The sky screamed with the fury of a thousand owls. It was the Ceremony of the Eggs, when those amongst the Bright Carvers who climbed best, scaled the walls of the towers to collect some of the eggs from the owls' nests. Every year it was the same. Every year they stood together on the same patch of grass, amongst the same broken flagstones. Every year they spoke the words that signalled the start of the ceremony. Every year they used the same footholds, climbed in the exact same way, counted out the eggs to be sacrificed to the ritual. There must always be one thousand owls to shriek at each other in the ruined towers. Nobody was quite sure why, and nobody cared. It was merely important that the number of birds remain constant.
Every year, Rosina watched the ceremony. Like all the Bright Carvers, she lived just outside the castle, in a town that had become part of its outer wall, holding it up as the castle inside gradually disintegrated. Nobody had lived it the building itself for many generations, but the Bright Carvers kept it alive in their way. They followed age-old rituals, that governed how they lived every day of their lives – scraping moss from sunken steps; cleaning the outsides of the windows (always the outsides, for to go inside the castle would be an unforgiveable break with protocol); clipping hedges; weeding flowerbeds; bringing a veneer of strict order to a place that was slowly, inevitably, inching towards collapse. Rosina wondered if the other Bright Carvers saw the cracks. Saw how the windows grew more loose in their frames with every winter; how the stones that formed each tower, each rampart, each ramshackle remnant of a forgotten community, had begun to crumble. She wouldn't see its end, but her grandchildren might. Or her grandchildren's grandchildren, if the winters were kind. They weren't often. The bitter winds howled around the towers with voices more furious than the owls on Egg Day. Rosina wished that they would blow harder; scream louder; bring the whole godforsaken edifice crashing to the ground whilst she was still here to see it. Still young enough to start her life again somewhere else. Somewhere where she was free to live without a Book of Rules to govern her every movement, and a cat's cradle of ancient traditions to bind her into a pattern of order and repetition. Somewhere, surely, there must be another place to live?
She watched the climbers for a few moments longer – watched the others as they watched, in accordance with tradition – then turned and slipped silently away. It was an unforgiveable transgression, but she had committed them before, and had become adept at doing so in secret. Her heart was weighed down by rules; by rules about rules; by order and ritual and stifling, suffocating patterns. One day, she told herself, she would break free from it all – run off through the woods, heedless of the terrors of the darkness beneath the trees. Heedless of the nameless beasts, the teeth and claws, the ghosts said to haunt the darkest places. She would run and run until she found her freedom, or met her end in the search. One day. If her heart didn't snap beneath the weight of crushing ritual first.
Ducking, she slipped beneath a fallen stone arch, her fingers idly tracing the carved faces that decorated it. They had lost the sharpness of their features now, but they were still recognisably faces. She liked to imagine that they were effigies of the people who had lived here once. The lords and ladies who had once walked these criss-crossing paths, in long ago days of pomp and finery. They would not have spent every day bound to ritual, she was sure of it. Who would dare to tell lords and ladies how to live their lives? She enjoyed imagining them spending their days as they liked, doing as they liked, reading for pleasure instead of by tradition; singing for joy instead of by rote. Growing flowers for the scent and the colour, not to maintain a rigid status quo that robbed them of all beauty. The idle daydream made her yearn again for escape, and her mind once more soared above the castle walls, beyond the dark and twisted trees that hemmed her in. She shuddered. Bent and misshapen trees, in a wild and lawless forest, growing as nature intended. All chaos and no rules. It was a heady thought, but a frightening one. Her life had been nothing but order. The cracks in the flagstones could not be guided, but everything else was. Shaped, maintained, straightened. Freedom was immorality. Chaos was sin. Only the owls flew random paths, and that for a limited time. From the moment each egg hatched, the hour of each bird's death was marked. One thousand owls. She supposed she was lucky nobody had similarly ordained the number of humans.
Away to her left, muted by crumbling stone, she heard the rise in volume of the Egg Collecting Song, a chant more than a true song, sung by the egg collectors as they climbed up to harvest the eggs. It made her sad for the owls, and she wondered, as she had wondered often before, why they didn't leave Gormenghast. They could fly anywhere they chose, but instead they remained, almost as though they were as bound up in ritual as the Carvers. Something seemed to draw them to these forbidding towers, these faded relics of something that their forebears had known. The same invisible ties to the past that kept the Bright Carvers in their little houses outside the wall, she supposed. Instinct, tradition, history. A comfortable groove worn through the fabric of life, until none of them could see any way out of it. None but her, perhaps.
She was in a less familiar part of the castle now. Rafters lay here and there. Mosses covered them, and cobwebs stretched from stone to sill, and from rubble to rafter. The detritus of many years of owl habitation was strewn all over the ground – a matted tangle of bones, feathers and fur. The bright Carvers cleaned up such messes where they knew of them, but not so here. Clearly nobody had been here for years. There was no order here. There could be no ritual to decide which regurgitated chunk fell where, or which dropping splashed against which stone. For a moment the chaos of it shocked her, then the shock was chased away by a thrill of delight. Here in Gormenghast, in the ancient memorial to order and ritual and design, the precious owls had painted a picture just for her. A picture of encouragement, and perhaps of hope. She took a few steps further, her feet crushing the pellets, adding further randomness, lending a shiver to her breathing from the sweet, intoxicating forbiddenness of it all. The song of the egg collectors was inaudible now, swallowed by stone, and by the louder voices of the owls. She might almost have been in a different world.
A few steps more took her through a low doorway, its fractured lintel whitened by cowbwebs and mould. Beyond was what had once been a tower – still was, in a sense, although floor after floor had rotted away, and she could look straight up through blackened beams to the blue sky above. An owl or two circled, but otherwise she was alone. A countess in her own castle, ruling over a kingdom of owls and spiders. Of something else too perhaps – something that she could see near to the centre of the hollow tower's broken and rubbish-strewn floor. She moved closer, the object becoming clearer to her as she neared it. It was a bush. A small, misshapen bush, pushing its way up through a crack in a flagstone, stretching its contorted branches in all directions, so that its irregular tumbles of leaves could reach for the sun. She knelt beside it, her fingertips stroking at the single, deep red flower that bobbed uncertainly in the breeze of her sudden movement. A bush that had not been planted by human hands, and clipped into geometrical precision. A bush that had been nibbled on by something. Had caught a little too much sun on one side, and not quite enough on the other. Had grown slightly cock-eyed, and nearly, but not quite, in the centre of the floor. She leaned closer to breathe in the scent of the flower, and smiled at the richness of it. It was the scent of nature. Of freedom. It made her heart race, and her spirit soar, and her mind turn again to the world beyond Gormenghast. Somewhere there was a place where everything was random and free. Where flowers like this were the norm, and not the exception. Quite suddenly, she knew that Gormenghast was not her future. The great, rotted castle was not where she was supposed to be. Her familiar fears abandoned her, like owls taking flight into the sky.
She stood, tipping back her head to gaze up at the patch of blue sky above her. There were clouds there, drifting with the wind, irregular in shape and size, and even in colour. She saw the ragged edges of the tower walls, and felt the cracks in the stones beneath her feet, hyper-aware now of all that was random. All that was free to move as fate took it. Her pulse quickened, charged with an excitement that made her draw in a deep, shuddering breath. She had to go now – she realised that. If she waited, the old fears would resurface. The twisted trees, with their dark secrets; the nameless creatures that might hide underneath; all would persuade her to stay, as she had stayed for too long already. Caught here in this stifling place that offered her nothing but tradition, and a future written in stone generations before her birth.
She bent down towards the bush again, touching the wiry, stubby little leaves, the beautiful, velvet-traced flower. She was tempted to pick it, but decided to leave it where it was. Maybe somebody else would see it, and follow her lead. Maybe others had seen it before her, and had gone on ahead? It was just as possible that hers were the only eyes that would ever see it, but it had grown here by chance; she had found it by chance. It was not hers, and she had no right to it. Savouring its scent one last time, she straightened up, turned her back on the more ordered regions of the castle, and hurried deeper into its ruined heart. Clambering over broken walls, scaling those that still towered, finding succour in each jagged outcrop of moss, each crawling patch of mould, each ancient and defiantly untidy cobweb. And then at last there was the outer wall. The trees grew close to it on this side of the castle, their branches and roots pushing through in patches. It frightened her – black cracks in her world, where nature was pushing through, unseen by the stolid custodians of order on the castle's far side. She swallowed the fear. She could not stop now. If she turned back, she was sure that her spirit would be broken forever. Instead, using broken stone and jutting root as steps, she clambered to the top of the wall. Beyond was black and green, a sea of trees too tall to see over, too close and tangled to see between. A lawless jumble of bush, briar and branch. She climbed down into it, feeling the warmth of the day cooling as green light enveloped her. Feeling brambles and twigs snagging at her feet. It was oddly peaceful, she realised. She had been expecting fear, but the cool darkness soothed her, and the scent of earth and leaf was strangely welcoming. She took a step forward, and another, growing used to the prickle of undisturbed vegetation, as it resisted her briefly, then yielded to her touch. She could no longer hear the owls. Soon the castle had vanished behind her, although she did not realise it, for she did not look back. It was all behind her now, and she did not think of it, as she pressed ever onward into the green tangle of her future. If she gave any thought at all to Gormenghast, it was not to the building, or to the people, or to the life that she had left behind. It was just to a red flower, growing in the ruins, bright and proud on a stunted bush.