A short story set in Charn concerning the first weeks of Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. It contains no bad language but there is some peril and it may scare young children.
CHARN – CRADLE OF MONSTERS
"Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens"
The tower was incredibly tall; the highest building in the enormous city of Charn. For that matter, it was the highest man-made structure on the whole world of Ki-ertu (1). Four temples cornered it, slaked in blood, dedicated to the living 'gods and goddesses' of the royal household. The top was so high it was mostly free of the sacrificial smoke that so blackened the lower portion. An open platform with a marbled floor, studded with every precious stone, was accessible to the King alone. He would gaze down at his works like Ozymandias (2), yet marvel. Seven hundred feet in height, the tower was the glory of Charn and stood as testimony to the ambition of Saru Habil-Luxi. At the time of our tale it had stood for six years and was intended to last as long as the kingdom itself. The glory that was once Charn had long since been over. The horror of Charn had but a short time to run.
In an apartment, halfway up the tower, the infant Jadis lay in her cot. The horrid red light of the dying sun tormented her through gaps in the blinds. The distant but seemingly endless drumming from the temples reached deep into her subconscious. The babe tossed fretfully in her wrappings. The nurse had been drowsy for some time and fell asleep after nuncheon. She was 'of the ghargou', which more of less translates as 'of the cloister'. Those servitors dedicated their entire lives to the royal children. They were part nursemaid and part worshipper. To serve the 'Dhingar' (living goddess) Jadis was regarded as a holy vocation. With such puffed up pride it was no wonder that the royal family had long since lost any sense of humility and reality.
The room was grand but not at all cosy. The blaze in the great fireplace was aromatic and soporific; particular herbs had been added to induce sleep. Oil lamps lighted the room and scented tapers made the air heavy. The most unsuitable fresco imaginable decorated the nursery wall: the great dragon of legend, Chimer-u, who tried to swallow the sun. What fools men are to think that a worm could vanquish the great light!
The heavy wooden door opened unusually quietly. The hinges had been greased in preparation to allow someone to step into the room unheard. Before we go any further, I think it would be wise to go back a few weeks, to Jadis' natal day…
"Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms"
The baby was a weak, puling thing; red in face and body like a blood moon over the Mantling Mountains. She wasn't so much born as expelled from her unwilling mother's body. "Take it," said that gentle lady, her duty done. "Clean it." The nurse removed the child and the courtiers discreetly withdrew. Only the four doctors remained. What a public event for such a private moment! The identity of a child of the Royal House of Charn could be in no doubt. A baby must be seen to be born; its very breath and its gender made certain of.
"So, it's another girl" whispered Lughal Habil-Beelal. Now, Lughal meant 'noble' or 'great-man,' in that world. This 'son of Beelal' was Master of Canals, fabulously rich and a close friend of the King. He who controlled the canals controlled a great part of the trade in transported goods. He was one of the few who could afford to maintain a dragon (a gift the king liked to maliciously bestow on his friends).
"The Saru won't be happy," Lughal Zabuub replied (using their word for King). That lord held the position of 'state pardoner' – an office with the power of life or death. "Another daughter will be as welcome as the stinking breath of Mussusu".
Habil-Beelal glanced about him cautiously, "The Queen had better sleep with a knife under her pillow."
"How primitive," Zabuub shuddered. "I expect they'll get to her food somehow, anyway."
Habil-Beelal raised an eyebrow. "Of course, your late wife died of… what was it, the sweating sickness?"
Zabuub shrugged and gave a half-smile. "I forget. I seem to recall that she ate something that disagreed with her… mushrooms I think." He was quite unabashed at his friend's insinuation.
Queen Astaru had been married to the Saru for thirteen years. It wasn't a 'love-match' but a political alliance between two great houses. Until Jadis their only child had been the Princess Katilu. She was then but ten years old and heir to the throne. The King had long wanted to 'dispose' of his wife but it wasn't a simple matter. He had no moral qualms, of course. What scared him were his wife's supporters. Blatant murder risked civil war. He was increasingly obsessed with the idea of a son and, like another blood-soaked Henry VIII, was tempted to go to any lengths to achieve that end. That both King and Queen bore the mark of Charn could be deduced from their words and their deeds.
After her 'laying in' (3) and ceremonial thanksgiving at a temple, Astaru was free to resume her life at court. One morning found her walking around the palace pleasure-gardens, accompanied by her eldest daughter and the ladies of her household. She'd not seen Jadis since her birth and probably wouldn't until a 'ceremony of dedication' at six months of age. That was normal practice amongst the nobility.
The Queen was a very tall, handsome woman, with the habitually fierce expression of one brought up in a snake-pit. Some whispered that the blood of giants ran in her veins. "Pick me some of those," she commanded the princess, pointing to flowers that seemed victims of an explosion in a paint-box. "I need to talk to the Rab-an-num" (the Commander of the City Guard)," she told her confidante. "Arrange it so that he's at the public baths tomorrow, yes?"
"Certainly, Majesty," said the chief lady-in-waiting. "Will you take your carpet or your litter, ma'am?"
"My carpet will draw less attention. I've decided: we must strike when the Saru is at the Great Games, yes? The guards can get at him on his way into the royal box."
"They'll have to take out his lughals and concubines, in the box, afterwards." She jumped, startled. "Oh, the flowers! Pick some more, girl," she told the young princess. "Here, hold these" she passed the blooms to the courtier. "Where was I? I must be delayed at the Palace so that I arrive after the assassination. I can be declared sole ruler before the mob."
"Bread and circuses"
The amphitheatre was already filling up with fifty thousand citizens, all looking forward to a brutal day of bloody sport. The roads thronged with still more hoping to push in and numerous pedlars selling their wares. "Honeycombs, sweet honeycombs!" called some. "Nuts and fruit, gets your nuts and fruit," shouted others. A month's income could be easily earned during well-attended games. "Sausages, cooked sausages for sale!"
A wealthy merchant's great chariot became stuck in the ruts of the road. "Push, push, you scum," he berated his malnourished slaves, but they laboured in vain to shift it. The middle class, even the richer sort, were obliged to use the road system. Only the nobility were allowed to fly. It was a source of constant irritation to the merchant.
All manner of vice was present because it flourishes in such climes. Official bookmakers stood ready to take bets on the number and manner of deaths. Unlicensed fortune-tellers sat in their booths to read the palms of the credulous. It was a dangerous way of making a living for conjurers had long since been declared illegal. Only their obvious fakery kept them from certain death too at the hands of the authorities. Pick-pockets and cutpurses milled about the crowd hoping to profit from the naïve and unwary. Household slaves carrying heavy burdens plodded along; their labour continued irrespective of the public games.
The nobility swept in overhead on flying carpets – they wouldn't mix with the hoi polloi in such numbers. Their slaves and attendants had gone ahead hours before. A ragged cheer went up when the Saru's carpet was sighted. It wasn't particularly sincere but 'prompters' in the crowd (drawn from the army) used the flats of their swords to encourage the onlookers. "Cheer, you swine; cheer".
In the dungeons, beneath the sandy floor of the theatre, were the miserable prisoners. There were several thousand of them; none of whom would see another sunset. The gladiators practiced sword blows in the arena, warming up for the serious fighting. The survivors would be drunk by evening –mass slaughter sickened even the most hardened.
The king landed to greater applause than before. His carpet had jolted dangerously as it neared the ground and the poor folk always enjoyed a spectacle. He deigned to wave at his subjects whilst cursing them under his breath. Free bread and oranges (4) were distributed before the start to keep the masses happy.
"Is Her Majesty here yet?" the Saru asked Lughal Zabuub.
"No, sire; she's been delayed," the nobleman said smoothly.
"Damned woman," the king complained. He looked to the Commander of the City Guard, stood to attention. "Well, don't stand there like a stuffed dummy, fool, escort me to my box."
"My pleasure, Majesty," said the Rab-an-num with some relish.
The innocence of youth
Princess Katilu looked at the slumbering nurse. Although a young girl, she was already skilled in the use of herbs and potions, such as those that cause sleepiness. Grease from a tallow candle, taken from the slaves' quarters, had quietened the door hinges admirably. She could see her baby sister complaining softly in her cot.
In the amphitheatre, the Saru entered the small tunnel to the royal box. He didn't notice the gates, ahead and behind, being shut. It was only objections from the box that brought it to his attention. "What's the matter?" he asked. He was suddenly aware of someone immediately behind him. Nobody was allowed to be so close to the royal person without permission. "What do you mean by…" he began, turning around. His eyes met the implacable gaze of the Commander. "Rab-an-num? What is…" the sentence was never completed. The king grunted as a short sword was thrust into his belly.
"Down with the tyrant Saru Habil-Luxi," the commander declared. "Right, lads, spears ready; let's get into 'em!"
Back in the Dhingar's nursery, in the great tower, Katilu padded softly across the room in her silken slippers. She looked down upon her sister; now pale but still undersized. "There can be only one heir," she said softly. She leaned over to put her hand across the baby's mouth and jumped, startled, at the sound of heavy feet on the stairs. The princess withdrew her hand.
The door opened and in stepped four guards loyal to her mother. "Your Highness; I didn't expect you here too! I regret that your father, the Saru, had been murdered. Your royal mother wants you both taken to a place of safety until the perpetrators of this dreadful deed are brought to justice".
"You are very good," said Katilu placidly, "how terrible about father! It's lucky that you're here to protect us". She studied the leader of the guards, unblinking. "I will remember it," she promised.
Queen Astaru quickly secured her position as ruler. She granted favours and swiftly executed anyone suspected of loyalty to her late husband. Nobody that entered the royal box earlier that afternoon left it alive.
Katilu never had another opportunity to remove her 'rival', her little sister, Jadis. Her presence in the chamber and the drugged state of the nurse raised enough suspicions for the two to be brought up apart. Katilu's subtlety in poisons and potions would be unmatched, although her sister became the more powerful sorceress. When civil war did eventually rage between them there was an initial pact not to use the magic. Jadis' treachery led her to acquire 'the deplorable word' – a weapon so powerful that nobody thought it would ever be used. Sadly, she used it. There is surely a warning for our world here, too.
Mr Lewis' excellent chronicle "The Magician's Nephew"' tells us how Jadis ultimately escaped the dying world of Charn. If you want to read how she came to power in Narnia, you might like to read my short story "AND THIS, TOO, SHALL PASS AWAY" (OR, THE WHITE WITCH RISING).
1 Ki-ertu: the world; literal translation 'the underworld' meaning the place of mortals not Gods.
2 Ozymandias: a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818.
3 Laying in: a period of two weeks rest after giving birth, common in Charn.
4 Not oranges strictly speaking, but a similar native fruit.
Some words are altered versions of ancient Akkadian words (being suitable for the quasi-Babylonian setting). Several other personal names are biblically derived, from those of devils.
I understand that 'katil' means 'murderer' in Turkish so I have used an amended form for Jadis' sister, Princess Katilu.