In the great hall of King Haggard's castle, the clock struck six. Actually, it was eleven minutes past midnight, but the hall was little darker than it had been at six o'clock, or at noon. Yet those who lived in the castle told time by the difference in the dark. There were hours when the hall was cold simply for want of warmth and gloomy for lack of light; when the air was stale and still, and the stones stank of old water because there were no windows to let in the scouring wind. That was daytime.
But at night, as some trees hold a living light all day, hold it with the undersides of their leaves until long after sundown — so at night the castle was charged and swarming with darkness, alive with darkness. Then the great hall was cold for a reason; then the small sounds that slept by day woke up to patter and scratch in the corners. It was night when the old smell of the stones seemed to rise from far below the floor.
"Light a light," Molly Grue said. "Please, can you make a light?"
Schmendrick muttered something curt and professional. For a moment nothing happened, but then a strange, sallow brightness began to spread over the floor, scattering itself about the room in a thousand scurrying shards that shone and squeaked. The little night beasts of the castle were glowing like fireflies. They darted here and there in the hall, raising swift shadows with their sickly light and making the darkness even colder than before.
"I wish you hadn't done that," Molly said. "Can you turn them off again? The purple ones, anyway, with the — with the legs, I guess."
"No, I can't," Schmendrick answered crossly. "Be quiet. Where's the skull?"
The Lady Amalthea could see it grinning from a pillar, lemon-small in the shadows and dim as the morning moon, but she said nothing. She had not spoken since she came down from the tower.
"There," the magician said. He strode to the skull and peered into its split and crumbling eyesockets for a long time, nodding slowly and making solemn sounds to himself. Molly Grue stared with equal earnestness, but she glanced often at the Lady Amalthea. At last Schmendrick said, "All right. Don't stand so close."
"Are there really spells to make a skull speak?" Molly asked. The magician stretched out his fingers and gave her a small, competent smile.
"There are spells to make everything speak. The master wizards were great listeners, and they devised ways to charm all things of the world, living and dead, into talking to them. That is most of it, being a wizard — seeing and listening." He drew a long breath, suddenly looking away and rubbing his hands together. "The rest is technique," he said. "Well. Here we go."
Abruptly he turned to face the skull, put one hand lightly on the pale crown, and addressed it in a deep, commanding voice. The words marched out of his mouth like soldiers, their steps echoing with power as they crossed the dark air, but the skull made no answer at all.
"I just wondered," the magician said softly. He lifted his hand from the skull and spoke to it again. This time the sound of the spell was reasonable and cajoling, almost plaintive. The skull remained silent, but it seemed to Molly that a wakefulness slipped across the faceless front and was gone again.
In the scuttling light of the radiant vermin, the Lady Amalthea's hair shone like a flower. Appearing neither interested nor indifferent, but quiet in the way that a battlefield is sometimes quiet, she watched as Schmendrick recited one incantation after another to a desert-colored knob of bone that spoke not one word more than she did. Each charm was uttered in a more despairing tone than the last, but the skull would not speak. And yet Molly Grue was certain that it was aware and listening, and amused. She knew the silence of mockery too well to mistake it for death.
The clock struck twenty-nine — at least, it was at that point that Molly lost count. The rusty strokes were still clanking to the floor when Schmendrick suddenly shook both fists at the skull and shouted, "All right, all right for you, you pretentious kneecap! How would you like a punch in the eye?" On the last words, his voice unraveled completely into a snarl of misery and rage.
"That's right," the skull said. "Yell. Wake up old Haggard." Its own voice sounded like branches creaking and knocking together in the wind. "Yell louder," it said. "The old man's probably around here somewhere. He doesn't sleep much."
Molly gave a small cry of delight, and even the Lady Amalthea moved a step nearer. Schmendrick stood with his fists shut and no triumph in his face. The skull said, "Come on. Ask me how to find the Red Bull. You can't go wrong asking my advice. I'm the king's watchman, set to guard the way to the Bull. Even Prince L'ir doesn't know the secret way, but I do."
A little timidly, Molly Grue asked, "If you are truly on guard here, why don't you give the alarm? Why do you offer to help us, instead of summoning the men-at-arms?"
The skull gave a rattling chuckle. "I've been up on this pillar a long time," it said. "I was Haggard's chief henchman once, until he smote off my head for no reason. That was back in the days when he was being wicked to see if that was what he really liked to do. It wasn't, but he thought he might as well get some use out of my head, so he stuck it up here to serve as his sentinel. Under the circumstances, I'm not as loyal to King Haggard as I might be."
Schmendrick spoke in a low voice. "Answer the riddle, then. Tell us the way to the Red Bull."
"No," said the skull. Then it laughed like mad.
"Why not?" Molly cried furiously. "What kind of a game — ?" The skull's long yellow jaws never moved, but it was some time before the mean laughter chattered to a halt. Even the hurrying night things paused for a moment, stranded in their candy light, until it stopped.
"I'm dead," said the skull. "I'm dead, and I'm hanging in the dark watching over Haggard's property. The only small amusement I have is to irk and exasperate the living, and I don't get much chance of that. It's a sad loss, because in life mine was a particularly exasperating nature. You'll pardon me, I'm sure, if I indulge myself with you a little. Try me tomorrow. Maybe I'll tell you tomorrow."
"But we have no time!" Molly pleaded. Schmendrick nudged her, but she rushed on, stepping close to the skull and appealing directly to its uninhabited eyes. "We have no time. We may be too late now."
"I have time," the skull replied reflectively. "It's really not so good to have time. Rush, scramble, desperation, this missed, that left behind, those others too big to fit into such a small space — that's the way life was meant to be. You're supposed to be too late for some things. Don't worry about it."
Molly would have entreated further, but the magician gripped her arm and pulled her aside. "Be still!" he said in a swift, fierce voice. "Not a word, not another word. The damned thing spoke, didn't it? Maybe that's all the riddle requires."
"It isn't," the skull informed him. "I'll talk as much as you like, but I won't tell you anything. That's pretty rotten, isn't it? You should have seen me when I was alive."
Schmendrick paid no attention. "Where's the wine?" he demanded of Molly. "Let me see what I can do with the wine."
"I couldn't find any," she said nervously. "I looked everywhere, but I don't think there's a drop in the castle." The magician glared at her in vast silence. "I looked," she said.
Schmendrick raised both arms slowly and let them fall to his sides. "Well," he said. "Well, that's it, then, if we can't find the wine. I have my illusions, but I can't make wine out of the air."
The skull giggled in a clacking, tocky way. "Matter can neither be created nor destroyed," it remarked. "Not by most magicians, anyway."
From a fold of her dress Molly produced a small flask that gleamed faintly in the darkness. She said, "I thought if you had some water to start with…" Schmendrick and the skull gave her very much the same look. "Well, it's been done," she said loudly. "It's not as though you'd have to make up something new. I'd never ask that of you."
Hearing herself, she looked sideways at the Lady Amalthea; but Schmendrick took the flask from her hand and studied it thoughtfully, turning it over and murmuring curious, fragile words to himself. Finally he said, "Why not? As you say, it's a standard trick. There was quite a vogue for it at one time, I remember, but it's really a bit dated these days." He moved one hand slowly over the flask, weaving a word into the air.
"What are you doing?" the skull asked eagerly. "Hey, do it closer, do it over here. I can't see a thing." The magician turned away, holding the flask to his breast and bowing over it. He began a whispery chant that made Molly think of the sounds that a dead fire continues to make, long after the last coal has faded.
"You understand," he said, interrupting himself, "it won't be anything special. Vin ordinaire, if that." Molly nodded solemnly. Schmendrick said, "And it's usually too sweet; and how I'm supposed to get it to drink itself, I haven't the faintest idea." He took up the incantation again, even more softly, while the skull complained bitterly that it couldn't see or hear anything. Molly said something quiet and hopeful to the Lady Amalthea, who neither looked at her nor replied.
The chant stopped abruptly, and Schmendrick raised the flask to his lips. He sniffed at it first, muttering, "Weak, weak, hardly any bouquet at all. Nobody ever made good wine by magic." Then he tilted it to drink — then shook it, then stared at it; and then, with a small, horrible smile, turned it over. Nothing ran out, nothing at all.
"That's done it," Schmendrick said almost cheerfully. He touched a dry tongue to his dry lips and repeated, "That's done it, that has finally done it." Still smiling, he lifted the flask again to hurl it across the hall.
"No, wait — hey, don't!" The skull's clattering voice protested so wildly that Schmendrick halted before the flask left his hand. He and Molly turned together to regard the skull, which — so great was its anguish — had actually begun to wriggle where it hung, cracking its weathered occiput hard against the pillar as it strove to free itself. "Don't do that!" it walled. "You people must be crazy, throwing away wine like that. Give it to me if you don't want it, but don't throw it away!" It rocked and lurched on the pillar, whimpering.
A dreamy, wondering look crossed Schmendrick's face, rather like a raincloud drifting over dry country. Slowly he asked, "And what use have you for wine, with no tongue to taste it, no ribby palate to savor it, no gullet to gulp it down? Fifty years dead, can it be that you still remember, still desire — ?"
"Fifty years dead, what else can I do?" The skull had ceased its grotesque twitching, but frustration had made its voice almost human. "I remember," it said. "I remember more than wine. Give me a swallow, that's all — give me a sip — and I'll taste it as you never will, with all your runny flesh, all your buds and organs. I've had time to think. I know what wine is like. Give it to me."
Schmendrick shook his head, grinning. He said, "Eloquent, but I've been feeling a bit spiteful myself lately." For a third time, he lifted the empty flask, and the skull groaned in mortal misery.
Out of pity, Molly Grue began to say, "But it isn't —" but the magician stepped on her foot. "Of course," he mused aloud, "if you should happen to remember the entrance to the Red Bull's cavern as well as you remember wine, we might bargain yet." He twiddled the flask casually between two fingers.
"Done!" the skull cried instantly. "Done, for a dram, but give it to me now! I am more thirsty with thinking of wine than ever I was in life, when I had a throat to be dry. Only give me a single swig now, and I'll tell you anything you want to know." The rusted jaws were beginning to grind sideways on each other. The skull's slaty teeth were trembling and splitting.
"Give it to him," Molly whispered to Schmendrick. She was terrified that the naked eyesockets might start to fill up with tears. But Schmendrick shook his head again.
"I will give it all to you," he said to the skull. "After you tell us how we may find the Bull."
The skull sighed, but never hesitated. "The way is through the clock," it said. "You simply walk through the clock and there you are. Now can I have the wine?"
"Through the clock." The magician turned to peer into a far corner of the great hall, where the clock stood. It was tall and black and thin, the sundown shadow of a clock. The glass over its face was broken, and the hour hand was gone. Behind gray glass, the works could barely be seen, twitching and turning as fretfully as fish. Schmendrick said, "You mean, when the clock strikes the right time it opens, and then there is a tunnel, a hidden stair." His voice was doubtful, for the clock seemed far too lean to conceal any such passageway.
"I don't know anything about that," the skull replied. "If you wait for this clock to strike the hour, you'll be here till you're as bald as I am. Why complicate a simple secret? You walk through the clock, and the Red Bull is on the other side. Gimme."
"But the cat said —" Schmendrick began. Then he turned and walked toward the clock. The darkness made him seem to be going away down a hill, growing small and stooped. When he reached the clock he kept walking without pause, as though it were truly no more than a shadow. But he bumped his nose.
"This is stupid," he said coldly to the skull as he returned. "How do you think to cheat us? The way to the Bull may well lead through the clock, but there is something more to know. Tell me, or I will spill the wine out on the floor, for you to remember the smell and look of it as much as you choose. Be quick!"
But the skull was laughing again; this time making a thoughtful, almost kindly noise. "Remember what I told you about time," it said. "When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said 'one o'clock' as though I could see it, and 'Monday' as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year's Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls."
Molly blinked bewilderedly, but Schmendrick was nodding. "Yes," he said. "That's how the real magicians do it. But then the clock —"
"The clock will never strike the right time," the skull said. "Haggard scrambled the works long ago, one day when he was trying to grab hold of time as it swung by. But the important tiling is for you to understand that it doesn't matter whether the clock strikes ten next, or seven, or fifteen o'clock. You can strike your own time, and start the count anywhere. When you understand that — then any time at all will be the right time for you."
At that moment, the clock struck four. The last bang had not yet faded when there came an answering sound from beneath the great hall. Neither a bellow nor the savage grumble that the Red Bull often made when he dreamed, it was a low, inquiring sound, as though the Bull had awakened sensing something new in the night. Every flagstone buzzed like a snake, and the darkness itself seemed to shudder as the glowing night creatures scampered wildly to the edges of the hall. Molly knew, suddenly and surely, that King Haggard was near.
"Give me the wine," the skull said. "I have kept my part of the bargain." Silently Schmendrick tipped the empty flask to the empty mouth, and the skull gurgled and sighed and smacked. "Ah," it said at last, "ah, that was the real stuff, that was wine! You're more of a magician than I took you for. Do you understand me now, about time?"
"Yes," Schmendrick answered. "I think so." The Red Bull made his curious sound again, and the skull rattled against the pillar. Schmendrick said, "No. I don't know. Is there no other way?"
"How can there be?" Molly heard footsteps; then nothing; then the thin, cautious ebb and flow of breathing. She could not tell where it came from. Schmendrick turned to her, and his face seemed to be smudged from within, like the inside of a lantern glass, with fear and confusion. There was a light too, but it shook like a lantern in a storm.
"I think I understand," he said, "but I'm sure I don't. I'll try."
"I still think it's a real clock," Molly said. "That's all right, though. I can walk through a real clock." She spoke partly to comfort him, but she felt a brightness in her own body as she realized that what she had said was true. "I know where we have to go," she said, "and that's as good as knowing the time any day."
The skull interrupted her. It said, "I'll give you a bit of advice in the bargain, because the wine was so good." Schmendrick looked guilty. The skull said, "Smash me. Just knock me to the floor and let me break in pieces. Don't ask why, just do it." It was speaking very quickly, almost whispering.
Together Schmendrick and Molly said, "What? Why?" The skull repeated its request. Schmendrick demanded, "What are you saying? Why on earth should we break you?"
"Do it!" the skull insisted. "Do it!" The sound of breath came nearer from all directions, though only on one pair of feet.
"No," Schmendrick said. "You're crazy." He turned his back and started a second time toward the gaunt, dark clock. Molly took the Lady Amalthea by her cold hand and followed him, trailing the white girl like a kite.
"All right," the skull said sadly. "I warned you." In a terrible voice, a voice like hail on iron, it began at once to cry, "Help ho, the king! Guards, to me! Here are burglars, bandits, mosstroopers, kidnapers, housebreakers, murderers, character assassins, plagiarists! King Haggard! Ho, King Haggard!"
Now over their heads and all around them, feet came clattering, and they heard the whistling voices of the aged men-at-arms calling as they ran. No torches flared, for no light could be struck in the castle unless the king himself ordered it, and Haggard was yet silent. The three thieves stood confounded and undone, gaping helplessly at the skull.
"I'm sorry," it said. "I'm just like that, treacherous. But I did try —" Then its vanished eyes suddenly saw the Lady Amalthea, and they went wide and bright, although they could not have. "Oh no," it said softly. "No, you don't. I'm disloyal, but I'm not that disloyal."
"Run," Schmendrick said, as he had said it long ago to the wild, sea-white legend that he had just set free. They fled across the great hall while the men-at-arms blundered loudly in the dark, and the skull shrieked, "Unicorn! Unicorn! Haggard, Haggard, there she goes, down to the Red Bull! Mind the clock, Haggard — where are you? Unicorn! Unicorn!"
Then the king's voice, rustling savagely under the uproar. "Fool, traitor, it was you who told her!" His quick, secret footsteps sounded close by, and Schmendrick set himself to turn and fight; but there came a grunt, and a crack, and a scraping noise, and then the bouncing crunch of old bone on old stone. The magician ran on.
When they stood before the clock, there was little grace either for doubting or understanding. The men-at-arms were in the hall now, and their clashing steps sent echoes booming back and forth between the walls, while King Haggard hissed and cursed them on. The Lady Amalthea never hesitated. She entered the clock and vanished as the moon passes behind clouds — hidden by them, but not in them, thousands of miles alone.
As though she were a dryad, Molly thought madly, and time were her tree. Through the dim, speckled glass Molly could see the weights and the pendulum and the cankered chimes, all swaying and burning as she stared. There was no door beyond, through which the Lady Amalthea might have gone. There was only the rusty avenue of the works, leading her eyes away into rain. The weights drifted from side to side like seaweed.
King Haggard was shouting, "Stop them! Smash the clock!" Molly started to turn her head, meaning to tell Schmendrick that she thought she knew what the skull had meant; but the magician had disappeared, and so had the great hall of King Haggard. The clock was gone too, and she was standing beside the Lady Amalthea in a cold place.
The king's voice came to her from very far away, not so much heard as remembered. She went on turning her head, and found herself looking into the face of Prince L'ir. Behind him there fell a bright mist, shivering like the sides of a fish, and bearing no resemblance at all to corroded clockwork. Schmendrick was nowhere to be seen.
Prince L'ir bent his head gravely to Molly, but it was to the Lady Amalthea that he spoke first. "And you would have gone without me," he said. "You haven't been listening at all."
She answered him then, when she had not spoken to Molly or the magician. In a low, clear voice, she said, "I would have come back. I do not know why I am here, or who I am. But I would have come back."
"No," said the prince, "you would never have come back."
Before he could say anything more, Molly broke in — much to her own surprise — crying, "Never mind all that! Where's Schmendrick?" The two strangers looked at her in courteous wonder that anyone else in the world should be able to speak, and she felt herself shake once from head to heels. "Where is he?" she demanded. "I'll go back myself, if you won't," and she turned round again.
He came out of the mist, walking with his head down, as though he were leaning against a strong wind. He was holding a hand to his temple, and when he took it away the blood came softly down.
"It's all right," he said when he saw that the blood was falling on Molly Grue's hands. "It's all right, it's not deep. I couldn't get through until it happened." He bowed shakily to Prince L'ir. "I thought it was you who went by me in the dark," he said. "Tell me, how did you pass through the clock so easily? The skull said you didn't know the way."
The prince looked puzzled. "What way?" he asked. "What was there to know? I saw where she had gone, and I followed."
Schmendrick's sudden laugh rubbed itself raw against the snaggy walls that came swimming in on them as their eyes grew familiar with this new darkness. "Of course," he said. "Some things have their own time by nature." He laughed again, shaking his head, and the blood flew. Molly tore a piece out of her dress.
"Those poor old men," the magician said. "They didn't want to hurt me, and I wouldn't have hurt them if I could. We dodged around and around, apologizing to each other, and Haggard was yelling, and I kept bumping into the clock. I knew that it wasn't a real clock, but it felt real, and I worried about it. Then Haggard came up with his sword and hit me." He closed his eyes as Molly bound his head. "Haggard," he said. "I was getting to like him. I still do. He looked so frightened." The dim, removed voices of the king and his men seemed to be growing louder.
"I don't understand," Prince L'ir said. "Why was he frightened — my father? What did he — ?" But just then from the far side of the clock, they heard a wordless squall of triumph and the beginning of a great crash. The shimmering haze vanished immediately, and black silence caved in on them all.
"Haggard has destroyed the clock," Schmendrick said presently. "Now there is no way back, and no way out but the Bull's way." A slow, thick wind began to wake.