THE BEGINNING OF HAPPENSTANCE FOUND (THE BOOKS OF UMBER)
The boy felt as if he’d emerged, fully conscious and wholly formed, out of nothing. Not out of darkness, or chaos, or mist or murk. He was sure he’d sprung from nothing, and now he was lying in a strange place with rough stone pressing against the back of his skull.
He began to notice peculiar things. A strange taste painted his throat. His clothes were damp, especially the thick cloak. And he couldn’t see, because something was across his eyes: a cloth, tied behind his head. When he reached for it, someone spoke.
“Don’t touch that.”
The voice was unfamiliar. Of course it was – it was the first the boy ever remembered hearing. The man had spoken briefly, but the boy detected something in those three words. Amusement. Or eager anticipation.
“Who is that? Who are you?” asked the boy. He pushed himself up until he sat on the stone floor.
“Never mind about me,” said the man, nearly singing the words. The boy heard the patter of stealthy feet, the scuffle of shifting cloth. When the man spoke again, the voice was closer. He’d been standing before; now he must have been kneeling. “I’m curious about you, though,” the man said. “How do you feel? What do you know?”
“What do I know?” the boy said. The question was strange, the answer even stranger. Because, in fact, he knew very little. At the moment, anyway; knowledge seemed to arrive bit by bit, as he needed it. What is this I’m sitting upon? A stone floor. What is around my eyes? A blindfold. What is on my feet? Boots. What is it called when I open my mouth and draw in air? Breathing. A spring inside his mind surged forth and filled his head with words and notions. But when he called on the spring to tell him one particular thing, there was no response. The boy gasped.
“My name!” the boy cried out. “I don’t know who—”
“Hush!” cried the man. “Listen!”
The boy heard nothing at first. He turned his ear, searching. His senses hinted that he was in a confined space, surrounded by walls. But the space wasn’t entirely enclosed, because a sound came from one direction, distant but growing.
“Best be quiet for a moment. Until the worm passes,” the man whispered, so close that the boy felt warm breath on his ear.
Worm? That word had more than one meaning, the spring of knowledge told him. There were the worms in the ground, the tiny wriggling things that were feasted on by birds and in turn feasted on all things dead. Then there were the other worms. Beastly and dangerous.
He heard the thing coming – but was it one thing, or an army of things? A massive bulk scraped across a rocky surface, and there was an incessant clacking, as if hundreds of talons scrabbled over the ground. The noise grew until it became a roar as the creature passed a narrow window or door, just a few strides away.
The boy felt a single finger across his lips, and the knowledge came to him: It was a sign that he should be quiet. His shoulders quivered as the scraping, tapping sounds went on for longer than he could believe. Finally, they began to fade. The worm was gone, propelling its vast bulk – a many-legged bulk, the boy decided – through the adjacent corridor or passageway.
When the sound died the man spoke. “Well. I hope the worm doesn’t eat them.”
“Eat who?” asked the boy.
“The ones who are coming for you. Where are they, by the way? They should have been here by now. Hold on – they’re getting close. Yes, that’s them. And he’s with them. I knew he would be.” Something in the tone of the voice made the boy think the man was grinning. “Don’t be afraid. I want you to trust them.”
“I don’t understand. Who are these people?” asked the boy. The man didn’t answer. “Hello?” The boy pushed the blindfold over his forehead. The room was dark, but his eyesight pierced the gloom. The man was not there.