In the Clocktower
Graf von Maanen was the first. At the last stroke of midnight the armor-clad clock tower automaton found a voice. Not his own, but a voice nonetheless – probably shaken out of the graveyard as the church bells thundered a circular shock wave through the night, up and over the valley walls that shrouded Blinkhelm from the rest of the world.
“Am I the only . . .?” the voice wondered aloud as von Maanen was withdrawn with his plate-mailed compatriots into the darkness of the clock tower, their knightly midnight procession having come to an end. The Graf was sure that the voice was not his – it was most likely that of the butcher, Alvon, whose noonday bellowings had been cut short only a few days before by a runaway carriage. Alvon was, by Gran von Maanen’s observations, too large a man to have all the life snuffed from him, even if he appeared quite dead to the doctor who attended the scene of the accident. Combine Alvon’s lingering soul-threads with the softness of the freshly dug soil and yes, von Maanen’s voice would have to be that of the butcher, wouldn’t it?
“No,” another voice interrupted his thoughts – this voice that of a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old. “You are not the only.”
“Who?” It was difficult to see at night in Blinkhelm’s clock tower. It was also virtually impossible for a clockwork automaton to express or even feel emotion – the voices, butcher’s or otherwise, utterly lacked feeling.
“Your Leftenant, Schuyler,” the high pitched girl-voice spoke from across the belfry.
Leftenant Schuyler – the most beautiful of the clock tower soldiers, despite his inferior rank – sparkled at noon when his gold-and-silver-plated ring mail reflected the sky, casting polished sundogs across the red cobblestones and pedestrians below. Visitors to the town were dazzled by the display, quite literally blinded by his appearance. Even now, after midnight, moonlight glowed off his armor in milky waves.
“And the others?” Von Maanen asked in a voice not his own from behind the battered grill of his face plate – the artist who had reconstructed the armor had left the mace-mark that took the Graf’s life as a monument to his legendary toughness.
“Present,” Jabbs spoke in the raspy tones of an anonymous old crone – a fitting voice, truth be told, as history had hidden his vile misdeeds: the slaughter of a convent of old nuns.
“Present,” Lohr – with the voice of a mayor dead two hundred years: the same mayor that dedicated the Blinkhelm clock tower after its construction – after the reconstruction of the knights themselves, fashioned after mythical Templars that may or may not have ever existed. Lohr, for example, will never be found in any historical document.
“Present,” the voice of a healthy young man – the only voice appropriate to knighthood – from Ulrich.
“Present,” thickly accented – French or Swiss – from Brodenberg.
And that night, for the first time, the knights of Blinkhelm clock tower held conversation. They shared their observations – the butcher’s demise; the twin blonde girls who sold eggs down the street; the ravens that inhabited the belfry, defecating on the holy relics beneath; the young man they saw masturbating on a rooftop; the proliferation of chimneys; the darkening skies. On they spoke, past dawn, reminiscing, commenting, surmising, until the noon bells beckoned them forth to their forced march – a circular parade through the clock tower’s bright flowered doors, out into the sunlight before the inevitable crowd of spectators, then back into the cool darkness of their holding bay.
A larger than normal crowd had gathered beneath them that day. Town residents and visitors alike pointed up, then shielded their eyes from the armor’s glare. Some cupped their hands behind their ears, as if straining to hear something – but nothing could be heard above the din of the bells. Not an eye in town was averted. Every person in the valley, it was clear, had gathered and was now trying to hear if voices truly were coming from the clock tower as was rumored. Even the butcher’s wife, usually religious in her devotion to cleaving lamb in the back of the shop, had come out (bloodied instruments in hand) and was staring up at the clock tower with tear-filled eyes. “Alvon. Alvon? Is it really you?” she said.
The clock tower soldiers conferred with one another – careful not to speak above the noise of the bells.
“We must observe silence,” the old crone’s voice spoke first at the fifth chime.
The young man’s at six: “Jabbs is right”.
Glittering Schuyler, seven chimes in the girl’s voice: “Lest they dismantle us to find whereby we speak.”
“It is agreed then,” Von Maanen said in dead Alvon’s voice. “We will observe silence” . . . nine.
“Aye,” all agreed at eleven. The last thrum of the bells was absorbed by the hills. And with that, the knights were silent.
For years the only sound to come from the knights was the creak of their wooden limbs, the clank of plate mail, the rustle of chain on their twice-daily perambulation. Much happened in the town below – births, deaths, marriages, annulments, the ebb and flow of love and loss. The fire of war flashed through, followed by quiet peace, speeches were given, festivals held – a century of communal heartbeat.
Then, one day, nothing. It was as if the inhabitants had all suddenly left – the heartbeat ceased. The town had died. Only the bells punctuated the quiet – once at midnight, once at noon. But there was no audience to hear them for the space of a week. The knights began to wonder, in this vacuum of sound, whether the bells were the only sound left in the world. But they dare not break their vow of silence without grave purpose. This was a matter of loyalty, a matter of pride.
A motor finally broke through the peace – no, a series of motors propelling a caravan of vehicles to the outskirts of town. Construction began after the engines went idle – two high wooden towers on either end of the main street, wooden barricades higher than a man and rolls of concertina wire (here historical integrity must be maintained – the knights did not, could not, know the words “motor” or “concertina,” nevertheless, the account is accurate) surrounding Blinkhelm’s borders. Boards painted with black skull-and-crossbones symbols were posted along the fence with words in red. The clock tower automatons could not read, but these signs discomfited them greatly.
Soon people – not the old residents – flowed into Blinkhelm. Long lines of drab-colored clothing beneath which shuffled an emaciated mass of men, women, and children – mere smudges on the landscape, these people were more ghost than flesh. Their hopelessness seemed to permeate upward, like the oily clouds that sprouted on the horizon, floating up to infect the sky with gray.
Only the knights’ appearance granted respite from the dull sluggishness of Blinkhelm’s new residents. At noon all stopped to look up at the shimmering knights as they performed their daily walk. The gray-helmeted guards’ furrowed brows softened, the children’s eyes gleamed a bit brighter, even the old men gave the subtle hint of a smile when the automatons showed themselves. Even as the knights lost their luster from soot, their appearance seemed to dispel a bit of the gloom that permeated the town.
One day the bells struck noon and the knights came out to see the town’s new residents lined up in neat rows, standing on the cobblestones below. The booming bells were punctuated by a steady crackcrackcrackcrack as the adoptive citizens of Blinkhelm folded and collapsed before the weapons of the gray-helmeted guards.
Graf Von Maanen prepared to shout, to call a halt to the slaughter. Chivalric responsibility demanded it. But he remembered his promise, the vow he and his compatriots had made – loyalty to one another forbade any utterance. This, he remembered, was a matter of dignity. This was loyalty, honor, pride.
And he thought to himself – in a voice not his own – “surely, in silence, I speak with the butcher’s voice.”
Forrest Aguirre’s work has appeared in such venues as Asimov’s, Polyphony, and Paper Cities. His work is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Tattered Souls 2, and Postscripts. His earlier work is collected in Fugue XXIX (Raw Dog Screaming Press). He is currently at work on his third novel, Heraclix & Pomp. Forrest received a World Fantasy Award for editing the Leviathan 3 anthology with co-editor Jeff VanderMeer.