly, the game turned into something serious, mysterious, and somehow horrible. I writhed and struggled in his grasp, and I somehow knew, knew beyond doubt, that I would never be stronger than a man again. Not ever.

Colin smiled, and ordered me to apologize, and he bent his head forward to stare into my eyes. I wonder if he was trying to awe me with his frowning gaze, to hypnotize me with his luminous blue eyes.

If so, he succeeded beyond his dreams. This boy, whom I had never really liked, now seemed inexpressibly powerful to me: manly, potent, confident. I will not tell you all my wild thoughts at that moment. But I wanted him to kiss me. Worse yet, I wanted not to want it, and to have him steal a kiss from me nonetheless.

I did not apologize, but snapped defiantly at him, "Do your worst!" And I tossed my head and yanked at my wrists in his grip. My fists seemed so little compared to his, and his grip seemed as strong as manacles. I felt entirely powerless, but the sensation seemed oddly intoxicating, rather than dreadful.

He did not do his worst. Instead, baffled, he stood up suddenly, releasing me, and seemed suddenly a boy again, a child I could defeat.

Excerpted from orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright.
Copyright © 2005 by John C. Wright.
Published in November 2006 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.