CHAPTER THE FIRST
Night in Bellminster, and the cold, hard sliver of an October moon cut like a dagger in the sky. Its pallid glow washed all beneath in a frosty rime, casting sufficient light about the streets and alleys to fashion shadows with, to darken the deep corners and guard the secret places of the town from curious eyes. Through the silent lanes, only the wind kept company with the moonlight, moaning about chimneys and around houses, pushing at windows and doors to be let in, rattling bolts and shaking panes. But no hand raised the latch to any dwelling. No face peered out a glass to see what might be crawling through Bellminster this night.
The wind seemed to rise up out of the slow waters of the Medwin Ford at the bottom of the town, to skip across the surface of the river, lapping at the shallow waves. On the far side of the bank the wind threw out an arm to embrace the brick walls of the millworks, where three black smokestacks thrust their dirty fingers upward, reaching greedily toward the distant moon, eager to escape the night's wild caress. The wind leapt upon them, brushing away their soot and ash in gray-black clouds over the sleeping houses of the town.
The wind sailed up the near bank to catch the dust as it fell and send it flying again, driving it into holes and cracks in the town's face, eating away the mortar that held the stones of Bellminster together. It set the dust a-dancing through the cobbled streets indwarfish cyclones before coming at last to the very height of the town. Here, at the summit of the bank, this devilish progress settled into idleness. The moon itself was hidden behind the great towers of Bellminster Cathedral.
They rose out of the town, their roots reaching deep into the soil of Bellminster, stretching back in time to another age, and ages before even that. Along the cathedral walls, inside and out, an army of stone martyrs stood at attention, halting the wind, driving it back upon itself, ready to give their lives once more for the faith that had raised this monument. The wind was only gathering strength, however. A sudden blast blew up from the Medwin, roared through the town like a locomotive and shot up the sides of the cathedral, carrying dust and debris to blast the faces off the martyrs and clog the gargoyles' mouths, to scrape away at the lead roof and find secret passageways into the holy places, to rain soot and ash down upon the spirits of the dead. The cathedral stood, unmoved, impervious. Yet perhaps some flakes of stone were chipped away by the force of the storm, maybe a bit of the fine dust from the statues mingled with the leaves carried on the wind, and the weight of the cathedral was made lighter by a few grains of sand.
The wind raced on anew, over the roofs of Bellminster, out past the houses, across the fields and pastures to the edge of the Estwold, that shivering mass of trees whose branches sliced the wind and moonlight into a confusion of air and shadow. The moon and the wind and the forest, these are the denizens of the night. And still one more, a mere shadow amid the trees, a figure, blacker than the darkness, more implacable than the wind, huddled in the heart of the Estwold over his grisly work. Our eyes are too used to daylight to see what he fashions so carefully, though he sees clearly enough, and worries and frets over his creation, tugging at it, pushing at it, propping it here, bending it there, until he is satisfied with his handiwork at last. Stepping away, he drops slowly to his knees, clasps his hands together in supplication. His fingers make a sickening noise as blood seeps from between the joints, but no one is there to hear it save the spirit of the forest.
Soon he rises, pulls a cloak up over his shoulders and, taking alast, lingering look at his craftsmanship, he turns and walks away, back through the Estwold, out of the darkness and into the pale light of the splinter moon. He bows his head before the wind as he descends along the plain toward the houses of the city. His cloak whips behind him like a trail of smoke to mark his passing. Reaching the town, he moves furtively, aware that eyes might be watching, ears might hear his footsteps on the stones. From shadow to shadow he progresses, the darkness his road, the night itself his carriage. He slinks through the town until he reaches the vast doors of the cathedral. He pauses for a moment, lifts gray, almost-colorless eyes to the tympanum overhead, cold eyes, eyes that pierce the night. He stares up at the image of God triumphant, sending the few righteous men to paradise, the numberless sinners to damnation. He studies the tortures depicted there, the scathing whipcords wielded by devils of ungodly imagination, the rivers of torment in which infinite pain is multiplied by infinite remorse, the gnawing canker of sin set to fester for all eternity. He studies these scenes. Then he enters and leaves the door ajar behind him. Outside, the wind renews its assault upon Bellminster Cathedral, clawing at the walls, charging the now-open door, finding at last a way into the very heart of this sacred place.