The Fall of the White Tower

Белая Башня Падает
One rainy autumn morning Arthur William woke up to the idea that he shouldn’t cut the ravens’ wings anymore. This strange intention evoked by a nightmare shocked him at first. But while he was finishing his breakfast Arthur finally came to the conclusion that to stop cutting the ravens’ wings would be the right thing to do.

He put on his black coat with red stripes and set off to his ravens. Ancient towers were hanging reproachfully above him like sinister shadows, but Mr. William paid no attention to them.

He didn’t cut any wings that day though he had intended to just the day before. And some of the ravens already needed to be tied to the ground: those were two great coal-black birds. Now they were circling freely above the meadow. Arthur watched the ravens happily though the mere sight of a flying raven used to make him sick.

“The fat man is in our claws now, I tell you. If I command him to jump off the keep — he'll shrug and jump” said Munin

His companion clicked his beak and said:

“You are so annoying, brother Munin. What will you gain by turning our dear Arthur into a black-striped flat cake?”

“Nobody will cut those poor fellows’ wings,” insisted Munin

“Dear brother,” creaked Hugin, “if we get rid of this master, the loyal Brits will immediately send a new red-striped fat man right upon our feathered heads.”

It took Munin a few long minutes to digest this depressing argument.

“Those bastards,” he began to claw the ground in indignation. “Nothing has changed since the times when they dyed their hair white and fought with wooden sticks.”

“The only thing that hasn’t changed at all is your tiny mind,” reproached Hugin. “As always you are trying to solve the problem using brute force only. Take a look around, dear brother! Open your eyes! The age of the axe and sword has long since passed. Humankind has learned the secrets of atomic energy and sent off those silly little “sputnik”-things into outer space.”

Munin watched his brother skeptically, his head inclined on one side, his sharp pounces scratching stone plates in boredom. Hugin stopped talking and croaked bashfully:

“But yet you are right. Nothing has really changed since then.”

…The Ravenmaster Arthur William was strolling through the Tower’s meadow when the sound of voices echoed in the ancient keeps’ walls. It felt strange that once he’d loved those noisily monotonous visitors always accompanied by yelling kiddies who left chewing gum everywhere they went. Today they caused nothing but irritation when another crowd lead by a Beefeater entered his domain.

“Hey, who’s that guy in the funny hat?” wondered one of the tourists staring at Arthur.

“This is the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster.” The beefeater began to explain. “His task is of the utmost importance to all of Britain. According to the legend the day the ravens leave the Tower will be the day of a great calamity…”

“I’m getting bored every time I hear this tale. Humans can twist anything, you know.”

Hugin agreed. Perhaps Munin was a fool, yet he remembered everything.

***
… The island was cold and damp. To the south of here in Maine, apple trees stood in full bloom but this was the land of dense fog and rain.

Два всадника ехали по берегу реки. Первый был настоящим великаном, его сильные руки правили конем легко и уверено. Другой же, напротив, походил на бесплотную тень.

“The people hate you, my king,” the little man said, setting his black hood straight. “Since the time you stumbled upon the soil of England, forgive my frankness. Every peasant knows for sure that a whim of fate was Harold’s bane and not your sword.”

“I know their whispers well enough,” the giant turned back to glance over the city on the opposite bank of the river.

His face was of that noble beauty peculiar to a veritable king. Looking at him now nobody would recognize the grandchild of a tanner from Falaise.

“Ravens…” The king’s voice was filled with aversion while he watched the twirling birds. “Why would they love this hill so much? As if something lures them.”

“The stones, my lord. Black birds are often attracted by white stones.”

“I should have burned this city down, not entered it by a rose-petal covered road.”

“That day victory was yours, my king.”

Guillaume tossed his head angrily.

“Was?! I have become king by law and rightfully I claimed the crown. Don’t you dare to tell me that I was victorious. Once a victory, always a victory! Tell me now who rules the state of England while Harold rots in his grave?”

“You do,” said Robert with resignation.

Guillaume turned away. A gust of wind stirred the sea of grass surrounding them; it pulled back the hood from the king’s head and disarranged his short hair hoary with age. This was the man who led his soldiers into the carnage at Senlac Hill for the sake of claiming the crown. Now it’s in his hands. The archbishop of York put the crown on the head of the foreign comte, delivering his homeland to Norman plunder.

“Those stubborn folk won’t recognize you as their king even if you were Mary’s child himself.”

“Don’t you dare to blaspheme in my presence, Robert!”

Guillaume was a firm believer. His confidantes asserted that the faith of the king was on the verge of turning to blind fanaticism.

“As you wish, Sire. But no people shall willingly recognize a foreigner as their king,” continued Robert stubbornly. “It takes a traitor to do the trick, and these are the ones you surround yourself with.”

“Betrayal and treason’s everywhere!” exclaimed the king. “I want to return to my native shores, but this island holds me. Cursed Saxons won’t kneel. I know they will rebel yet again if I leave. They will forget who was crowned on Christmas morning in Canterbury Abbey the moment I will set sail.”

He fell silent. Nobody could accuse Guillaume of being a coward but sometimes it looked as if darkness descended upon him — he saw a traitor in everyone beside him and an assassin in every shadow. Those days the king either spent praying restlessly or went riding accompanied only by Robert de Comyn.

“The crown…” Guillaume smiled wryly. “The Lord has laid a heavy burden upon me: to sit on the throne listening to others’ pleas while being unable to turn to my own cares; to make decisions understanding full well that every London pauper will think he’d handle it better than the king… Do you mean to ask me if I still wish to carry this burden, Robert?”

“If only my king would answer me,” replied de Comyn evasively.

“With all my heart I desire to be king, but this will not make the crown any lighter, I swear!”

Without a word Robert de Comyn listened to his liege.

“This is my decision, Robert. We are going home. This island exhausts me; sometimes I even regret setting foot on this inhospitable land…”

The king frowned but then his face brightened and he burst out laughing, tapping Robert’s shoulder.

“But the day will come when I return here to become a king not only by mere title. The Saxons will obey me or I will reduce their island to ashes! I will build a fortress of white stone upon this hill to rule my kingdom. It shall stand for the eternity or at least as long as those cursed ravens remain here!”

On their way back to the city he told Robert at length of his dreams and plans.

Guillaume named the Conqueror couldn’t know that he would never see built the fortress he'd founded here. He didn’t know he would perish in a stupid accident during the siege of Mantes. So unaware was Robert de Comyn, the future count of Northumbria, that he was destined to be buried before his king, foully killed one sultry autumn morning in Durham Castle.

Only the floating ravens knew it but the prophetic birds chose to remain silent.

***
The Tower of London was clinging to its ghosts. Eternal, they have always been here, imprisoned in its walls. They walk the Tower meadow, they groan in Garden Tower, hide in the shadows of Traitor’s Gate. They’re waiting until the day of their deliverance comes, the day when the Tower’s walls fall releasing them.

…Through the empty passages there wanders William Wallace, holding his severed head in his hands. The white figure of a woman hanged on a black tree swings back and forth without a sound, while the sorrowful funeral procession of Henry’s wives continues its round dance at her feet. The ghosts of the Tower – they are numerous, those who rebelled against the royal power, those who perished – but yet remain, because nothing is gone without a trace. Their blood, flesh and soul were absorbed by the stones of the ancient fortress and if you listen very hard behind your own heartbeat you can still hear their moans carried by the wind. They’re waiting for the time to release their anger and hatred, their death-agony and despair. They’re waiting. The only thing holding them inside is the walls, but they only seem unbreakable. The ghosts can wait. And while black ravens are in the Tower – the ghosts can do nothing else but wait.

***
“Wilhelm was fierce, but surely a fine one. Sometimes I even regret that he died such an awkward death.”

“His horse stumbled. Horses don’t stumble without a reason, you know,” noticed Hugin. “And he was no Arthur for sure.”

“No Arthur for sure!” Munin croaked, spread his wings and zoomed to take a spin above the hanged woman. “How quite deft of you it was to use none other but Arthur for our cause.”

“No matter what, it all returns to its root,” said Hugin. “A faith supersedes a faith. After another Ragnarok only mere myths — like the two of us — remain as tiny remnants of former glory. Only odd fellows believe in such nonsense as myths. Arthur is exactly one of those cranks.”

“And he is not among the ghosts imprisoned by Tower’s dreaded walls,” reminded Munin.

Arthur woke up in the middle of the night. He sat in his bed staring through the window until the dawn came to drive away the darkness of night.

There came the sound of wings and a raven flew in through the wide-open window and sat on the window sill.

“Can’t sleep?” asked the bird.

Arthur stared at the strange guest, his jaw dropped in amazement.

“The morning is nice,” the raven continued. “Cold, but nice. When you fly above the Thames through the thick milk-white fog it seems the city has drowned in it. Only this fortress towers up above the fog. You should see that yourself.”

“It’s a shame I can’t fly,” said the Ravenmaster.

“Why?” the bird was perplexed.

“I don’t have wings,” Arthur finally decided it was just a dream.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” The raven closed his eyes and continued, “You don’t need wings to fly. To ride the wind you need only to believe it. See yourself flying in the sky surrounded by clouds high above the ground. You have to see it, Arthur William. Flight is freedom of mind when you’re not chained to the ground with your silly fear.”

“The Tower ravens won’t agree with you.”

“You cut not the wings of those poor fellows, you cut their souls. You don’t give them the choice to fly away or stay. That’s why the ravens are the true and only prisoners of the Tower. They sacrifice themselves so you can go on with your useless lives. A thousand years have passed but you still remain on the ground abandoning every effort to change anything. Your life lacks sense. One moment of free flight costs more than kings.”

“But if ravens leave the Tower…”

“I’m a raven of the Tower just like you. You can’t cut the others’ wings even for the sake of public weal,” insisted Hugin. “I could have told you nothing of it, Arthur. But I want to be honest with you. I hope that when the time of change comes you’ll understand me and hear the call of the wind. One day the world will change — and there will be no ravens left in the Tower.”

“What will happen then?”

“I have no idea,” admitted the raven. “But I do know what will happen if we leave things as they are now. And I don’t like the way they are.”

Hugin jumped up, spread his wings and slid towards the wind.

…The storm came out of the blue. Like a black dog, a huge cloud swallowed the sun and filled the sky.

“It’s time, brother,” cried Munin shooting upwards. “A few more hours and it will be too late!”

“Such is the nature of time,” croaked back Hugin. “Can you hear them?”

“Certainly”

The screams of the ghosts striving for their freedom shook the ancient walls. Children cried in the Bloody Tower. Guy Fawkes wailed enchained. The Countess of Salisbury ran from the scaffold trying to escape her executioner.

The cloud hung directly above the Tower of London. It blazed with lightning and roared with whirlwind.

Munin flew above the stone walls, trying to outstrip the sound of thunder.

Flash! A thunderbolt hits the ground.

A raven above a tower.

Flash!

“Eternity will claim only the Great,” the raven’s laughter croaked. “The tiny ones will be satisfied with what happens here and now.”

— Вечность — это для великих, — скрипуче рассмеялся ворон. — Малые довольствуются тем, что происходит здесь и сейчас.

Arthur walked the dark passages. Shadows danced before his eyes taking shapes of black ravens. He entered the courtyard. The prophetic birds of Odin wheeled round him.

“Away!” screamed Arthur. “Fly away from here!”

He grabbed a broom leaning against the wall and raised it above his head. The Tower ravens — the prisoners of the White Tower — dashed away from him. Arthur chased them through a narrow ladder to the wall of the keep. From there he saw a city fully awaken from the long sleep, but seemingly paralyzed with fright at the notion of the coming disaster. The ancient walls poured with tears, and blood screamed and cried.

“Fly away!”

The scared ravens jumped on the stone parapet but Arthur pushed them down with his broom to the waters of the Thames. Many of them could not fly with their cut wings and disappeared in the muddy abyss of the enraged river.

Thunder and lightning came endlessly one after the other.

“You know, Hugin, in such moments it pains me that I cannot cry,” admitted Munin looking at the terrible scene before them.

“It is inevitable, my brother. This is the atonement. Only those who dare to spread their cut wings and fly will escape.”

The Ravenmaster stood on the tower roof, hands hanging helplessly. The ominous obsidian-black vortex of thousand ravens wheeled overhead. Arthur William skinned his palms while climbing the parapet. But the blood was quickly washed away by heavy rain. Standing above the gap the Ravenmaster raised his arms. A lightning flash lit his figure and the sound of thunder muffled his laugh as Arthur jumped from the tower.
A whirlwind of birds caught him up and carried him above the city of London, above the ancient castle walls, above the tower made of white stone, above the Whitehall’s courtyard where Charles Stewart who’d never believed the legend about ravens had been beheaded.

…Through the stormy waters of the Thames that burst its banks sailed a lonely boat, and black waves were rolling over it. It was crewed by dead men in rusty chain armor. Paying no attention to the raging gale they seined the dead ravens.

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